Robb Report (USA) - - Contents - BY JAMES D. MALCOLMSON

The legacy of French watch­mak­ing is as much about sub­stance

as style.

Imag­ine a small square in a Euro­pean city where three of the most cel­e­brated watch­mak­ers in the world would gather to de­bate tech­nique and share gos­sip. No, it’s not Geneva—few of the in­dus­try’s big egos there are ac­tu­ally on speak­ing terms. It’s Paris in the 1770s. At the western tip of the Île de la Cité, se­cluded from the river, is the Place Dauphine. For a few years in the late 1770s, this area of lit­tle more than a city block con­tained the work­shops of Fer­di­nand Berthoud, Jean-An­toine Lépine, and a young Abra­ham-Louis Breguet.

Sadly, their quills did not record the level of tech­ni­cal fer­ment that oc­curred in the Place Dauphine; but we do know from their work that these three men, each in their own way, changed the shape of me­chan­i­cal watch­mak­ing to a far greater de­gree than any of their con­tem­po­raries. If their prox­im­ity made for some kind of En­light­en­men­t­age me­chan­i­cal Camelot, it was a fleet­ing one. Lépine moved away for a pe­riod to work at Voltaire’s Man­u­fac­ture Royale along the Swiss bor­der, and not long af­ter­ward the French Rev­o­lu­tion put some­thing of a damper on lux­ury sales in France.

To­day, how­ever, that golden pe­riod hardly seems vis­i­ble in French watch­mak­ing. His­tory, as laid d down by cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing de­part­ments, iden­ti­en­ti­fies three-quar­ter-plate move­ments with en­graved aved bal­ance cocks as Ger­man, and Geneva stripes as Swiss. The French have no such sig­na­ture be­cause ause there are no French man­u­fac­tures of sim­i­lar sta­tus, atus, only a few small-scale mak­ers like Alain Sil­ber­stein stein with highly idio­syn­cratic styles. So what made French watch­mak­ing worth re­mark?

Per­for­mance, an­swers Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, ufele, co­pres­i­dent of Chopard and a col­lec­tor of the works of Berthoud. “Un­like in Switzerland,” he says, “ev­ery­thing the French in­vented was rec­og­nized ed by the king, so there was a real in­cen­tive to ex­cel.” ” On a tech­ni­cal level, many of the top French horol­o­gog­i­cal achieve­ments came in the race to match or r ex­ceed Bri­tish de­vel­op­ments in the field of marine rine chronome­ters, the flagship tech­nol­ogy in the arms race of the day: the bur­geon­ing naval ri­valry alry be­tween the two coun­tries. The two most tal­ented nted watch­mak­ers on the French side were Pierre

Le Roy and Berthoud. Le Roy, who in­vented the e de­tent es­cape­ment—the primary time-reg­u­lat­ing ng el­e­ment—and the thermo-com­pen­sat­ing bal­ance ce (which pro­tects against the ef­fects of shifts in am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture), ar­guably con­trib­uted more

to marine chronome­ters, but it was Berthoud who was the golden boy. Named a mas­ter watch­maker at the young age of 26, he wrote prodi­giously and pro­moted him­self at court. Af­ter or­ches­trat­ing the of­fi­cial use of his clocks at sea, he was named clock­maker to the king and navy, an ap­point­ment that must have ran­kled Le Roy, whose own fa­ther was clock­maker to the king. Le Roy hung up his tools not too long af­ter­ward.

Though per­haps not as grip­ping as this mar­itime back­bit­ing, the work of Jean-An­toine Lépine is one of the most im­por­tant French in­flu­ences on the way watches look to­day. Lépine threw away the bulky con­struc­tion ev­ery watch­maker used be­fore him. In­stead of a movement made of two plates sep­a­rated by pil­lar sup­ports with large con­trap­tions like chain and fusees and verge es­cape­ments, he fa­vored a sin­gle plate with screwed-in bridges to sup­port the gear train and a com­pact cylin­der es­cape­ment. The ar­chi­tec­ture al­lowed dra­mat­i­cally thin­ner pocket time­pieces. At a stroke, the French watch had el­e­gance of form, a beau­ti­ful sales and mar­ket­ing an­gle just wait­ing for the doc­tor of spin to bring it home.

That man was Breguet. While it seems al­most a dis­ser­vice to the ac­knowl­edged great­est watch­maker who ever lived not to de­scribe him first by his in­ven­tions (his pa­tent port­fo­lio was at least twice the size of any­one else’s), Breguet knew that tech­ni­cal feats meant noth­ing with­out style, which now seems wholly part of French DNA. He read­ily bor­rowed Lépine’s ar­chi­tec­ture and com­bined it with large-for­mat guil­loche di­als and con­sis­tent touches from hands to nu­mer­als and case sides. It was brand­ing wrapped up in a new­found French el­e­gance.

Like­wise, his tech­ni­cal flour­ishes were in­tended While it seems al­most a dis­ser­vice to the ac­knowl­edged great­est watch­maker who ever lived not to de­scribe him first by his in­ven­tions, Breguet knew that tech­ni­cal feats meant noth­ing with­out style, which now seems wholly part of French DNA. to sur­prise and charm a so­phis­ti­cated and fash­ion­able clien­tele. Re­peaters, which for the first time he made to chime on a wire gong (as they do to­day), were a sta­ple. The mon­tre à tact pocket watch al­lowed the owner to dis­creetly—and tact­fully— avoid the faux pas of pulling out a watch at a so­cial oc­ca­sion thanks to a hand that could be dis­cerned by touch in a pocket. Even the elab­o­rately or­bit­ing car­riage of the tour­bil­lon, the com­pli­ca­tion for which he has been long re­mem­bered, is clearly de­signed to de­light with its me­chan­i­cal artistry as much as to im­prove accuracy.

