hile it may be hard to imagine today, 200 years ago the rugged, rustic landscapes of Val-de-Travers were home to legions of watchmakers and craftspeople producing infinitely precious timepieces, the majority of which would travel thousands of miles to imperial China. Foremost among them, watches by Bovet were so revered in the Celestial Empire that even now, a particularly refined watch is apparently still referred to as a bo wei: the homophonic translation of this watchmaking dynasty’s name.
These pocket watches were equipped with precision movements that were crafted with such care, and so beautifully engraved, that Bovet became the first manufacturer to fit its cases with glass panes through which to admire them. The cases were works of art themselves, being richly decorated with enamelled – miniature painted, cloisonné, flinqué or champlevé – and engraved designs, often set with seed pearls around the rim.
“Restore the brand’s lustre”
From his hilltop Château de Môtiers, a short distance from Fleurier, with its sweeping views across Val-de-Travers, Pascal Raffy, owner of Bovet since 2001, looks back at how far the brand has come. After years of flourishing trade, Bovet Frères faced a declining Chinese market. The brand survived as best it could into the early years of the twentieth century, passing through a cascade of hands until 1948 when it came into the possession of Favre-Leuba, who in 1966 sold it to “a group of watchmakers”. The Bovet brand was purchased in 1989 by Parmigiani Fleurier, then sold a year later to Roger Guye and the late lamented Thierry Oulevay, before being finally, and fully, taken over by Pascal Raffy.
- Bovet hand-engraved movement - Flower Bouquet on blue ground pocket watch - around 1870.
Immediately, his idea was to build an integrated and independent manufacture around the brand. “Heaven knows it’s been a long journey,” he says with a sigh but also a smile. “But with 22 years’ hindsight, I can honestly say I have no regrets. I’m happy to have restored the lustre which the Bovet name had lost during its peregrinations.”
Bovet’s manufacturing adventure began in earnest in 2006 with a phone call from the Canton of Neuchâtel, which had a “château for sale” – an imposing medieval stone castle above the village of Môtiers in Val-de-Travers, just a few miles from Fleurier. Pascal Raffy’s reply was short and to the point – “I need manufacturing facilities, not a castle” – but when he learned it had once belonged to the Bovet family, who had gifted it to the State of Neuchâtel, and having seen it for himself, an agreement was reached with the Neuchâtel authorities. Following three years of renovation, carried out “entirely by local artisans”, the château became Bovet’s headquarters: a place for hospitality, a symbol, and also home to the brand’s commercial offices, museum and the workspaces where the final assembly of Bovet timepieces takes place, as well as after sales service.
The creation of a manufacture
The castle’s location could not be more perfect, situated a couple of dozen miles from Bovet 1822 Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie Artisanale: a manufacturer of complication movements, specialising in tourbillons, which Pascal Raffy bought from STT Group in 2006.
“I’m not sure it’s for you,” said the boss at that time. “We make tourbillons industrially.” Pascal Raffy said he would like to take a look anyway. “We held a meeting with the staff. Seventy-two people came. I could see the anxiety on their faces. One of them, Max Krug, came up to me and said ‘I know Bovet and I know you like beautiful watches.’ That was the beginning of a long conversation that would make up my mind. The greatest asset of any company is the passion of the people you work with.”
Again, it would take three years to “get everything up to scratch.” Components were reviewed one by one to bring them to the standard of quality that Bovet had in its sights. Nor was this the end of Pascal Raffy’s quest to establish a manufacture with, he insists, a “rare level of integration for an independent brand.” He went on to buy dial-maker and gem-setter Valor, Lopez & Villa, which he renamed Dimier 1738 Manufacture Artisanale de Cadrans et de Sertissage, then, “the last brick in the wall”, took a stake in high-end case manufacturer Queloz (which belongs to Cendres+Métaux).
Through these buyouts and this equity acquisition, Bovet has complete command of its production chain, cost control and delivery, and can guarantee that standards of excellence are met throughout.
“We do everything ourselves. We make all our movement parts, balance springs and regulating organs included, as well as cases and dials. We do all the assembly and casing, plus the movement and case decoration. Upstream, we take care of development, concept, construction and design.” A staff of 100 produce in the region of 1,200 watches annually.
“Bovet’s uniqueness is manifested in a number of ways, in particular stylistically. Our timepieces are highly recognisable. They have an identity that is very much their own,” Pascal Raffy notes. “In a world dominated by technology, when every other year sees the advent of ‘the next big thing’, a brand must preserve its identity and take the same approach it always has. Fashions come and go. Tradition remains.”
