Independent watchmakers

Luc Monnet: freedom and sharing

April 2023

Luc Monnet: freedom and sharing

The Zen aphorism that “there is no goal at the end of the path, the path is the goal” could easily apply to Luc Monnet, a watchmaker, specialist in mechanical arts and seasoned traveller who embraces every step of life’s journey.


ometimes you have to go the extra mile… in the literal sense when catching up with Luc Monnet. At 43, he is a reference for an entire generation of up-and-coming watchmakers. Everyone we met for this special feature on horology’s New Wave spoke of him in glowing terms, insisting that “you have to go see him!” Hence the extra mile we travelled from Switzerland to Lozère in France.

Lozère is one of the 96 administrative divisions or départements of mainland France. It is also the least populated. Almost entirely rural, its dramatic landscapes extend through forests and moors, massifs, causses, spectacular gorges, rivers, treacherous mountain roads, stunning views and, in the midst of this, ancient stone villages. One of them, Bourgs sur Colagne, a village of less than a thousand inhabitants clustered around a monastery that dates back to 1000 AD, is where Luc Monnet lives and works. It’s a very long way from the Swiss valleys with their Manufactures, their brown cows grazing in meadows, their factories and contractors.

Luc Monnet (Photo: Pierre Maillard)
Luc Monnet (Photo: Pierre Maillard)

At 43, he is a reference for an entire generation of up-and-coming watchmakers.

There’s a saying in French, “Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés”, that suggests the happiest life is a life away from the glare of the world. There must be some truth in this, as Luc Monnet, from this quiet corner of Lozère, radiates contentment or, more exactly, a sense of fulfilment. This is one of the gifts that comes with freedom.

Stonemason, cabinetmaker or watchmaker?

Luc Monnet likely developed his independent mindset from an early age. “Growing up, I had plenty to do,” he recalls. Born in 1980 near Besançon, his parents were working farmers who also ran a small B&B, and everyone was expected to pitch in. In addition to doing his schoolwork and serving guests, Luc Monnet herded cattle, drove a tractor, chopped logs and generally kept busy around the farm. “There were always odd jobs, repairs to be done. You learned to be good with your hands. Not just me, everyone in the family. You could give my grandfather any machine and he would repair it.”

At 15, it was time for him to decide on a career. Stonemason? Cabinetmaker? Towards the border with Switzerland, not too far away in Morteau, there was a watchmaking school. It wasn’t something that really appealed, but it was close enough for him to come home every evening. Watchmaking it was, “out of sheer practicality.”

He was convinced that fitting tiny parts into minuscule spaces “wasn’t for him”, but once there he began to think otherwise. Back at the farm, he built himself a workbench and started repairing whatever he could get his hands on. “A friend and I would go round local watchmakers and buy boxes full of unwanted watches and broken alarm clocks. Then I’d sit and puzzle out how to repair them. I was 16. If there was a job going that involved watches, I’d take it.”

Meanwhile, he continued with his studies, which culminated with each student building their own watch. Luc Monnet welcomed this chance to explore watchmaking’s creative side. “I loved it! Everything I’d been learning finally made sense.” He decided to make a “tourbillon with a flying escapement.” Not the easiest option. As a fan of Japanese culture, he designed a bridge in the shape of the character for “tourbillon”, set it in a square case and graduated top of his year.

Luc Monnet was fresh out of school when Piaget offered him a job in La Côte-aux-Fées, just across the border, where he would work on the tourbillon it planned to launch. How could he refuse?

No end of offers

He didn’t stay long. A few months later he got another call. Christophe Claret was expanding and wanted to hire him. This was in 2002 and high-end mechanical watches were back in demand – the more complicated the better. Claret was developing all manner of complex movements for a growing clientele. Luc Monnet was 22 and would have the opportunity to work on many different projects for many different customers, all eager for their tourbillon, their repeater, their perpetual calendar, or their own personal combination of functions.

He spent the next four years machining, tempering, decorating, pretty much everything from A to Z. “I was interested in all the tools. We were a young, motivated workshop with people of every nationality. I joined a team of nothing but Finns.” [Finland’s contribution to Swiss watchmaking is worth an article in itself!].

He learned a lot at Christophe Claret, but in 2006 he put down his tools, hung up his coat and said goodbye. He and his girlfriend were off to Madagascar.

Two years plus two years…

This would be the first of several journeys that Luc Monnet would make outside the horological microcosm and into the global macrocosm. He describes the months spent in Madagascar as “a real eye-opener”, living with no more than the very basics and giving his time and practical abilities to help different NGOs. He also took it upon himself to repair two colonial steeple clocks that hadn’t shown the right time in many years.

