t’s a common enough story: a young boy or girl is fascinated by the tiny mechanical toys that adults wear on their wrists. They spend hours hanging out with a watchmaker parent or grandparent, just tall enough to see the ticking treasures laid out on the workbench. Except, in Julien Tixier’s case, there was no family tradition, no passing of the torch.
Instead, he found his vocation – the only word for it – at the dinner table. One of the guests wore a watch (a Jaeger-LeCoultre, if memory serves) with a transparent back, and seven-year-old Julien was mesmerised by the tiny gears and beating heart of this magical machine. From that moment on, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: a watchmaker.
Born in 1993, he spent a happy, carefree childhood in southwest France, in the Bassin d’Arcachon on the Atlantic coast. His primary school classroom looked directly onto the beach. It was an idyllic life for any child, but it came abruptly to an end in his pre-teen years, when he was shuffled back and forth between Poitiers and Bordeaux. His schoolwork suffered. From being an above-average student, his grades hit rock bottom and he had to repeat a year. He was hopeless at maths, unable to get his mind around its abstract nature, although he excelled in the real-world implications of physics. Understanding matter, seeing how it could be shaped, that was what interested him. Every afternoon after class, he would rush home to work on the jewellery he’d started making from metal and stone. His father bought him a smart new desk to do his homework on, and was dismayed when he discovered Julien had taken a saw to it, cutting out a half-moon shape so he could use it as a workbench. The pocket money he’d saved went on his first tools.
His interest grew when, as part of the school curriculum, he was required to go on a work experience placement, which he chose to do at a jeweller’s. “I met this amazing man. I learned hundreds of things during that week and left feeling even more determined.”
Aged fifteen, he changed high schools and enrolled at a technical college in Bordeaux that ran a watchmaking course. At last he was in his element and it showed: from a dismal 3/20 average, he was soon turning in a near perfect 19/20.
- Julien Tixier (Photo: Guillaume Perret)
A thousand pieces
He loved everything about his new school: the atmosphere was great, he got on well with his classmates and he had a fantastic teacher, Jean-Jacques Soufflet [he specifically asks that we name him]. At the end of the first two years, he passed his certificate in watch and clock servicing and repair. Two years later he completed his Brevet des Métiers d’Art, a more advanced course that included small complications, up to the chronograph “but no further” he insists. He also learned to make various components.
The school was underfunded, and had no milling or CNC machines. So Julien he went out and bought the tools he would need for the final assignment that every student had to complete. The instructions were to add a small complication to a round “pendule de Paris” clock movement, but Julien Tixier, together with two or three others, asked if they could choose their own complication. Permission was granted and he set to work “doing his own thing.” He decided on a perpetual calendar – hardly the easiest option. Over the next two years he spent exactly 3,087 hours on his clock, becoming chronically insomniac in the process, “which was a big help and also taught me about time management.” He ploughed his entire savings into the project, a large proportion of which went on a lathe, and because his design included glass, taught himself glassworking techniques.
The finished clock was selected for a competition organised by the Institut National des Métiers d’Art. It was sent by post to Paris, arriving “smashed to smithereens”. He had “neither the time nor the will” to start over, but he still has great memories of the event, which is open to all types of crafts and trades. “It’s more than a competition. It’s an opportunity to discover different practices, to share what you do and learn from others.”
A two-way street
Julien Tixier has never underestimated the importance of passing down knowledge, nor the value of learning as a two-way process. He still remembers the names of the teachers who guided him on his journey, and of his classmates, including those he met at the watchmaking school in Morteau where he completed his education. In 2015, aged 22, he graduated with honours as a fully qualified watchmaker and with a watch entirely of his own making, featuring two retrograde 30-second indications and, the only obligatory element, a visible balance wheel.
“I was a fully qualified watchmaker on paper but still had a long way to go,” he says with a smile. Now it was a matter of gaining experience. Fresh out of school, he “moonlighted” (his expression) with Sébastien Rousseau who was working on the Hippologia automaton clock for Parmigiani Fleurier; a remarkable one-off piece that combines design with horology, automata and glass art. He remembers these months as “the most formative ever.”
