From the Bench: Philippe Dufour
One topic which comes to mind time and time again, when discussing independent watchmaking, is the hand-finishing which graces the bridges of a movement. This time-consuming process, called anglage, takes years, even decades to master and must be done by hand. Our latest interviewee, Philippe Dufour, is the undisputed king of this process, creating angles and curves on his movements’ bridges which really have to be seen in the metal to be fully appreciated. With a long-stretching career and recent record-breaking auction result, we thought it was time to catch-up with Philippe at his atelier in la Vallée de Joux.
Tell us a little about where you grew up and what that was like?
I was born in Le Sentier into a very humble family of watchmakers. Both my parents worked for the watch industry, my father in a factory nearby, and my mother worked from home for a company who supplied components to brands. I then attended watchmaking school at the age of 15 for four years, near the family home.
What sort of parts was your mother making?
She would make parts for the balance, the hairspring, things like that. It was a crazy job to be doing for such little money. The company she was working for was called Assortment Gallay, which was a company that specialised in making escapements. They later became part of a merger which then became Nivarox, which is now owned by the Swatch Group.
So was it this influence which made you choose a career in watchmaking?
[Laughs] No, in fact I didn’t choose my profession.
[Laughs] Really?At the age of fifteen, my parents said, “You are not made for University,” because I was a kook at school. I didn’t have much interest for most of the subjects, apart from languages; I always found that interesting. When it came to things like mathematics, I wasn’t very good and I had no one who could help me with it at home. My parents told me that I would need to choose a profession in the Vallée de Joux, because my older brother was already studying in Lausanne, so my parents couldn’t afford to have two of their kids outside the Vallée.
That certainly narrows the options down…Yes, absolutely. I used to spend all my holidays working with the farmers to make some pocket money, which I really enjoyed, but there was no point in me learning how to farm as a career, because we didn’t own one. So, one day, I was playing around with an old motorbike and I decided that I wanted to go to school to learn mechanics, so I went and enrolled with the Ecole d'Horlogerie, which later became the Ecole Technique.
How did you find that experience?
Well, right away I had to do an exam for them to see if I had the skills to do the course, and fortunately they said that I could, but they picked up that my mathematics wasn't so good. I already knew that [Laughs] and they told me, “You are just about good enough to be a watchmaker.”
[Laughs] So you only just scraped through the test?
[Laughs] Yeah, now you see why I say that I didn’t choose my profession. I immediately fell in love with the course, because in that first year, you learn to make your own tools out of a piece of metal. You drill, file and refine something from a raw piece of material and once you’ve made your tools, you begin to make your own watch.
A ‘School Watch’…
Yes, you start to make the bridges and baseplates. Part of the early stages of this is putting the ratchet wheel and the crown wheel together, and when they are meshing together correctly, it’s just magic.
Did your mathematics hold you back at any stage?
Not so much, but I learned little by little. I think every human grows at their own speed.
"Well, I finished school in ’67 and it was a fortunate time to be looking for work because brands were really searching for watchmakers"
How long was it before you had completed your first watch?
The course spans three years, and usually you would finish your first watch during the final year. So, year one you make bridges and plates, year two you make the gears and then in year three, you make the more delicate parts which require more skill. This would be hairsprings and parts of the balance.
So, following your education, how did it become a career for you?
Well, I finished school in ’67 and it was a fortunate time to be looking for work because brands were really searching for watchmakers. We were in a position to make certain requests and terms, so I went and spoke with Jaeger-LeCoultre and managed to get an agreement where I would be able to travel to Paris for a year; I wanted to know what was beyond the mountain, you know? [Laughs]
Not a bad thing to have in your contract…
Yes, but then in ’68, when I was due to go, they were scared to send me because of the student riots, so I wound-up going to Germany in ’69 instead. Somehow this felt less glamorous, but it was very interesting to be on the other side of things. When you’re working in a factory, you don’t necessarily think about the fact that this watch will one day belong to someone, and that person might face a technical issue with it. When you see the other side, you get to experience and understand that, with customers coming in with the same issues on a particular movement. This was my first experience with quality, because after six months I came back to the factory with five examples which all had the exact same issue. There was a pin which was wearing out too quickly, and I explained this to the big bosses and the head technicians, but all they said was that the percentage of watches going wrong meant nothing to the company in the bigger picture.
