June 2022 9 Min Read

Interview: Raúl Pagès

By Raj Chaudhuri

Born to Spanish parents in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Raúl Pagès almost went a different way with his career. Musically and artistically inclined, the independent watchmaker was instead contemplating a career in the arts. A well-timed, if casual conversation with a friend, soon after graduating from high school, would change that forever.

We met up with Pagès in his studio in Les Brenets, a small village nestled in the Jura Mountains, on the banks of the Doubs that separates Switzerland from France. It is here that he has been working single-handedly on the Régulateur à Détente RP1, a watch that he revealed earlier this year. Powering it is a manual-wind calibre of Pagès’ own design, a first for the independent maker. Inspired by marine chronometers of the past, it features a pivoted détente escapement, updated with an anti-tripping design that Pagès believes will make it better suited to wristwatches. Accompanying him on his solo mission are the strains of soul and jazz music pouring out of the record player by his work bench.

Pagès' studio, filled with warm tones and natural light.

Pagès talks to us about his tastes in music, design and architecture and how they have informed his particular vision of watchmaking. He reflects on his journey so far and how even the mistakes he has made along the way have shaped the man he is today.

Rather than start off by diving into your new watch, why don’t we take a step back and talk about something that has been a constant through most of your life? Could you tell us what role has music played in your life and work?

I have played for a long time. I have an older brother and he played bass. I wanted to copy him, so I decided to start playing the guitar, maybe at 12 or 13. I never stopped playing music. I really like it. I didn’t learn music in school; I just learned by playing by myself. I used to occasionally write my own music, but not recently.

So what are you listening to right now?

I really like jazz, soul, and hip-hop music. Right now, I really like the older stuff like Teddy Pendergrass, Curtis Mayfield, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip. I have a small collection of vinyl records. To me there’s similarities [with watchmaking] because when you play music, you are in your own world, and it’s a little bit like when you are very focused on the watchmaking bench. If you are bevelling or polishing something, you have to be very accurate with your hands; you are extremely focused on the thing you are doing. I think it’s also creativity, and in both worlds [watchmaking and music], it is important for me to be creative. That’s also why I really like to draw and paint.

Music has been a big part of Pagès life growing up and continues to inspire him today.

Have you been drawing and painting as long as you have been playing music?

Maybe a little bit later, but I have always liked to draw things since I was a child. I also like to collect paintings and art. My small collection includes pieces like works by Étienne Cail, who is a young French artist; Swiss artist Till Rabus; and David Shrigley, who is British. I really like paintings from the mid-20th century, so I have a few pieces from the era. They are not important pieces, but ones that I really like.

What are some of the things you have been getting up to when you’re not in your workshop?

Playing music, of course. Also, the nature here is very beautiful, you know. I live in a small village [Les Brenets]. It’s very close to nature; I’m just in front of the forest and where we live. The landscape is beautiful, so yeah, just walking in nature. And now I have a small daughter – she is 19 months old. That takes up a lot of my time, but brings so much pleasure.

So where did your love for mechanical things first come from?

I don’t remember one precise point in time, but I was always attracted to creative things, especially those with a technical aspect to them. That’s why I really love architecture – it’s the same thing. You get to be very creative, but you still must have technical knowledge. It’s the same in watchmaking. In fact, when I finished school, I was attracted [to] creative things, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Of course, I grew up close to La Chaux-de-Fonds so there was a lot of watchmaking all around me. However, I was considering art school when a friend of my brother, who was a student at the watchmaking school of Le Locle, suggested I give watchmaking a try. I went on a trial basis and enrolled for a few weeks. I haven’t quit the watchmaking world since.

Is this where you fell in love with the craft?

To be honest at the time it was not really a passion for me. I finished my watchmaking course and then I specialised at the school to become a technician capable of restoring antique watches and complications. That’s where my passion began. Learning to restore antique watches, diving into their history, [and] learning about the historical complications and the different escapements was very interesting for me and that’s where the passion came for watchmaking.

Pagès has always been more intrigued by the historical and restoration aspects of watchmaking.

What was your time at Parmigiani like?

It was crazy for me, I was very lucky to work there since it was my first experience after [watchmaking] school – my first job. I was in my early 20s. And it’s very rare to find a restoration job. Of course, there we had so many beautiful and important timepieces, like from the Sandoz collection – a very famous collection of pocket watches and automatons. There were also Fabergé eggs in this collection.

