August 2020 16 Min Read

Philippe Dufour's Journey To Becoming a Watchmaker

By Russell Sheldrake

Chapter I of II

The name Philippe Dufour is one that can elicit equal amounts of excitement and envy from most watch collectors. The 72-year-old has been making watches independently for nearly three decades now, consistently creating understated and elegant pieces, which pay homage to a long-lost tradition of watchmaking.

Upon first handling one of his watches, a collector might forgiven for being a little confused as to the aura that surrounds them. They are, in almost every respect, understated and short of eye-catching details. However, that is their very point. The few watches created by Dufour do not seek to distinguish themselves through innovation, but rather by providing an exceptionally classic aesthetic, combined with what can only be described as the finest movement finishing found in any contemporary watch.

The Simplicity, the watchmaker’s flagship timepiece of which only two hundred and four were made over the first 12 years, is based on the traditional movement architecture and artistic expressions of the Vallée de Joux from 1850 to 1920, considered by many to be the golden age of traditional, Swiss watchmaking. Dufour’s work compels us to consider the fact that whilst watchmaking has been carried forward by a constant desire for innovation and change, much of the know-how has been lost.

Philippe Dufour an older man with white hair wearing a white shift and surrounded by watchmaking tools in his office

Philippe Dufour in his atelier that was a farm house in a previous life.

Although his work is now revered, not much is known about the man himself. Prior to creating pieces under his own name, he worked for manufacturers like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet, while also restoring vintage watches for auction houses, where he discovered his fascination for a bygone era of watchmaking. Through equal parts luck, hard work and talent, he would come to capture the imagination of discerning collectors, from Tokyo to the Silicon Valley. In an attempt to better understand the man and his early work, we put together a two-part series of articles. First, we are looking at his journey to becoming a watchmaker, with the second chapter delving into the pieces themselves. With that in mind, let’s find out a little more about Philippe Dufour.

Made in the Vallée De Joux

Both Philippe Dufour’s father and mother worked in the watchmaking industry. His father was based in a factory near Le Sentier, while his mother worked from home, making components for a supplier to a number of brands. She would make parts for the balance and the hairspring, which was fairly complex work to be done by hand, from home. Even his grandfather was a watchmaker, having spent much of his career at Jaeger-LeCoultre and passing on a selection of tools for Philippe to use, as the only grandchild who chose the same career path. He told us that he still uses some of those tools to this day.

Born in 1948, with three siblings, Dufour would be the first to admit that he was not the best pupil at school. When we spoke to him for the purpose of this article, he told us, “I didn’t have much interest for most of the subjects, apart from languages; I always found that interesting”, which actually came in use later in life. However, his aptitude for other core topics, especially mathematics, was lacking. At the age of 15, his parents told him that he was not cut-out for university and because his older brother was already living and studying in Lucerne, he would have to find a profession that he could pursue in the Vallée.

Dufour in watchmaking school in 1964.

For those who have been to the Vallée de Joux, you will know that it does not offer wide range of career options. This was particularly the case back then. In the ‘60s, there was little there apart from the traditional industries of farming and watchmaking to turn to. Dufour actually worked on a couple of local farms, just doing odd jobs, however he knew that farming could never be a long-term prospect for him, as his family didn’t own one.

So, he went to the Ecole d’Horologerie in Le Sentier, where he was immediately given a test to see what he was capable of. What he already knew was confirmed. Indeed, as Dufour recounts, “they told me that my head and hands were working well, but my maths wasn’t great.” He was only just good enough to start the watchmaking course. It could be argued that it was a very good thing for the watch world that Dufour’s math’s wasn’t so good at the age of fifteen. Had he been more academic, he would have chosen a more traditional career path, and we might be without the Simplicity and the Duality.

A brown-toned antique photo of the watchmaking school that Dufour attended, with a group of people posing for photographs outside it

The building of the Ecole d'Horologerie in 1907, courtesy of the Espace Horloger Vallée de Joux.

In the first few months of watchmaking school, you craft your own tools. You are taught how to machine and mill a solid block of steel or brass to create something useful. This is how it has been done for generations in the Vallée. Handmade tools making handmade watches. Once these tools are finished, you can start working on your school watch, the first step for any young watchmaker hoping to learn every process, start to finish, to produce a fully functioning timepiece. For Dufour, this three-year journey was one that he describes as “magical”. The very first step, when the crown wheel and ratchet wheel mesh together and one begins to drive the other, captivated the young Dufour. The obsession with watchmaking had begun.

