It’s easy to forget that the road to becoming an independent watchmaker is a painful, perilous one. Contemplating the work of Philippe Dufour or Francois-Paul Journe, one could be forgiven for thinking their path to recognition and success was evident from the start. The reality is often murkier, determined by luck and constant refinement. We sat down with Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat, two young independent watchmakers at the beginning of their own journey. After all, they’ve only made their second watch to date: a dead seconds complication.
Walking around Geneva Old Town on a misty winter morning, we discuss their respective training at A. Lange and Söhne, how restoring vintage pieces was a source of inspiration to create new ones and how chance has played a vital role in putting them on the track they’re now on.
Can you tell us a bit more about your individual journeys and how they came together?
Gaël: We met in our first year at the watchmaking school of Geneva. We were friends throughout that period, then stayed in touch after school ended. I went to work for A. Lange & Söhne, where I spent around three years, working my way from simpler watches such as the Lange 1 to more complicated pieces such as the Datograph. The next logical step was to move into the prototype department, but I couldn’t really see myself spending another five years there, which is what would’ve been expected of me.
Florian: I started at Harry Winston, but then actually also moved to A. Lange & Söhne. I was in a department where we did everything from A to Z, with the exception of casing the watch. Essentially, one watchmaker would work on an entire movement. I spent around two years there, but very much like Gael, I felt the need to come back to Switzerland.
And how did you find yourselves working together?
Gaël: When I came back to Switzerland, I was in a tricky position. Despite having worked on complications at Lange, it didn’t mean that if I went to Vacheron Constantin or Patek Philippe, that they would open up the doors of their complications department to me. Larger manufactures are much more hierarchical. So instead, I joined a small workshop managed by Svend Andersen, whom I’ve heard mythical stories about while in watchmaking school. However, when I joined, they didn’t really have much work, which was great because I was sort of left to my own devices and I got to experiment with all the equipment they had there.
Did it forge a taste for that kind of independent work?
Gaël: In a way, yes. After a while, I felt the desire to have my own workshop, which was something which Florian shared.
Florian: We found a workshop right next to that of Dominique Renaud of Renaud Papi, the famed complications manufacturer. The fact that we could potentially be neighbours with one of the founders of the most celebrated complications manufacturers in Switzerland, having developed movement for Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille among others, was special. It seemed like the place to be.
Gaël: Then in 2017, Dominique asked us if we could decorate two watch movements he had been working on, as well as encase one of them. To work closely with someone like him was a rather special experience and spurred us even further in our desire to be independent. In exchange for the work we did for him, we agreed for his engineer to develop a movement for us.
Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat in Geneva Old Town
Sounds like your path to independence kind of happened organically…
Gaël: It wasn’t the plan initially. At first, our project was to work independently but as restorers, not watchmakers. It was actually through restoring watches that I personally started to wonder, “This is so incredible. Why aren’t there watches like this today?”. I really admire old pocket watches and the craftsmanship that they display. It makes you wonder what kind of watch you yourself would want to create.
Florian: A lot of it happened through luck. Developing a base movement to work on is expensive and we didn’t have the resources at the time to dedicate to the project. We were lucky to find ourselves working with one of the masters and that we were able to develop a movement in that way. When the opportunity arose, we kind of thought to ourselves, “Why not?”
Who was your first client?
Gaël: Funnily enough, we came into contact with the client for our first watch via our restoration work. He got in touch because he’d bought a watch at auction which didn’t work which he wanted us to fix.
What was the watch out of curiosity?
Gaël: It was a Breguet tourbillon perpetual calendar retrograde.
[Laughs] Kid’s stuff…
Gaël: [Laughs] Yeah, so through the process of restoration we got to know and understand each other. We got speaking and we told him about our plans for a dead second wristwatch. At the time, we had nothing. Just an idea. But he really got behind the project and was a core force in driving it forward.
The movement of the Petermann Bédat 'Seconde Morte'
Why did you choose to start with a dead seconds complication for your first watch?
Florian: Initially, we wanted to do a time-only watch but since we got the chance to work with Dominique Renaud, we thought we would add a small complication. We liked the idea of the dead seconds complication because it really appeals to discerning collectors. When people look at the dial, they assume it’s a quartz watch, without realising the complex reality. It's powerfully discrete.
Gaël: At the library, we also discovered a specific system of dead seconds complication which a teacher had developed as part of a school watch. We chose this specific system not because it was the easiest – far from it – but because it was the most aesthetic in our eyes. It is, of course, functional, but we also wanted something which was pleasing to look at, both when in motion but which could also be decorated to a high standard.
"It was actually through restoring watches that I personally started to wonder, 'This is so incredible. Why aren’t there watches like this today?'"
What were some of the aesthetic choices you made?
At this point, Gaël takes a wristwatch off of his wrist, the second-ever made by the watchmaking duo. He hands it over, with the movement facing upwards.