I said to them, “Five watches for you is not much, but for a market like Germany, it’s a lot.” The people who were in charge of the research aren’t exactly in the real world with these products, and that makes a difference.
It seems like a very lazy approach…
By the sounds of things, you were quite bothered by the idea of taking a lazy approach to watchmaking very early on…
I would say that it was more the lack of organisation in after-sales for these brands. I don’t actually think it’s better even today [Laughs]. It’s a weak point for a lot of brands, but the best example of it being done well is with Rolex. You can go anywhere in the world and you have Rolex service centres with all the same equipment, the same benches, the same level of trained watchmaker, spare parts. They have everything, it’s great.
They don’t have a new product every year, though, which makes a difference.
They stick to what they know…
What did you do after that?
I came back to Le Sentier, where we would launch the first quartz watches and then I was put in charge of teaching the servicing teams around the world. I would be sent three or four watchmakers at a time and would have to explain to them what a quartz watch was and how to service it. This meant that there wasn’t really an opportunity to travel, so I saw an advert in the local newspaper saying that a company was searching for watchmakers in the US Virgin Islands.
"On this tiny island which is about 40km long, you had 14 different watch factories with all sorts of people from all over the world there."
Oh really? [Laughs]
Yeah, I mean, the Caribbean. They took me on and off I went for a three year programme, of which I only stayed two years because of the dollar crash in ’74. But it was an amazing time which taught me that watches could be made just about anywhere in the world.
What was the reason these factories were opening in such a remote place?
It was for tax reasons because they could import parts and movements without paying taxes, as long as you gave jobs to locals.
So on this tiny island which is about 40km long, you had 14 different watch factories with all sorts of people from all over the world there. Germans, French, Swiss, Japanese, you name it. I was in a Swiss factory which belonged to the Swatch Group which had about 120 workers producing 3,000 movements every two weeks. After this, I decided to go back to the Vallée De Joux right in the middle of the quartz crisis, but fortunately I found a job with Gerald Genta which I stayed with for one year, and then I started working with Audemars Piguet again for just a year or so, and then I saw another advert in a newspaper from a guy in Chaux-de-Fonds who had a brand called "Comor Watch".
This guy had bought some old movements which were designed for pocket-watch cases. They were minute-repeaters and chronographs. The quality of these brass movements was not particularly good, but he had a case-maker who made beautiful hunting cases and different enamel finishes and that sort of thing. He had an over-simplified view of how this business could come together, thinking that hiring watchmakers to work on these mechanisms would be easy, but this was far from the truth. I gave two movements to some of my watchmaker friends, to disassemble and attempt to understand. Both of them returned the movements disassembled in a box.
Yeah, it was really not a simple task finding people capable of working on these watches. The owner eventually got frustrated and told me that it was too expensive, arguing with me. I said, “Okay, I don’t want to argue with you, we should make a deal and I’ll take over the business.” He agreed, and I paid him the same price he paid for all the equipment and just like that, I became independent.
Just like that…
Yes, but I had no jobs. I began taking meetings in Geneva and found an auction house which was called Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne, which would later become Antiquorum, and they gave me a box of about 40 watches to restore for them. I did this for about five years or so, restoring old watches and pocket watches.
And it was just you doing this?
Yeah, and I learned a lot during that period. I got to understand so many different mechanisms with different approaches to the same kinds of problems. You begin to imagine how they achieved certain things with machinery that is long gone, it was very interesting. I became very fond of watches made between 1800 and 1920, because these are watches that, when restored, you can expect a good timekeeping result from. Watches before 1700, you’re just happy that it makes a tick tack sound when you’re done. [Laughs].
