The Story of early Roger Dubuis
By A Collected Man
It has been said that Roger Dubuis the brand, has very little to do with the man. And whilst some may feel that this is true of their current models, we believe that you only have to look at their early pieces, to see a genuine reflection of the man himself.
It was clear to anyone who knew him, that Roger Dubuis was first and foremost, a watchmaker. He spent nine years at Longines, starting in the late 1950s, where he worked in the after-sales department, repairing and caring for their deeply respected chronographs.
From there, he moved on to Patek Philippe, where he stayed for the best part of two decades, working alongside the likes of Svend Andersen in the complications department. Constructing the Maison's finest and most complex watch movements, specialising in the construction of gongs, minute repeaters and perpetual calendars. There he built a reputation as one of the finest watchmakers in Geneva, if not the world.
To situate yourself, his time at Patek Philippe coincides almost perfectly with the production of the Fourth Series, Patek Philippe reference 2499, the legendary perpetual calendar chronograph, which was made from 1978 to 1985. He had such a passion for his job, that when he had finished working a full day at the atelier, he would go home and work on fixing watches for private clients and some of the shops around Geneva. They lacked the expertise that Dubuis had, quite literally, at his fingertips.
In the 1980s, he left the prestigious brand to set-up his own workshop, extending his client list to include auction houses and watch brands. This is when he started to develop his own modules and movements. The first of which was a retrograde perpetual calendar module that could sit atop a Lemania movement, like so many Patek Philippe watches he had helped construct and maintain over the past two decades.
Dubuis developed this module with Jean-Marc Wiederrecht (founder of the complication specialist Agenhor) for Harry Winston, who would later announce their own version of a bi-retrograde perpetual calendar at Baselworld, in 1989. This was a world first as this complication had never been in a wristwatch before, even Patek Philippe themselves, the master of complicated watchmaking at the time, had never put in on the wrist. Perhaps Dubuis was now properly manifesting his abilities, intentionally attempting to one-up the historic watch house. The parallels with other notable independent watchmakers, who started their careers in restoration, then complex movement design, is not lost on us. A notable example is, of course, Francois-Paul Journe, who worked as a freelance movement designer before setting up his own manufacture.
Shortly after, a chance encounter would take place that would change Dubuis’ life forever - he met Carlos Dias, the enigmatic businessman and watch designer who would team up with him to help form his eponymous brand. As many collectors know, when the company first started producing watches in 1995, they were executed with aesthetic cues and techniques that Dubuis had mastered over his years at Patek Philippe.
First producing two lines, the Hommage and Sympathie series, each housing Roger Dubuis’ in-house calibres with time-only, chronograph and perpetual calendars on display. It’s these early models that we’re choosing to focus on in this article, as they have garnered the most interest from the collecting community to date. In particular, his two-register chronographs have become highly sought-after in recent years. We also believe that they demonstrate Dubuis’ style and masterful technique to the fullest, as some of the early pieces would have been made and regulated by the man himself.
Based on the legendary Lemania 2310, the Roger Dubuis chronograph calibres built on a very strong foundation, as this is the ébauche famously used in many notable Patek Philippe calibres of the past. Integrating this ébauche and finishing their movements to an impressive level of finesse and accuracy, every piece produced, earned the Poinçon de Genève, or the Geneva Seal, as well as being certified by the Besançon Observatory. Something that only Patek Philippe was achieving at the time. We will go into more detail on both of these certifications below.
We spoke with a cross-section of people who knew Roger Dubuis prior to his death in 2017, whether it was while he was working at Patek Philippe or from when they ordered some of his early models from him at SIHH, as a retailer. Crucially, they all agreed on how humble, knowledgeable and fastidious the man was, with the utmost respect for his work and how he approached watchmaking.