Obviously, Dufour did not create something of equivalent quality to a Simplicity as part of his schoolwork. Reaching such levels would take decades. However, he was still excelling in his studies. He may have had to work slightly harder at the maths, but practically, he was proving his worth. There was very little he couldn’t do, and when it came time to graduate, he was ready to look beyond the world of watchmaking inside the Vallée de Joux. As Dufour put it, “in watchmaking school, they tell you that those in the Vallée are the best. Only we can make watches to such a high standard.” Every other style and region were incorrect, in the eyes of those who lived in and around Le Sentier. This was the belief that Dufour was brought up on, however he was curious to see what was beyond the Jura mountains.

His first job after graduation was with Jaeger-LeCoultre, not too far away from his Vallée de Joux roots. However, in his initial contract, he requested a special clause be written in, allowing him to do one year in their Paris workshop, enabling him to travel and expand his horizons. This was an experience which the young Dufour greatly anticipated. The only problem was that the year he was due to go was 1968. Anyone familiar with French history will know that this was not the best time to be in the French capital, due to the student riots that were taking place. Not wanting to throw one of their novice watchmakers into a potentially dangerous situation, Jaeger-LeCoultre decided to send Dufour to Germany instead. Not as romantic a destination, but just as interesting.

A young Dufour taken in 1972 while he was working for Jaeger-LeCoultre.

While in Germany, Dufour was working in the aftersales department, where he saw dozens of the company’s watches come through for a service. While handling these, he noticed a pattern emerging. Specifically, there was a pinion that was wearing out time and time again with a certain calibre. When he got back to Switzerland, he presented his findings to his superiors, claiming that there must have been a manufacturing defect with a specific component in the calibre. They asked him how many examples of this wearing-out he had observed, to which he responded five. This was far too small a number to concern them, as it represented an insignificant percentage of the overall production. However, in Dufour’s eyes, it was more than enough to cause concern. Nevertheless, no change was made, to Dufour’s frustration.

Back in the manufacture, the watchmaker was given the opportunity to work with the man whom he claims had the most profound impact on his professional career and education in watchmaking, Gabriel Locatelli. In the annals of independent watchmaking history, Charles Meylan shaped Kari Voutilainen, George Daniels trained Roger Smith and inspired François-Paul Journe, and Locatelli played a similar role for Dufour. “He was an incredibly sharp watchmaker”, Dufour tells us, “he taught me all the things you don’t learn at watchmaking school.” The two of them worked in what Dufour described as a laboratory at Jaeger-LeCoultre, where they spent their time creating new movements, mainly through trial and error.

Their close relationship survived well beyond their time at Jaeger-LeCoultre, with Locatelli later helping Dufour build the Simplicity prototype. To land such a position, especially as your first job after graduation, clearly shows what a prodigious talent the young Dufour was. Working so closely with Locatelli proved to be an unparalleled education for the young watchmaker, helping to build on the talent he’d already displayed. He also began to gain a deeper understanding of how to develop and build a new calibre from the ground up. While he claims he had no desire to become independent at this point, he was clearly starting to pick up the necessary skills, which would one day carry him into independence.

On The Move

After spending his time in Germany, Dufour’s desire to travel still hadn’t been quenched. His next stop was the United Kingdom and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s workshop in Sutton. He worked there for about two years and in that time, he oversaw the teaching of the watchmakers in servicing the manufacture’s movements. He was also sent on special assignments, when important pieces were brought in for service. He told us of one such time when he was sent to Churchill’s manor to repair the Atmos clock that he had been gifted after the Second World War. Dufour added, “we fixed it for free, of course.” He still remembers the clock in great detail as well, “there was nothing wrong with it, except that it was a bit dirty. It was a pink colour, with blue screws and engraved with a V for Victory.” Not your everyday timepiece to service, but yet again it was Dufour who, through his talent, had managed to position himself to work on something special.

 The Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 352.

