On its 225th birthday, Girard-Perregaux is seeking both to reassure and to surprise the global watch community, by reminding it of the company’s historic place in the Swiss watchmaking landscape and its longstanding quest for precision, and by raiding its rich heritage to revive the iconic models of the past.
As we explained in our last issue, under the initiative of its dynamic CEO, Antonio Calce, Girard-Perregaux is undertaking a fresh start (see interview in Europa Star 2/16). The venerable company based in La Chaux-de-Fonds celebrates its 225th birthday this year, and is taking advantage of the anniversary to showcase its rich heritage while laying the foundations for its future. In an industry in flux, Girard-Perregaux aims to reaffirm its status as the choice of connoisseurs, while at the same time claiming a new audience through more transparent, more accessible and more focused positioning. The company has access to a virtually limitless catalogue of innovations going back hundreds of years (it holds more than 80 patents), the perfect foundation for a triumphant comeback.
Several highlights await in this jubilee year; we have chosen to focus on four of the iconic creations. The reworking of the legendary three-bridge tourbillon Esmeralda, which was presented for the first time in 1889 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, is a potent symbol of the quest for precision that has made Girard-Perregaux one of the most respected manufacturers in the watchmaking world.
- LA ESMERALDA (1889)
The Place Girardet collection provides a key to the company’s 225-year history with as many breathtaking pieces. The Laureato with its vintage and sporty looks – bang on-trend, according to our observations at Baselworld – borrows the DNA of a model launched in 1975. Equally vintage, and also limited to 225 pieces, the Heritage 1957 is inspired by a model unveiled at the end of the 1950s. Girard-Perregaux is also hoping to please its female clients with the new Cat’s Eye Majestic. This iconic model is presented in a vertical case, with new dimensions, giving the watch a thoroughly modern makeover.
Girard-Perregaux is one of the rare watchmakers that can legitimately lay claim to the perhaps over-used title of “manufacture”. Today, the company has earned a reputation for its high-quality finishes, and has all the in-house skills required to make a watch, from initial design to the final finish. It was towards the end of the 18th century that Jean-François Bautte, a Geneva watchmaker-jeweller, laid the foundations for the future company. He and his artisans produced watches, automata, jewellery and music boxes. Jean-François Bautte excelled in what are called “form watches” – models representing musical instruments, insects, even a perfume diffuser! He was also one of the first watchmakers to design ultra-thin watches. While the origins of the company can be traced back to 1791, it didn’t acquire its current name until 1856, when Constant Girard married Marie Perregaux.
The brand’s signature three bridges emerged in the mid-19th century. In 1867, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, Constant Girard Perregaux introduced his first pocket watch featuring a tourbillon suspended under three bridges. Twenty-two years later, back in the French capital, the concept had reached its ultimate expression in the form of a tourbillon with three gold bridges, which became known as the Esmeralda.
At the end of the 1950s Girard-Perregaux pioneered the establishment of a dedicated research and development department, which led to the 1965 introduction of the Gyromatic HF, the first high-frequency movement, beating at 36,000 vph. One year later the company’s high-frequency chronometers were rewarded with the Neuchâtel Observatory’s Prix du Centenaire. The following decade was marked by the advent of quartz. Nevertheless, Girard-Perregaux quickly understood this new technology’s potential to further its quest for precision, and launched into mass producing quartz watches, whose 32,768 Hertz frequency remains a universal standard today.
In 2008 Girard-Perregaux unveiled a revolutionary innovation: a constant escapement movement whose design was based around a silicon blade thinner than a hair. The Constant Escapement L.M. won the Aiguille d’Or at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
To share this rich heritage with the public, Girard-Perregaux is currently constructing a new museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the historic building known as the “Château” at Rue du Progrès 129. It was built in 1908 by architect Léon Boillot, according to “feudal” and “Swiss renaissance” principles. As Antonio Calce, explains, “It won’t be your traditional rows of display cases; it will be an immersive experience.”