Returning home, rather than take up one of the many offers waiting for him, he decided instead to knock on the door of Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, who at that time employed just one watchmaker in a small workshop in the Ancien Manège in La Chaux-de-Fonds. They asked him to make a gold rotor using a jig bore and, mission accomplished, took him on as a prototype-maker. Soon he was in charge of unique pieces. Working alongside a movement developer, he bought the machines he needed and set to work making, assembling and finishing components. He spent two years hunched over his workbench before wanderlust struck again.

Luc Monnet: freedom and sharing

This time, he and his girlfriend set off for six months backpacking through South America, again lending a hand to charitable organisations and putting his watchmaking skills to use, and in some cases to the test, such as the one time in the Andes when he succeeded in getting an ancient watch ticking again by pinning up the balance spring with a pin he’d fashioned out of a piece of wood, using a water bottle as a loupe.

When he came back to Switzerland in 2008, the watch industry was on the brink of crisis. Just in time, he was hired by Renaud & Papi on exceptional terms: “What do you want to do and for how much?” He chose to join the studio in charge of developing commissioned pieces, where he turned his attention to projects that included some of the Harry Winston Opus. He also bought himself a jig bore and made prototypes for Audemars Piguet, among others. Another two years went by. He was 30, hung up his coat once more and set off for a year.

Learning all over again

This time he and his girlfriend cycled 17,000 kilometres, all the way to China. A bike is a watch on wheels. Every pedal stroke “marks time”. Traveller and author Nicolas Bouvier wrote that real travel “plucks you, rinses you, wrings you out.” Says Luc Monnet, “You get by with nothing. You keep going, you keep yourself fed, you contemplate, you meet people.” Most of all, this long voyage left him feeling “hugely optimistic about the world.” A world which, at the end of the day, is full of well-meaning people.

The tourbillon watch with “Japanese” flying escapement
The tourbillon watch with “Japanese” flying escapement

The Star Wheel mechanism
The Star Wheel mechanism

A very tiny hand-made screw
A very tiny hand-made screw

Returning in 2011, this time he pulled up stakes once and for all and went to join his girlfriend, an occupational therapist, who had found work in Lozère. He arrived without a penny in his pocket. There is no industry in Lozère, nothing but the power of nature. “What am I going to do here?” he thought to himself. And his answer: “Start learning all over again.”

He found a space to rent, bought a lathe, a machine-tool, and opened for business. He got his first big contract through Renaud & Papi for Richard Mille, developing the concept that would become the RM 27-01 “Rafael Nadal”, featuring a baseplate attached to the case by four braided steel cables (each 0.20 mm in diameter according to the concept he devised). He was “incredibly motivated”, willing to work endless hours. Only when he’d finished did he add it all up. He’d earned six euros an hour.

Away from the hustle and bustle of Switzerland, he slipped easily into this simpler life where ‘taking time’ means exactly that.

He learned his trade all over again, made new tools as well as machines, fashioned components, galvanised them, decorated them – everything. “I’d always thought of myself as a watchmaker but I wasn’t making watches, I was just assembling them.”

His own watch?

People often ask why he doesn’t make his own watch. After all, his Star Wheel mechanism earned him the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2015. But what would be the point? “Working for others has got me to where I am today. I’ve taken on challenges and learned a huge amount simply through trial and error. I’ve said yes to things without even knowing whether it was possible or not, and not once have I thrown in the towel. But I have stopped making prototypes, despite having thirty customers. In return, I’ve promised to train them. To share what I’ve learned. It’s the best thing anyone can do.”

Students and small groups of watchmakers pass through the workshop in Lozère, not to discover his secrets but to share his knowledge. Because Luc Monnet keeps nothing to himself. He’s even published as open source the blueprints for a calibre he developed and made with Cyril Brivet-Naudot during a three-year collaboration. This isn’t about transferring knowledge in a vertical process; this is about sharing, a horizontal exchange.

Stopping… and restarting

As of January 1st 2023, Luc Monnet has stopped making prototypes. As of next year, and despite this being a profitable part of his business, he will no longer sell the machines he designs and makes by hand: hammerpieces (a machine he invented for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France Star Wheel project); dividers for Schaublin lathes (his favourite tool) with 6,600 holes for cutting multiple types of cog; high-precision gear-cutters with built-in motors; a burnisher for movement pivots. He sells them all over the world.

“There’s definitely a market but I’ve decided that as of 2024, I want to focus entirely on my own projects. Do my own things. I have plenty of ideas. Kind of a fresh start, working from scratch. I can do this partly because I’m in Lozère. You don’t need much to live on, here.” He grins as he remembers something Kari Voutilainen once told him: “Staying small is the hard part.”

For dinner that evening, we stroll over to La Maison du Pêcheur, a delightful “table d’hôte” on the river Colagne. The host is a fly fishing guide who trains other guides and fishes as far away as Patagonia. He’ll strike a trout but never kill it. Instead, he puts it back in the water unharmed and lets it swim away. In his own way, Luc Monnet is releasing his own fish back into the river, where they can swim off in new directions.

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