September 2020 23 Min Read

How Philippe Dufour Crafts The World's Finest Watches

By A Collected Man

Chapter II of II

Throughout his life, Philippe Dufour has been guided by an unwavering pursuit for perfection. Or as close to it as humanly possible. This human element is essential to Dufour’s story, for he does not seek to achieve his standards through any and all means accessible to him. Rather, his work is a testament to the long-lost approach to watchmaking, where a single individual uses his hands and the most rudimentary of tools to design, assemble and decorate a watch. 

Having previously covered the story of how Dufour became a watchmaker, we now turn our attention to the products of that pursuit, looking at the body of work he produced under his own name, once he stopped working “for the others”, as Dufour would put it. The Grande Sonnerie, the Duality and the Simplicity are the watches that have gained Dufour much of the respect he now commands, from Japan to California.

All three have been made in limited numbers, completely by hand and in the traditional Vallée de Joux style. It’s this approach, as well as the array of traditional techniques used, that make Dufour’s watches stand apart from anything else to come out of Switzerland in the last few decades. In order to gain a real understanding of these pieces and the craft involved in putting them together, we spoke to the man himself, while also gathering insights from a select group of collectors and watchmakers who know Dufour and his work inside and out.

The three models that Dufour has made since launching his brand.

In our various conversations, the one aspect that came up, time and time again, is how Dufour’s personality is central to all of his designs. If he had a bigger team around him, it’s possible that this essence would be diluted. However, thanks to his drive and the ability to work on his own, or with one or two other watchmakers, his pieces have become extensions of the man himself.

Mr Dufour is well known for utilising techniques that have been around for centuries, which most contemporary watchmakers have turned away from – for example, using a bow to polish the sinks in the bridge or going out into the forest to collect his own wood for the final stages of polishing. If every watchmaker at a large manufacture were to do this, could you imagine just how long the waiting lists would be? 

The First Three

Dufour has only produced three series models in his time as an independent watchmaker. His Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater, the Duality and the Simplicity. The first, and possibly the most complex of the three was inspired by a contract he fulfilled for Audemars Piguet, which we covered in our previous article. For those who might not have read it, Dufour designed a Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater pocket watch movement, of which Audemars Piguet ordered five.

His experience with the brand wasn’t as smooth or harmonious as he had hoped for, and from this point onwards, he vowed to “never work for the others again.” So, after a survey of horological history, he discovered that no one had yet managed to shrink the venerable Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater down to wristwatch size. So, in order to make the necessary impact and put his newly launched eponymous brand on the map, he decided to mark a world first in 1992.

The wristwatch that Dufour released next to the pocket watch he made for Audemars Piguet.

Announcing his new watch, and brand, to the world at Baselworld, Dufour would also join the Académie des Horlogers et Créatures Indépendants (AHCI) in the same year. This group was comprised of George Daniels, Francois-Paul Journe, Franck Muller and many other of the great independent watchmakers of the time. “This was just such a great place, where you could walk up to someone like Dufour or Journe and talk to them about the watches”, is how Michael Hickcox, a seasoned collector and original owner of a Simplicity for about fifteen years now, describes the AHCI booths at Baselworld. This direct-to-customer relationship, which Dufour has developed over the years, has been a cornerstone for the watchmaker.   

The Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater was produced in very limited numbers, with SJX stating that only four were made in the original run. These were cased in white, yellow and pink gold, as well as platinum, with white enamel dials throughout. It took most of the ‘90s to produce these four and then, in 1999, Dufour released what is arguably his most remarkable watch: a Grande-Sonnerie minute-repeater with a sapphire dial. With bulbous arrow-shaped hands replacing the blued Breguet-style originals and arrow markers instead of the painted Roman ones on the first series, this clear dial exposed all of the Sonnerie’s workings, displaying Dufour’s prodigious talent for finishing and movement design to its fullest. Only four of these are known to have been made, in both white and pink gold.

The sapphire dial version of Dufour's Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater, courtesy of Michael Tay. Alongside a solid dial Grande Sonnerie that was undergoing a service by Dufour, courtesy of Michael Hickcox.