- TOURBILLON ESMERALDA
This iconic tourbillon watch, which is more than a century old, represents better than any other timepiece Girard- Perregaux’s obsessive pursuit of precision. It was only natural that the company should contemplate producing a re-issue, which will be released this summer to mark the company’s 225th anniversary. “The Esmeralda is a combination of technique and architecture. It is part of our strategy to reposition the brand as a historic Swiss manufacture,” explains the CEO. Architecturally, the original watch was very much of its time, its structural similarities to many bridges, even the Eiffel Tower, a visual reminder of the late 19th century burgeoning of industry across Europe.
What Constant Girard wanted was to bring together all the finest watchmaking techniques of the time to produce a masterpiece. The watch case is decorated with engravings by Fritz Kundert, the most eminent engraver of his time. And the three bridge system enhances the architectural presence of the movement.
As far back as 1860, Constant Girard had begun “theatricalising” the mechanical workings of his watches, and his first three bridge tourbillon watch was genuinely revolutionary in the way its components were staged and choreographed, giving an artistic dimension to the tourbillon, which had previously been considered a purely technical mechanism. But that did not detract from its enhanced precision – far from it. Seven years later, the model was awarded its first chronometry prize by the Neuchâtel Observatory. The tourbillon with three gold bridges was patented in the United States in 1884, because at that time the Swiss cantons had not been able to agree to a joint federal patent! Girard-Perregaux submitted around 27 three-bridge tourbillons to the Neuchâtel Observatory between 1865 and 1911.
The culmination came in 1889, when a new model by Constant Girard – a tourbillon pocket watch with pivoted detent and three gold bridges – won the gold medal in its category at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Its name, “La Esmeralda”, came from the Mexico City shop of jeweller and watch merchant Hauser, Zivy & Cie. For several decades the watch belonged to Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican President, and his heirs. In 1970, circumstances conspired to return the icon to the Manufacture Girard-Perregaux Museum, when the company’s general manager at the time, Jean-Edouard Friedrich, was contacted by a descendant of General Diaz, and was able to buy back the watch. The timepiece certainly deserves its place in the museum, since it contains the oldest movement still in production, and its overall structure has remained unchanged since 1860.
The new model is faithful to the virtues of its illustrious predecessor, successfully combining aesthetic, technical and symbolic principles. In the middle of the three parallel bridges are the diamond-polished settings, held in place with two screws, which mean that the barrel, centre wheel and tourbillon carriage must be in line with each other. The three-part layout of the mainplate, the gold bridges and the organs visible on the front, even the number of arms on the tourbillon carriage, are a reminder that the number three and its multiples underlie the measurement of past, present and future time.
The 44 mm 18K rose gold case houses the automatic tourbillon mechanical calibre with its three bridges, which occupies the entire width of the case. The refined lines of the tourbillon carriage form the distinctive lyre shape developed by Constant Girard-Perregaux . “The tourbillon, the craftsmanship and the meticulous regulation are features that the original watch and its reincarnation share, in addition to the movement and the bridges, obviously,” notes Antonio Calce. It’s a purist’s dream.
The anniversary number 225 features in the same number of unique watches, each of whose dials is individually designed (index style, minutes track, barleycorn or basketweave guilloché decoration, satin and sandblasted finishes). The models of the Place Girardet collection all feature a gold plaque at 9 o’clock, engraved with a year between 1791 and 2016, and a quotation in the centre of the dial referring to an important event from that date.
- PLACE GIRARDET 2016
The series covers the major milestones in Girard-Perregaux’s history since 1791, as well as pivotal cultural, scientific and political events. The “face” of the collection’s models incorporates the manufacture’s iconic gold bridge at 6 o’clock, which for the first time arcs over the oscillations of the Microvar variable inertia balance wheel. The dials alternate a variety of colours, finishes and decorations, and the type and style of indices varies according to the historic period.