When I was at Parmigiani, we also restored for the Patek Philippe Museum. It was incredible restoring pocket watches and Jaquet-Droz automata and you learn so much on the job. I can say that I really learned watchmaking when I was working at Parmigiani because, for example, if a wheel is broken in an old pocket watch, you cannot just replace the part. You have to research how that part was made at that time. Sometimes you have to make the tool to be able to make the component. Other times, the mechanism is missing some components, but you still have the holes on the main plate, for example, so you have to redesign the component, using the existing parts to imagine what the missing one could look like. You learn every part of the watchmaking process when you work in restoration.

So what brought about the decision to go independent?

I was very happy at Parmigiani and I could have worked all my life in this restoration workshop. However, I wanted something more from the creative process. I wanted to make my own creations; I wanted to be free, to be able to make everything – from the design, what kind of mechanism I wanted to create, everything how I wanted. You know at big brands, if you are responsible for making unique pieces, or special pieces, as a watchmaker you are only in charge of the movement maybe, but not the design. You have design teams who make the design, maybe other people will decide the packaging. To be able to manage everything… It was something I wanted to experiment with.

Colour swatches from Le Corbusier's colour keyboard of 1959, which served as inspiration for the RP1.

After going independent, why did you decide to make an automaton before making a watch?

I don’t know if it was a good idea because it was crazy. Right now, a few years later, I can say it was crazy. But I was working at the restoration workshop at Parmigiani and I was lucky to have these beautiful timepieces and automatons to restore [such as] these automatons from the beginning of the 19th century; beautiful small pieces – a small frog, a tiny caterpillar – powered by a watchmaking movement. These objects didn’t even tell the time and I found them crazy.

But when we had visitors at the restoration workshop at Parmigiani, when we wound up the caterpillar automaton and let it loose on the table, all the guests were wide-eyed with big smiles on their faces. I was thinking, wow, it’s such an emotional reaction. And right now, nobody makes automatons. So, I wanted to create my own piece. It was interesting to me. But, of course, from a marketing point of view it made no sense. To be honest, it was difficult for me because I didn’t sell the tortoise. Now I can say I’m lucky to have it because it’s part of the history of my work.

Your new watch is called the Régulateur à Détente RP1. The name is significant because it is the Raúl Pagès 1. Do you see this as a type of beginning?

Yes, because it is [the] first movement [of my own]. The Soberly Onyx [his first watch] was based on a vintage CYMA movement. I had a few ébauche calibres of vintage movements that I totally refinished, while also making some components from scratch. But the RP1 is the first with a design and movement that is totally my own, so that’s why it’s really a beginning for me. I can say it’s totally my work from A to Z.

Details from the dial and movement of the Régulateur à Détente RP1.

Tell us a little about the watch and the marine chronometer heritage it leans heavily on.

I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to restore pocket watches, clocks, beautiful masterpieces from the past. As a watchmaker, when you restore these kinds of watches, you fall in love with the different mechanisms, the quality of finishing, typical of watchmaking from the start to the middle of the 20th century. I was impressed by the beauty and quality of the technical components of these chronometric pocket watches and I also worked on a few pocket watches with détente escapements. It’s an escapement I fell in love with – when you see the escape wheel moving, it’s so beautiful. And that’s why I chose to put this escapement in the movement. The RP1 is my way of paying tribute to this era of watchmaking.

Does a détente escapement offer any kind of technical improvement over the Swiss lever escapement?

Of course, in theory this escapement is much better than a Swiss lever escapement because you have a direct input from the escape wheel to the balance wheel. You don’t have this intermediate piece, which is the anchor, and it’s much more efficient. However, to be honest, the accuracy is comparable with the Swiss lever. It’s like the tourbillon. Maybe 200 years ago the tourbillon represented a way to improve accuracy compared to a normal escapement, but right now, with the simple Swiss lever escapement you can reach a very high degree of precision. So, the decision to go with this setup was more to do with the technical challenge it presented to incorporate a détente escapement in a wristwatch.

'I wanted to make my own creations; I wanted to be free, to be able to make everything – from the design, what kind of mechanism I wanted to create, everything how I wanted.'

Raúl Pagès

You have talked about how you would like to make every RP1 yourself and do not plan on adding more hands to your workshop. Why is this?