After the Sonnerie, Dufour introduced one of his most sought-after timepieces, the Duality. The very first, No. 00, sold at Phillips back in 2017, having been made in 1996. Originally slated to be produced in a run of 25 models, only nine were thought to have been produced; although it is now believed by some that a tenth was possibly made. His second release, also represented a (second) world first, beating everyone else at placing two escapements inside a wristwatch – pre-dating Francois-Paul Journe’s Resonance by three, short years. It should be noted here that the Duality does not operate using the same principles as Journe’s Resonance. The escapements are not close enough to exploit the natural phenomenon of resonance, but instead are joined by a mechanical differential. The logic behind having two balances connected in this way is that it allows you to average out their rates, thus improving accuracy. If one runs slightly faster and the other a bit slower, both rate variations can cancel each other out. This produces less variation across all different positions.

Dufour's Duality.

The inspiration for the Duality came from a small number of school watches from the Vallée de Joux watchmaking school – the same school that Dufour graduated from in the 1930s. These pocket watches had a single gear train delivering power to two balance wheels through a differential. Shrinking this component down to a size that would fit in a wristwatch was one of Dufour’s biggest hurdles. Eventually, he managed to get this down to approximately the size of a matchstick head, giving him more space in the movement for the large balance wheels, both of which take-up a serious amount of space when seen through the sapphire case back.

A deconstruction of the differential that helps drive the Duality, courtesy of Philippe Dufour.

While still a rare thing to see, it could be argued that today a certain corner of the market is used to the idea of a double balanced watch. Indeed, a number of brands offer them, with varying degrees of success and popularity. However, in 1996, this was almost unheard of and never before seen on the wrist. Only a few were aware of double-balanced pocket watches, so when this first came to market, it instantly solidified Dufour’s name as a master watchmaker.

Two watches and two world firsts on the wrist. His brand had not been going for very long at this point, but his name was beginning to draw more and more attention, thanks to his ground-breaking movement design and peerless finishing. Dufour admitted to us that if he got the chance, he “would like to make a Duality Mark II, where I could shift the position of the differential to enable more power to be put through it.” That being said, we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath, as this won’t be coming out any time soon.

Dufour's Simplicity.

Four years after he launched his second watch, he was ready to announce his third and, so far, his final creation, the Simplicity. Originally, it was intended to be a 34mm time-only watch made in his usual variation of golds and platinum. As we discussed in chapter one, the inspiration behind this new model was a following that Dufour had begun to amass in Japan. The Japanese market has, for a long time, been a centre of appreciation for fine craft, understated yet balanced design, and smaller sized watches.

The concept behind this watch was slightly removed from the two that preceded it and it would also be the one he would make in the largest volume. Indeed, Dufour confirmed to us that about 215 Simplicities have now been made. It is also believed that there is a current waiting list of over 60 clients, who are still waiting to receive their watches, if the watchmaker chooses or is able to fulfil their order.

Dufour later introduced a 37mm version of the Simplicity, with the choice of a lacquer dial that is similar to the original Grande Sonnerie or a silver guilloché with applied markers. Both of these dials are produced by Metalem, proudly displaying the dial maker’s name at 6 o’clock. An unusual addition to watch face, it apparently was made part of the contract between Dufour and Metalem because the original order was so small, they refused to do it unless their name could appear on the dial. 

One version of this watch, which is believed to be unique, and was not made to order for a specific client, has a diamond-set case. This is not a later modification, as is often the case, having been delivered by Dufour in this exact configuration. With precious stones covering all sides of the case and lugs, it has been seen on a pink leather strap and apparently went unsold for some time before finding a home. Not something we would expect from the master watchmaker, but there was clearly a market for one.

Dufour's Simplicity from the back 

Another unusual Simplicity worth mentioning, is one that gathers some of the most desirable characteristics one could possibly hope to find in a contemporary or vintage watch. The fact it’s a Simplicity elevates it to nothing short of grail status. The watch in question has a 37mm stainless steel case, with a vintage golden dial featuring eastern Arabic markers. You read that right. The modern horological world being a rather curious one, its existence was first revealed to the world through an Instagram post by the original owner, Simon Sfeir.

