Philippe Dufour is a living legend. The independent watchmaker is one of most (if not the most) revered craftsmen in the industry and his watches are regarded as the ultimate in traditional hand-finishing. We visited the 70-year-old master in the small village of Le Solliat, in the Vallée de Joux. There, Philippe Dufour crafts his watches entirely by hand, elevating the art of watchmaking to the highest level. Visiting his workshop is a unique experience. It is exactly what you have dreamed about, and yet everything is a surprise and catches your attention: old tools, ancient machines, drawers, books, raw materials… This place has soul.
How does one become one of the most revered craftsmen in the Swiss watch industry?
First of all, it takes patience and hard work. You must remove some words from your vocabulary: weekends, holidays or retirement. Once this is done you can start. It’s been a long road. Being recognized for your work takes years. I have been an independent watchmaker since 1978. First restoring antique watches, then I created a grande sonnerie pocket watch, and crafted five of these for Audemars Piguet.
From 1989 to 1992, I crafted the first Grande Sonnerie wristwatch (Editor’s note: more than that, it was a grande and petite sonnerie minute repeater). It was the first watch under my name and an immediate success.
Back then, things were different. I did no marketing or communication. ‘Product speaks for itself’ was the only option. Today, when I see the results at auctions of watches like the Simplicity or Duality, I am happy. The road I chose was right.
What was your ambition?
In 1989, I had a look at what was being crafted. There were chronographs, calendars, a few tourbillons… I wanted to do something that had never been done before. I learned to use a computer by myself to develop the movement, the construction was in 2D. After two and a half years, I presented the Grande Sonnerie at Baselworld.
Then came the Duality in 1996. Some clients were asking for something less complex than the Grande Sonnerie. There were many tourbillions, but I am not a fan of tourbillon wristwatches. I thought I would make a watch with the same objective of improving chronometry. I saw a picture of a watch from a US museum. It was a watch made here in the Vallée de Joux. It had two balance wheels. I tried to understand how it worked and made a prototype. I understood the principles of a differential that averages errors between the balance wheels, reducing the potential errors by half. I wanted to make 25 of these and made nine. Then, I stopped. Now I have got a waiting list of 75 people asking me to make one.
So will there be a tenth one?
I do not know. Never say never, but I do not know.
And then came the Simplicity?
My friend Antoine Preziuso came to see me and told me, ‘you should create a watch for Japan. You are really famous and have a fan club there’. I answered ‘stop joking around! I never sold a watch in Japan…’ I thought I would craft a simple watch to my taste.
There were two ways to do this. The first way would have been like anyone else to call Lemania or Frédéric Piguet and have your name engraved on the watch and movement. But this was not my idea. This is not good over the long term. I then designed my own movement for the Simplicity that I presented in 2000 at Baselworld. There was immediately a lot of interest from Japanese retailers. They all wanted it but told me they could not work with me directly. The rule for Japanese was to work with distributors. But my production was too low to work with a distributor. Then I met Shellman from Tokyo who said he would work directly with me. Now, it has been 18 years since we started working together. Shellman has been my exclusive retailer in Japan since then, selling 120 Simplicity watches out of the 200 I have made.
How many watches have you crafted?
About 210 Simplicities, 9 Dualities, 7 Grandes Sonnerie wristwatches, 5 Grandes Sonnerie pocket watches for Audemars Piguet, plus one under my name. So, about 230 watches, so far.
What are you manufacturing these days?
I have one or two Simplicity watches under progress. And, I am crafting an important pocket watch commissioned by a client.
Who inspired you?
After watchmaking school, I worked at Jaeger-LeCoultre with a friend who taught me many things. Then I started restoring antique watches, mostly pocket watches. My favourite period was 1800-1920. Among 10 repeaters I restored, seven had been manufactured in the Vallée de Joux. The movement blanks were all from the Vallée. Those blanks were used by all makers, Patek, Vacheron… The bridges were different but it was the same movement. And it was the same with German (Lange or Grossmann) or English (Dent or Smith) watches. When removing the dial, it was always the same movement. These could be finished in typical German or English styles, but they were always the same ébauche. I got the confirmation with this 1903 LeCoultre catalogue showing the ébauches made by LeCoultre in German or English style.
This really inspired me. I thought, ‘they did these marvellous watches, why not me?’ I am really appreciative of the work done at the time. My idea was to try to perpetuate this ‘Belle Horlogerie’.
What is your greatest source of pride?
I think the Grande Sonnerie wristwatch. Sometimes I think I must have been crazy, unaware of the challenge. But the day I started, there was no going back. Luckily, an Italian collector supported me for almost three years.
And your greatest regret?
Time flies. I am 70 years old and there are so many watches I’d love to do. Time goes by too fast.
What is your take on the industry?
The industry is all over the place. I have the feeling that there is no vision. Most people follow trends. Dial colours, for instance: a brand comes up with an idea and everybody follows suit. There is very little originality.
The production capacity is way too big. Sometimes I wonder if people realize that if the value of watches produced goes up, we manufacture less and less units.
Last, it is important to put the human being back at the centre. Watches need heart and soul. This is what creates emotion. Everybody talks about emotion. But you cannot demand emotion, it is something you just feel.
You have to be transparent, show what you are doing to create a relationship with the object. Now, you see 3D-renderings of watches and movies showing parts manufactured with CAD machines… this is not how you create emotion. People want to know if their watch has been crafted by a watchmaker or a robot. If they can meet the man or woman who crafted their watch, the watch gets a whole different dimension and value. This is what we miss today, and not just in the watchmaking world.
How can one buy a Philippe Dufour watch today?
Well, there are not many solutions. You have to be patient and wait for one to be sold at auction. (Editor’s note, be prepared to spend about USD 1 million for a Duality or USD 250,000 for a Simplicity – about five times the retail price).
I receive one or two emails per week, people proposing to pay in advance for their watches but I cannot take any new orders.
One of my dreams is to arrive at my workshop one day and realize that I have no orders to produce, and then have the freedom to say what I am going to do, and then create something crazy.