November 2022 12 Min Read

An Afternoon With Daniel Roth

By Russell Sheldrake

Daniel Roth is a name that has been gaining more and more attention in the watch market over the last couple of years. In part, this is due to the pieces he produced under his own name in the late 80s and early 90s, but also for the entirely handmade watches he creates under the marque of Jean Daniel Nicolas.

Characterised by the double ellipse case, fine guilloché dials and complicated movement Roth’s watches have always stood out from the crowd. His story is starting to become common knowledge around some circles in the industry, but rarely is it told by the man himself. Having gone from Nice in France to working at Audemars Piguet and then on to single-handedly resurrecting Breguet, his path to where he is today is a long, colourful and fascinating one.

Let’s start from the beginning. You grew up pretty much surrounded by watchmaking, with your father and grandfather in the trade. Did you feel that you were destined to follow them?

From my cradle onwards, I was immersed in the watchmaking atmosphere. Everything at home was about it. I made a trip with my grandfather to La Chaux-de-Fonds where he was from. We visited all the members of the family that were still there, all of them watchmakers too. From that point, my life was all mapped out.

Daniel Roth in his workshop atop his family home in Le Sentier.

And do you remember your first experiences and memories of watchmaking?

When I was a child, I used to go and watch my grandfather work. I didn’t understand much, but Ioved watching him use his tools. I found it very interesting, but I didn’t learn anything back then. That being said, I knew how to take clocks apart just from watching him.

Moving forward in your career to your time at Audemars Piguet, I imagine that must have been an incredibly formative time. Can you tell me about this experience?

While I was there, I was the only watchmaker not from Le Brassus, although there were only about 20 of us at the time. But I learnt a lot in my time there.

How did it affect you, not being from Le Brassus whilst at Audemars Piguet? I imagine at that time it was a company particularly attached to its origins.

I admit that I made myself very small in order to be accepted by them, because they were very, very tight knit. But they adopted me anyway and I learned a lot. I worked with old watchmakers who had extraordinary experience and that really helped me develop. They had an incredible collection of specialist watchmakers there, from whom it was a pleasure to learn. It was a perfect school.

At the bottom of the Valleé de Joux, the historical home of Swiss watchmaking.

What made you want to make the move from this perfect school at Audemars Piguet to join the Chaumet brothers at Breguet?

The brothers gave me an extraordinary job and the chance to relaunch Breguet on my own. It was something I couldn’t pass up. It was still a great brand, but Breguet was not very well known at the time. When people asked me where I worked, I would say Breguet, and they’d say “ah yes, the tourbillon.” It was not well known that the brand was still active.

Before embarking on the journey, I wanted to properly learn about complications which is why I went back to school. I learnt everything I could, especially about the perpetual calendar movements, doing all this work by hand. I made some beautiful watches for Breguet at that time.

So you were working for Breguet while you were at school?

Yes, at that time I made a perpetual calendar pocket watch, entirely by hand. Everything was made of tiny steel plates and finally it came out as a magnificent piece. When I finished it the brothers sold it in five minutes. And that paid for my apprenticeship at watchmaking school.

Alongside making this pocket watch I understand you also spent a lot time studying the works of Abraham Louis Breguet?

Yes, I learnt a lot and got all the books there were on Breguet. His work is endless and I’m still learning a lot.

Still drawing inspiration from Breguet, Roth’s tourbillions are finished using only the most traditional techniques and tools such as the peg wood seen here.

After, you joined Breguet full time and started to revolutionise their high watchmaking in the face of the Quartz Crisis. Do you remember what the reactions were to this move at the time?

Nobody knew about Breguet. I was the one who made them discover it. Breguet was not very well known here in Switzerland, or even in Le Brassus. In Le Brassus, it was Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, but not Breguet. There was almost nothing left for them. In Paris there was only one watchmaker who knew Breguet well and then little by little the brothers wanted to go back into the brand’s history. And they hired me for that. I started alone in a room at the watchmaking school of Breguet and it steadily grew. We hired one or two other watchmakers and now I don’t how many there are, 500, maybe 1,000?

When you look back on your time at Breguet and what you achieved, what is your overall feeling?