Made over the last year or so, this unique Simplicity was made for the son of Claude Sfeir, an industry veteran and indisputably one of the most established collectors in the world, who owns the only Patek Philippe Sky-Moon Tourbillon in titanium, as well as a Rolex 4113 Split-Seconds, among other things. Beyond his impressive collection, he has been a long-time friend and supporter of Dufour. The watch was commissioned to celebrate the wedding of his son Simon, hence why one can read “SCSfeir” engraved on the movement plate, where a number typically sits. 

The documents accompanying a Dufour Simplicity.

We then travel to the other side of the world, with a unique piece which stands as a testament to Dufour’s enduring relationship with Japan. It was made to mark the 100th Anniversary of Kamine, the Japanese retailer which helped cement the watchmaker’s reputation in the country. It is noteworthy for featuring Breguet numerals, as well as the words “Kamine 100th” and “Unique piece” on the dial. It is a powerful statement to the relationship between the watchmaker and the retailer that Dufour would not only create this unique piece, but also omit his own name from the dial. It is believed to that the piece sits within the personal collection of Toru Kamine, the CEO of the Kobe based retailer.

Dufour has always been influenced by the watches made in the Vallée de Joux between 1850 and 1920. This is why many of his movements contain traditional components, materials and finishing techniques. His balance springs, for example, are made from steel, whereas many of the large brands today have started to lean towards silicon or silicon-mix hairsprings for the advantages they bring. 

However, looking back at old pocket watches made over 100 years ago, which still run today with very little intervention, Dufour asks the question, “Why change anything?” In 100 years-time people will still know how to make steel hairsprings. However, will the machines that make silicon springs still be around? Will they become outdated and be replaced by something new, making it impossible to get spare parts? It’s this long term thinking that echoes through all of Dufour’s watches.

The Techniques

Dufour’s watches are made to last and they are made in a lasting style, but what truly makes his pieces stand out is the techniques he uses. The techniques were not pioneered by him, “I have not invented anything”, Dufour will be the first to admit. They are not even new in how they are applied; these are the techniques that have been practiced in the Vallée since watchmaking began there centuries ago.

The only concession Dufour has made to modern times is the use of CAD, or computer-aided design, when designing his movements. In fact, he was one of the first to truly embrace the new technology in the industry. “I used a few sketches for my Grande Sonnerie pocket watch” Dufour tells us, “that’s all I needed, because when I closed my eyes at night, I could fly through the movement. Seeing all the tiny details in three dimensions, just using my mind.” However, when it came to shrinking this down, in order to fit inside a wristwatch, he needed something more precise.

So, he turned to his old school and asked them what he needed to design on the computer. A professor gave him all the required specifications and showed him the basics of how to use the software. Dufour asked the professor if he could keep everything he saw in his workshop completely confidential, however, a week after getting his computer set up, he saw a friend in a restaurant who came straight up to him and asked how he was getting on with his new computer designing. Watchmaking in the Vallée can be a very small world. Needless to say, Dufour didn’t go back to the professor after that.

Dufour's CAD drawing of the Duality movement, courtesy of Philippe Dufour.

While Dufour continues to use CAD to this day, he says he still doesn’t design in three dimensions on it. He only uses it for 2D drawings of his movements and components. But then again, why bother learning how to draw in 3D when you can just close your eyes and fly through the movement? Once the movement is designed, it’s back to his traditional methods of milling, cutting, filing and polishing to construct it all. 

Two technical drawings by Dufour for parts of the Grande Sonnerie wristwatch, courtesy of Philippe Dufour.

We spoke with Peter Speake, the watchmaker and co-founder behind The Naked Watchmaker, to get the insight of someone who appreciates the intricacies of Dufour’s work more than many, thanks to his years of experience in complex watch construction. He witnessed one of these antiquated techniques when visiting Dufour at his workshop. “As I walked into his workshop he was sitting down, heating up a small steel end piece preparing to be hardened. It was in a small tube, which he then quenched in oil afterwards to harden it. This is a classic but early technique we were taught at school but rarely execute in a commercial world.

“This is certainly not the only way to harden an end piece, there are companies that specialise in the same process, but on much larger scales and volumes, using a more automated method, but when executing a handful of parts, classic techniques such as used by Philippe are perfect.”

