Simplicity at the summit of watchmaking art

April 2004

While all watchmakers (or rather watchmaking enterprises) are rushing to produce ‘complications’, ‘grand complications’ and spinning tourbillons, one man, all alone, has set his sights in the opposite direction, towards the simple. This man is Philippe Dufour, and his masterpiece is called ‘Simplicity’. To talk with him, Europa Star made a trip to the Vallée de Joux to the former school of Solliat, where, upon passing the threshold, we entered into a whole other world, a world where the smallest screw is still made by hand, taking hours if necessary, until it is perfect. The Japanese are not wrong; they consider Philippe Dufour a ‘living legend’, a man deserving of the same respect, and on the same level, as their great artisans.

Photo: Philippe Dufour and his 'Simplicity': 18 carat pink or white gold case (34 mm – 37 mm) with 52-hour power reserve.
Anchor escapement, Breguet balance spring, 18,000 vph, silver guillcohé dial, indices and Dauphine hands in gold.

Europa Star: Philippe Dufour, you are a case apart! You make a manual-winding mechanical watch, with three hands, that is quite simple, and you sell it for 48,000 Swiss francs! You really dare…

Philippe Dufour: The price is perfectly justified. And those who are interested in this watch, who understand it perfectly, know that it. In fact, they will compete with each other to obtain one. But, this watch is rare, so rare that the buyer must wait two or three years to receive one. I must tell you a little story. Not too long ago, I finished one and sent it to a client in the United States. Do you know that he announced its arrival on a website for watch aficionados (Editor’s Note: the site is www.thepurist.com), and even published a photo of the wrapped package along with the receipt from Brinks that delivered it. The caption read ‘The watch, you will see it in three days…’

ES: What is the major difference between the ‘Simplicity’ and other watchesı Why is there such a strong desire to own oneı

PD: I go to extremes in life to do the best I can. In today’s modern movement, born with the 'renaissance’ of the mechanical watch, even in the best of these movements, everything is designed to be made on a machine. Please understand me when I say that even if the hand of man has its role to play, the architecture itself of the movement, like the design of its component parts, is created with machine manufacturing in mind. However, a machine is incapable of making bridges with rounded corners as are done by hand in my atelier. In the 'Simplicity’ watch, there is the enormous added value of being totally handcrafted. There is a certain emotional attraction of knowing that a skilled hand, using traditional tools, has created a personal timepiece. It has its own internal vibration. It is something living and unique…it is poetry from the hand.

ES: In a way, it represents a return to the watchmaking of our ancestorsı

PD: I follow the most traditional paths of watchmaking, but without the least nostalgia. I try to perpetuate the savoir-faire of the great watchmakers of the Vallée de Joux region. I try to slow the erosion of this magnificent culture. But, I am a man of today, and the 'Simplicity’ is a totally contemporary timepiece.

ES: Are you saying that there is a risk that the traditional savoir-faire of watchmaking might disappearı

PD: The palette of the craft is shrinking, even in the watch schools. Basically, the schools are in the service of industry. As it stands, the industrial companies, even the best of them, and contrary to what they way, do not need watchmakers in the fullest sense of the term. The industry as a whole needs ‘operators’, adjusters, assemblers, etc. But, they do not need complete watchmakers, except perhaps in a symbolic or decorative aspect. In my opinion, I think that watchmaking should be considered as an art form, with no shortcuts. A student should learn to file a piece of metal even if no one files anything anymore in the industry. It is like a musician…to give his concert, he practices his scales.

ES: Yet, we read everywhere that we are witnessing the great return of mechanical watchmaking. And, it is true that in the entire world, the mechanical timepiece is now enjoying unequalled prestige.

PD: What has facilitated this return is the invention of computer-controlled equipment, the CAD and electro-erosion. Now we can manufacture very complicated watches on an assembly line. But so whatı I repeat, in all that there is hardly any feeling, any emotion. Where does the emotion come fromı It comes from details, purely details. It comes from the particular brilliance of a piece, the sentiments it gives off.

ES: One could say that you are too attached to the past…

PD: I don’t reject any technology. For example, I hardly ever use the pencil anymore. The computer is an absolutely fantastic invention that I do not want to do without. On the other hand, people must know what to expect from such a tool. I don’t look for feelings or emotion in my drawings and designs, and the computer allows me a level of precision and adjustments that were not possible before. But when I pass to the real object, I put down the mouse and take up the file.

ES: Besides this extreme attention to detail and care, what characterizes your movementı

PD: Although I completely designed everything for the ‘Simplicity’, I did not actually invent anything in the strict sense of the term, contrary to the innovations that I brought to the ‘Duality’. The idea for the Simplicity is based on watches from the 1930s and 1940s, which were well propo-rtioned [Editor’s Note: Simplicity exists in two sizes, 34 mm or 37 mm in diameter] and which were basically problem-free, with extraordinary reliability, showing hardly any wear and tear. I planned everything with this in mind. I use 18,000 vibrations per hour and not 28,800 since that number requires more torque. In the same spirit, I use a Breguet spiral system without a regulator. The calibre is water-resistant to 30 metres and has a working reserve of 53 hours. All these choices were made in order to guarantee that the Simplicity will not wear out. It is a classic watch. The 99th piece must be identical to the first.