A man whose respect for Roger Dubuis predates the brand is our recent interviewee, Dr Helmut Crott, who knew Dubuis while he was at Patek Philippe and sympathised with him when it came to running a watch brand after his own experiences with Urban Jürgensen. “I knew it was a hard job, but when they started it in 1995, that was really the best time to be starting a new brand in my opinion.” And Dr Crott was right, the watchmaker grew to an impressive size in the matter of a decade.
The brand's aspiration to rival Patek Philippe was evident to the longtime collector of independents and writer, SJX, who noted, 'It was obvious that Roger Dubuis was seeking that reputation in the way it presented itself, even in the very small details, like the folding clasp and additional solid case-back included in the set.'
It’s hard to tell whether the young brand was in high-demand or just disorganised when it started, as when Mikael Wallhagen, now Head of the Watch Department at Sotheby’s Geneva, placed an order with Roger Dubuis at SIHH in 1998 for 25 watches, they never appeared. “Six months later we were back in the shop in Sweden and hadn’t seen any watches arrive. We chased them up and they said they didn’t have our watches as they can’t make enough. We never did get them in the end.”
And getting hold of them now can be just as tricky...
“In the three years I’ve been at Sotheby’s, I don’t think we’ve had one come through our doors. They are mainly changing hands privately, as there are just so few on the market.”
Wallhagen even has friends wanting to buy his Hommage Chronograph right off his wrist, not to mention all of the collectors and dealers who see him wearing it at auctions and make him an offer right there on the spot. There is a good reason why there are so few of them available, because so few were made. It is said that Dubuis originally only wanted to make 25 of each variant but they instead changed this to 28. According to Carlos Dias this change came on the suggestion of a collector based in Asia, as 8 is associated with good luck in his corner of the world. From that point on, that collector was given the chance to buy 1/28 of many of the following pieces.
So, the most you will ever be able to find of one type of early Roger Dubuis is twenty-eight, although there are a few that were made as unique pieces. When Wallhagen took an early piece he’d bought from a dealer in New York, to the manufacture and showed it to Dubuis himself, the watchmaker remembered the exact model and told him that it had been made with four different dials and in four different cases, but there was only one example of each.
That wasn’t the only time that Dubuis’ vast and extensive knowledge of his work had been proven. Dr Crott told us about a time when he bought what he thought was a rare Patek Philippe in America, but wasn't certain. This was before the days of readily accessible source material and biographies on the manufacture. So, he took it to Dubuis while he was still working at Patek Philippe, who announced “Helmut, I remember very well that we only made three of these.” This was about a decade after the watches left the manufacture.
The brand went from having a “hole in the wall” stand at SIHH in 1998, as Wallhagen described it, to employing over four-hundred and fifty people, generating about CHF100m of revenue a year. The expansion has been astronomical since its early days and limited production runs, but it seems that these low numbers are now spurring-on the second-hand market. Jason Singer, a renowned collector of early bubble backs, important Patek Philippes and now early Roger Dubuis, echoes this sentiment, “I look for them every day online but they’re becoming really tricky to find. I often miss out on them by a couple of hours, if that.”
However, while there is no lack of demand for these pieces in the market, we feel like there is little reliable and trustworthy information out there, on these early Dubuis models. As such, we have pooled our resources from our experience handling Roger Dubuis pieces, along with information from credible sellers, such as auction houses, to create this reference guide for some of the most sought-after early examples.
The Collectors' Guide
From here on in, we will be narrowing the focus of the article by only considering two-register chronographs from the Hommage and Sympathie lines, as these currently garner the most interest from the collecting community. We will focus on pieces produced between 1995 and 2003, when Roger Dubuis himself left the manufacture.
We hope that this acts as something akin to a Collectors’ Guide to these special timepieces. Earlier, we provided anecdotal evidence for why we love them, now we hope to record more factual information on a few of the watches that are so elusive on the second-hand market.
