Introducing a man as well known in the watch community as François-Paul Journe, of his eponymous brand F.P. Journe, seems rather ludicrous. In brief, Monsieur Journe is in some respects the torchbearer to the legacy of Abraham-Louis Breguet, widely deemed one of the finest watchmakers to grace the Earth. The complications and general approach of the two master-watchmakers shares a great likeness. We decided to drop into François-Paul’s atelier in Geneva, to talk childhood, the resonance complication and his split-seconds chronograph entry to OnlyWatch 2017.
It’s often written about that you were unruly as a student, to what degree is this accurate?
Yes, it’s true that I was a little undisciplined at school. Let’s just say that I wasn’t the best student, and I was more likely to be sitting at the back of the class by the radiator.
[At this point, an espresso arrives for Mr. Journe in an F.P. Journe branded vodka shot glass, about which he exclaims “we had these made a few years ago, I like to drink my coffee from them because it cools the coffee down in one go”]
What was your first experience of horology?
I think it would have been when I was around four years old, I had been given a pocket watch to examine, although I have no idea where it came from or how it made its way into my hands. But I remember the watch like it was yesterday.
What was it that impressed you so much about this watch?
I don’t know, maybe it was as simple as having something in my hands from a couple of hundred years ago that still operated. There was just something special about holding it, there’s something very powerful about a watch. To have a watch is very important for a child at the age of four years. [laughs]
So, what then prompted you to study as a watchmaker?
I didn’t decide to become a watchmaker, I was forced into it. And I mean, I was physically forced into the profession. I had no idea what watchmaking as a profession even entailed. At school I would break things and take them apart, and to a small degree I had worked on watches in science class, but I never had the desire to become a watchmaker. It was just circumstance, my uncle was a very proficient watchmaker, working on high-complications. Although I didn’t intend on entering the industry, as soon as I did, it was great.
While studying, do you remember the first moment that you assembled a movement, and what impression that left with you?
I think it was in my third year of the Horological School of Paris. Year one, we learned how to make tools, year two, you start to produce simple parts like balance wheels and stems, nothing really about the full process of production or assembly. All of the students there would work in very cautious ways, separating all the parts into groups to make reassembly more logical, however, I would just throw everything into one box. I decided this was a better way to truly learn about the parts, and it worked. I would have to figure things out from chaos, and I think this lead to a deeper understanding of how the movement worked. This skill became far more important for when I worked with my uncle, years later, as I was working on antique pieces, all of which were different, so there was no standard procedure. All the screws were different lengths, the layouts were all different, so you had to remember exactly where everything came from. Even with Patek Philippe Grand Complications, I would throw everything into the one box and figure it out. It may have taken me a little longer to reassemble, but I learned far more. I understood each watch I was working on. These days, watchmakers just take pictures on their phones, which I find very funny.
Times are-a-changing. So what was the next step out of watchmaking school?
Immediately after graduation, I worked with my uncle. Working on these old pieces gave me a real physical sense of the history of the craft. I found it fascinating understanding why different watchmakers took different approaches over the years. I then focussed on the second half of the 18th Century, because it was far more developed with certain standards in place. The watches were more efficient, with a lot of cerebral challenges leading to moments of genius. I remember the first time I saw a marine chronometer, not even a particularly important one, but the quality of the solution and finishing was something I found very impressive.
Were these privately owned marine chronometers, or Navy owned?
No, they were all privately owned, although, at the time, some of the ships were still required to carry them. This was during the conversion to the digital age, which was rapidly transforming a lot of things. They were beginning to have GPS as the new standard.
When did you decide you wanted to start an eponymous brand?
Well, I always had my own brand. Even my very first watch was signed with my own name around 35 or 36 years ago; obviously also everything subsequently. The first time I made a wrist-watch was in 1991, and this was when collectors began to become aware of me, though, only on a very limited basis. It wasn’t until 1995 that the interest was really beginning to develop. I had collectors in Paris wanting to buy my watches, so it was more that there was a demand rather than my own will, to develop this. Although, obviously without the desire, it wouldn’t have happened. It was for the fact that both these things happened in tandem, that it came to be. When I showed my first watch in Basel in 1991, collectors scratched their heads, fast forward eight years, and everyone wanted one.
What did being an independent brand mean to you at the time of inception?
I don’t know, it depends what path you take. Independence is the freedom to make choices. For instance, Rolex is an independent brand, but they make different kinds of choices to a brand like us, even 40 odd years ago. Independence to me is the freedom to make choices that are unrelated to money. Independence is not being tied to shareholders who are constantly looking for a financial return.
"Jean-Claude Sabrier has always said that Breguet was the first industrial designer..."
You often cite independent watchmakers like Breguet, Janvier and Daniels, what is it about their approach that you find so fascinating?
Well, the first thing you notice when you look at a watch by Breguet or Janvier is the aesthetics. Back in this time, most aspects of design were outsourced to third parties, leaving the watchmaker to only be concerned with the movement. Each process was an artistic craft, case-making, enamelling, finishing, so what you would see is basically the same aesthetic from one watch to the next, using somewhat ‘standard’ parts. The work of Breguet or Janvier is immediately recognisable, from the finishing to the cases. Even if they used the same third parties, they would request such specifics in the austere beauty of the design, no nonsense. Jean-Claude Sabrier has always said that Breguet was the first industrial designer. When you look at a Breguet watch, there is an intelligence of design.
And what about George Daniels?
With George, he was clearly inspired by the work of Breguet, so there is a similarity in what I appreciate about him. What I like about George’s approach is that when most watchmakers were shying away from complicated and decorated pieces during the quartz crisis, he was more focussed than ever. He was the kind of man who would approach anything technical, and just get on with it.