"This pushed me to think, well, if they did it, why not try and make it again. So, I began working nights, weekends, holidays with some old tooling from the 1900s to make my first movement."
[Laughs] Quite primitive mechanisms then…
Yes. So I had ten repeaters for restoration and seven of them were produced and bought from the Vallée de Joux. Even if it was an English brand or from wherever, the typical style would be correct, but when you open it up, you find a mechanism which seems familiar. I then found an old LeCoultre catalogue from 1903, and I discovered that they were producing different style blanks for three different markets in three different styles.
This pushed me to think, well, if they did it, why not try and make it again? So, I began working nights, weekends, holidays with some old tooling from the 1900s to make my first movement.
And that first movement was which…
It was a Grande Sonnerie Minute-Repeater.
[Laughs] Wow, that’s ambitious.
I took inspiration from what had been done before. You know, I always say that I never invented anything. My goal is to try and perpetuate a nice way of making watches, especially here in the Vallée de Joux.
So you’ve always been more interested in perfecting rather than inventing things?
Yes, for sure. When I had finished the movement, I couldn’t afford to invest in a nice case because, you know, I have a family of three daughters who have to eat. So I cased this thing in a brass ring and went to prospect with some collectors and shops, but everyone said the same thing, “Yeah, it’s nice, carry on.” Nobody trusted me.
What do you think the problem was?
People are just cautious. They also asked me why I don’t just go and work for a big brand, so that lead me to go and present the piece to Audemars Piguet, who ended up ordering five watches from me. It doesn’t sound like much, but this represented about five years of work to complete the order.
It must have been fairly gratifying to have received an order like that from a brand as prestigious as Audemars Piguet…
Yeah, but I wasn’t allowed to say I made it, you know? [Laughs]
I didn’t get rich from the order, but it was an experience for me. The worst part of it was that they didn’t respect my job.
"I asked them what had happened to it and they told me that my watch was nearly dead. I yelled at them so much that I’m sure there are people still working there who would remember."
Of five watches, two broke while in the brands possession.
[Laughs] They broke them?!
The first one was presented at Baselworld and some months later, the called me and said, “We have a problem with your watch” I said, “What’s wrong with it?” They told me that it has stopped and that it no longer strikes. I went to see what the problem was at their factory and it was a wreck.
The crystal was gone, the hands were gone and the enamel dial was broken.
Had someone dropped it?
No, no, it’s worse [laughs]. I asked them what had happened to it and they told me that my watch was nearly dead. I yelled at them so much that I’m sure there are people still working there who would remember. I re-finished and repaired the watch, but it’s not the same when you do it twice.
So, that was the first one [Laughs]. The second one is worse.
So, a guy from the after-service called me and seemed a little shy and asked if I could come and show their watchmaker how to take the movement out of the case. Slightly confused, I go to the workshop and see the watch on a bench and again the glass is gone, the hands are bent, the dial was broken and on the back of the case there was a big knock like it had been hit on the edge of a table or something.
They said, “Your watch is dead, now we’re going to fix it.” This infuriated me, so I wrote them a letter saying that I’m no longer responsible for technical problems on that watch. I showed them how to take the movement out of the case and told them I didn’t want to see them anymore.
"The watch must have been hanging down from his coat, and he shut his car door on the watch."
So, what the hell happened to it?
I only found out the truth through a friend who was working there. So, the person who was responsible for transporting the watch decided to take the watch out of its presentation box and put it in his pocket. The watch must have been hanging down from his coat, and he shut his car door on the watch.
I mean, this watch was half a million francs in the ‘80s, and this guy didn’t even lose his job. After learning this, I swore to myself that I would no longer do anything for them.
Is this what gave you the motivation to launch your own brand?
Yes, exactly. I had to think of what I would do next, and so I decided to develop a wristwatch as the market was more interested in them at that stage. This would have been somewhere around ’88 or ’89 and I wanted to do something that had never been made before. The Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater had never been made in a wristwatch before that point, so I decided that this would be my challenge.