The result of focused, enduring craft, courtesy of Sotheby's.

This technique that Speake witnessed is typical of Dufour’s work – not cutting edge or innovative but done to a level that cannot be matched by others who hope to produce larger quantities. “He has always stayed very small”, Speake tells us, “maintaining the same quality, because he controls and checks everything himself.” This level of quality is frequently talked about when it comes to Dufour’s finishing. In fact, it is often the first thing anyone will talk about when Dufour’s work is brought up.

“A Geneva stripe decoration on a movement bridge is not complicated to make”, Speake explains, “but as with all things if you want to do it perfectly it takes longer, and you have to know what perfect is.” For those with an untrained eye, it might be hard to tell right away the difference between an everyday Geneva stripe and one made with the care and attention that Dufour brings to the task. Speake details to us that a giveaway is “the juncture between the stripe and the angling on the side of the bridge.” If this transition is seamless, with no step between the anglage and the grain of the stripe, you can tell that real care and attention was paid to the finish.

A technical drawing of Dufour's Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater wristwatch, courtesy of Philippe Dufour.

This is what you’ll find if you peer through a loupe at any of Dufour’s movements. This way of doing things is not only for the sake of demonstrating skill. In fact, it actually helps the movement look better overall, which is the primary function of finishing, which is purely decorative. Gary Getz, a prominent collector, owner of a Simplicity and part of a tight-knit group of collectors who take Dufour to dinner once a year, agrees. Indeed, he believes that the light interacts with Dufour’s movements differently because of how good the finishing is.

“The movements just glow”, according to Getz. There is a video online by IBG Worldwide where Dufour demonstrates how he chamfers the edges of his bridges; another technique he uses that most large manufactures have substituted for faster, more automated, but ultimately less beautiful, alternatives. In it, you see Dufour with the bridge in his left hand and the file in his right, rubbing the two against each other. 

The movement of the Duality as captured by Gary Getz.

Getz saw this video, and when the pair next met, he asked Dufour why he didn’t keep the bridge still and file around the edge. Dufour’s answer, “it’s like playing the violin. When you put the bow on the string, the bow has to find the string and the string has to find the bow. If you held the violin stiff in your hand you could never make music.” Using this technique, Dufour is able to create perfectly rounded edges to his bridges. This is most on display on the barrel bridge above the centre wheel where you’ll find Dufour’s emblematic “horns”. Both have been chamfered to symmetrical points, catching the light from every angle.

You may be aware that, traditionally, in the first few months of watchmaking school, all students make their own tools. Dufour went through this process when he started to become a watchmaker back in the 1960s, and the tools he made then are still put to work on his bench today. However, these are not the only tools that Dufour makes himself to facilitate the crafting of his timepieces. In the final stages of polishing, there are various types of wood needed to ensure a flawless finish. One of these types of wood comes from a plant that grows near Dufour’s workshop. On a yearly basis, just before the snow falls, Dufour will head out and collect as many of them as he needs, fashioning them into polishing tools on his return. This is possibly the best example of how Dufour is involved in every aspect of making his watches.

A collection of Dufour's polishing sticks, courtesy of Peter Speake.

The final technique that we wanted to highlight here was the polishing of the sinks that jewels and screws sit in. He does this using a piece of peg wood which is then spun using a bow. The bow is made from a flexible piece of wood and a string that is wrapped around a barrel. Flicking the bow back and forth spins this barrel which in turn spins the peg wood inside the sink; an incredibly manual process that has been modernised and almost automated in most workshops today.

Dufour, however, does this to better control the outcome, or has he put it “because I couldn’t find any better way.” Even though he is looking at the sink the entire time, he is also feeling the temperature of the bow. When it reaches a certain heat, he knows it’s perfect. He puts all of his senses to work, in order to ensure that the finished product is as close to what he envisions when he closes his eyes and flies through his movement.

