udovic Ballouard has been self-employed for the past twelve years, makes twelve watches a year all on his own and has no intention of making more. Twelve watches a year that literally turn time upside-down, all the better to tell it the right way up. Just to ensure you grasp the full philosophical measure of taking time.
Based deep in the heart of the canton of Geneva, in the former post office of the hamlet of Athénaz and just a stone’s throw from another renowned independent watchmaker, Antoine Preziuso, this son of a Breton farmer who became a master watchmaker is at last savouring the fruits of his labours and passion.
And it’s about time, because the man himself almost sank without trace, caught between grand financial manoeuvres far bigger than himself (when Harry Winston, which had commissioned his famous Opus XIII, was taken over by the Swatch Group, which wanted nothing more to do with it).
- “Where the hell is Opus 13?” An investigation (in Fr.) that appeared in Europa Star Première in 2015.
A colourful career
With his pirate looks, there can be no doubt that Ludovic Ballouard (“Ludo”, as he is known in the close-knit circle of independents), was indeed born on a farm not far from the sea, in the Côtes d’Armor region of Brittany, France. After completing his schooling, then training as a shorthand typist, his dream as a 15-year-old was to become a dental technician. In vain. His application was rejected. A school careers advisor advised him to learn watchmaking, something that had never occurred to him. It was revelation.
He was 15 years old and applied to Rennes watchmaking school, which accepted thirteen pupils. Once again, he was turned down. “They didn’t want me. I wept.”
He went back to the farm. But he immediately returned to the school with a model boat made entirely by his own hands. The teacher who received him was touched. He admired the boy’s talent, took pity on him and made an exception.
That was in the 1980s. At school, the first year was spent studying clocks. The second year, they did nothing but quartz (“that pissed me off completely,” he says) and only in the third year did they turn their hand to mechanical watches. The kid proved a quick learner. After three months, he had completed the entire programme and was bored. He left the school because he wanted to work. But he took the exam as an external candidate, passing with flying colours, just so he could have the diploma.
A restless soul
He found a job in Lorient, Brittany, with a watchmaker, but only lasted six months. Besides changing batteries, there was nothing interesting to do. So he got in his little Renault 4 and decided to try his luck in Switzerland. He ended up with Lemania in the Joux Valley. He was taken on, but only stayed six months: the cold was more than he could stand. So he returned to Brittany and changed careers.
For eight years, he worked as a technician doing the maintenance on flight deck instruments at Dinard Airport. Boeings, Airbuses – a dream job for someone like him, crazy about model aircraft. One of his colleagues was an ex-watchmaker and together they would talk about the distant world of watches and watchmaking.
He asked the airport for a very modest rise, which was refused. That riled him. He began leafing through watchmaking magazines and decided to send a CV to the watchmaker who made the most expensive watch in the whole catalogue: a certain Franck Muller. He received a very quick reply: come for a trial. When he arrived in Genthod, he was given ten Lemania movements, chronographs that needed taking apart, cleaning, oiling and reassembling. Although he had no experience, he did the whole lot in just four days. He was hired, with a CHF 4,500 salary – at the time, 15,000 French francs more than he earned in Dinard. Bingo.
He went on to stay for three years and has happy memories of that period. He loved living in the Lake Geneva region. But then that episode came to an abrupt end.
So he set up his own business in Geneva, opening a casing-up workshop, the principal customer of which was Vacheron Constantin. But he was bored and gave up. He had a desire to create. Learning that a watchmaker had just been dismissed by François-Paul Journe, he phoned him up and was taken on the same day. The François-Paul Journe period, longer than any previous one, lasted seven years.
He worked on the Octa, after which François-Paul Journe assigned him to the tourbillons, but changed his mind one month later and asked him to take charge of his Grande Sonnerie. This was a kind of consecration. The objective was to make one watch in three to four months. Ludo succeeded in making between six and seven per year.
“The only time that counts is the present”
Then came the crisis of 2008-2009. His wife was ill. He decided to resign and try his luck with his own brand. But he needed an idea. He went out at 11am and lunched alone, telling himself that he’d have the idea before the meal was over. At 2pm, he had it.
He warned twelve of François-Paul Journe’s retailers whom he knew from his work on the Grandes Sonneries that he was preparing “a real surprise”. He asked for an advance of 50 percent and in the space of a few days had raised several hundred thousand francs.
- The Upside Down
Six months later, in early 2010, the watch was ready: the Upside Down. This astonishing watch, which displays the past and future times upside down and only the present time the right way up, represents a whole new, philosophical way of looking at time. Only the present counts. It was noticed, receiving the jury’s special prize at Montres Passion in 2010.
“The financial crisis was ravaging the world. It seemed as if the only subject of conversation was the stock exchange, which was collapsing before our eyes. All the figures were turned upside down (...) While all the figures were being turned on their heads, just one remained true, to my eyes, one solitary figure that sufficed to restore our confidence in life: the present time (...) A watch that made perfect sense in a world gone crazy.”
A second complication
In 2021, Ludovic Ballouard issued his second complication: the Half-Time. The spirit was the same, but its movement was even more complicated. This time, the hour numerals were cut in half vertically and set on two discs rotating in opposite directions. Only the numeral of the present hour is recomposed and becomes legible. All the others are hidden from sight. The minutes of this eccentric jumping hours watch are displayed on a retrograde dial at 6 o’clock.
Symbolically, these split hour numerals that can only be read when their two halves are reunited are, to Ludo’s eyes, like two lost beings who find one another again, love one another and become one.
- The Half-Time
Like the Upside Down, which can be executed in a thousand different ways on request (with precious stone dials, miniature paintings, gem settings, engraving, mother-of-pearl marquetry), and the hour numerals presented in every possible calligraphy and language, the Half-Time too can take on innumerable faces at will.
The comeback of the collector
Back in the limelight after the aforementioned Opus XIII affair, which almost saw him disappear lock, stock and barrel from the watchmaking stage, Ludovic Ballouard looked on enthusiastically as a new circle of much younger collectors emerged. In Japan, the average age of his customers is 30. Only recently, he sold a watch to a young man of 22.
"Now, everything is done via Instagram and I’ve just posted an explicit image: I now accept payment in bitcoins. Requests have doubled as a result.” In anticipation of a new surprise: his B04 movement. “A very unusual movement that will combine two very different times. If I don’t succeed, that means it can’t be done.”