ES: In this sense, how many have you producedı

PD: In my atelier, which is the smallest complete manufacturing facility in the world, where I now work with my daughter and an extremely talented young watchmaker, I have produced, in total, six Grandes Sonneries, my first watch, nine 'Duality’ pieces, and now, I am working on my 60th Simplicity, at a rate of about 25 per year. We must have a living out of it…

ES: Precisely, how do organize your distributionı

PD: I would say that my distribution more or less organized itself, as a function of my personal contacts. I must be the only watchmaker on the planet who knows exactly who owns each one of his watches. The only place where distribution, if we can use this word, is organized, is in Japan, where I sell directly to a store that retails the watches. But, this is normal in this case, since I send two-thirds of my production to Japan. What happens in that country for me is quite incred-ible. When I go there, collectors come from all over and want to touch me. The NHK made a two-hour film on Swiss watchmaking. It devoted 45 minutes to my friend, Antoine Preziuso, 45 minutes to me, and the rest to Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Swatch combined. The film was broadcast nine times on television. I couldn’t believe it. I also receive many orders via the Internet. And, everything is done on trust. People pay one-third down and then wait two or three years to get the watch. I find that it is absolutely marvellous all that I get from a simple watch, all the people that I meet and all the friends that I make from around the world…

ES: When you were young, did you ever dream any of this would happenı

PD: Not for an instant! You know, I don’t want to shock you but watchmaking was not my personal choice. It was a series of circumstances that brought me to it. I come from a simple working family. I was one of four children and my father was ill. I did not particularly like school so when I was 15, I quit. My older brother was able to choose what he wanted to study and decided to go to Lausanne for training. Since my family could only afford to pay one room and board, I had to stay at home. I wanted to be a mechanic but my teacher at the time told me to study watchmaking instead. I began and it grabbed me, and that’s how it all started.

ES: And so, what happened nextı

PD: I was hired by Jaeger-LeCoultre. I travelled for them to Germany, followed by England, and then to the Caribbean and the Virgin Islands. There, I visited some 40 watch assembly facilities and saw people of all types assembling movements. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I thought that only the craftsmen from the Vallée de Joux were capable of doing such a thing. I returned to Switzerland and began working for Genta, followed by Audemars Piguet. But I did not really enjoy working in a factory. I no longer wanted to be just another wheel in the gear-train of the system. There was a guy there who wanted to open a small workshop to repair and improve old pocket watches. I joined him and a year later, I purchased the atelier from him. That is how I became an independent. I began restoring wonderful old complicated watches. From that experience, I noticed that the large majority of the pieces sold by the large companies at the time were actually made in the Vallée de Joux. So I said to myself, ‘If they were able to do it, we are able to redo it.’ I got to work and made my first pocket watch movement, equipped with a grand sonnerie. It was wonderful, but I did not have enough money to invest in the case so I went around to try and sell the movement. Audemars Piguet ordered five! This meant five years of work! However, after 5,000 hours of working for other people, I was bitten again by the bug of independence.

ES: How did your real independence come aboutı

PD: The period from 1989 to 1992 was very difficult. I put myself to work at the computer and in 1992 at the Basel Fair, I presented my first Grande Sonnerie wristwatch. No one was expecting it. It was a critical success, and I was pressured to sell out to a brand, but I decided not to. I wanted to remain independent. So, I took my watch and travelled around the world. It was in Singapore where I met my destiny. I remained in the city ten days and I negotiated during these ten days. When I left, I had sold the wristwatch plus a Grande Sonnerie pocket watch, plus I had orders for three new watches. Things were beginning to take off…

ES: What is your opinion of the watch situation today in Switzerland after the period of rationalization that we have just been throughı

PD: I am not very optimistic. I am not speaking from a strictly economic point of view, but I notice that a certain form of standardization is at work, which makes the product less interesting. The marketing people who rule the scene today do not even realize or understand this. The people at the controls do not know watchmaking. There is a loss of savoir-faire that began with the economic crisis. I know many watchmakers who are reaching the retirement age after 30 or 40 years of activity. One fine day they pack up their belongings and turn the page. They are leaving the profession, somewhat disgusted, without anyone realizing they are gone, and without having transmitted their treasure house of knowledge and experience to others. There is loss of motivation, a lack of friendly rivalry. The current managers no longer have the same culture that in the ‘olden’ days formed the basis of a watchmaker’s pride.

ES: Still, at the same time, watchmaking attracts young people ready to try their hand…

PD: Yes, it does, and we welcome some into the Academy of Independent Watch Creators (ACHI). But, it is still a very small world, and the sacrifices required are enormous.

ES: But, to listen to you and to see your eyes light up when you talk about it, it seems to be worth the effort.

PD: Yes, but in this business, you need tenacity, flair, a little talent, courage and a lot of hard work. A grain of folly helps, too. At the end of it all, there is also joy …