Philippe Dufour, Le Solliat (Vallée de Joux, Switzerland) March 29 2015
On a miserable grey and cold day (March 29) with storm warning 3 (in a scale up to 5), I had the opportunity to visit the atelier of Philippe Dufour with eleven other interested people. Philippe Dufour is a legend, especially in Japan where his meticulous attention to detail, craftsmanship and the respect for the traditions of watchmaking has won him accolades (and a fan club).
He was not pre-destined to become one of the masters in the “Haute Horlogerie”. It happened by accident. Philippe Dufour was born and lived in the valley of the Lac Du Joux (Vallée de Joux) which was then a rather remote area of Switzerland.
Watchmaking has shaped the social fabric of the valley since XVIIe century. It is what people did in the long winters when they were totally isolated, huddled in their farms with small windows while outside there was little to do to gain a living. Until the middle of the XIXe century, the organization was based on the model of “l’établissage” where the workers worked at home and where specialized on specific parts. The “établisseur” organized the work, the final assembly and the commercialization of the finished watches. This fundamentally changed when at the end of XIXe century, the advent of the standardized and thus cheaper watches coming from America, forced a rethink of the model. The “établisseurs” became the first brands but the industry was still focused around small and medium enterprises. The crisis of 1974-1982 lead to a concentration the creation of the large groups such as Swatch. However the valley kept during all that time its tradition of small enterprises and workshops.
So what about Philippe Dufour, born in this remote valley steeped in tradition? As he was not good at school, there were at that time two options open to him: become a farmer or become a watchmaker. As his parents did not have a farm, watchmaking became his only option. So he went to the technical school of Le Sentier (Ecole Technique du Sentier) at the age of 15 and from there started his career in 1967 with Jaeger-LeCoutre. He immediately found out that he liked this! As he was curious to see something else than the Vallée de Joux, he worked a..o. in London, the Caribbean and then back in Switzerland. He learned that it is important to be open to other cultures, understand what people want, as well as the importance of customer service. He also understood that you do not need to be born in Switzerland in the Vallée de Joux to become an excellent watch maker.
When he returned he became tired of working for the big well known brands, which he claims are only interested in profit margins and sales: “ils n’ont rien compris!” (they have no clue what this is about!) . He started his own workshop initially focused on the restoration of old watches. Liking became a passion. By the restoration of these ancient watches he truly learned about the craftsmanship which passed from generation to generation: “our ancestors could do things which today with all our modern technology, we cannot match”.
He is still passionate about watchmaking: the possibility to create a piece that people want (and want to buy). When jokingly asked if mathematics was still a problem as it was one of the reason he left school early and a skill needed to design watches, he replied that he learned to be good at it: “Besides possibly in music, there are no prodigies in art. It is about the passion to create, focus, learning, hard work, patience, gain mastery. I learned to be good at maths.”.
He is well known for his 3 series of watches:
• Grande et Petite Sonnerie Répétition Minutes: 1992, first ever that such a complicated mechanism was completed for a wristwatch.
• Duality, double régulateur: 1996, first ever double escapement wristwatch.
• Simplicity: 2000 hand-winding mechanical wristwatch (200 made), which is an example of listening to what people want. Not everyone could afford one of the above.
His workshop is small and filled with machines mostly from the 1920’s till the 1950’s which were largely discarded during the crisis of 1974-1982 (A lot of these also ended up in Russia and China). At the technical school he learned to make his own tools, a skill he still has. Only in the design of his watches does he use modern software tools. He believes it is important that if you strive to be the best you can be, then you need to be as independent as possible and be able to have or to make the right tool for the right job. Only one machine had numerical control added to it. Some of the tools are surprisingly humble: for polishing he uses diamond-powder and branches of a local bush species which he collects in autumn: the best for the job.
His watches are sought after all over the world, and cost on the 2nd hand market and auctions much more than the price for which he sold them. With a smile he told us that he could not afford one his watches: it takes him 8 to 9 months to make one. So the only Philippe Dufour he has and wears is a Simplicity. He does buy vintage watches. The only new one he bought and thought is good is a chronograph from Lange & Söhne.
While his workshop has workbenches for five, he currently works alone. Apprenticeship is still a major part of the Swiss education system, but new apprentices do not stay long enough to master the ancient skills. Noticing the risk, Philippe Dufour together with Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey (of Greubel Forsey) created in 2006 the project “Le Garde Temps - Naissance d'une Montre (http://www.legardetemps-nm.org/en/)“ to maintain the disappearing skills of ancient watchmaking. The idea is that one carefully selected apprentice learns all the skills by spending time at and learning from the 2 workshops. This apprentice would then pass on this knowledge to other apprentices and so create a network. It was French watchmaking teacher Michel Boulanger who was selected in 2009.
Readers of Adam Marelli’s articles will, I am sure, noted that there might be parallels. Globalisation and the drive for instant personal gratification and quick gains, has brought havoc to ancient skills and traditions. But there is hope that they will survive and even thrive although at a smaller scale. It is encouraging that as local apprentices lack the interest, stamina and will to acquire these ancient skills, people from other regions & countries step in. Just think about Eric Chevalier doing his apprenticeship at the Sasuke metal workshop in Sakai City (Japan) with master Yasuhiro Hirakawa. One can wonder, if in order for ancient skills to endure, the apprenticeship in itself needs to become global.
The time spent at the atelier just passed away too quickly.