A small manufacture gives me more freedom
A prominent watchmaker, a guru of independence and the keeper of horological legacy – François-Paul Journe’s place among the industry greats is undeniable. His timepieces are pure class and his thoughts always worth checking out. This time he talks modern technology, the goal behind his inventions, and the devaluation of the Swiss Made mark.
In 2016 the watch market was shrinking. We’d bet it haven’t affected you much, but does it still concern you? Can you name the main negative factors?
During the current economic 2016 crisis situation, the surplus of production in industrial watchmaking has been putting pressure on prices. Major brands were heavily discounting their watches, and still are, resulting in strongly unhappy clients who have watches which have lost half of their value. Last year, F.P.Journe produced 862 haute horology watches with extensive craftsmanship, genuine and innovative creativity. Our watch brand maintained its strength and the price of its authentic creations to their real value, without any discount given in our boutiques. In protecting its brand and its legitimacy, as well as the value of its client’s watches, F.P.Journe has managed to go through the crisis without damage.
What are the biggest challenges the independent watchmakers are facing now?
The only way for independents to exist in an ultra-competitive environment is to be different. Aesthetics alone is not sufficient anymore and must be skillfully dosed with technical innovation. We always try to go further in order to advance this ancestral science, a fact that industrial horology is not taking into consideration. For them, the main goal is to make money and for that reason, strategies and positioning change nearly every five years. We also have to sell to make money, but also to continue innovating, modestly pushing forward the serious history of horology.
How strong was the impact of technology on your everyday work and how has it changed during the last 20 years?
I was first producing unique watches with complications for collectors in my own Saint-Germain-des-Prés atelier in Paris, two pieces per year, entirely made by hand. Then I started to get requests from prestigious watch companies in Switzerland to develop movements with complication. The process remained identical but the production mode changed with suppliers. That’s why when I built the manufacture F.P.Journe, my goal was to remain completely independent in order to depend on no one. Today, the modernity of machines and instruments is essential to reach the expected level of perfection, but it is also paramount to maintain traditions of the craft, since many operations are still done manually, with an infinite precision. Only a very few manufacture can offer timepieces made non industrially, and this a main added value.
What were the core decisions navigating your career?
At the beginning, I didn’t know how to make a watch. I have managed and that is what has guided my career. At some point I decided to control the production and do everything internally, up to distribution network.
You’re a legend of independent watchmaking. But is there something about the big watch brands that still makes you envy?
I am a watchmaker and a constructor. A small manufacture gives me more freedom in the creation process. It is more manageable and flexible than the large industrial factories.
Your timepieces are instantly recognizable by anyone seriously interested in horology. How would you describe the DNA of J.P.Journe watches yourself?
Our DNA is authenticity, innovation, rarity, excellence and independence. We are totally independent manufacture located in the center of Geneva. We produce some 900 innovative mechanical watches per year following haute horology tradition. They are engraved with our label in Latin “Invenit et Fecit” (he invented it and made it) on the dial emphasizing the fact that all our calibers are entirely invented and made in our Geneva workshop. Keeping the know-how is also essential as a large number of operations are still done by hand with gestures of an infinite precision.
Let’s suppose you assemble a new timepiece for the first time and it doesn’t work. Would it be a major stress or just a routine?
I have never assembled a watch that was functioning the first time. It is perfectly normal as it is a brand new creation and it always requires some tuning. Therefore, I’ll stay calm, it is my ordinary work.
When designing a timepiece do you consider some creative ideas from your team or are you doing it solely?
I am the only person in charge of developments. An idea or the way to complete some technical detail can come to mind during a discussion with someone, but the main purpose always comes from me.
How often do you see something really groundbreaking on watch exhibitions?
Very rarely. For me the groundbreaking timepieces are not those being made today.
You’ve done a lot of restoration work. What do you love the most about old watches?
When we are talking watches dating the 17th or the end of the 18th century it’s important to remember – technology has nothing to do with it. Yes, they usually indicate only hours, minutes and seconds, but this masterpieces are still functioning today if they have been properly cared for.
As a French-born watchmaker what do you think of the magical words “Swiss Made”? Does it really mean the best in the world?
The appellation Swiss Made is now absolutely ridiculous. In order to write Swiss Made on your watches, 60% of the movement has to be assembled in Switzerland. Imagine, someone purchasing a movement in China and only doing 60% of the assembly has the right to call it Swiss Made! That’s why our label “Invenit et Fecit” certifying that the whole of our movement is invented, made and assembled entirely in Geneva is so important.
You’ve produced the first durable repeater in the world, the escapement that doesn’t need any lubrication, and many other fascinating mechanical inventions. What was the inspiration behind them?
My goal is to produce watches that really brings something to the history of horology and raise the bar higher. For instance, the goal of Répétition Souveraine was to make an ultra slim minute repeater. I had to completely reinvent the mechanism in order to enable strong crystal clear tones to emanate from an impossibly svelte movement of 4.00 mm. For the Sonnerie Souveraine, the idea was to create of the first grand strike clock watch that could not be damaged by its user. Chronomètre à Résonance featured 2 balance springs beating in opposition under the resonance phenomenon, and so on.
Unlike the majority of brands, your movements are almost entirely made of gold. Can you tell us the story behind it?
We are actually the only brand producing its movements in 18K rose gold. If I was able to do it earlier, I would have produced them in gold all the way, but I didn’t have financial base at the time. I had to make some money first to buy enough gold. Producing exclusively beautifully decorated haute horology movement, I wanted them to be even more precious.
What are your thoughts of the global transformations around the world? All this technologies, economical turmoil, tons of bad news on TV and internet, etc?
The creativity and challenging innovation brought to our mechanical watches produced in small series is our most powerful weapon to exist and perpetuate the state of the art of haute horology. In hard times, authenticity and exclusivity make the difference, and our 900 clients per year are not mistaken.