Your process is something that is often spoken about, particularly in the case of the development of the perpetual calendar as you used a high-speed camera to overcome issues, what was the problem there?
There was an issue because it was an instantaneous calendar change, which meant that the speed of the change made it very difficult to make any sense of, with the naked eye. The system was engaging correctly, but the number didn’t appear to move, and I couldn’t understand why. After buying the high speed camera, I was able to look at the issue in much more detail, 16,000th of a second intervals to be precise. The mechanism was engaging, but there was a rebound, sending it back to where it had just come from. The camera allowed me to over-come this.
Another fiddly complication you are interested in, is the resonance complication. What is it about this that enthralled you so much?
This phenomenon was very interesting to me at an early stage, because while I was working with my uncle, I used to take care of the collection at the Museum of Arts and Metiérs, where a Breguet resonance regulator which belonged to King Louis XVIII, was housed. At the time, no one had really researched it in a modern sense, so I set about understanding the logic of the complication. In fact, it was actually me who coined the term resonance for this phenomenon.
Well it’s not reported what it was called back when Janvier and Breguet were working on it. The concept was obviously known, but there wasn’t a general name for it. The way it worked seemed to share a likeness to that of a stringed musical instrument, which resonates. This lead to my coining the term.
And how would you explain the complication to a complete novice?
Well, the complication is very easy for me to explain because I’ve worked hard on understanding it in both complex and simple terms. I looked for the easiest way to explain it. In a watch, never mind which, there is energy which dissipates, when you listen to a watch, the tic tac of the balance is dissipating energy. In a resonance chronometer, there are two balance wheels which are placed sufficiently close to one another, and the dissipated energy of each is caught by the other, leading to a unique type of frequency regulation. According to research, these balances should synchronize in five seconds, any longer and the wheels are operating on a different frequency. Frequency was a big issue with V8 engines, as they emitted a very low frequency, so all the parts started to break.
Much like the early days of suspension bridges, as the constructors didn’t take into account for the natural frequency of the materials. So when the natural frequency of the elements was matched, the material started to wobble and react, ultimately destroying the bridge.
So what do you say to the nay-sayers, who say that air resistance is the reason for the phenomenon?
No. It’s quite the opposite, air is a problem for resonance, and in fact, they perform better in the absence of air. The air serves to slow the movement down, making it irregular. I did a test during the development of the piece, in which I placed a divider between the balances, and it worked.
So who was the first to experiment with this phenomenon?
It’s often said that it was Breguet, although I believe it was Janvier to do it first. Janvier was quite disorganized and didn’t have very much money, so one day, Breguet bought all his belongings and one of these belongings was a resonance pendulum clock. I believe this to be the origin of Breguet’s interest in the complication. He then took it further and created a pocket watch, in which he put rings around the balance wheels, to negate the effects of air. It also serves to deny this fantasy that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. It’s like claiming water to not exist.
Tell us a little about the development of your resonance watch…
Well, in the beginning, I carried the original movement in a case in my pocket and every 50 meters, I would check to see if it was still functioning. Sometimes I had doubts about it, because, for bigger examples of the complication, there is more energy in play, which I thought could be an issue. In actual fact, it just meant that the parameters for the frequency were much much tighter.
How about the development of the early subscription tourbillon?
I had initially sketched this out on a napkin for a friend who wanted one, but it had already been developed as it was the watch I made for myself. Certain collectors in Paris had seen me wearing this piece and wanted to buy one, that’s why. Had I been wearing something else, I’m sure they would have wanted that instead. I began thinking about making a series of twelve pieces after a couple of orders, of which I would only complete four, including my own. The first year, producing number one was ok. Year two on the second, was boring and the final year, for the third watch, I was dreading. They were delivered in 1994 and after that I decided to get organised on the production side. It would have taken me ten years to make them all. After this organisation and automation of certain elements of production, I made twenty pieces available to close friends, which was the subscription tourbillon.
What sort of watches do you collect, if any?
I don’t really have any watches in my personal collection, I’m not a collector per-sé. I like very specific things, so I have a small collection of 18th Century pocket watches, some quite rare things. But what I am really after are some Breguet watches which are in immaculate condition, truly original condition. I have some, but this demand for perfection somewhat limits my purchases. [laughs]
So the announcement of your contribution to OnlyWatch has just been made, and you’ve decided to make a Rattrapante chronograph. What made you choose to make this?
Well, this wasn’t in my plans at all. A friend of mine, a collector, suggested I do it. I asked why, and he said why not. I gave it some thought, and it seemed a good thing to do, as it’s similar to something I’m developing at the moment. It’s different, but not so different; this will be for a new model in time. This piece is very traditional, whereas the movement we are developing will be far more modern.
What else is on the books for the coming ten years?
Well ten years is difficult, but five years I can do. [laughs]
Ok, what’s coming for F.P. Journe in the next five years?
We’re going to be staying put in our current manufacturing facility. Our case and dial makers will remain the same, so no worries there. The investments in boutiques, tooling and machines are all done, though there will be some small upgrading here and there. Production will always be around 1000 pieces per year, as exceeding that means that it can’t be hand made. My work is now becoming less about management, but more about the process of creation. I have been able to free myself of these responsibilities, to focus more on research and design. We are working on a lot of projects simultaneously, which take a long time to develop, some very complicated things are on the way, and a new design for the Resonance, which will use a single barrel and a differential. Things like that, evolutions.
To find out more about the brand, please visit F.P. Journe's website.