After spending time in England, Dufour was back in the Vallée to help train Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watchmakers on their newest movement: the calibre 352, which was a collaboration between Jaeger-LeCoultre and Girard Perregaux, to create a Swiss-made quartz watch. While the thought of Dufour explaining a quartz movement is rather amusing in its absurdity, the watchmaker described this job to us as being very easy to get bored doing. Changing circuit boards and replacing batteries is not something that challenged or engaged Dufour very much. He was quickly on the lookout for something else, somewhere else.

He spotted an ad in a newspaper offering a job for a watchmaker on the U.S. Virgin Islands. The way that he tells it, he was off to the Caribbean in a flash. Not the first location that comes to mind when you think of watchmaking, but the freeport of the Saint Croix island meant it was cheap to import all of the raw materials they needed. This tax haven was so popular that on an island that was only 40km long, there were 14 watch manufacturers. All they had to do to take advantage of the financial advantages of being based there was hire a certain number of local people. Unfortunately, what was originally meant to be a three-year program was cut short by a year, due to the dollar crash in 1974. Dufour ended up unemployed. 

Slightly different surroundings to the Vallée de Joux: the view from Recovery Hill on Saint Croix island.

On his return to Switzerland, he found a job with Gerald Genta, the designer who birthed the Nautilus and the Royal Oak, who had started his own business just five years prior. Dufour describes this as not being great match, due to the clash of personalities between the two men. Clearly both Genta and Dufour were too headstrong to work together. From there, he moved to Audemars Piguet where he worked for another year or so before spotting an ad for a company in La Chaux-de-Fonds called Comor watches. This would again prove Dufour’s knack for being in the right place at the right time.  

The First Steps Towards Independence

The owner of Comor had bought a batch of repeater and chronograph pocket watch movements that needed refurbishing and casing. In order to figure out how they worked and how they could be utilised, Dufour gave one of each to two of his watchmaking friends, for them to strip apart and put back together. They both returned their watches completely disassembled in little boxes. It was clear that this was going to be a challenge. The original owner of the company got frustrated and realised it was going to be far more expensive than he had first thought. So, Dufour made a deal, to buy the movements from him for what he had paid and relieve him of any responsibility. Just like that, Dufour was independent and working for himself. Another instance of being at the right place, at right time. Just like his career in watchmaking wasn’t his choice, it would seem he became independent by chance as well.

Quickly, Dufour figured out that these pocket watch movements would not be enough to sustain him and his family of three daughters. So, he began to approach auction houses and the first that offered him work was Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne, that would later come to be known as Antiquorum. The arrangement was simple. They would provide him with old pocket watches to restore and get ready to go under the hammer. In doing this, he began to fall in love with the pieces that were created in the Vallée de Joux between 1800 and 1920, before any sort of industrialisation was introduced.

An example of Le Sentier movement making that Dufour so admired.

Taking these watches apart and given the chance to study them, Dufour was able to figure out how they were made, as well as the techniques that were used to finish them. This is the origin of Dufour’s passion for classical design. He began to realise that the Vallée De Joux was the birthplace of so many of the world’s great pocket watches. “The blanks they made here were used throughout Switzerland, in Germany and even in Britain during this time.” To confirm his theory, Dufour found an old Jaeger-LeCoultre catalogue from 1903, which showed that they made ébauches in three different styles, for three different markets; one with the classical three bridges of the Geneva style, others in the German ¾ bridge and others with the British ¾ bridge. While the dials of these watches may have had names such as Dent or Frodsham, the movements began their life in the Vallée de Joux.

Dufour began to believe that this classical style of watchmaking, which would last forever, could be given a second life in his own birthplace. So, he started work on a project that would help him to break-out into the movement production and watchmaking industry. The design he came up with was a Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater. It was made in the classical fashion, by all accounts a very impressive first watch. He showed it to a few people, including collectors, dealers and distributors and they all said the same thing, “yes, very good, very nice, carry on.” No-one would place an order though, so a friend suggested he present it to a brand to see if they would commission him to make a few of them. He already had contacts at Audemars Piguet and so, he went to present it to them. Luckily, they ordered five movements from him. This was his first official commission as an independent watchmaker and it was no small task, even if five does sound like a small number in today’s world. Each movement took Dufour 2,000 hours to complete, using traditional tools and methods to create these complex mechanisms.

