Seal of Approval
Roger Dubuis is once again making his mark at the company he started, and this time with even more soul. Josh Sims speaks with the watchmaking giant about how the revived Hommage line turns out to be an homage to him as much as Geneva's finest.
Roger Dubuis, the man, is feeling emotional. The company that carries his name has not only just released a new Hommage line – an homage to the original Hommage model with which Dubuis launched his company in 1995 – but also one of the variants, a flying tourbillon, which comes in a limited edition of 208 pieces.
That somewhat random number was Dubuis’ registration number from his time at the Geneva Watchmaking School, the number students had to have stamped on all their tools.
“I actually only found out that the company had decided to limit the edition to 208 afterwards,” says Dubuis. “I was very touched by that because, although I know it’s a smart bit of marketing, I also know that it comes from the heart and was done for me. It’s a big mark of recognition.”
Indeed, a timely one too: since retiring from the company in 2004 due to poor health – and selling up to the Richemont luxury goods group four years later – now Dubuis is back, at least as a kind of ambassador and overseer. Or as the company has dubbed him, in what must have been a new-age moment, a ‘soulmaker’.
“I’m not opposing that title,” Dubuis laughs. “Really it relates to the idea of having a commitment to what the watches are about – a technical excellence but also, I hope, a bit of soul. Having the soul also became the set of rules the company worked to. Or rather just one: that every part must have that Poincon de Geneve – that’s really the only thing I’ve ever insisted on. I was trained on Point de Geneve standards from the beginning and didn’t want to trade that for anything.”
Roger Dubuis remains the only haute horlogerie maker whose watches carry the 128-year-old Poincon de Geneve mark for every single component – the certification covering not just the mechanical likes of precision and water resistance, but the artistry in the hand finishing over some 12 different criteria. That means that each of the 4,500 watches the company produces every year (the Roger Dubuis has a reputation for tourbillons and skeleton models – its flagship model being the show-stopping Excalibur) takes around 40 per cent more work to complete. Some 360 of the 1200 hours required to assemble the RD100 – a new movement with a 50-hour power reserve – are devoted to getting the Poincon seal of approval. Frankly, it sounds like a millstone around the neck of money making. Thankfully, Dubuis doesn’t much care.
“It’s even more important for the brand now and I think it will continue to be important – because it’s some proof of Roger Dubuis’ commitment to watchmaking at the highest level,” Dubuis adds – noting that of the 20 million watches made in Switzerland every year, only 24,000 carry any Poincon de Geneve.
“We use it intensively, from the beginning of the design process. Of course other companies use the Poincon de Geneve now but with us it actually determines what we do with the movement. It’s integral from the first design onwards.” “I really agree with the idea that haute horlogerie has to be modern. Who wants an elite watch that looks old-fashioned?”
That kind of thinking might well be expected from a man who launched his own manufacture precisely because he wasn’t getting the opportunity to make the kind of watches his training would allow him to do. “I think my career started before I actually became a watchmaker, when I was 15 and discovered this big clock in the back of a church and fell in love with the idea of making them. I did all I could to get into the watchmaking school in Geneva, which led to a sales servicing department in a watch company and eventually a specialisation in perpetual calendars. And all of a sudden I was 58,” he recalls, as if hinting that the lesson of his story is also one of ‘carpe diem’. “That’s when I decided to go independent. I had a lot of experience over the years and wondered what I could do with it all. And the only way to find out was to go independent. To do it all myself.”
Much, he concedes, has changed over those years in the business. There is the extent of the use of machinery and technology in fine watchmaking. There is the willingness to put a ‘crazy’ design on the market or to play with unexpected ideas: in the new Hommage, for example, the numerals are fitted directly on to the mainplate, a process that would usually involve grinding but which, as was concluded, would leave unacceptable scratches. So, while the details are being held close to the chest, the company used a movement-making technique to do the job. There is even, as Dubuis notes, the fact that when he was a student, watches were still for telling the time, whereas now “even the movement is a form of jewellery”.
Equally, he worries that much has not changed. While he would certainly champion traditional watchmaking and watch decoration crafts – one Roger Dubuis signature is its use of guilloche, a technique of decorating with engraved, etched and intersecting lines that has was first used on a watch back in 1786 – he finds it strange to wander around SIHH and see, as he puts it, that “so many watches could have been made, aesthetically-speaking, any time in the last 200 years”.
“I really agree with the idea that haute horlogerie has to be modern. Who wants an elite watch that looks old-fashioned? A lot of the watches I see today remind me of my past – but I don’t mind, since I’m an old man now and that makes you nostalgic,” he jokes. “Of course, a watch can be linked to the past because it uses traditional watchmaking craft – the guilloche on the dial, for example. But the modernity is there too – in the guilloche, because the pattern is contemporary. Or, from a watchmaking point of view, because the dial is the mainplate and the plate is the dial. It’s traditional technique used in a modern way,” he says.
“The first tourbillons were made by Breguet in 1801, but they’re still being made in 2014, because they’ve been reinvented over and over,” Dubuis adds. “It’s really only the function that stays the same – telling the time. The ideas, the methods of production, the metals and materials, the look – they’re all different. And they add up to the mechanical watch’s appeal today.”