The Hommage Chronograph
Roger Dubuis launched in 1995 with orders from retailers being placed quickly after that. A palladium chronograph is the earliest example we could find, with paperwork stamped 22 November 1996. Another example that passed through our hands, was stamped 11 December 1996, coming to us directly from the retailer who kept this piece aside from the very first order they placed with the brand. These early, often untouched, examples offer a unique insight into what Dubuis wanted to do with these watches. In fact, when you sit one next to a Patek Philippe 130, the design codes that the Hommage inherits are obvious.
As we already know, Dubuis learned the fine art of watchmaking at Patek Philippe, and on starting his own brand he intended to pay tribute to the craft and in particular the Genève style, so often associated with historic manufacture. That’s why these Hommage chronographs came with so many dial variations. Using guilloché, applied Breguet numerals and lacquer to great effect. Part of the allure of collecting these pieces is in discovering new dial variations, with everything from salmon dials to Pulsometer chronograph scales out there, for those who look hard enough.
There are some fundamental rules that one should be aware of, for these early Hommage chronographs. The cases came in 40, 37 and 34 millimetres and were only ever executed in precious metals, with examples found in palladium, white gold, rose gold and platinum. This is a rather traditional approach, as Dubuis erred away from more common or industrial metals such as stainless steel or titanium. Not to mention the traditional sizing with nothing over 40mm, which for some is still considered on the larger side for a classic wristwatch.
There are also different pusher configurations found throughout the Hommage Chronographs, with a regular (or two-button) layout, monopusher at 2 o’clock and a monopusher at 3 o’clock (within the winding crown). Hommage Chronographs with the pusher integrated into the winding crown were made in 40mm and 37mm cases, with the monopusher at 2 o'clock only appearing in a 40mm case. Interestingly, evidence suggests that variants of the H40 with the monopusher at 2 o'clock were limited to 19 examples, instead of 28. Examples are known in rose gold, white gold and palladium. They also integrate a different calibre (cal. 50), which appears to share the same movement architecture as the Omega Calibre 33.3.
Below is a table of every publicly-known configuration of Roger Dubuis Hommage Chronograph, that has come to the market. For the purposes of reliable information, this draws upon watches that have come-up through us and three of the major watch auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Antiquorum), with duplicates having been removed. You can see all of the individual configurations by clicking the link in the date column. We hope this acts as an insight into the many interesting and varied configurations in which the Hommage Chronograph was executed.
Having handled and analysed a fair number of examples, we have come to observe a few interesting trends across the different configurations. The H40 line appears to be the one where Dubuis experimented the most with colour and finishing, using the techniques and traditions learnt at Patek Philippe to create more experimental designs. Indeed, it is only on the H40 that we find perlage or guilloché finishing, as well as more dramatic visual choices (such as the use of an electric blue dial with a perlage base).
Drawing parallels between the Hommage 40 and the Patek Philippe ref. 5070 is an obvious, albeit perhaps misguided experiment. On the surface, they are very similar. Both are two-register chronographs, based on the Lemania 2310, introduced in the late 1990s. They jointly build on traditional aesthetics, yet experiment with different, unexpected dial configurations.
Yet, it might surprise you to find out the ref. 5070 was introduced in 1998 – two years later than the earliest known Roger Dubuis H40. Furthermore, while Patek Philippe may have experimented with dial colours (such as the striking blue or the chocolate brown of the Saatchi editions), this exercise was predictably more restrained than that of Roger Dubuis. Nevertheless, comparing the two references, you can clearly see they share the same heritage.
The Sympathie Chronograph
While the Hommage could be seen as Dubuis playing by the rules of traditional Swiss watchmaking, the Sympathie is where he started to think outside the box and push boundaries a little. With its angular square case and elongated lugs, this was a watch with a unique silhouette, to say the least.
Unlike the Hommage, you’ll only find the Sympathie chronograph in cases sized 34 and 37 millimetres, with only white and rose-gold cases publicly known. Further, the screws on either side of the lugs are actually functional and are used to hold in place a thick, metal bar where the strap is attached. With far fewer dial variations having appeared, they were either produced in more limited numbers or there have just been fewer that have come to market, when compared with the Hommage line.
