What I’ve learned from more than fifty years of making watches

Having made some of the most intricate and desirable timepieces in the history of watchmaking, Parmigiani's master watchmaker describes what his career has taught him about the principles of art, craft and business.

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When I was a young boy growing up in Switzerland, I walked to school every day past a monument to Ferdinand Berthoud, a famous character from Couvet who had become the watchmaker for the Navy, and for the King. This was the first time I began to think about watchmaking, what it was, and why people did it.

Later, in 1964, a school homework assignment introduced me to an extraordinary character from the history of our part of Switzerland: the watchmaker/farmer of the Neuchâtel canton. The Val-de-Travers is a region in the mountains where, in summer, farmers make cheese and dairy products but in winter, farmers need another occupation. Some farms made lace, which was famous across Europe; Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was made with lace from the Val de Travers. But on many farms, people made watches during the winter. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first watchmaking school opened in Geneva, and a few years later, the second watchmaking school opened in my home town of Fleurier.

For me, the choice was between being an architect or a watchmaker. The watchmaking school was in Fleurier and the architect school was not, so I went for the watchmaking school - it was a very pragmatic decision! But I quickly discovered a passion for watchmaking. I learned how the core professions of the art are connected: stone carvers, mechanics, silversmiths, tool makers. A watchmaker cannot do everything by himself. He needs a network of specialists, and in Fleurier, although it is a small place, these networks of excellence have been built up over a very long time.

I opened my first workshop in 1976, restoring watches. A few years earlier, the first quartz watches had gone on sale, and the watchmaking crisis this caused in Switzerland was growing worse every day. More than 60,000 people lost their jobs in ten years. But because I was restoring watches, my predecessors taught me what excellence is. Focusing on what they created encouraged me to keep going against all logical judgment.

There are many wonderful examples that I remember from that time, but perhaps my favourite was Breguet’s “pendulette sympatique”, a table clock that would automatically wind itself and a pocket watch placed on top of it. It was quite extraordinary but it was in a bad state – the owner considered it to be non-recoverable. But a collector who was interested knew that I could try to restore it, to give it a second life, and so I did.

At the same time, I had ideas for my own pieces. I restored watches to make money but the rest of the time I was sketching pieces and mechanisms. I repaired many types of clocks and finalised some pieces for Marcel Jean-Richard, an artist watchmaker who created clocks and watches for different brands. He was at an advanced age and could not finalise some of his work, so he contacted me to finish the great work he had started.

In 1996 we launched Parmigiani Fleurier. The very first watch was the Toric, a watch with gadroon and knurling that recalls classical columns and Vitruvian architecture. I wanted to bring together the watchmaker and the architect at last. One of the first Torics, which I am very proud of, was worn by Prince Charles during his son Harry’s wedding this year.

A few years later I became inspired by an artist in a different medium – the legendary car designer Ettore Bugatti – and we started a partnership in 2004. The first watch I created for this series, the “Type 370”, is more of an engine than a watch. It is accessible mechanically, like a classic Bugatti, because the watch is visible on both sides, so we can easily observe the mechanism. It was unique; with the first vertical mechanism in the history of watchmaking. It took great patience and skill to meet the challenge – five years from the first drawing until the first watch was sold.

Watchmaking is a long road. It takes a lot of patience. In a world of globalised mass production, a family business such as Parmigiani Fleurier is something different, and this is what buyers and collectors value about our watches. They are the product of years of work, and of many iterations and innovations and it’s for this reason they are also scarce – we produce fewer than 3000 pieces per year, and each one is unique. This makes them very popular with investors, too. A piece such as our “Fleur d’Orient” table clock, for example, is the result of both many years of mechanical tradition and innovation – it is perhaps the most complex table clock in the history of watchmaking – but it is also a piece of art.

Back in 1969 I bought a pocket book on Fibonacci, which I’ve kept and continued to read for half a century. It is about proportion and harmony, and in all my work, these are the things I’ve tried to achieve – excellence, refinement, and harmony. His discovery of the “golden ratio” has informed many engineers, artists and some of my favourite architects, such as Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright. So you could say that, in the end, I became both a watchmaker and an architect, in a way.

Visit the Parmigiani Fleurier website here