Once upon a time, long before the wristwatch was invented, the best clocks in the world came from England. The trouble was that they were rather big. This did not matter if their function was to act as a ships chronometer but it did get slightly awkward if, like all fashionable men, you tried to keep one of these clocks in your waistcoat pocket.
And then, around two hundred years ago (give or take a century) along came the Swiss and everything changed. Among the pioneers were names such as Breguet, who invented the tourbillon, and Blancpain (of which more later). Many of the first Swiss watchmakers were originally farmers who lived in the small valleys high in the Jura mountains near the French border. They appear to have had two rather significant characteristics: they were good with their hands and they were very bored during the long winter months. Anyway, it was here that the Swiss watch industry was born. The clocks which came out of the Valle de Joux were both accurate and relatively small. The snag was that they still needed a decent waistcoat pocket in which to live.
It was only during the first world war that the Swiss started to build watches which could be strapped onto a mans wrist and not sit in his pocket. This new idea was an immediate hit with the army officers on both sides of the battlefield. Which, in case you wondered, is why even today there is a type of wristwatch case which is invariably referred to as an Officers Watch.
Everything in Swiss watchmaking industry went swimmingly for the first six decades of the twentieth century. So swimmingly, in fact, that Rolex invented the oyster case which allowed the wearer to go swimming in his watch. But then, in about 1965, the slurry hit the air-conditioning. The fiendishly clever Japanese invented the quartz watch mechanism. This device had two killer characteristics. First of all it was extremely cheap to produce. Secondly it was extremely accurate. Indeed it was far more accurate than any of the expensive, complicated and delicate Swiss watches which were powered by tiny clockwork motors.
The effect on Switzerland was devastating. Ancient watch companies which had been producing beautiful, delicate and expensive timepieces for generations simply went bankrupt. A few aristocratic companies managed to survive as mere shadows of their former selves. Some of these even tried to produce their own quartz watches, for which they charged huge prices simply because of their reputations. It was as if Rolls-Royce had started to manufacture basic and crude scooters but insisted on charging mega bucks simply because each scooter was adorned with the Spirit of Ecstasy.
Just when it seemed that the Swiss watchmaking industry was facing total meltdown a saviour appeared out of nowhere. His name was (and still is because he is alive and well to this day) Nicolas Hayek and he started a company called Swatch. The name was meant to be a contraction of not (as is generally believed) Swiss Watch but of Second Watch. Anyway, the Swatch was a fantastic success and within a few years the Swatch Group had bought and restored to prosperity many of the great names of the Swiss watchmaking industry, like Omega, Longines, Breguet and Blancpain.
Today, a quarter of a century later, the Swiss watch industry is in rude health. It has long since given up the idea of producing accurate tellers of the time. This it leaves to the Japanese. Instead it produces fashion items. Todays Swiss watches are simply elaborate and complicated pieces of jewellery for men and for women.
Which explains why the choice of Swiss watches confronting a LUSSO reader today is, to put it mildly, bewildering. And that is precisely where this humble scribe fits into the picture. I decided to go to Switzerland and take a closer look at the industry which, together with the Gruyere cheese producers, has made Switzerland famous.
I decided to concentrate on four different segments of the industry, the old and new, the big and small. I started my expedition at Blancpain, not only because it is one of the oldest watch manufacturers but also because it produces a wide range of watches which stretch from the almost cheap to the astoundingly expensive.
Blancpain is located just north of Geneva in the town of Le Brassus located in the Valle de Joux a few kilometres from the French border. Here I was welcomed by two beautiful women whose job it was to show me where they manufacture the top end of the Blancpain range of watches. Inside a surprisingly small house there were about twenty craftsmen (and women), all of whom were sitting beside tall watchmakers desks built out of the traditional local cherry wood. Some of these people were assembling tourbillons, others were making the circular strips of metal which act as tiny gongs in the minute repeaters. In one room two women were engraving the rotors which are used to wind the automatic watches. These engravers, I was told, have other tasks. One of these is to engrave the so-called erotic watches which depict copulation in embarrassingly graphic detail.
The man I found most exciting was the watchmaker who had the sole responsibility of building Blancpains most famous watch, the 1735 model. This delicious confection contains no fewer than five complications. These are a moon-phase display, a perpetual calendar which automatically takes account of leap years, a split second chronograph (usually called a rattrapante), a tourbillon and a minute repeater which chimes the hours and minutes. Each one of these watches take at least a year to create, which might explain why the retail price hovers around half a million pounds each.
