One of the best known today - for good reason given his longevity and sustained success – is Philippe Dufour. Born in 1948 in Le Sentier, a village in the heart of the Swiss jura mountain range and cradle of high watchmaking, Dufour graduated from his 4 year course in watchmaking to join Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1967 – a most inopportune time given that both the brand and the broader industry were on the cusp of being expunged by the electronic wristwatch. The convulsions experienced by the declining watch industry meant he went from one employer to another in the following years, which sent him as faraway as Saint Croix, a small island in the Caribbean.
By 1978, Dufour had his own workshop, where he made a living restoring antique pocket watches – such timepieces being the flavour du jour of the collecting world, where antiquarian horology was the preeminent collecting category. But propelled by a sense of history, he quixotically sought to recreate the grandest timepieces of Switzerland’s glory days as a watchmaking nation, despite the tepid demand for such complicated watches at the time.
Soon he had built the first watch movement of his own, an endeavour that took some 2,000 hours. A grande et petite sonnerie for a pocket watch, Dufour’s creation was as fine and sophisticated as the watches that inspired him, the best striking watches of the early 20th century made by the likes of Louis Elisée Piguet, a movement specialist that supplied names like Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.
But Dufour had to find a buyer for his creation, and at the time, the only takers were the watch brands in the region around his hometown, few of which were in a position to sell such an expensive watch. Audemars Piguet emerged to order five grande sonnerie movements, with the first delivered in 1982, and the last six years later.
Dufour has long stated publicly the anonymity of his work – his name was to be found nowhere on the Audemars Piguet watches – gnawed at him. And what has now become industry lore has it that not one, but two of the grande sonnerie watches were carelessly damaged after it had been handed over to Audemars Piguet, contributing to Dufour’s decision to go it alone. And so he started work on something that would have his name on the dial, which became the first-ever grande sonnerie wristwatch. He had a dream but not the funds to realise this ambition. Young and enterprising, he was introduced to The Hour Glass where he was able to secure an initial order and a deposit for 4 watches which he finally debuted at the 1992 Basel Fair.
Based in the Isle of Man, Daniels had enjoyed the earliest and widest commercial success amongst them, which enabled him to indulge his hobby of vintage racing Bentleys. His commercial and critical success contrasts with that of Pratt, who was an intellectual equal but never gained the same acclaim.
In the 1970s, as recounted by Dufour, Daniels would sometimes crank up his Bentley and drive all the way to Switzerland, up to the Vallee de Joux. There he would join Pratt, who would travel from his hillside home near Zurich, as well as Dufour and Daniel Roth, for a leisurely lunch by the Lac de Joux.
Daniel Roth had a career that paralleled that of Philippe Dufour’s in its early years, but soon after diverged. Born in the South of France in 1946, Roth moved to the Vallee de Joux in 1967, where he worked briefly for Jaeger-LeCoultre and subsequently at Audemars Piguet.
Earlier than many of his peers, Roth established his namesake brand in 1989, getting off the ground with an investment from a Swiss trading house that specialised in distributing European goods in Asia. His distinctive style – characterised by engine-turned dials and a double-ellipse case – found early success, though his backers got cold feet soon after and backed out, illustrating a divergence between watchmaker and investor that would repeat itself at other brands in the years to come.
In 1994, Daniel Roth was then rescued from bankruptcy by Singapore-based specialist watch retailer The Hour Glass. Two years later, The Hour Glass assumed majority control of Gerald Genta bringing both the Roth and Genta brands under one management in a newly formed company – Manufacture de la Haute Horlogerie (MHH). New ownership provided a brief respite for the Roth brand as in the new millennium, MHH was acquired in its entirety by Bulgari. Not long after, a decision was made to retire the Daniel Roth name altogether.
The crucial period of Roth’s career started in the midst of the quartz revolution when Jacques and Pierre Chaumet, under the strong recommendation of Breguet’s then Director General – Francois Bodet, plucked him from Audemars Piguet to help rejuvenate Breguet in 1975.
Having acquired the grand but sleepy name, the brothers – the ninth generation to run the eponymous jeweller – moved Breguet’s operating headquarters from Paris to Switzerland, with ambitions of turning it into a global luxury brand. Prior to Roth's involvement with the revitalisation of Breguet, Gerald Genta had already been entrusted by the Chaumet brothers in the early 1970s to create several Breguet watches and which formed the foundational style of the brand. By 1986, Roth, together with prototypist Louis-Maurice Caillet had created most of Breguet’s iconic wristwatches including its perpetual calendar and now signature three-hand, one-minute tourbillon.
Breguet on Repeat
Despite having lived some two centuries ago, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) remains influential in 21stcentury artisanal watchmaking. As Roth was working on establishing the Swiss workshops of the modern Breguet, a young watchmaker who idolised the man - Abraham-Louis Breguet - was graduating from watchmaking school in Paris.
Two years after his 1976 graduation, François-Paul Journe began work on his first tourbillon, which would take the form of a pocket watch heavily influenced by Breguet’s style.