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, Dufour lives and works by a constant pursuit of perfection. The fact he works alone is not only an attempt to create in the most traditional way, but also a biproduct of just how high his standards are, such that few can meet them. Hickcox was quick to highlight just how demanding Dufour’s work is, “on a visit to his workshop, he had two other watchmakers working for him at the time. One of them, however, was clearly working out his notice period. Because what Dufour does is so difficult, the good watchmakers that work for him end up leaving to capitalise on their time under him and the others just can’t keep up.” Not every graduate from WOSTEP or similar schools are capable of working for Dufour, as the demands placed on them by his level of quality isn’t something that can be taught to all. Then again, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The Inspiration

As we mentioned above, Dufour draws most of his inspiration from the pocket watches that he helped to restore for auction houses, made between 1850 and 1920. Constructed in the classic Vallée de Joux style, being able to take them apart, see how they worked and what techniques were used in their making was endlessly instructive for Dufour.

It’s not just the use of Geneva stripes that Dufour borrowed from these vintage movements, but the overall architecture as well. Splitting the bridges for each wheel of the going train is a well-recognised characteristic of this approach and can be seen in a number of brands’ movements today. Dufour took these long, curved bridges and styled them to his liking in his Simplicity movement. He also makes use of a large barrel bridge that covers about half of the movement. Not only is this a far more secure way of fixing all of the pivots and wheels, but it also provides a fantastic canvas for his finishing techniques to be displayed.

A double escapement pocket watch movement made by Piguet in the 1930s next to Dufour's Duality movement.

The similarities between the Duality movement and that of this Piguet double escapement watch are startling; from the positioning of the differential to the black mirror polished end pieces on the escape wheel bridges. This is more than just Dufour copying an aesthetic he likes – it is an homage. It is his way of keeping important watchmaking traditions alive. As Dufour has said to Getz in the past, “I have no secrets as past watchmakers had. The graveyards are full of secrets and that’s enough.”

The mirror polished end piece and Geneva stripes sitting perfectly together, courtesy of Peter Speake.

Dufour feels a real connection to where he’s from in the Vallée and the strong heritage of watchmaking there. All the techniques and design language he uses, he has learnt from his masters and tutors before him. There is nothing new about what he is doing, but that in itself is extraordinary; being brave enough to not use his skill as a watchmaker to go for something more modern, but instead reach into the past and bring back forgotten ways.

The Collectors

One aspect of Dufour’s watches that cannot be ignored is the community that has gathered around them. Despite the fact that Dufour has made less than 250 watches, those who follow and own an example of his work have formed a collective stronger than nearly any other. Hickcox, who is part of the same group of North Californian collectors as Getz, shared an experience that all original Dufour owners will recognise: the wait for his watch. “I waited a good few number of years. Nowadays, I think collectors are trained to expect things to work in years, but back then that wasn’t really the case.”

This has always been a consideration for anyone wishing to commission a watch from Dufour, purely because of the amount of work that goes into each piece. Pair this with the sheer number of people that want to own his watches and it can mean a long wait for your watch to arrive. Hickcox believes that when Dufour was making his second series of 100 Simplicities, it was down to just him in the workshop, with very little help, if any at all. This meant it took him far longer than the previous 100 to produce. 

Hickcox tells us a story of one SIHH when he and a group of collectors were going to dinner with Dufour, “I was walking with him from the booth to the taxi and, just within that short distance, he must have been stopped half a dozen times by people wanting to shake his hand and order a watch. He gracefully said no to each of them, saying he wasn’t taking orders anymore.”

A rare sight, two Simplicity watches together, captured by Michael Hickcox.

Not to sound too morbid, but the waiting times can be so long that some people have actually passed away while waiting for them. According to Hickcox, there was a religious group in Fiji that decided that they wanted to buy their leader a selection of watches. Among them they chose a Simplicity. Unfortunately, the religious leader died just before the watch arrived and so his followers decided to bury him with the watch instead. We’re pretty certain that is one Simplicity that won’t find its way back onto the market any time soon.

Dufour finds himself in a fairly unique position, in that his company is so small that not only does he design, make and finish all of his watches, but he is the main point of contact for anyone looking to buy and service their watch as well. This means that many of the pieces he makes, he will hand deliver to the client, or they will come into the workshop to collect it.

