François-Paul Journe, founder of the eponymous brand, is widely respected as one of the most influential independent artisanal watchmakers today. The Hour Glass talks to the esteemed watchmaker on pursuing chronometry, his relationship with the late George Daniels, the Jean-Claude Sabrier Library at his manufacture, and the preservation of watchmaking skills for future generations.
What draws you to pursuing chronometric excellence?
Because the elegance of the watch is in the precision of keeping time.
You’ve achieved that through your proprietary EBHP escapement, built on the concepts of the natural escapement of Abraham-Louis Breguet – a name that continues to inspire watchmaking today.
There are several watchmakers who are inspired by the natural escapement and making movements based on that today. My escapement is a bit better than the natural escapement, that’s why I got a patent. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural escapement since I was 20 years old. When I started watchmaking, the natural escapements I came across – they were not performing.
How much of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s work has influenced your escapement?
The principle is the same. The detent escapement works by “slapping” [the pallet fork] in one direction. In a natural escapement – and in my escapement, the forces are softer and more balanced, because it’s one left, one right.
Another person who was inspired by Breguet’s natural escapement is George Daniels. You had a special relationship with George. Could you tell us about that?
We already had a relationship before we even met – because I was reading George Daniels. He wanted me to marry his daughter, but I was already engaged at the time (laughs). When he died, I was the only non-British person at his funeral that was held on the Isle of Man.
How much of Daniels’ scholarship on Breguet, and Daniels’ own work, influence you?
There wasn’t much material on Breguet at the time. It was a small collection of books only. What George had done was immense – first he catalogued all the movements, all the designs, and made it possible for young watchmakers at the time, like myself, understand how Breguet watches worked. As a young watchmaker at 20 years old, even though I had never seen a Breguet watch in person, I could still understand how the mechanisms worked, thanks to this book [“The Art of Breguet”]. Understanding how the decorations like guilloche and engraving worked in old horology essentially created the modern horology that we see today. Breguet, and Daniels, designed and created watches that were incredible especially for that time. They influenced how watches are designed – from movement to case and exteriors.
You have a library dedicated to Jean-Claude Sabrier at your manufacture. What was your relationship with Jean-Claude Sabrier, and how did his collection end up with you?
Jean-Claude Sabrier started in gemology, and one day, at an auction, he found and bought a box with a lot of old watch movements. He started wondering what he had bought, and to understand what he had bought, he started studying watches. He became one of the best historians of horology, and bought many books in French on chronometry and chronometer movements. I met Jean-Claude through working with my uncle when I was 17 years old – when I was much, much younger.
When Jean-Claude died, his wife left him in a poor man’s grave, and decided he wouldn’t get a funeral. His widow offered me his library, but the price was way too high. The collection appeared two months later and went on sale though an auction house. Initially I didn’t want to buy it because the money would end up in her pockets, and I didn’t want that. It was Friday; the auction was scheduled for Monday, and a friend asked what I was going to do about it. I didn’t know where I’d put this collection of books, then I thought it might be nice in the manufacture, where it is now, with a custom-made library. So I tried to register online, but you needed 48 hours’ notice, and there wasn’t enough time. I had to get a friend to bid in person for me. I told him to buy everything. Each book cost me double what it was worth. There was someone also very keen to get the books, so the prices kept going up. But I’m happy: there is a place dedicated to Jean-Claude Sabrier and he will be remembered.
Have you found anything interesting in the collection that particularly inspired you?
There was a group of us who regularly met to discuss the books while Jean-Claude was still alive. When I was sorting out and classifying the books [for the current library in the manufacture], there were a few that we had discussed [during those meetings]. A lot of memories came rushing back.
It’s a very important legacy.
Yes, it’s probably the most important source for French horology, after the French National Library.
Will it be open to the public?
No. But it is open to researchers and academics who want to study them, they’re welcome to contact us for access. These are fragile books.
Along with your watches, it’s inevitable that we will be discussing your name in the decades that come. Will you ever consider opening a museum as part of your legacy?
There are plans to add another level to the manufacture in Geneva, and if that happens, it will be a museum. But that’s up to the authorities. If that doesn’t go ahead, then we’ll find another way. We’ll need at least a level to contain the books.
During the pandemic, we had exhibitions, including one on the Resonance – you can find a short film on this online.
On the other side of it, there’s the preservation and transmission of watchmaking skills. Would you ever consider opening a school for watchmaking?
There is a plan, and it’s part of the expansion plan of extending the manufacture. But you can say that every watchmaker who joins F.P.Journe is joining our watchmaking school, because they would never have done what they are trusted with at our manufacture. That’s why they are loyal, and they stay.
How long do your watchmakers stay?
Some have been there since the beginning, over 20 years. We have one of the lowest turnovers in the industry. Some like Rexhep [Rexhepi] came and left, for their own reasons. But most of them will stay a while. We have plenty who have been with us for more than a decade.