This has always been the way I have worked. I started alone and I really like every part of the process of the creation of a watch. I enjoy making everything, from the design with a pen or a computer to constructing and developing designs with a 3D computer. I really enjoy making components by hand – the finishing, the assembly. So right now, I really like making all my watches by myself. However, I’m thinking in the future I may add one or two watchmakers to help me, and also to share my technical knowledge with them.

What was the journey like getting ready to show off the RP1?

It was a process that started a long time back when I was making the Soberly Onyx. This was after I made my first creation, the Tortoise automaton, in 2012. However, when I wanted to make my first wristwatch it was difficult to start with my own movement, to develop everything in-house. Financially it was a very difficult thing to do. However, the Soberly Onyx project gave me the opportunity, financially, to develop my own movement. This was happening in parallel. I was working on the Soberly Onyx watches through the night and developing and designing the movement for the RP1 during the day. It took me a lot of time – a few years.

Behind-the-scenes: Sketches of the RP1.

Also, on the dial side – because the design is very important for me – I took my time designing the concept behind it. At first it was not going to be a régulateur. But for me, having a régulateur time display seemed consistent with the chronometric escapement. I wanted to have a very clean dial, but with a lot of details and subtleties. I constructed it in an architectural way, to have a lot of depth. The blue colours [are] inspired by Le Corbusier, the famous architect, who is also from La Chaux-de-Fonds. He developed a special palette of colours in 1959, and this cerulean shade is inspired by [that]. To me it’s a beautiful blue colour that you don’t see so much in watchmaking. It’s just a small touch and I think it works very well with the rest of the dial.

Were you inspired by any Le Corbusier building in particular?

It’s not specific to one building, but the dial is inspired by this kind of modernismo or Bauhaus architecture that Le Corbusier is known for – very clean design [and] simple shapes but with a pop of colour. You won’t see this kind of modernist house in La Chaux-de-Fonds. However, there’s one famous building – it was one of Le Corbusier’s first designs, called La Maison Blanche. You can visit this house and I have been a few times.

Is it your love of architecture and design that led you to collect mid-century furniture?

It started with my wife, who is the co-curator at the Musée International d'Horlogerie. She is an art historian and she really likes furniture design. We collect within our budget, because sometimes the prices are crazy. We have a few things – an art-deco sofa that is very beautiful, but there’s no name on [it]. Then there are our Ercol chairs. We also have an LC2 chair designed by Le Corbusier. Sometimes we find these kinds of rare objects and they are so beautiful.

We are currently in a period often described as a renaissance of independent watchmaking. Who are the independent watchmakers you most admire?

There are a lot of watchmakers I admire for different reasons. I admire the work of Philippe Dufour, of course, for his finishing – it’s exceptional – but not in terms of creativity. For creativity, I really like François-Paul Journe, and also in terms of the consistency of aesthetics and complications; it’s very beautiful. But not in terms of finishing – I’d prefer Philippe Dufour or Akrivia. I also really like Rexhep [Rexhepi]’s quality of finishing and I also admire Kari Voutilainen and the way he managed to grow his brand over the years.

A lot of those names you just mentioned are long-term members of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI). What has being a member of the AHCI meant to you personally?

I became a member of the AHCI in 2016. When I was very young, I used to admire these independent watchmakers from the AHCI, [such as] Dufour [and] Voutilainen. To become a member of this academy, it was a dream for me. To have these people recognise my work, its quality – it’s huge for me.

Moving forwards, Pagès hopes to continue to grow his brand and work.

What is it like starting a new independent watch brand in La Chaux-de-Fonds?

There [are] not many independent watchmakers in La Chaux-de-Fonds, but there’s a lot of industry and a lot of big brands. It’s very convenient because you have all the suppliers very close. I also have a lot of watchmaker friends and it’s convenient to have people to share and to discuss with. Of course, I work alone so it’s important for me to discuss with other people – whether it’s about the kind of mechanism [or the] finishing, even if [in] the end I make the final decision. We usually meet for beer in a bar, or people come over to my home and we make dinner and then spend hours and hours discussing watchmaking.

Our thanks to Raúl Pagès for sitting down with us, in between working on his new watch and parenting duties, to talk about independent watchmaking, his music tastes and his furniture and art collections.