Now, I’m really proud of it. It was a challenge for me, something unheard of in the industry, even doing it with a simple watch, we had to reinvent the case with fluting, guilloché dials, and all in the Breguet style. So there was a lot of studying into what they had done and why. But I loved doing that, I really got into it. And then we started to make beautiful Breguet watches. We made bracelet perpetual calendars, minute repeaters and so on. Then we made some very simple, extra flat watches as well. I especially loved making those.

“When I was a child, I used to go and watch my grandfather work. I didn’t understand much, but Ioved watching him use his tools.”

Daniel Roth

Why did you love making those extra flat watches so much?

There is one at Audemars Piguet which is magnificent, very, very beautiful. I think that complicated watches are good, but the extra flat ones in the Breguet style were exceptional. Extra flat is just so elegant.

Where did the idea come from to start your own brand while you were at Breguet? At the time it was incredibly rare to launch a brand like that.

I got on well with the Chaumet brothers, they were exceptional bosses. Then they stopped for their own reasons, and there were problems. They had to sell Breguet to Investcorp who were industrialist, finance people, so that’s when I said to myself I’m going to create my own brand, because that’s all I had left to do.

There is clearly some inspiration from Breguet in your first pieces. Was the idea to take this aesthetic that you like so much, and you’d spent so long studying and add your own touch?

That’s exactly it. It was impregnated with the spirit of Breguet and so afterwards, there was a lot of that style left. I didn’t copy Breguet, but it looks a lot like Breguet all the same.

You started your brand with the tourbillon, this has now seemingly become somewhat of a rite of passage for independent watchmakers. Why did you choose this at that time?

At the time, there were practically no tourbillons in wristwatch form. So, I found it an exciting challenge to create one that was wearable on the wrist. I did well to do this. At the time, we designed a tourbillon for both Breguet and Daniel Roth, because it was less expensive to do it for both brands at the same time. For the Daniel Roth ones, I’d already started working on my unique case shape.

One of just 20 stainless steel tourbillons made by Daniel Roth.

And why precisely did you choose this case shape that was so different?

Just to be different. I didn’t want a round watch like everyone else, I wanted it to be successful. I wanted it to be eye catching. I didn’t want it to look like a round watch or one that you could find anywhere else. It had to be the beginning of a new style. Just as Breguet had his own style, I said to myself that I had to have mine.

From what I understand you developed the tourbillon movement with Lemania while you were still at Breguet. Could you tell me a little more about this relationship you had with Lemania?

There were not many of us when I was at Breguet and so I asked Lemania if they could study the tourbillon wristwatch in their technical office, to which they obviously said yes. Then afterwards we split the production of the calibre, half for Breguet and half for myself, making the project cost half as much.

And you went back to Lemania for your chronograph as well?

Yes, I did. We used the ébauche that Lemania made which was very fine and very well finished for us. Of course, even Patek Philippe used this ébauche.

'Nobody knew about Breguet. I was the one who made them discover it.'

When you started your brand it couldn’t have been easy, what where the most difficult obstacles to overcome at that time?

The most difficult part was finance. I had to have money. The bankers lent me some money at the time, but then they stopped and I had to start all over again on my own when I created Jean Daniel Nicolas. And that’s why I stopped doing Daniel Roth, because I had no more money. The bankers wouldn’t lend to me anymore and so I had to go much smaller, with my own money, with Jean Daniel Nicolas.

At the beginning of your first brand William Asprey was someone you worked with closely, especially those first tourbillons featuring the Asprey signature. Can you tell me a little more about that relationship?

William Asprey first saw my original tourbillon in The Times and after that he contacted me and placed a nice order of about 25 or 26 pieces in total. I was ecstatic and we got on very well after that.

As your brand began to grow and you had to start hiring more watchmakers to produce your watches, did you enjoy the hiring process?

I’ve been living in the Vallée de Joux for a long time and I know many watchmakers and when they found out what I was doing, two or three of the best ones were willing to come and work with me for the pleasure of doing good work. I had fun with them because they were great, complementary and a passionate team and I have only good memories with them.

Having been part of a bigger team that he had built at his previous brand, Roth now works with just his wife and son.

And I know you worked with Philippe Dufour on the development of the instantaneous perpetual calendar. Can you tell me a little about this collaboration?

I would like to talk about it, but you have to understand that, at the time, Dufour was not the mythical watchmaker he is now. He needed some work, so I developed the perpetual calendar with him using the Gerald Genta perpetual calendar as a base movement, which I knew well.

Genta was one of the few independent watchmakers who were active at the same time as you. Was he someone you knew well?

