Interview: Ludovic Ballouard
There are some independent watchmakers that go, relatively speaking, a little under the radar; and for no apparent reason. One such example is Ludovic Ballouard, the mastermind behind the charmingly unique Upside Down watch, which displays only the correct hour, the right way up. Having found his feet assembling Lemania chronographs, he quickly climbed through the ranks of F.P. Journe’s atelier before starting his eponymous brand. We sat down with Ludovic to talk airplanes, watchmaking and starting his own business.
So Ludovic, where are you from exactly?
I’m from Brittany in France, I grew up on my family’s farm there.
An animal farm?
What kinds of animals?
[Makes oinking sound].
[Laughs] Right… what was it like growing up in that sort of an environment?
As a child, it’s an absolutely genius place to grow up, but as you get older, it becomes more difficult, because as you mature and want to see the world, it’s a difficult environment to leave; the farm life wasn’t really for me as a career.
Was there an expectation from the family for you to continue the business?
No, not at all. My family totally understood that running the farm was just not going to be something that I would want to do. They had expected me to break from that way of life, see the world and get a career in something else.
And did you have specific ambitions to travel?
Yes, absolutely, I wanted to discover the world. I wanted to see different cultures and people, experience things. It was a kind of rite of passage, it’s just one of those things that everyone should do.
So, at what point did the topic of watchmaking come up?
Well, at the age of 16, I wanted to become a dental prosthetist because I was good with my hands and making small delicate things, so it seemed like a potentially appropriate profession.
And did you end up studying to become that?
No, sadly my grades were not good enough to do that as a profession. The silver lining is that one of the councillors had recognised that I was good at small delicate work and suggested watchmaking to me. I had been building Airfix models and remote control airplanes from a young age. It was quite a revelation actually, because I hadn’t even considered it, but I knew I would love doing it.
So, you went and studied watchmaking where?
In Brittany, in Rennes. They take only thirteen students a year for a three year course, and the first year we only worked on pendulum clocks. Then you move to quartz watches, because they were the big new thing at the time. We only actually got to work with mechanical watches for six months during that course.
Did you make a school watch?
Yes, but it’s absolutely horrible; it’s what you would imagine a 17 year old would make and quartz.
[Laughs] Did you put Spiderman on the dial or something?
[Laughs] No, no, nothing like that.
"I had to leave, I couldn’t stand the climate or the mentality there. I had to get out.”
What did you do after studying?
I went to Sentier in Switzerland to work, which I managed for about six months. I had to leave, I couldn’t stand the climate or the mentality there. I had to get out.
What were you doing?
I was assembling Lemania Chronographs…
Wait, so you went from working on mechanical watches for only six months to landing a job assembling chronographs, how does that work?
I just told them I knew how to do it [laughs]. I sat for the bench test, and I managed to do it with no problems, so I got the job.
When it comes to mechanical things, movements and machines, the way they work comes quite naturally to me. I find it very easy to understand these kinds of things. I would look at the plans of the movement, and I would get to work. It’s just like Lego, you know?
Did you ever admit to them that you’d lied about your qualifications?
[Laughs] No, I never told them. I mean, I was only there for six months and they never questioned me, so I never told them.
So, the terrible climate aside, you enjoyed the work?
Yes, absolutely, they make great movements, so they were a pleasure to assemble.
What did you do for work after that?
I moved back to Brittany and started working on airplane instruments. I did that for about ten years actually.
What were you doing exactly?
I was maintaining the instruments, ensuring that they were functioning correctly. It was basically after-sales service, disassembly, cleaning and reassembly.
Did you ever learn to fly yourself?
I took some classes, but I didn’t pass my test.
[Laughs] You couldn’t fudge the truth on that one…
[Laughs] No, and I like beer. You can’t drink as much and fly the big planes as you can with the remote control ones. If I had broken as many big airplanes as I had the small ones, you would have heard more about me in the newspapers.
When did you get the ambition to launch your own brand?
Well, before that, I was worried that I would forget all of the things I had learned in watchmaking, so I bought a bunch of magazines about watches and decided that I would contact the brand that had the most expensive watch in the magazine, and that happened to be Franck Muller [laughs].
So, I wrote to them and then I received a handwritten letter two days later saying that I should come and work with them as soon as possible. They gave me a test, which was to assemble ten chronograph movements in a week; I did it in three days.