Getz says that “in any photo of Dufour handing over a watch to its new owner, he is always looking at the watch with a massive smile. It is a small piece of himself that he is handing over.” It’s this giving nature of Dufour that seems to have attracted so many to the cult-like following of his work. It’s also why his watches seem to achieve such great prices when they, very rarely, come up for sale.

Getz being handed his Simplicity by Dufour, courtesy of Oliver Meindl.

The prices of his watches seem to have increased dramatically in the past decade. The most obvious example of this, and the easiest to trace, is the Duality No.00. When it first came to the market at Christie’s in 2007, it hammered at CHF 180,000, then nearly exactly 10 years later, it appeared again at Phillips and sold for $915,000. Even with interest and exchange rates, that is a remarkable appreciation, demonstrating the growing legend of the man and his work. As is the case with many of the independents, as more people discover them and learn the story behind the work, the allure of their early pieces increases dramatically. While a watch of his selling for close to £1 million may have seemed remarkable in 2007, nowadays collectors would be climbing over each other to get one of his watches at the level they sold for in the early 2000s.

According to Getz, you can trace Dufour’s widespread popularity to a small group of five collectors in Singapore. It was these five who started to spread his craftsmanship on the forums and began to commission a lot of his early work. After they had started to spread the word, Japanese collectors began to follow him, giving Dufour the confidence to produce more of his Simplicities than any of his other previous models. 

His following in Japan is so deep and long-standing that he has travelled there multiple times over the years. He has been introduced to a number of his collectors, who have in turn introduced him to their families. Dufour told us that every time he goes back, he sees that their children have grown more and more. Being able to have a relationship like this with the man who made your watch, from start to finish, is a very rare thing in the 21st century, and it is something that Dufour’s collectors seem to cherish just as much as their watches.

Dufour at his workbench in the Vallée.

This human proximity exists not only between Dufour and his clients, but also between those who collect his work. On a visit to Dufour’s manufacture in about 2011, Hickcox, along with a small group of collectors, spotted a tray full of Simplicity movements. “He must have been batch producing them at this time, as he had one or two other watchmakers working for him. Of these 10 or 12 movements, each of them had a small name card next to them with the future customer’s first name on. Of these name slips, our group was able to figure out about six or seven. This speaks to not just the nature of the hobby, but also how his watches were very much a word of mouth kind of thing.” A great example of how tight knit this community of Dufour collectors is, with some even placing group orders with the watchmaker. While Instagram, forums and other platforms have helped spread an appreciation for Dufour’s work, many of those who are able to place an order still come from a well-insulated group of collectors.

When Does Craft Become Art?

There is a lot of work, passion and emotion that goes into Dufour’s creations. From the wood that he has picked himself for polishing to the ceremonial experience of hand delivering his work to clients, the watchmaker is so inextricably intertwined with his watches that it is impossible to separate the two. Studying his pieces can almost feel like an examination of the man himself.

In an attempt to better understand the almost cult like fascination that surrounds him, we’ve dissected the techniques and inspiration for Dufour’s pieces, however, as with all great things, the answer is often more than just the sum of its parts. In a way, what matters most with Dufour is his almost artistic approach to watchmaking. His work is uncompromising, imbued with the spirit of the watchmaker and, most importantly, it feels like its appeal is forever lasting. Dufour’s personality, and the fascination and admiration it conveys, only helps to round this all off.

These qualities are obvious in those who have followed his work from the beginning. Those who have been able to discern between a machine which can artificially create perfection and the quality of something hand-made, both in its unique voice and dedication to craft, have seen the value of the watchmaker’s art.

Any discussion relating watches to art should often be treated with caution, as this remark is often hyperbolic, and so frequently used, that it has become a cliché. However, if one cannot discuss the artistic merits of Dufour’s work, then we feel hard-pressed to think what area of the horological world would deserve such a label. The man, his aura, his belief and his craft all culminate in watches that – despite what we’ve attempted to do in this article – have an appeal which is hard to quantify or explain. Then again, that feels true for the best of things.

Our thanks, once again, to Philippe Dufour for taking the time to speak with us about his creations and share a few of his technical drawings. We would also like to thank Peter Speake, Michael Tay, Michael Hickcox and Gary Getz for sharing their experiences with Dufour and his watches along with a selection of images.