I had just finished examining one of these watches and had decided that it would be impossible to create anything more exciting when one of my guides steered me towards a watch which was at least as interesting. Four years ago Blancpain produced fifty platinum examples of a watch they call The Equation of Time. At first glance it looks like a normal wristwatch complete with a visible tourbillon, but on closer examination it actually displays two times simultaneously. The first is the conventional (or civil) time and the second is what is known as solar time. The latter is the precise length of the solar day, which can vary by as much as fifteen minutes from civil time. It was all very beautiful to look at even if it had little or no practical application.
However, the same can also be said for the tourbillon which is todays must have complication on all truly expensive Swiss watches. The tourbillon was originally invented to compensate for the fact that pocket watches spent most of their lives in one position in a waistcoat pocket. Thus a tourbillon is totally unnecessary on a wristwatch which by nature spends most of the time moving in different planes. But a tourbillon not only looks gorgeous, it is also expensive to manufacture. Thus it is the complication of choice for those customers for whom price is an irrelevance and for whom appearance is everything.
My next port of call was to Patek Philippe, a large company which produces around 30,000 watches a year. Yet in spite of its size Patek Philippe is today synonymous with all that is best in Swiss watchmaking. I was surprised to find that their watches are manufactured in a soaring modern building in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates. Most Swiss watchmakers buy in the parts which they then proceed to assemble in their own premises. Patek does no such thing. Instead they manufacture all of their own parts and assemble them in their own building.
The actual production of these components was at least as interesting as the assembly of the watches themselves. Some of the pieces were as thin as a human hair and each had to be individually cleaned and tested before it was given to a watchmaker to insert into the complexity which is a modern watch movement. Starting with a metal rod or plate, computer-controlled cutters and lathes produced the basic components. These are then drilled full of holes, polished, bent or straightened by other machines before a human being is given the responsibility of cleaning, checking and eventually assembling them. The entire process, of course, requires powerful magnifying glasses since the parts themselves can often hardly be seen by the human eye.
The finished products are all guaranteed to make my juices flow. There is not a single Patek Philippe I could possibly refuse, and there are several for which I would be prepared to take out a second mortgage. Among this category is what I consider to be the most interesting and best-looking watch produced in Switzerland today. It is the smallest rattrapante chronograph made in the world and is contained in an Officers case. Patek has never called its watches by romantic or exciting names. This one is simply known as Reference 5959. It is as far from bling as it is possible to be. If you asked the man in the street how much you paid for it he would probably guess a couple of hundred pounds. In fact if you were lucky enough to first get on the waiting list and then actually received one of the three or four examples Patek make every year, you would have to pay rather more than two hundred thousand pounds. Of such stuff are dreams made of.
One of the characteristics of Patek Philippe watches is that when they see fit to create a tourbillon model, they invariably ensure that the tourbillon itself is invisible. Discretion is a crucial part of the Patek Philippe philosophy. Which means that if you want all your friends to know that you own a tourbillon watch you must not buy a Patek. It’s as simple as that.
I have always had a weak spot for chronographs, or stopwatches as they are usually known in English. In the past Pateks chronographs were based on a movement which they bought in from the manufacturer called Lemania. Patek did, of course, modify these movements substantially, and they produced some staggeringly fine chronographs. But in the past few years Patek has produced its own chronograph movement which it has since inserted into a stopwatch which makes me ache with desire. This is called the 5960 and it consists of a 40mm platinum case which contains an automatic movement together with a calendar showing the date, day and month.
At the lower end of the Patek range I have always been attracted by their two waterproof models, the Aquanaut and the Nautilus. Both are normally made of stainless steel (though you can buy a gold Nautilus if you try very hard) and thus usually cost rather less than ten thousand pounds. The example which made my heart skip a couple of beats was the recently introduced Nautilus chronograph (with a movement similar to that of the 5960). This watch, like so many desirable Pateks, cannot be bought off the shelf but, like the 5959, is only sold to special customers who must first endure a long period on the waiting list.
All of this is, of course, brilliant marketing. It is a lucky (or in the case of Patek Philippe, clever) company to produce objects which are so desirable that they can create waiting lists and force their customers to spend a year or two salivating before they are permitted to write a huge cheque.
Today, some thirty-five years after the Swatch group single-handedly saved Switzerland, the watch industry is facing a serious problem; they simply cannot make enough expensive watches to satisfy the demand. This fact has given rise to a new phenomenon; the appearance on the scene of new, young and very talented watchmakers.