Then he took the plunge and sent not three conventional CVs but three personal letters of intent to three watchmakers. One, Laurent Ferrier, replied that he was currently looking for a watchmaker and that his letter couldn’t have come at a better time. He was given a tryout on December 18th and on January 5th – his 23rd birthday – he had a new job.
Something else entirely
“You leave school thinking you’re a watchmaker, then you realise that watchmaking is something else entirely.” At Laurent Ferrier he was assigned to movement decoration, which he says gave him “greater insight into the various components.”
It was quite a shock to his system: expectations were such that by the end of the first month, he’d already worked 44 hours overtime. “I was decorating components day in, day out for six months, after which I set about assembling the parts I’d decorated into a movement.” This was his first experience of silicon, specifically a Breguet natural escapement with a silicon lever (he admits outright to “hating that technology”). Little by little he began working on the different types of movement – micro-rotor, dual time, tourbillon – that every watchmaker had to make from A to Z, and gained additional experience building prototypes using in-house movements as a base.
In 2018 a friend called. Was he interested in joining “a bonkers project” to build an astronomical watch? Julien Tixier quit Laurent Ferrier for a tiny workshop which he shared with three other watchmakers and “machines everywhere.” It was another culture shock. “I left Laurent Ferrier feeling confident, but this particular project set the bar even higher. I learned more in six months than in the previous nine years, and realised I really didn’t know much at all! The watch had to be ready for Basel so we were working round-the-clock, 17 hours a day. It was incredibly intense. At the end of it all, I went to bed and slept for two weeks straight.”
Welcome to the Vallée de Joux
When he did wake up, Julien Tixier headed for the Vallée de Joux where he’d found somewhere for “all my crap” (as he calls the machines and tools in his mini manufacture), built a couple of workbenches and opened for business.
His first jobs were prototypes for third parties and he soon had a steady stream of orders coming in. One well-known brand (common courtesy prevents us from naming names) sent a delegation which, appalled by how much he had crammed into every available space, insisted he change this, move that, get rid of that machine… until Julien Tixier lost patience and manhandled them out of the door. You don’t mess with an independent watchmaker (who intends to stay that way) and get away with it!
He thrived in the Vallée. Philippe Dufour was around the corner, working out of an old schoolhouse which he had transformed into a sanctuary for the finest artisanal horology. The elder statesman of independent watchmaking met the young Julien. The two struck up a conversation. Philippe Dufour offered him advice, even gave him some tools – again, the benefit of experience and expertise shared.
Julien also made the acquaintance of Dominique Renaud: a decisive encounter which, starting from a blank page in April 2020, culminated in an extraordinary 100-year perpetual calendar, Tempus Fugit, with unique specifications, that is programmed for 10,000 years. With the exception of a single micro-disc, Julien Tixier made every part in his workshop [you can read about it in greater detail here].
- The Tempus Fugit 100-year perpetual calendar
Man with a plan
While continuing to work on developments and prototypes for third parties, Julien Tixier’s next objective is to produce his own movement. Two years ago, a collector told him, “As soon as you decide to make your own watch, put me down for one!” When he showed him the drawings for the movement he already had in mind, the same collector replied, “I’ll take three.” He now has 22 orders.
He wants this to be a shared endeavour. “Today’s collectors aren’t interested in simply buying a finished watch. They want to be personally involved with the project as it unfolds.” It’s the kind of collaboration only independents can offer, unlike the large hierarchical structures.
Julien Tixier has drafted a three-stage plan for the next five years, which is the time he estimates he will need to produce the 22 watches (although he isn’t giving a definite delivery date). The first stage is a discussion with the collector about their tastes, the materials they prefer, their mood, how they picture their future watch. Again, it’s a two-way process.
The second step is to sit down at the workbench and make the watch, or rather “their watch”, his and that of the collector who desired and ordered it. Exchanges between the two continue throughout this phase, with the collector following every stage in production. The third and final phase is delivery. In person, of course.
Julien Tixier showed us the drawings for his movement – a beautiful and elegant three-hander – together with examples of the finishes and materials he has in mind. A skeletonised version of weblike intricacy has a completely different effect from, say, a version with a mineral dial. They are two distinct, entirely personal watches.
Like other young independents, Julien Tixier has accumulated experience, learned from others, and been open to encounters. “You progress more quickly that way,” he remarks, although he’s in no rush. He has all the time in the world.