Gaël: A few things. There’s this arrow-shaped part here, where we really tried to push the aesthetics to the maximum and be quite dramatic. When this part is in motion is creates quite the effect.
The arrow-shaped component of the movement, in constant motion, as the dead seconds complication runs
Quite dramatic indeed...
We also added a rather generous balance cock with a col de cygne. This was a functional choice but also an aesthetic one, as there’s no need to add the col de cygne to the regulator, but its elongated and curved proportions really appealed to us. We also decided to hide a section of the movement with a large bridge and decorative gems, very much as you would find on an old pocket watch. It gave us space for nice, generous côtes de Genève.
And then a contrasting bridge on top…
Gaël: We opted for a matte texture on the bridge, which creates a nice level of contrast. We tried as much as possible to create contrasts between surfaces through different finishing techniques and also create depth throughout the movement.
Up close with the movement, highlighting the different finishings and depth
A discrete, off centre "Seconde Morte" indication on the dial
And how do you work together?
Florian: This is only the second watch we’ve worked on together, so we both work on pieces at the same time. We have some individual strengths, such as regulating the movement for myself or Gael is more competent at finishing. But ideally, we would end up in a situation where we independently work on our own watch, so we can individually get good at everything. It would mean a lot to us if we could.
"We liked the idea of the dead seconds complication because it really appeals to discerning collectors. When people look at the dial, they assume it’s a quartz watch, without realising the complex reality."
And I saw you were lucky enough recently for Philippe Dufour to come visit you?
Gaël: Yes, that was rather surreal. It was actually thanks to a rather important watch collector, who’s taken an active interest in us recently. He asked, “Do you mind if I stop by with Philippe Dufour?”
[Laughs] There’s only one right answer to that…
Gaël: Mr Dufour had been telling the collector that he should encourage young talent more, so he brought him along to show him our work. He was in our workshop for about half an hour or so. We tried, as much as possible, to get his thoughts and opinions on the watch but he was rather polite. You know, we’re young and very much still trying to figure this out, so any feedback we can get from someone like him is hugely valuable. We’re going to go visit his workshop at some point in the near future and hopefully, we can get his honest opinion.
It sounds like feedback is quite important to you.
Florian: Hugely. We’ve stayed in touch with some of our teachers from the Geneva Watchmaking School which has been useful, as well as other watchmakers we’ve come to know through a lot of our restoration work. It’s been tricky to get honest feedback from people because when people hold your work between their hands, it’s understandably difficult for them to be entirely honest about it with you. So, we go out of our way to ask people to be as honest as possible, as long as it’s constructive.
The Seconde Morte on the wrist of Florian Bédat
The elongated lugs of the 'Seconde Morte', integrated into the case, partially inspired by the Patek Philippe 2526
Where do you see some areas for improvement?
Gaël: The dial and hands are the real focus at the moment. We imagined and designed this watch starting with the movement and we’ve now got that to a stage that we’re relatively happy with. Alongside our restoration work, we both act as watchmakers for Christie’s Watch Department here in Geneva, so during auction season, we’re fortunate enough to interact with collectors from all different backgrounds. It’s hugely enriching. During the most recent auctions in November, we got some good feedback from collectors concerning the dial and hands, which will help us move forward.
"You know, we’re young and very much still trying to figure this out, so any feedback we can get from someone like [ Philippe Dufour ] is hugely valuable."
Florian: A particular collector suggested we try playing with texture more, perhaps by integrating some guillochage into the middle section of the dial, in order to give it more depth. Another suggested we replace the Roman numerals with Breguet numerals, which appear to be more popular with collectors. It’s all about finding the right balance between what is attractive to a potential collector and staying true to our aesthetic sensibilities.
Gaël Petermann by Lake Geneva
Would you want to become uniquely associated with a certain aesthetic?
Gaël: That’s a tricky one. I really like diversity in horology. When I look at Francois-Paul Journe’s watches, for example, I think they’re magnificent and I hugely respect the fact he’s been able to create a unique aesthetic, with stays constant over time. At the same time, when I look at Patek Philippes from the ‘20s and ‘30s, it’s incredible to see such variance and richness. We’d like to be able to emulate that creativity to some extent.
It sounds like Patek Philippe is a reference point in terms of design, then?
Florian: Definitely. For example, we really admire the Patek Philippe Calatrava 2526 and it was a source of inspiration for us when designing the case for our watch. The elongated lugs, integrated into the case, are just fantastic. We also admired the curved glass on references such as the 2499 or 130, which isn’t something done on many watches today, at all.
Do you have the next complication in mind or not yet?
Gaël: Well, for now, we want to focus on the dead seconds watch and refine it as far as possible. But since you’re asking, we’re also working on another complication, though we’re not quite ready to announce that yet…
Well, we look forward to seeing where things go...
Both: Thank you!
Find out more about Petermann Bédat here.