avier Rousset likes to share. He has even written several recipes entitled “the dial-maker’s magic potions”. From them you will learn, for example, that to make a successful “silky sunray brush” decoration on a watch dial, you need to “mix 100 grammes of Turkish oil stone with 100 grammes of cream of tartar and 2dl of liquid Panama wood”. These articles, all about silver graining, sunray brushing, smoothing, polishing, satin-brushing and so on, unveil the industrial secrets of unique watchmaking know-how.
Anecdotal on the face of it, the initiative reveals first and foremost a determination to promote this horological ecosystem, for which Xavier Rousset was doubly predestined. He was born at La Mouillère hospital in Besançon, “at the foot of the SIDHOR building where Fred Lipmann invented the first electric watch”. He is also the grandson of Lucien Bouvier, who in 1957 co-founded the Fraporlux dial factory.
Over time, Xavier Rousset has forged strong friendships with a multitude of suppliers in the Jura Arc. At a time when the deadlines for deliveries of watch supplies were running to months or even years, the entrepreneur leveraged this dense network to launch a crazy project: to develop a new brand of watch with one-of-a-kind art dials.
Xavier Rousset’s aim is to provide a space where the tiny magic hands of watchmaking decoration, talented, independent artisans – engravers, enamellers or marquetry specialists – are able to express themselves. In the hope that a customer base of aesthetes and art lovers will support his venture. We met him.
- Xavier Rousset
Europa Star: How would you define your profession?
Xavier Rousset: I defend the place of the dial in watchmaking. No movement can exist without it, whereas dials – sundials, for example – can exist without a movement. So I define myself as an orchestral conductor who has to get the different, often little-known professions playing the same score: soldering, cold stamping, polishing, smoothing, electroplating, tampography, crimping and so on.
You say you’ve designed a “casket watch to set off the dial”.
Yes. My initiative is a pretext for highlighting the work of the craftsmen and women.
Can you tell us about yourself?
In 1957, my grandfather and M. Perrenoud, an engraver of stamping dies, founded the Fraporlux dial-making company. My father, Michel Rousset, then took over the factory. After scientific studies, I spent 15 years as director of production at our family company in Besançon, then in Porrentruy after we bought out one of our competitors – Asotec. At that time, we were producing 2,000 dials a week for Breitling, our main customer. When our company was taken over by Pierre-Alain Blum, I worked with Carlos Diaz at Roger Dubuis, then at Bulgari. At the age of 42, I took up studies at the SUPMICROTECH-ENSMM school of mechanics and microtechnology before deciding to launch my own brand: XRby.
You could also have called your project “XR & Friends”...
XRby is not just a watch brand, it’s far more than that. It’s a platform that puts the spotlight on the talent of specialists working in traditional crafts, the métiers d’art. I work closely with these artisans, giving them total artistic freedom to create their masterpieces. I have to celebrate their creativity and exceptional know-how.
I look for the artistic fibre in traditional craft specialists. It’s true, I want the public at large to know their names. So the brand has the initials XRby, followed by the artist’s name. I meet them, we spend time together and become real friends. We speak the same language when it comes to dials. The first artist, Rose Saneuil, is a star! Some brands want to work only with her, she’s a rarity in terms of ideas.
How do you recruit new artisans?
In artisans, I look for a frustrated artist. As a dial-maker, I have a an impressive list of contacts. Moreover, being present at trade shows opens up new contacts. At the last Paris arts and crafts trade show at the Louvre, I met an illuminator. I’ve often noticed that artisans are fascinated by dials, which are on a whole new scale for them. The possibilities are endless. In France, it’s 281 different officially recognised crafts in 16 different fields.
You describe yourself as a “Tom Thumb” of watchmaking. How do you manage the multiple industrial constraints when demand is exploding?
I have my own stock of Schwarz-Etienne movements and produce my watches solely to order. My principal investment is my presence at trade shows. I hope to be financially stable within five years. For the moment, I’m having to inject my own cash.
Can you describe your customer base?
Watchmaking “renegades” who already have superb collections of brand-name watches! With us, their pleasure lies in buying something the others don’t have. Most live in Europe, especially Paris, Monaco, London or Geneva. Moreover, I’m thinking of developing into Asia and the US when XRby is recognised by its peers or after winning an international prize. Like for wines displaying medals won in competitions, that kind of distinction reassures customers. So I’m present in the 2023 Ladies category of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
From what point do you involve your customers?
I’m the middleman between the artisan and the customer. The latter is involved in every stage of the production of their watch. Right from the design stage, they can choose one of our watches either as is, or else they select their preferred technique from a sample provided by XRby. They can also visit the artisan’s workshop. I believe in total transparency, to allow XRby’s customers to express themselves in their own watches.
You stand for a brand that is “100% Jura Arc”, with suppliers in Besançon, Morteau, Biel and Chaux-de-Fonds. Did the listing of this watchmaking region by UNESCO influence you?
No. My project predates UNESCO’s decision. The Jura Arc is the cradle of watchmaking, the place where all the innovation is concentrated and where all the components are made. On both sides of the border, passionate professionals share the same values. This region has an incredibly faculty for invention and surprises. Look at the carbon fibre used to build the yacht Alinghi; it came from the heart of the Jura Mountains! My own career has been spent here too, from Besançon to Biel via La Chaux-de-Fonds and Granges. I’m so happy to live and work in these mountains!
The current, euphoric demand is generating longer lead times. Is that putting a brake on the development of the XRby brand?
When you produce a limited number of watches every year, it’s very complicated to take reception of, say, ten pairs of hands. Industrial watchmaking is cyclical: if watch production slows, the suppliers start listening to the independent watchmakers. In my particular case, I was “lucky” enough to launch XRby right in the middle of Covid, which helped us in relation to Schwarz-Etienne, our movement supplier, especially.
Moreover, I’m personally acquainted with several cutting-edge mechanical workshops – and I use their services. I don’t solder the feet of a gold dial, for example. I hollow out an entire gold plate. That costs me more since the plate has to be equal to the total depth of the feet and base. I also work with polishing and electroplating workshops. I know virtually all the production routes (editor’s note: description of the order of operations in a production process) from when I was production director at Fraporlux.
What future can we wish for XRby?