n independent spirit is taking hold of mechanical watchmaking. Trained at the finest schools, these young graduates are headhunted by the leading manufacturers but prefer to march to the beat of their own drum, valuing freedom and creativity above all. Independent though they may be, they aren’t cut off from the world but instead form a community of peers with a culture of mutual and disinterested support. The timepieces they create appeal to a clientele left cold by the industrialisation of high-end watchmaking.
This “new wave” of creators, as Pierre Maillard fittingly describes them in the pages of Europa Star, are forging a strong identity and following in the footsteps of their predecessors and heroes: the likes of George Daniels, Philippe Dufour, François-Paul Journe and Kari Voutilainen, whom they consider legends in the history of watchmaking. We met one of them, John-Mikaël Flaux, a member of the prestigious Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) and this year’s mentor for watchmaking students preparing for the DnMADE diploma in arts and design skills at the Lycée Edgar Faure in Morteau..
- John-Mikaël Flaux
Europa Star: How would you describe what you do?
John-Mikaël Flaux: I’m an independent watchmaker-creator, exploring art mechanics through forms other than the traditional watch. The objects I make, many of which are automata, are intended for display on a desk and don’t necessarily include an indication of the time or a complication.
What are the mechanical objects you’ve made so far?
In 2013 I finished my first automaton, a wasp, then in 2016 I completed the Super-Catamaran boat clock for Ulysse Nardin. My first projects after setting up on my own in 2018 were two car clock automata, each in a limited edition of ten. The first one was the Car Clock, inspired by the Bugatti T35, which sold out in next to no time, followed by the Time Fury P18. I’ve also created three automata that don’t give the time: one is The Duel, which I kept for myself, and the other two are rearing horses. This year I’m working on three bees, which I showed at the AHCI fair in Geneva, plus a series of ten watches, “Homage to Al-Jazari”, in honour of the twelfth-century engineer. A friend and I researched the history of this inventor and his extraordinary clepsydra clock, which I’ve reproduced in wristwatch form.
How would you describe your creations in comparison with other people’s?
I’d say my work is unusual because I introduce themes from outside watchmaking, as you can see from my latest Bee automaton. I enjoy giving a practical function to what would otherwise be simply part of the design, such as using the Bee’s stinger to indicate the hours. Another example would be the Time Fury P18 car clock which is wound through the exhaust pipe.
Do you always use the same movement, and if so what are the main specifications?
I never use the same calibre. Each creation starts from a blank page. There are virtually no standard components, just a few tried and tested recipes that I apply to different projects. Having said that, there are some common denominators: an 8- to 10-day power reserve, a Swiss lever escapement, a screwed balance at 18,000 vph and a centrifugal governor with a worm drive for the automata. For the finishing, I like to have a balance between polished and matte, chamfered and brushed, circular-graining and charbonnage.
- For this model, John-Mikaël Flaux took inspiration from the work of al-Jazari, the great Arab scholar to whom Leonardo Da Vinci has been compared.
Do you prefer automata to watches?
My job is to use the mechanisms of watchmaking without limiting myself to the format of a watch, such as the Bee automaton which shows the time as it rotates on a base. It’s a table clock as well as an automaton with a mechanism the size of a watch. I don’t want to tie myself down to a given format. I’d rather invent a “new” world instead. Creativity decides.
Where do you see yourself in the future? What about hiring other watchmakers?
I definitely don’t want to commit to a certain volume of production or a catalogue. I could, and I would probably earn more that way, but it would mean becoming the boss of a company. My workshop is a laboratory where I imagine, design and produce by hand series of between three and a maximum of ten pieces. This eclecticism is precisely what motivates me.
- The design of the Time Fury P18 was inspired by 1950s racing cars.
So can you describe your workshop?
It’s exactly 80 square metres [laughs]. There’s an enormous drawing board that measures 1.5 metres by 1 metre, a couple of computers, a 3D printer and workbenches with all the requisite tools. I also have two lathes, an Aciera F12 milling machine and two CNC machines that were built by friends! There’s a grinder and an unusual CNC lathe, designed by an engineer in his spare time. I also work with an automatic gear cutter that dates all the way back to 1925, plus a sensitive drill press and a pivot polisher from the 1950s. I use a lot of old machines that I’ve restored back to working order. For finishing, I have a polisher and a micro-sander. All the rest is done by hand, the traditional way.