hen you mention the name Jacky Epitaux to professionals who have been in the watchmaking business for a while, the reaction is always the same: their eyes light up and they smile broadly. The watchmaker loves this industry and it loves him back. Everyone knows how fond he is of the Jura canton. There are not many CEOs capable of belting out “La Rauracienne”, the local anthem, from his booth at Watches and Wonders...
His CV speaks volumes. The world of watchmaking is a big part of his life. He began his career in 1981 at Dixi, the microtechnology group that bought the Zenith factory in 1978 and saved it. Jacky Epitaux spent eleven years honing his skills in micro-mechanics and micro-technical solutions, and then stayed with Zenith for four years. In 1999 he became Vice-President of Sales & Marketing at R&R Time Group, which owned the Rodolphe, CAT, Roamer and Bruno Banani brands. When Rodolphe became independent in 2001 he was appointed CEO. In 2006, one year after the brand was merged into the Franck Muller Group, he sold his shares and let himself be carried away by his dream of independence. With his cousin Laurent Frésard, who runs a wealth management company, and industrialist Fabrice Thueler, owner of Swiss Finest, which manufactures high-end watch components in Saignelégier, he created the Rudis Sylva watch brand. The company remains entirely family-owned today. Jacky Epitaux is the CEO, and various subcontractors produce almost all the components of Rudis Sylva timepieces, with the exception of the escapement, the jewels, the barrel spring and the incabloc.
Rudis Sylva is not just another watch brand. Leaving aside the fact that the ten or so pieces it creates each year are almost 100% manufactured, assembled and decorated in the region, it is the originator of a revolutionary movement: the Harmonious Oscillator, a patented invention by watchmaker Mika Rissanen. This system comprises two toothed balance wheels that are connected to each other, placed inside a rotating cage, which instantaneously cancels out the effect of gravity.
How does it work? The single escapement sends an impulse to one balance wheel and its balance spring contracts. Because the wheels are connected by their teeth, the energy is transmitted from the first to the second balance wheel. Because the balance spring of the second balance wheel is mounted inverted, it deploys asymmetrically. When it contracts in turn, it transmits its energy to the first balance wheel, whose balance spring relaxes. The loss of amplitude of one balance wheel is corrected by the impulse of the other and so on. This combination guarantees instantaneous correction of the effects of gravity when the watch is in a vertical position, whereas a tourbillon needs a minute to correct for the earth’s pull. At Watches and Wonders 2023, Jacky Epitaux presented a variation of the Harmonious Oscillator without a rotating cage, as well as a unique model, “Hymne d’Orient”, whose dial was entirely engraved by the talented engraver Olivier Kuhn. It depicts a scene in which a koi carp with its little gold moustache, a lotus flower, the deity of water and a very realistic moon in the centre of the dial share the space. The images are highly symbolic: the koi carp symbolises courage and perseverance.
- “Hymne d’Orient” is a unique piece whose dial has been entirely engraved by the talented engraver Olivier Kuhn. It represents a symbolic scene where a koi carp with a little gold moustache, a lotus flower, the goddess of water, an aventurine sky and a very realistic moon in the centre of the dial share the space.
Europa Star: After working for so many years in the watch industry, why did you decide to create your own brand?
Jacky Epitaux: I wanted to set up my own business and I had the opportunity to sell my Rodolphe shares to the Franck Muller group. My cousin Laurent Frésard, the industrialist Fabrice Thueler [who has since left the company] and I invested in a company that we called Rudis Sylva, with the aim of producing a regional watch.
Why did you choose the name “Rudis Sylva”?
It’s the name of the village where I was born. The settlement appeared around the time the land was being cleared. In the 1400s, people from the plains were invited to move to higher ground. Because the soil was poor and the winters were very long, they were exempted from certain taxes, hence the name “Franches-Montagnes”. A certain Jean Ruedin, who came from Cressier, started to clear land in the region of La Chaux-de-Fonds and built a few houses. He named the place Rudis, from Ruedin, and Sylva, for “the forest”. The village was later called “Les Bois Jean Ruedin”, then Les Bois. The peasants, who didn’t have a lot to do in the winter, built forges in their houses and began to make their own tools: spades, picks, scythes. They learned how to smelt and shape metal. When watchmaking took off in Geneva, the watchmakers put these people to work. The peasants in the mountains put windows in the south-facing walls of their farmhouses, set a board in front of them, in the light, sat down at their benches and started making watches. I chose the name because I was born there, as were my mother and my grandfather. There was a great deal of watchmaking activity in the village. In 1900, for example, there were 600 watchmakers out of a population of 1,450, making 20,000 to 30,000 watches a year! I live in a hamlet called Le Boéchet, which in dialect means “little wood”.
What did you want your brand to bring to the watchmaking world?
I wanted to spotlight all the talent that existed around me. Many people work for all the big brands in the region. They do guillochage, enamelling and engraving, but they’re never mentioned. I went to see the “pope” of guilloché, Georges Brodbeck, a legend, and I asked him to create something superlative and complicated. He created a guilloché pattern of interlocking pyramids. Hardly anyone else knows how to do them except him! I also work with the engraver Sylvain Bettex from the company Glypto. He engraved the small sundial on the case back, a reproduction of the “Ultima Forsan” sun-dial dating from 1750 that adorns the façade of the “Rosées-Dessous” farm, a traditional farmhouse owned by the family. The decoration was enamelled by Sophie Cattin'>Cattin Morales.
How did the revolutionary idea of the Harmonious Oscillator come about?
Unlike many brands, instead of buying a movement and customising it, we designed all its components: the screws, wheels, pins, pinions and bridges. We then machined and assembled them. But when we tested it, it didn’t work the way we wanted it to. That’s when our watchmaker Mika Rissanen came up with an idea: toothing the balance wheels and connecting them, while inverting the springs in the middle. This system automatically cancels out the effect of gravity. Abraham-Louis Breguet created the tourbillon to compensate for the effects of the earth’s attraction when the watch was in a vertical position; our Harmonious Oscillator does the same thing, but instantaneously. It doesn’t need 60 seconds like a classic tourbillon, which is the time it takes for the tourbillon cage to perform its rotation. We found that we didn’t need to put our Harmonious Oscillator in a rotating cage to cancel out the effects of gravity. This year we created models with fixed balance wheels, which enabled us to lower the price from CHF 250,000 to CHF 90,000 for the gold model and CHF 80,000 for the titanium model.
Was there a demand for a more affordable version?
Yes, if we want the brand to be better known we have to offer a watch with a more accessible price, which will also allow us to increase distribution.
How many watches do you produce per year?
About ten. We hope that, with the less expensive models, we will be able to increase production to a hundred pieces within five years.
How do you think the market perceives your brand?
Our credibility has grown. We created the company in 2006; the first invoices were paid in 2006 and we delivered our first watches in 2010. It took us almost five years to make the movement reliable and sell it. And that was a good thing, because we have hardly any servicing to do!