To call Cyril Brivet-Naudot old fashioned would be an understatement. Despite his relatively young age, the watchmaker prefers a slower pace of living, which he makes the most of at his home in the remote French countryside, not far from the Swiss border. Dividing his time between his watchmaking and growing vines, he doesn’t seem in any rush, embracing the idea that doing things the right way inevitably takes time – a philosophy which certainly extends to his work.
Born into a family of watchmakers on one side and scientists on the other, Brivet-Naudot chose to pursue watchmaking from a young age, when he enrolled into the Lycée Edgar Faure in Morteau. He then went on to study at the prestigious École Polytechnique Federal of Lausanne, where he spent time learning about micromechanics and pushing his theoretical knowledge of mathematics and physics. Upon graduating, the young watchmaker followed a route that many independents pursued before him, spending some time working in restoration and then prototype development for brands.
An exclusive first look at Cyril Brivet-Naudot’s newest watch, featuring a power reserve.
Eventually though, Brivet-Naudot – whom we’ve been following for a while – chose to produce watches under his own name. His goal was to make watches entirely by hand, just how they used to be made back in the day, before industrialisation changed things in the watch industry. Spending three years working in isolation, he eventually revealed his Eccentricity to the world, which was made entirely by hand, with the exception of the mainspring, hairspring, jewels and the crystal. It integrated a reworked version of the free eccentric escapement, instead of the classic Swiss lever escapement which is more commonly found.
At the young age of thirty, the watchmaker has already been accepted to the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, joining many prestigious names before him. Having just completed his second wristwatch for a client – an Eccentricity with a power reserve – we took the opportunity to speak with Brivet-Naudot about his path to watchmaking, how he’s evolved during his journey and where he wants to go next. We’re also able to publicly share pictures of this newly completed project for the very first time. Due to the current constraints on travel, we called the young watchmaker, who was quick to apologise for the poor phone connection, due to his remote location, as well as the fact that he only owns a “regular phone”, as he put it.
Cyril Brivet-Naudot in his workshop, courtesy of Pauline Girard.
Why did you choose to become a watchmaker?
There isn’t one event that sparked the desire in me to be a watchmaker. Despite the fact that my grandfather was a watchmaker, we didn’t necessarily have a complicity or close relationship which led me to this field. Rather, ever since I was young, I had quite an eclectic collection of interests. With watchmaking, I found a field which combined all of these. It’s both historical and contemporary, at the same time manual and intellectual. It gathers quite a lot of things.
Were you set on watchmaking once you discovered it?
Actually, I hesitated for quite a while when I was trying to figure out what to study. I was very interested by astrophysics, as well as watchmaking at the same time. Finally, I found more variety in watchmaking, so decided to pursue that path. When I was about sixteen, I also had the opportunity to work with a watchmaker in Lyon, which really comforted me in my choice. He handed me an astrolabe – an ancient astronomical device that’s essentially a handheld model of the universe – from the 16th century to restore. It was a truly exceptional piece to work on. I didn’t know much at the time, but it’s a memory that really stays with me.
His latest creation before it was cased up, courtesy of Cyril Brivet-Naudot.
It sounds like it was a bit of a gamble to pursue watchmaking then, rather than it being something you wanted from early on?
I had a good feeling about it, but it was definitely a calculated gamble, and not an insignificant one. When I first started watchmaking school at the age of fourteen, it took me about seven hours to travel there and back. When you’re a young teenager, it feels like quite a big commitment, so it’s not something I wanted to take light heartedly either. Because I feel like my interests are quite eclectic, that’s also why I went to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne following my watchmaking studies, to satisfy that craving for more theoretical and mathematical work.
Are there other areas, other than watchmaking, which you feel have allowed you to explore these interests further?
Spending time outside and doing manual labour definitely stimulates a different part of me. My partner and I recently bought a small property, and I’ve been thinking I’d like to plant some vines and make wine. In the next few years, I could see myself having a double profession, like there were farmer watchmakers in the Jura until not so long ago.
How do you feel it’s complementary to your watchmaking?
It’s about the need to work with something that’s alive, in a way. Sometimes I feel like you get a different communication with a living, breathing plant than you do with a mechanical object, which can be quite cold. With a plant, you also can’t force it to grow more quickly. You’re at the mercy of the weather, the soil, the elements, whereas in watchmaking everything is much more controlled. I feel like they’re quite complementary activities.
Brivet-Naudot with is grandfather, also a watchmaker, courtesy of Cyril Brivet-Naudot.
It sounds like it’s the balance between being in control and being at the mercy of nature?
That’s exactly it. Being completely passive wouldn’t suit me, but absolutely controlling everything also isn’t something I’m after. Balancing the two feels important to me.
It’s funny you bring up the idea of absolute control, because your work as a watchmaker relies on the most traditional techniques, where it’s almost impossible to control everything.
That’s true, there’s an embracing of imperfection with traditional watchmaking. There’s an old watchmaking society based in England which has a motto which really speaks to me: “Keep in me the hope of perfection, otherwise I will lose heart. Keep me in the powerlessness of perfection, otherwise I will be lost to pride”. Essentially, you should always want to do perfect, otherwise you’ll never be motivated, but if you reach perfection, then you succumb to your pride. You should do your best, but also find peace in the idea that perfection can never be reached.
The free eccentric escapement for Brivet-Naudot’s new timepiece, courtesy of Brivet-Naudot.
You mentioned that after watchmaking school, you decided to pursue further studies at the École Polytechnique Federal of Lausanne. It’s a rather unusual path for a watchmaker to study at such a technical institution. What prompted the choice?
