From the Bench: Laurent Ferrier
The Laurent Ferrier brand-name has become known for producing watches of such a high quality, both aesthetically and technically, that they have become commonplace in the minds of collectors and enthusiasts, however, there are many fascinating details of Mr. Ferrier's life that remain some-what unspoken of. We decided to catch up with Laurent at his atelier in Geneva, Switzerland to talk Le Mans, Patek Philippe and his latest releases.
Could you tell us a little about your first memorable interaction with horology?
Well, my father was a watchmaker, working on high complication movements, so I had the opportunity at a very young age to touch and interact with these complicated objects. I was very fortunate to be exposed to such special watches and it assisted me in understanding the feel and sensations these things should have.
You then went on to study watchmaking right?
Yes, I worked on a pocket watch at the age of sixteen in 1968, which is well known in Switzerland as a ‘Montre École’ or ‘School Piece’. My angles weren’t quite as aesthetic as Mr. Dufour’s, but I was young (laughs).
How did this then develop into a career?
Patek Philippe, at the time, would take the top one or two from various schools to receive further training and experience within their firm, bringing their ability up to the standard of the firm. I happened to be hired into the prototype department to work on a special project for Boeing. They had reached out to a number of watch manufacturers to work on a chronograph for the dashboard in a new plane they were working on.
What sort of approach was taken?
We had decided to do a digitally indicated chronograph, as many things in this time were crossing over to ‘digital’. We worked for two years, as a team of three; a watchmaker, a constructor and a mechanical engineer. The specifications were reasonably strenuous, with temperature capabilities being quite core. Unfortunately, Boeing didn’t select our proposed instrument, they decided to go for a more classic ‘hands’ display.
Would this be anything to do with the pilots maybe being more accustom to reading the more classic display style?
Quite possibly, yes. These days maybe pilots would be more used to this type of display, but it was certainly not the case back then. The idea was perhaps slightly ahead of its time. The classic display would have been more instantaneously legible.
What ever happened to these instruments?
(laughs) They are likely buried somewhere at Patek Philippe, but no-one is talking about this as it was technically a ‘failed’ project.
What did you do after this project?
Well, I had built a good relationship with my superior, so I worked for a year in almost all of the technical departments within Patek in 1971. I briefly left, only to be asked to return to work in the department which deals with external parts, like the case, crown and lugs. Basically everything that touches the outside air.
So if you returned to the firm in the early 1970s, does this mean that you worked on the development of the Nautilus?
Yes, this was the beginning of the development of that piece, though that was designed in the atelier of Gerald Genta. We had received Mr. Genta’s drawings and were tasked by Philippe Stern to make these a reality. During this time, it was very normal to receive flat drawings of the case and dial, meaning, there were elements of the design which still required figuring out. On the flat drawings, you would rarely have the side, so we had to create this from scratch. It was very interesting to be a part of, as nowadays, this type of thing would never happen. 3D design has negated any design ambiguity.
Mr. Laurent Ferrier outside his Geneva-based Atelier
Did this ambiguity create much back and forth in the prototyping stages?
Not so much, actually. The project came together quite simply.
And what was your impression of the finished piece?
I think it was one of the most beautiful pieces Genta ever made. I’m a big fan of both the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, he did a fantastic job.
Do you prefer the Nautilus though?
(laughs) I have to prefer the Nautilus, I worked on it. But the Royal Oak is beautiful too. The Nautilus is a much more complicated construction by comparison. The bracelets are both a lot more straight forward to produce than the companies would lead you to believe, but the case of the Nautilus overlaps and locks in, whereas the Royal Oak is a metal sandwich, making it a much more straight forward construction.
So after 30 odd years with Patek, what made you start your eponymous brand?
Well the origin has a lot to do with my past in motor racing. I had been racing in Le Mans with my friend François Sérvanin between 1974 and 1981, and in 1979 we managed to get third place. After this race, François had expressed an interest in Patek Philippe, suggesting that he had heard it was a great brand, so I gifted him a Nautilus with the case-back engraved with 24hr Le Mans, 1979. We had spoken over a very many years about starting a business together, and as François was retiring, he had the money to invest, so we went for it. As he wasn’t a collector or connoisseur, he gave me carte blanche in terms of the approach and design. It was of absolute importance, in my mind, that we develop a calibre from scratch, so myself and my son Christian, set about making that happen.
And the first development was the double spiral tourbillon movement?
Yes, and I’m convinced to this day, that if we had a marketing or P.R. department back then, that none of them would have allowed us to do this. It was ambitious to launch with a tourbillon hidden behind a Grand Feu enamel dial. But for this piece, we won prizes which drew a lot of attention to us.
What was it about the tourbillon that you found so captivating that it had to be the first release?
It’s a real complication. A complication which can handle perfectly with very good chronometry results. This was a large part of our focus, as we didn’t want to just make something aesthetic. We had been very inspired by pocket watches from the 19th century, a lot of which utilised this complication.
Approaching the project, what was the goal design wise?
The goal was to create a watch which could be admired from every angle and perspective. It needed to be very soft and discreet. I very much subscribe to the concept of ‘when there is nothing left to remove, perfection is achieved’.
It makes perfect sense then, to hide the tourbillon…
How was the response to the most recent iteration of the tourbillon which was made visible on the dial side?
We had many clients requesting this and they were very pleased with the result. The movement remained unchanged, we had just added an aperture to reveal the inner-workings. Most of our clients prefer the classic approach, as this is the pure form. Everything is about balance, much like the automotive world.
Did your obsession for mechanical detail and balance come from the motoring world?
And would there be a competitive element to it, given that if you get it wrong in motoring, you lose the race…
(laughs) possibly. It’s very important to balance aesthetics with the mechanical prowess of the piece. There are so many independent’s who work on very complicated movements, and there are clients for this type of thing, but aesthetically many of them fall short.
So just to touch again on your Le Mans, involvement. What were you racing with back then?
We raced a Porsche 934 and a 935 at Le Mans.
And what was it like to race and podium with Paul Newman in 1979?
Well there wasn’t really a podium, as such, but I was more impressed with his co-driver’s skills to be honest. Paul was less of a talented driver (laughs). Steve McQueen would have loved Le Mans, but he never competed. Mr McQueen was a very good driver.
So your latest releases have all used this new case style, what was the reason for the new case design?
This case design was created to allow for thicker movement designs in the future. The balance of the Galet case would be thrown off if it were to become any thicker, so it was was necessary to design something new to accommodate for this. I didn’t want to replace any of our other cases, but just introduce new options. We are focussing on the school piece case, to show our deep connection to the traditions of watchmaking. This is particularly true of our latest release of the Regulateur, these are tributes to watchmakers.
Yes, very much so.
The Laurent Ferrier Montre École & Regulateur
So given that you’re making room for thicker movements, is it safe to assume some new complications are on the way?
Yes, we will be presenting something new and exciting towards the end of the year.
Are there any complications that you haven’t had the opportunity to make, but have always wanted to?
Definitely (laughs), a lot of collectors ask us “why don’t you release a chronograph?”. But the issue with that is that the chronograph would have to function absolutely perfectly, which is very difficult to achieve. Later down the line, my son will work on this, no doubt. The action will need to be soft, and the reset action should be absolutely perfect. These are the qualities that make a great chronograph.
We suspect we know the answer to this, but can you give us a hint of what you are presenting at OnlyWatch this year?
(laughs) we can’t say anything ahead of July 6th, but what we can say, is that it will be very fancy, different and unique.
To find out more about the brand, please visit Laurent Ferrier's website.