Wow, that’s quite quick…
Yes, so that was fine [laughs]. I ended up working with them for three years and then I moved onto working with F.P. Journe. My dream was to be totally independent with a brand, so I called François-Paul to see if there was any chance of working for him. to learn. At that his time, it was a highly sought after position, I mean, all the watchmakers wanted to work for François-Paul...
It just so happened that someone had walked out that very morning [laughs].
"In my last three years with Journe, I was working on the Sonnerie Souveraine.”
Yes, so there was a bench free and he said, “If you can come in this afternoon, then you’re welcome.” I was supposed to stay there for about six months or so, because I wanted to go work for myself, but I ended up staying for seven years. In my last three years with Journe, I was working on the Sonnerie Souveraine, assembly and that sort of thing.
That’s an incredibly complex piece, how many were you making?
I was told to make four per year, but I was making six a year and working only six hours a day [laughs].
And then straight to the pub?
[Laughs] Holiday, work, Holiday, work.
Was this the first time you had been exposed to the real inner-workings of an independent brand, making things from scratch?
Yes, it was. I always had an ambition to do this but it was certainly inspirational to see how Journe was doing it. I gained a lot of experience working there, a lot of knowledge.
All of your previous work was more assembling ready made parts right?
Yes, exactly. Something quite useful there, was that because the clients always wanted to meet the watchmaker working on their Grand Sonnerie, they would always ask if I made watches separately. In fact, a lot of them would say that if I decided to, that they would buy a watch. So, I had clients and I had decided that I should just go for it...
So the first piece was the Upside-Down?
Yes, during that time, it was the financial crisis and I saw numbers everywhere going up, down, left, right. Everyone was saying the world was going to go under and I had just felt that people were losing perspective. What’s important is the here and now, living in the moment. So, I thought, what if I can make a watch where all the numbers are upside down, and only the present hour is correct. The aim of which, to inspire people to focus more on living in the here and now; it has some humour to it.
Did it take you long to develop?
I left F.P. Journe on May the 1st 2009 and I delivered the first watch in December of 2009.
That’s phenomenally quick, there seems to be a pattern here…
Yeah, I gave my three month notice with F.P. Journe and I began working in my spare time. I had the plan for the movement in my head already, so it was just about putting it down on paper and making it happen. There was also some good fortune as a result of the financial crisis, because most of the suppliers were low on orders as businesses were tightening their spending, so they were keen to make deals.
"The very first movement I assembled, worked immediately."
Were there any technical hitches along the way with the mechanism itself, because it’s quite complicated…
Well, this is the most beautiful part, and is actually one of my favourite watchmaking memories, because there were absolutely no issues with it. The very first movement I assembled, worked immediately.
Wow, that’s surprising, usually you hear about years of development for issue after issue…
So, that first series, how was it received?
There was an edition of 12 in the first place with each edition number in red on the dial. Customer number one got a red number one on the dial, the second got number two in red and so on. I got 50% up front from each client, and none of them had a clue what the watch was even going to be.
They weren’t even shown a prototype before they committed?
Yeah, 12 pieces sold to 12 clients for 20,000 or 30,000. Really quite remarkable, thinking about it. They trusted me and they knew it would be something cool, so it all just came together. I didn’t even speak about it, because it takes a year for a patent to go through. It was all a big secret.
What were the first reactions like when the clients saw what they were getting?
They loved it immediately. As soon as the first one was delivered, all of the buyers were extremely happy with what had been made.
How did the business progress from there?
It was quite smooth sailing, because I had 12 clients to deliver watches to, and once the watch was announced, more and more orders were coming in. While those orders were being fulfilled, I began work on the Half Time, which is based on a similar principle to the Upside Down, in that you only see the current hour correctly.
Right, and where do you go from here?
Well, I’d like to retain complete ownership and just grow the brand slowly and surely. I don’t want to get investors and try to quickly grow things, which means we have to be cautious and do things right. There are other plans in the pipeline for different complications and models, but for now, we will work bit by bit.
Reinvesting your capital…
Yes, exactly, I separated from some previous associates a couple of years ago, which lead to taking a bit of a break but now we are back. I’ve employed Nergs Nazar, previously of Sotheby’s Geneva, as my commercial director and things are going very well. We are looking forward to producing more watches for our clients.