- LAUREATO AUTOMATIC
Now let’s turn to another landmark year for Girard-Perregaux: 1975. That was the year the company launched the disruptive Laureato, which broke all the conventions of the time in terms of its shape, materials and movement. Movie buffs may already have guessed that its name was inspired by Mike Nichols’ famous film, The Graduate (‘Il Laureato’ in Italian), which captures the uncertainty of an era when traditional values were being questioned by a younger generation. It was also a time when steel became a dominant presence in watches, giving them a sportier and more active profile. The design of this watch was an inspired move at a time when marketing departments hadn’t yet taken their first steps into the world of watchmaking. That says it all.
The design was bold in a number of ways. The Laureato featured a pioneering integrated bracelet, polished octagonal bezel set into a satin-brushed case and harmoniously alternating shiny and matt finishes (the Laureato was a perfect exponent of the nascent trend for two-tone watches). The audacity extended to the inside: at a time of overwhelming technical upheavals in the 1970s, Girard-Perregaux put its energy into developing an in-house quartz calibre with an oscillation frequency of 32,768 Hz, setting the standard that continues to be applied today.
2016 marks a return to its original values. Two series limited to – wait for it... – 225 units pay tribute to the vintage steel watch, one with a blue dial and the other in grey. The octagonal bezel is back, as is the subtle play of polished and satin finishes on the gracefully integrated flexible bracelet. Its 41 mm diameter marks a return to “reasonable standards after allowing itself a momentary foray into the XXL era,” as the company literature points out. The baton-shaped hands come from the original model and have been embellished with a hint of luminescent material, while the dial is stamped with a Clou de Paris mini checkerboard pattern, like its 1975 forebear. The date appears at 3 o’clock. It’s a ‘post-vintage, new-wave’ watch (see our Vintagemania feature).
- HERITAGE 1957
Reissues are definitely one of the major trends of this year. The Girard-Perregaux Heritage 1957 model draws inspiration from the aesthetic codes of the Gyromatic (from the Greek gyros for rotation, and English automatic) of the 1950s, whose revolutionary movement simplified the winding mechanism of automatic watches. It was the answer to a conundrum that had exercised the ingenuity of watchmakers since the 1930s: how can you made an automatic watch both accurate and reliable, while making it more energy-efficient?
Girard-Perregaux ’s; initial response, which dates back to 1957, was to design an extremely compact ‘free-wheel’ clutch system to transmit energy from the rotor more simply, efficiently and reliably, opening the doors to a reduction in the size of automatic watches. The second innovation was the high-frequency movement known as the Gyromatic HF. From the mid-1960s the company began to sell watches running at 36,000 vibrations per hour, rather than the 18,000 to 21,600 of their predecessors, thus considerably improving the precision and reliability of the timepieces – a genuine obsession for the company. The design is also elegant, sophisticated and timeless. The 225 reissued Heritage 1957 watches in steel, with their vintage good looks, are a faithful reflection of the spirit of their ancestors.
- CAT’S EYE MAJESTIC
What about the ladies? Girard-Perregaux, one of the first watchmakers to fit its women’s timepieces with a mechanical movement, is introducing a new Cat’s Eye, in the Majestic model, with its oval case vertically oriented. Since its creation in 2004, the Cat’s Eye collection has earned its place among the most iconic ladies’ watches, with its distinctive oval dial. In conclusion, Girard-Perregaux is certainly not resting on its laurels, or on its 225-year history. For its jubilee year, it is deploying a dual strategy: re-establishing its position as one of the pillars of Swiss watchmaking history and a pioneer in the pursuit of the precision, and laying the foundations for the company’s future by reinterpreting its peerless vintage heritage, an approach currently riding a wave of popularity. Its expert watchmakers need only immerse themselves in the company’s rich archives to unearth forgotten legends and breathe new life into them. The new museum, which is preparing to reopen its doors next year, will send a strong message to the public. Not to mention the comeback of Girard-Perregaux at the SIHH as of 2017!