It's also interesting to note that applied Breguet numerals seem to appear much more frequently in the Sympathie series than they do in the Hommage collection (where they only come up in the H40). Here is a run-down of every publicly-known configuration, drawing upon the same sources as the Hommage Chronographs discussed earlier.
Most of these two-register chronographs from Roger Dubuis are powered by the Calibre RD 56 (for the regular version) or the RD 65 (for the monopusher at 3 o'clock version), both of which are based off the venerable Lemania ébauche 2310. Rarely appearing on the market, a handful of monopusher chronographs (with the pusher at 2 o'clock) are also known to exist, equipped with the Calibre RD 50 (which appears to be based on an Omega Calibre 33.3 architecture). Returing to the Lemania 2310, this was a chronograph movement developed in 1942 in a partnership between Lemania and Omega. Omega called their version of the movement the Calibre 321, which you may know as the movement that went to the Moon.
The 2310 is a column wheel design, with a screwed balance that oscillates at 18,000 A/h. While today watch brands make a big fuss about developing movements entirely in-house, it was once thought of as best-practice to outsource a high-quality ébauche that had been designed and created by highly-skilled and specialised movement makers. If you only do one thing, you tend to end up doing it quite well. In fact, a lot of collectors will still look back with nostalgia at Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronographs (the jewel of the brand’s catalogue) that were based on Lemania movements. As you can see below, there is a stark similarity between the Hommage’s movement and that of the Patek Philippe 3970, both of which use a Lemania 2310 ébauche.
This side-by-side comparison is just what Dubuis was after with these pieces. It is as obvious in the choice of ébauche as it is in the level, quality and style of finishing that he put into these early models. He employed the finishing techniques that made Patek Philippe movements so desirable such as Côtes de Genève, Mirror Polishing and Anglage. All things that helped the movement be awarded the Poinçon de Genève.
The Poinçon de Genève
A certification that at the time was only achieved by Patek Philippe watches, the Geneva Seal is unique in its accreditation as it doesn’t give much credence to measuring time accurately (that’s what the Besançon Observatory certification is for). Rather, it focuses on the art of decorating a movement with finesse and skill, which is something that the brand prided itself on achieving, from its start. Nowdays, you will find it stamped on the movements of brands such as Cartier, Chopard and Vacheron Constantin, as well as modern-day Roger Dubuis. To achieve the certification, it requires the adherence to twelve criteria that are demanding for even the most skilled watchmakers, covering everything from the movement’s conception to how it has been finished.
The technical requirements of the seal are:
Good workmanship on all parts of the calibre. Steel parts must have polished angles and their visible surfaces smoothed down. Screw heads must be polished with their slots and rims chamfered.The entire movement must be jewelled with rubies set in polished holes including the going train and escape wheel.The hairspring should be pinned in a grooved plate with a stud having rounded collar and cap. Mobile studs are permitted.Split or fitted indexes are allowed with a holding system except in extra-thin calibres where the holding system is not required.Regulating systems with balance with radius or variable gyration are allowed.
The wheels of the going train must be chamfered above and below and have a polished sink. In wheels 0.15mm thick or less, a single chamfer is allowed on the bridge side.In wheel assemblies, the pivot shanks and the faces of the pinion leaves must be polished.
The escape wheel has to be light, not more than 0.16mm thick in large calibres and 0.13mm in calibres under 18mm, and its locking-faces must be polished.The angle traversed by the pallet lever is to be limited by fixed banking walls and not pins or studs.Shock protected movements are accepted.The ratchet and crown wheels must be finished with accordance with registered patters.
Wire springs are not allowed.
Ticking all of these boxes placed these movements in a rather exclusive club in 1995. It could be imagined that this level of finishing was only possible because of their small production numbers allowing them to spend more time on each component.