Perhaps the greatest of this new breed of watchmaker is Francis Paul Journe who, if truth be told, is actually a Frenchman. But he lives and works in Geneva and so he is, I suppose, an honorary Swiss. But regardless of his nationality, his watches are superb and his reputation is today quite brilliant.
I visited Monsieur Journe at his manufacture (which is what all Swiss watchmakers call their factory) in an ancient building close to Geneva’s old town. He welcomed me with a big smile, but perhaps this is because I already own two of his watches. I noticed that he was wearing a Sonnerie Souveraine, his watch which was awarded the Gold Hand Award by the Geneva Watchmakers in 2006. This fascinating piece took six years to produce and contains no fewer than ten new patents. The finished article rings both the hours and the minutes, and sounds wonderful as it does so.
What, I wondered, were his plans for the future. Journe, who probably produces only eight hundred watches a year (compared to thirty thousand from Patek Philippe), simply grinned. He could not possibly tell me that so close to the Basel Watch fair at which this years new watches are announced to an impatient public. I did, however, notice that on the watchmakers desk in front of him he was working on his new Centigraphe. This is a chronograph with three small dials, one of which revolves at great speed every second and thus registers fractions of a second. This is the sort of accuracy which hitherto has only been possible with a quartz digital watch. As with all of Journes inventions, the Centigraphe is totally original and has taken the watch industry by surprise. In the past decade his Resonance, with its two separate movements, had the same effect on the profoundly conservative Swiss watchmaking industry.
I left Francois Paul Journe and headed out into the countryside, to the small village of Le Solliat on the southern slopes of the Jura mountains. There, opposite a small dairy which produces Gruyere cheese, I found a nondescript house. Inside the shabby front door is a single brass plate which reads Philippe Dufour. Horlogerie complique. I had arrived at the home of one the smallest watchmakers in the world.
The highest point in Switzerland is a mountain of 15,203 feet (only 567 feet lower than Mont Blanc) called Pointe Dufour. This is very fitting because the highest point of Swiss watchmaking is, or so most connoisseurs believe, the tiny workshop in Le Solliat occupied by Philippe Dufour.
Monsieur Dufour spent several years working in the Caribbean before returning to his native Switzerland where he was employed by some of the country’s finest watchmakers to create highly complicated Grande Sonnerie pocket watches.
In 1982 he set up as an independent watchmaker and has since produced three different models. The Grande Sonnerie and the Duality, both of which were highly complicated works of the watchmakers art, have today been succeeded by the Dufour Simplicity.
What interested me about Philippe Dufour was that he appears to be swimming against the current. The rest of the Swiss watchmaking industry is obsessed by inventing more and more complications to add to the basic watch. Dufour has decided to do just the opposite. His Simplicity, as the name suggests, performs only one function. It tells the time. There is no annual calendar, no moonphase, not even a date. With the help of a single assistant Philippe Dufour produces no more than twenty-five watches a year.
I asked him why he had stopped making a complicated watch, and his reply surprised me. Once upon a time I made a watch which was full of interesting ideas, he told me in his thick French accent, but then I realised that simplicity was purity. There was a pause. When you gain in complexity you lose in accuracy. Take cars, for example. A Ferrari is wonderful on the roads but it cannot cross a field. That is because Ferrari have not tried to do too much. I do the same with my watches.
I asked Dufour if he considered his watches toys for boys. On the contrary. They are definitely not toys. And, come to think of it, they are not dreams for men either. He sucked vigorously on his pipe. My watches are one thing only. They are art. Not toys and not dreams.
By now I was beginning to salivate at the prospect of buying a Dufour Simplicity. Alas, I was soon awakened from my fantasy. I closed the waiting list three years ago announced Philippe Dufour. You are too late. I still have a few watches still to make, and then I will start to build a different watch. But that wont be for at least three years.
The prospect of a new Dufour excited me strangely. What would the new watch consist of, I wondered. Philippe Dufour smiled a sphinx-like smile. I cannot possibly tell you. I am still working on the watch and it must remain my secret until I am ready to tell you.
It was all very frustrating. I had arrived at Le Solliat three years too late and when it came to the new watch it appeared that I was three years too early. But in spite of these disappointments I realised that it had been a privilege to meet the man who most experts would agree is quite simply the finest watchmaker in Switzerland today.