Yes, I was friends with Genta. He was a bit… you had to know how he was! It was fun to be with him. He has his way of talking. “Listen Daniel, you’re the best in my book,” he would say.

There weren’t that many independents working at the time, you two must have been the very first.

There was nobody. I didn’t know any watchmakers who were working independently. I was the first one to go out on my own and do things, to make my own brand. Afterwards, they all followed me. But at the beginning, there was no one following me. There was no one doing what I was doing. Little by little some other watchmakers launched their brands, and there are many now. But at the beginning I was alone. I had to clear the way.

“I developed the perpetual calendar with him using the Gerald Genta perpetual calendar as a base movement, which I knew well.”

Daniel Roth

Are you proud of this? Being the first independent to open this path and show other watchmakers that it was possible?

Let’s say yes, I am proud of it. It may not be the right word, I am quite happy about it and I feel I have contributed a lot. I showed that a watchmaker could achieve his goals and come out of the shadows, as was the case for me and the multitude of independent makers who followed my example. After me, there was Voutilainen, Mille, Speake-Marin, Muller, Dufour, Parmigiani. I’m happy to have emboldened some of these people to start their own brand.

What you do today with Jean Daniel Nicolas is far more traditional than what you were doing with Daniel Roth. What is the idea behind it?

As I told you before, I started it because Daniel Roth was no longer there. But I thought it was fantastic to do this myself. I made the watches myself, from A to Z with my own movement, which was obviously not the case before. The movement that I make now is totally mine. You won’t find them on the market, they don’t exist. I’m proud because I wanted to make a watch that didn’t look like the others, so that no one could say I copied. And that allowed me to make watches with my own mark, with my own way of doing things. I was so happy to work on my own, to make beautiful things, not to be forced by someone else, to this or to do that. I prefer to make my own watches, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t go back.

A recent piece made by Roth under the Jean Daniel Nicolas name, an amalgamation of his, his wife and son's names, that belongs to a collector in California.

And you work with your family too?

Yes. Working with my family is perfection. We’re very close. In fact, I couldn’t work without good harmony and with them that’s the case, we get along really well. I pass all of my knowledge to my son and even to my wife, who takes care of the finishing touches and the decoration. It was a challenge to manage to do all this with them, but really, we have a lot of happiness working together every day. I have no regrets about the past.

How much creative freedom do you get from your clients when they place orders with you?

You know, the customers leave it all to me. They accept the watches as they are. All my pieces are unique because I made them from A to Z by myself and they are already very difficult to make, very beautiful but very difficult to duplicate. Sometimes I will add something in to please the client, but I don't see what I could add or take away, they are too beautiful as they are.

“I prefer to make my own watches, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t go back.”

Daniel Roth

Speaking of your clients, since 2017 you have been working with Claudio Proietti of Maxima Gallery, can you tell me about how this relationship works?

Yeah of course. I like Claudio a lot, he is my agent. And it’s true that we do very good work together. He always says he’s the best salesman in the world, but that’s not the only reason I like him. I like him because he knows watchmaking and above all, he has a taste for beauty, for beautiful things and that’s important to me. I couldn’t work with someone who didn’t understand what I do, the beauty of the work, but he gets that and that’s why I like him.

Are you aware of the massive rise in interest that your early works at Daniel Roth have had recently among the collecting community?

Yes, they’re coming back and I find it amazing. When I was doing them at the time, I wasn’t as successful as I am now, but that’s the way it is. And when I compare those early pieces that I worked on at Daniel Roth – I find them very refined, beautiful – to the pieces that were made once I had left, I don’t feel the same way. But the ones I made, people seem to go crazy for them. I find now that some of those that have the original Daniel Roths are ordering my new JDN pieces.

We’ve been lucky enough to handle one of your JDN pieces in the past and you can tell that the quality really shines through.

Yes, I really don’t do a lot, about two to three a year as I do everything by hand. I do everything with passion, and I don’t count my time. I put all my happiness and joy into making this brand again. And I’m as happy as anything.

From his family home in Nice to Audemars Piguet and on to relaunching Breguet, Roth’s career was impressive before he worked under his own name.

We would like to thank Daniel Roth for taking the time to speak with us, share his stories and open his home and workshop to allow us to document his work. We would also like to thank Claudio Proietti and the team at Maxima Gallery for helping organise this interview for us.