Again, hugely ambitious…
For sure, it took me two and a half years to design and construct the movement, which I would present in ’92.
What was the reaction like, because this is incredibly complex for a first watch…
Yes, very and I think that people were surprised by that. People weren’t really waiting for this watch to come along, so it was surprising.
Did it sell quickly?
No, it was very difficult to sell. I had shown the watch at Baselworld and had a few things published in watch magazines here and there. But then I got a phone call from a gentleman from Singapore because he was in Geneva and wanted to see the watch. He told me to come show the watch in Singapore, so that’s what I did. In fact, I had two watches to present, one Grande Sonnerie wristwatch and a pocket-watch with the same complication which had my name on the dial.
And was it a successful trip, so to speak?
Yes, I left with both the pocket and wristwatch sold, with another three on order.
How soon after did you launch the Duality?
It was in ’96 that I launched the Duality. Customers in Singapore asked me if I would develop something a little less complex, so I began researching and looking for something interesting to develop. I ended up discovering a TimeZone catalogue which had a watch made in the Vallée de Joux in 1930 by a student which used two balance wheels, working together. I began learning about this principle and made a prototype and realised that the idea was possible, but with a different system.
And the basic principle is a kind of mechanical resonance, right?
Yes, but not like F.P. Journe’s resonance. It’s two different principles entirely. It’s quite similar to the differential in a car which allows one wheel to travel faster than the other to better the handling. Each of the two balance wheels are free to move independently, but if you stop one balance, a full revolution of the seconds hand is multiplied by two.
Yeah, so when the balances are working in tandem, each error is divided by two.
How was the Duality received initially?
There was interest again, but I didn’t have the budget to advertise properly, so I think a lot of people misunderstood what it was. I had planned on making twenty five pieces, but then the interest ran-out after nine pieces, so I cut the production short. I now have a list of about sixty five people who want one.
This is largely due to the piece which sold at auction recently for nearly a million dollars. This was obviously very pleasing to hear.
It’s a huge and deserved achievement…
It’s recognition for the effort. It meant a lot.
Is there a temptation to make more or is this list of sixty five going to be disappointed?
[Laughs] Well, I never say no, but I don’t know. This would be easier if I had a team of watchmakers, but I don’t. It’s difficult to find people who are really interested. I think a lot of kids these days would prefer a boring job where you finish at a certain time and that’s it.
It’s quite interesting, given what you’ve said, that there seems to be a resurgence of interest in hand-made and artisanal crafts which spans all ages…
I think it’s because people are getting more and more knowledge through magazines and the internet. The details of all these things are more readily available than at any time before, so people can appreciate the craft more. You cannot screw the consumer anymore, because there is so much information out there. I spoke with a retailer in Singapore, who told me that these days they have people coming in and asking to see a watch in the window, and they pull a loupe out of their pocket to inspect it.
Being a one-man show, taking care of all aspects of these watches, you must find yourself exposed to some quite interesting people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met…
Yes, this is definitely true. I was on a trip to Japan, giving a talk and my retailer out there insisted that I meet one particular owner of a Simplicity who happened to be a doctor. It turned out that this doctor, who specialised in cancer treatment, had been loaning his Simplicity to patients because it was making them happy for some of the short time that some of them had left. It was incredibly touching to hear this.
Wow, that’s incredible…
It’s a really great thing to know that this watch, which has given me such pleasure to make, is making people happy around the world. The circle is closed at that point. It’s perfect.
There is another slightly more unusual ownership story though, which was that the followers of a Guru in Fiji, if my memory serves me correctly, wanted to gift their leader one of my watches. They got him a platinum Simplicity, and years after the watch had been delivered, I heard that this Guru had sadly passed away, but that he had been buried wearing the watch.
That’s crazy, how does that feel knowing that your watch was buried with someone?
It’s very interesting. Maybe someone will discover it in a million years [laughs], and hopefully it will still be waterproof.