The Grand Sonnerie minute-repeater that Dufour made for Audemars Piguet.

While this was an exciting time for Dufour, as he began to find his own feet, it was also hugely frustrating. Not only was he not allowed to take any credit for his design, but Audemars Piguet also seemingly had little respect for what he spent months creating. Out of the five he delivered, he was called back to fix two of them. The first one was in pieces, with a cracked glass, as well as the dial and hands missing. What happened to this one remains a mystery. The second one was in even worse shape, with a deeply dented case, cracked glass and the dial and hands missing again. Dufour demanded to know why his watch had not been looked after and what had happened to it. It is said that he shouted so loudly at those that were there, that there are still some at Audemars Piguet who remember him. 

It turned out he had every right to be angry. Someone who worked for the company was transporting the watch and instead of keeping it in its travel case, decided to put it in his jacket pocket. As he was getting out of the car, the jacket got stuck in the closing car door and smashed the watch. Worth roughly CHF 500,000, it is believed that the person who broke the watch didn’t lose his job, though we would like to imagine he must have felt quite bad. 

Taken for a feature on Dufour when he first turned independent in the Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte.

This seemed to be the final straw for Dufour. He said to himself that he would never make another watch for a brand and would now only produce them under his own name. After making this decision, Dufour did some market research. He wanted his first wristwatch to stand out. As he knew that there was nothing more that could be invented, he wasn’t going to try bringing anything new to horology. Rather, he realised that the Grand Sonnerie minute-repeater had never been miniaturised for the wrist. Considering he had the knowledge of how to make such a complex movement, after his experience with Audemars Piguet, all he had to figure out was how to scale it down. 

Philippe Dufour's first watch made under his eponymous brand.

So, he did. Creating the first Grand Sonnerie minute-repeater wristwatch certainly got Dufour noticed. It also finally allowed him to start putting his own name on a watch. His passion for traditional methods hadn’t gone anywhere and it was now starting to show through in his work. Those who knew of these old techniques were instantly drawn to him. They could tell the difference between what he was able to do by hand and what the larger manufacturers were producing through industrialised methods. Rather paradoxically, Dufour managed to be innovative by being firmly traditional, in the style and production of his watches. A combination of his education in the Vallée de Joux, the classical training of Locatelli and his time restoring vintage pocket watches from the glory days of Swiss watchmaking converged into the pieces which Dufour toiled over.

It turned out that, through no intention of his own, Dufour started to develop a large and passionate following in Japan. The source of the devastating watch crisis a few decades prior had now started to culture a desire for ultra-traditional watchmaking. It’s unclear where this fame came from, however the country’s longstanding adoration for traditional craft, from Samurai swords to tea ceremonies, seems to align perfectly with Dufour’s approach to watchmaking.

Originally created for the Japanese market, the Simplicity.

The watchmaker found out about his large Japanese following purely by chance, through a friend of his, Antoine Preziuso, who was doing a lot of work at the time in Japan. He informed Dufour that he had a prominent fan club there and that should he make a watch that catered to the sensitivities of that market, it would find instant commercial success. As a result, of the 204 Simplicities that were made between 2000 and 2012, 120 have been sold in Japan. It seems rather remarkable, considering the scale of the country and niche global awareness of Dufour’s work. In our minds, this is yet another example of where Dufour didn’t work towards a specific goal, but his talent and a little bit of luck, positioned him for success.

Dufour looms large in the small world of independent watchmaking.

Throughout Dufour’s life, he has demonstrated how his talent and unwavering standards have landed him in some opportune circumstances. In many ways, it is similar to a lot of the talented independent watchmakers’ stories out there, from Francois-Paul Journe to George Daniels. The talent is self-evident, however lucky circumstances and chance encounters helped them along the way. For those that have met him, they will know that Dufour never chose to go into watchmaking. Just like he never chose to have a dedicated following in Japan. However, he is now able to travel to Tokyo and meet with some of his best clients, whom he has been close to for decades. To go from the boy who was bad at maths, to championing an entire style of watchmaking, Dufour’s legacy now seems unquestionable.

Our thanks to Philippe Dufour for taking the time to speak to us about his earliest memories in watchmaking and sending through a selection of images from the early days in watchmaking.