If you hang around a group of collectors long enough, you’ll more than likely hear one of them mention “The Set” or “The Full Set” when it comes to their vintage collection and it is something that those who collect these early Roger Dubuis pieces find extremely attractive. For those looking to track one down, it can be helpful to know what it should come with them as well.
One notable element of “The Set” is the additional closed case-back that was included with all of the early models. They came fitted with a sapphire case-back, but if you didn’t want to see the finely-finished movement, you could get a watchmaker to swap the backs for you (although we are yet to have handled any models which have had this fitted). Then again, you can’t really blame the previous owner for wanting to keep the movement visible. Who wouldn't?
It’s also worth noting that the only other brand to do this (at the time), was Patek Philippe. Though it is unconfirmed exactly why this was done, it is thought that this was a nod to the great watches of the past, where the true beauty of the movement was hidden away. Indeed, there is a certain elegance to concealing such finesse and craft, with satisfaction coming purely from knowing it’s there.
The Roger Dubuis H40 watches we have handled have either come fitted with an anti-glare sapphire crystal or a regular sapphire crystal. The former allows for uninterrupted views of the dial, getting rid of any distracting reflections. As there is no apparent reason why Roger Dubuis would have fitted both on H40 watches produced simultaneously (especially considering the superiority of one above the other), it can be assumed that the regular sapphire crystal is a later service replacement part. However, we have also handled early, new old stock H34 watches, which did not have the anti-reflective crystals. Could it be that on these smaller models, normal sapphire crystals were fitted from new? Or perhaps the anti-reflective glare crystals were only added in later models? Or maybe it's the anti-glare crystals that are actually the service parts? Who knows. In any case, it's amusing to hypothesise on these things.
Alongside the case-back, there should be an array of paperwork that comes with the original box. The main pieces of literature are an Observatory certificate from the Besançon Observatory, a small Certificate of Origin that will show the Poinçon de Genève and a slightly larger Certificate of Guarantee which will hold all the information about your specific piece. Including case number, movement number (which should correspond to what is stamped on the watch) and the original date of sale alongside an image of the watch.
You should also see a leather folio, instruction booklet and a small blue booklet with Dubuis’ portrait on it providing some information about the company. Rarely kept, alongside the paperwork, there may be a metallic Geneva Seal hang-tag and a small leather hang-tag that might have a label stuck to it, indicating the model number. You should also hope to see either an original pin buckle or folding clasp attached to the leather strap, even if the leather strap is no longer original. Yet again, it is interesting to note the similarity between Patek Philippe and early Roger Dubuis deployant-buckles. This is what all of that looks like.
You’ll notice that the Besançon Observatory certificate is far larger than any other piece of paperwork that is included with the watch and that gives some indication as to how important and hard to come by such accreditation was. Setting far more exacting standards than a COSC test, the Besançon Observatory still demands the same standards as laid out by ISO 3159, that other chronometers had to go through, but it also requires that all watches arrive for testing fully cased and in their final form.
Then they undergo 16 days of consecutive testing in five different positions at three different temperatures ranging from 8°C to 23°C and finally 38°C. If, after all of that, the rate of time loss is within -4 to +6 seconds, it is stamped with the Observatory’s famous viper and can be called an Observatory Chronometer. On the certificate that comes with your watch, you will see the exact results that your timepiece produced while undergoing these tests along with the date at which it passed.
All of the data that we’ve presented here has been collected by A Collected Man and in no way do we want to claim that we have compiled an exhaustive list. This is why we would like to invite you to look at the records we have here and compare them with your own collection, to see if we've missed-out any dial or case configurations off the list. Feel free to message us on social media or email us at email@example.com and we will endeavour to keep this as up to date as possible, so future collectors can use it as a reference guide when looking to start or expand their collection.
We would like to thank Helmut Crott, SJX, Jason Singer and Mikael Wallhagen for their help in putting together this article