But as it was with the modern Breguet company, Journe’s story only really begins when he moved to Switzerland in 1989. Two years later after that, he set up shop in Geneve, where Journe built his first wristwatch, a tourbillon with a constant force mechanism that would evolve into the Tourbillon Souverain of 1999, now one of his landmark creations.
But Journe had originally decamped to Switzerland as one of the founders of Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA), a complications workshop that would prove to be an incubator for many notables in 21stcentury independent watchmaking.
Two of his fellow Frenchmen from Paris followed, co-founder Denis Flageollet, as well as Vianney Halter, who had urged Journe to provide him with this opportunity to join this movement development think tank. Amongst the inaugural group at THA was Dominique Mouret, a talented watchmaker and restorer, as well as automaton specialists Nicolas Court and Francois Junod. Junod is a man whom Journe acknowledged as being one of the most gifted mechanical minds of a generation.
Both Journe and Halter would depart THA not long after, with only Flageollet staying until 2001 when he left to establish De Bethune with David Zanetta in 2002. A third-generation watchmaker born in France, Flageollet is responsible for the remarkable technical innovations notched up by De Bethune in its mere two decades of existence, ranging from exotic silicon balance wheels to blued-titanium watch cases.
The personalities who passed through THA over its existence make up an all-star cast of contemporary watchmaking. Most notably, it includes Thomas Baumgartner, who later set up Urwerk along with his brother Felix Baumgartner and industrial designer Martin Frei in 1997, establishing themselves as the one of the originals in sci-fi watchmaking, where they remain the leading practitioner even today.
Restoration and Glamour
As the numerous careers were unfolding at THA, a nascent independent watchmaker was just beginning his in Geneva, and he would go on to become perhaps the most commercially successful watchmaker of all time.
Having studied watchmaking at Geneva’s local school, Franck Muller got his start restoring vintage timepieces, as most watchmakers did in the 1970s and 1980s. But Muller boasted outstanding mechanical aptitude and a good eye for strong design and it was not long before he began working on his first wristwatch.
In 1984, Muller debuted a tourbillon wristwatch, and soon followed with a variety of complicated wristwatches in quick succession, often building additional functions on restored 19th century movements. Much of his work was inspired by historical complications but reimagined for the modern day. One of his signature reinventions was the double-face chronograph that features an oversized seconds counter on the reverse of the watch, a complication once found on pocket watches but forgotten until revived by Muller.
He spent his formative years at the workshop of Svend Andersen, the Dane who was a co-founder of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) in 1985, and an early mentor to the young watchmaker. There he worked on restoring timepieces belonging the Patek Philippe Museum, as well as building his own, which were merely signed “Franck” in those early days.
Muller combined technical talent with a flair for style, which led to his defining design, the tonneau-shaped Cintree Curvex case, no doubt inspired by the early 20th century Art Deco wristwatches of Patek Philippe and Cartier he had work on.
And in 1991, Muller had found Vartan Sirmakes, a jeweller turned casemaker who was then a prominent supplier of case components to several leading watch brands, including Daniel Roth in its heyday.
Together the duo founded the Franck Muller brand, which combined complications, gem stones, and a lavish dose of glamour in a manner never before seen in watchmaking. The brand’s incredible success over the next two decades catapulted the pair onto business magazine Bilanz’s annual ranking of Switzerland’s richest people – making them the first, and only, figures in independent watchmaking to make the list.
A Restorer’s Dream
Muller’s background in the restoration of antique watches and clocks was once common in artisanal watchmaking circles, with Kari Voutilainen taking a similar route in his rise to prominence. Having moved to Switzerland from his native Finland in 1989, he joined Michel Parmigiani after completing the WOSTEP course on complications.
Revered as the greatest restoration workshop in Switzerland in the 1980s and 1990s, Parmigiani was founded by Michel Parmigiani, one of the leading talents of his era. Famous for restoring treasures from both the Patek Philippe Musuem and Maurice Sandoz collection – Switzerland’s greatest collections of antiquarian watches, clocks and automaton – Parmigiani gave Voutilainen a first-hand look at some of history’s greatest timekeepers.
After a decade at Parmigiani, Voutilainen’s itch to build his own brand manifested in 1999. Appropriately, the first wristwatch he launched under his own name, the Observatoire, was powered by a rebuilt and refinished vintage movement.
History never repeats, but it rhymes, and so it is with the next generation of independent watchmakers. Rising star Rexhep Rexhepi spent a formative spell working for Francois-Paul Journe. The 34-year old Rexhepi has often cited Journe as an inspiration, both for his inventiveness with complications and originality, and also Dufour, whose artisanal movement decoration has long been an aspiration.
Also drawing inspiration from the success of Journe is Rémy Cools, a 24-year old Frenchman who won the 2018 Young Talent Competition organised annually by F.P. Journe. His work is distinct, but once again clearly inspired by the 19th century creations of Abraham-Louis Breguet.
And there is Peterman Bédat, founded in 2017 by Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat. Both still in their twenties, the pair spent time restoring vintage timepieces, while Petermann, like Muller three decades before, also worked for Svend Andersen. The two regard Dufour as a role model, while also point to a pocket watch from the 1940s as inspiration for their inaugural watch, the 1967 Dead Beat Seconds.