On my mother’s side, both my grandfather and great-grandfather were watchmakers. On my father’s side, there’s a long line of scientists. Just as I was attracted to watchmaking on my mother’s side, I was also pulled towards physics and science on my paternal side, so I wanted to pursue this interest further. Watchmaking school was very regimented, and you were treated much more like a child, whereas university life also tempted me because of the freedom it offered.
Working completely by hand, he is able to produce components on such a small scale, courtesy of Cyril Brivet-Naudot.
Where did you choose to go after your studied?
I spent some time working on restoring antique watches, which I tremendously enjoyed, because I got the opportunity to discover the ingenuity that was used in the past. If you look at Italian clocks from the 14th to the 16th century, there’s an incredible amount of innovation. You discover that watchmakers often went for the simplest solution to any problem, which can often be difficult to achieve. I’d seen from others before me, be it Stephen Forsey or Philippe Dufour, that restoration could prove to be a great foundation for then creating your own pieces. It’s one of the best ways to learn to be innovative.
“Being completely passive wouldn’t suit me, but absolutely controlling everything also isn’t something I’m after. Balancing the two feels important to me…”
Were there any areas of watchmaking that particularly fascinated you during this time?
It’s at this moment that I became particularly inspired by the work of Pierre Le Roy, a great watchmaker from the 18th century, who essentially developed the foundations of the modern precision clock, with his détente escapement or temperature-compensated balance. His work became the foundation of the watch I would then try and develop myself. Of course, the work of George Daniels also captivated me. In my eyes, he’s one of the few watchmakers to defy the standardisation of tastes and mentality which the Swiss model adopted following industrialisation.
An old pocket watch that Brivet-Naudot has drawn inspiration from, courtesy of Brivet-Naudot.
When did the goal of creating your own watch come about?
It was a dream from my student days. From when I started studying, I developed a great affinity with truly handmade work. One of my first projects at school was designing a power reserve system. I remember designing everything on paper out of respect for the old ways, despite the fact that I was perfectly competent on computer aided design software. It speaks to the traditional side of me. This was when the idea of an entirely handmade watch was born.
So creating was particularly important to you?
Yes, I think it’s a shame that many watchmakers are confined to restoring the work of others, despite the fact that truly great things have been made in the past. If there were no watchmakers creating today, there would be a gap in the history of horology. Towards the end of my studies, I started working with a friend of mine who also wanted to create a watch. As a result of life, he didn’t necessarily have as much motivation or availability as me. We developed the reworked version of the free eccentric escapement together, which works a bit like a detent escapement, which you mostly find in marine chronometers. In this version, two locking pallets control the motion of the escapement wheel. This improves the stability and shock-resistance of the escapement without losing the chronometric precision that this type of escapement typically provides. Eventually though, I ended up making the watch myself.
"I’d seen from others before me, be it Stephen Forsey or Philippe Dufour, that restoration could prove to be a great foundation for then creating your own pieces..."
How long did it take?
From the point where I started, it took about three years, on and off.
What was that journey like?
I learnt quite a lot, about watchmaking, but also myself. I’d been quite theoretical and technical up to this point, so I also learnt more about some of the more artistic elements that are needed to create your own work. Once the functional parts are defined, everything else is an aesthetic choice. When I started the watch, I didn’t necessarily know where it would end up.
His first watch that was nominated for a GPHG award, courtesy of Cyril Brivet-Naudot.
And on a personal level, how do you feel you evolved?
It brought me closer to the feeling of being an artisan, in the widest sense of the word. Funnily enough, I found more affinity with other types of artisans, such as bakers or shoemakers, than other watchmakers. As I mentioned, the kind of work I do isn’t common amongst watchmakers. It makes me think that it’s really the artisanal approach which speaks to me. I’d probably rather by an artisanal cabinetmaker than be a watchmaker at a larger manufacture. That’s also why I feel more at home with those types of people. This project taught me that.
Of course, you’ve also been lucky to find some collectors to support your project, which must’ve helped immensely.
It wouldn’t have been possible without them. When I first presented my watch, I got an overwhelming number of people reaching out. It was completely new to me, and it took me a month to respond to all of them. Even being able to get closer with watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour or Vianney Halter has been incredibly special for me. The most recent project I worked on was a watch with a power reserve, where the client entirely trusted me on the project and the aesthetics. I sent it to him, and he had no idea what it would look like. That level of trust is really new to me, I’m still getting used to it.
Brivet-Naudot in his workshop, courtesy of Pauline Girard.
Having only just started as an independent watchmaker, do you see continuing on this path for a long time?
I don’t really have any long-term plans, though one thing I know for certain is that I don’t want to grow, have employees, a boutique under my name, or anything like that. I want to keep making around one watch a year. Once I’ve made ten or fifteen of those, maybe I’ll see if I want to move onto anything else.
"The most recent project I worked on was a watch with a power reserve, where the client entirely trusted me on the project and the aesthetics...."
That sounds like a long-term plan to me [Laughs].
[Laughs] I suppose it is. What interests me in earning money through my work is the ability to take my time with things. That’s the most useful commodity I can think of. I’m not looking to earn money, but rather gain as much time as possible.
Some of the technical drawing for Brivet-Naudot’s new timepiece, courtesy of Cyril Brivet-Naudot.
Our thanks to Cyril Brivet-Naudot for taking the time to speak with us about his ongoing watchmaking journey and giving us a first look at his latest creation. For more, check out his website.