So what makes a Bovet so instantly recognisable?
The answer no doubt lies with the brand’s insistence that its watches deliver a high standard of chronometry, reliability, energy efficiency and simplicity of use, and that they should also offer a wealth of exquisite, hand-executed decoration: a rarely encountered combination. Bovet 1822 timepieces are at the cutting edge of contemporary mechanisms while sinking their roots in the most classic watchmaking, borrowing the same skills and expertise that were already in use centuries ago.
The Virtuoso XI, presented this spring in Geneva, is a perfect illustration of this dual temperament, both artistic and technical. Surprisingly for a brand that has constantly striven to reveal all or part of its movements, including the most complicated, this is Bovet’s first skeleton. In this instance, however, the objective was to create a movement that would not only be fully skeletonised; it must also be engraved across its entire surface, front and back.
As far as the mechanics are concerned, the movement in the Virtuoso XI features Bovet’s patented double-sided flying tourbillon. The balance wheel oscillatesat 18,000 vibrations/hour for ten days or 240 hours, running off the power supplied by a single barrel which, for the wearer’s comfort, is rapidly wound by a spherical differential winding system, notable for the three-dimensional teeth of one of its pinions and protected by two patents.
Artistically, the movement was designed to be openworked. Its construction was re-engineered and refined with the specific intention that it should be entirely skeletonised as well as decorated on both sides. Executed freehand in the engraving and finishing workshop in the Tramelan manufacture – where nine decoration specialists are employed, including three engravers – the engraved motifs extend to every last detail, down to the minute train bridge, and continue onto the case with its beautiful “writing slope” design.
This Fleurisanne pattern is one that Bovet has used for many decades and is borrowed from the leaf design on ancient Greek columns. Only the barrel is decorated by laser; this is because the pressure applied by hand-engraving could deform the thin metal of the barrel cover. It takes more than 60 hours just to engrave the movement and the case, hence a rate of production that cannot exceed one, at most two watches per month.
Showing a very different side to Bovet 1822 – without straying from its all-important identity – is the brand’s collaboration with the famed Italian car (among other things) design studio, Pininfarina.
Six watches have come out of this partnership so far, each a perfect fusion of design, movement construction and decoration. They are the Sergio, the Cambiano, the Ottanta, the Ottantadue, the Ottantatre, and the Ottantasei.The latest, the Battista, is a collaboration between Automobili Pininfarina (Pininfarina’s sister company) and Bovet.
- The OttantaSei
The OttantaSei has a round case framed by a narrow bezel for a contemporary feel, with transparent sides so that light can enter. A bold, bow-style attachment protects the large crown at 12 o’clock. Baroque engravings are replaced by a high-sheen polish but the form is characteristically Bovet, inspired by the brand’s origins as a manufacturer of pocket watches.
Engraving there is, nonetheless, again interpreted with a modern edge. We were told that the three-dimensional decoration on the plate was, along with the machining, “one of the biggest challenges taken up by Bovet’s artisans.”
Case and movement were considered as a single entity and developed as such. Layout gives the same importance to the three main “units” of a watch movement: power (with the 10-day power reserve indicator), the time display and regulation (the double-sided flying tourbillon). This emphasis on balance and symmetry underpins the entire movement architecture. The bridges are merely outlined, so as to underscore the mechanical aspect of this watch’s “engine” and at the same time achieve visual and structural lightness while implying the strength and energy of a hypercar.
A rich and coherent palette
Bovet – now (almost) fully independent in terms of development and production – has released a rich and coherent palette of watches over the past two to three years: more than we can fit into these pages. Special mention must go to the highly complex Recital 20 Asterium, a one-off piece at the pinnacle of Bovet’s collection of astronomical complications (which we will cover in detail in our March 2024 issue on The Mysteries of Time) and to the Recital 27 with its triple time-zone display. Both have been nominated for the 2023 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG), alongside the Virtuoso XI.
While some three-quarters of Bovet watches are for men, the brand also knows how to create extraordinary timepieces for women. The Miss Audrey is one. It can be worn on the wrist, as a pendant hung from a galvanised silver necklace alongside jade beads and tahitian pearls, or set on a bedside table: a versatility made possible by the patented Amadeo system. It was a worthy winner of the Ladies’ Watch prize at the 2020 GPHG.
If, two centuries later, Edouard Bovet were to return from the Chinese Imperial Court, how might he feel to see that the Château de Môtiers still bears the family name? And what would he make of the timepieces created there? In all probability he would be surprised, but also proud that the spirit which took root there 200 years ago not only remains intact, but is more alive and inspiring than ever.