Breguet’s busi­ness not only sur­vived the French Rev­o­lu­tion, it con­tin­ued to thrive even dur­ing and af­ter Napoléon thanks to the watch­maker’s rare abil­ity to touch clients with his ge­nius. But Breguet also marked a zenith for the en­tire French craft. Al­though 19th-cen­tury France con­tin­ued to pro­duce out­stand­ing watch­mak­ers like Louis Moinet and Louis Leroy, the ma­jor­ity of the coun­try’s pro­duc­tion was in­creas­ingly de­voted to more af­ford­able pocket watches based on the al­ready-out­dated cylin­der es­cape­ment. With the ex­cep­tion of a few highly dec­o­rated pieces that gained at­ten­tion, the cen­ter of grav­ity in watch­mak­ing had shifted per­ma­nently south.

How does a coun­try with such tech­no­log­i­cal and cul­tural ad­van­tages lose its po­si­tion? The ex­am­ple sounds in­struc­tive for any of us in the mod­ern world who feel our­selves tee­ter­ing. The be­gin­ning of the end for French watches ac­tu­ally came nearly two cen­turies be­fore Breguet, when French watch­mak­ing was de­fined more by its dec­o­ra­tive qual­i­ties. To many as­tute col­lec­tors, in­clud­ing Philippe Stern of Patek Philippe, the work of the ar­ti­sans of Blois has never been equaled. A look at the watches from this pe­riod gives sig­nif­i­cant cre­dence to this

opin­ion. Un­for­tu­nately, many of the enam­elists of the pe­riod were also Protes­tants—viewed as heretics by Louis XIV, who with­drew the state’s pro­tec­tions they had long en­joyed. Geneva was the happy re­cip­i­ent of all man­ner of French crafts­peo­ple, and, adapt­ing to a more reg­u­lated out­put un­der Calvin­ism (jew­elry was frowned upon), many turned their hand to watches.

Grow­ing in that quiet Swiss way, the coun­try’s watch­mak­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties seem not to have fazed the French watch­mak­ers, some of whom, like Breguet and Berthoud, were ac­tu­ally Swiss them­selves by birth. But as the 19th cen­tury pro­gressed, Switzerland proved adept at se­rial man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques that the French had ig­nored. At the height of his ca­reer, Breguet im­ported ported Swiss watch­mak­ers to be trained and work on n his premises in Paris, where pieces were al­ways built ilt in­di­vid­u­ally. By 1840, with his grand­son Louis-Clé­ment ément Breguet at the helm, the firm was im­port­ing g se­ri­ally pro­duced Swiss move­ments for many of their watches.

Swiss watch­mak­ing g ex­per­tise sim­ply be­came too easy to bor­row for the French, and as the Swiss ex­tended their mi­crome­chan­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated pli­cated watch­mak­ing was ex­ported as well. One of the prides of French watch­mak­ing at the end nd of the 19th cen­tury, Louis Leroy’s Leroy 01—con­sid­ered sidered the most com­pli­cated watch in the world for r decades—was largely built in Switzerland’s Val­lée de e Joux.

The French may have ave ceded their me­chan­i­cal lead­er­ship to the Swiss s dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, but as they learned dur­ing ring the 20th, style is a po­ten­tially more valu­able able ex­port. The ear­ly20th-cen­tury work of Ed­mond Jaeger, who built a thriv­ing watch­mak­ing ng busi­ness in Paris in the early days of the wrist­watch, watch, proved that dis­tinc­tively French watch­mak­ing ak­ing need not de­pend on all-French com­po­nents. ts.

“Ed­mond Jaeger was a con­nec­tor,” ex­plains Stéphane Bel­mont, di­rec­tor rec­tor of mai­son her­itage and rare pieces at Jaeger-LeCoul­tre, LeCoul­tre, the com­pany that car­ries on his legacy. “He He was a trained watch­maker but was more con­cerned ed with in­dus­trial meth­ods. His great­est suc­cess was bring­ing Swiss watch­mak­ing to the French jew­el­ers.” Work­ing with Jac­ques-David LeCoul­tre ltre and his epony­mous Val­lée de Joux man­u­fac­ture, Jaeger brought ul­tra­thin move­ments to jew­el­ers s like Louis Cartier, with whom he built the house’s use’s most mem­o­rable—and now col­lectible—mod­els, els, in­clud­ing the San­tos de Cartier and the Tank. Even­tu­ally, LeCoul­tre would draw his watch­mak­ing g re­sources back to Switzerland, but the in­flu­ence e of Jaeger was set. Even af­ter his death, the Duo­plan uo­plan move­ments he in­spired would power a gen­er­a­tion of Art Deco watches—mostly made e in Switzerland—for both men and women.

De­pend­ing on whom om you ask, French watch­mak­ing is ei­ther a by­gone one cu­rios­ity or a com­pletely vi­brant sec­tor that doesn’t quite fit the def­i­ni­tions of the in­dus­try ac­cord­ing to the Swiss and Ger­mans. The gray­ing aca­demics of the watch world would ar­gue that to find what is left of French watch­mak­ing, you have to fol­low its in­flu­ence into mod­ern Switzerland, where the ar­chi­tec­ture of Lépine and mech­a­nisms of Breguet still de­fine the craft. Cer­tainly the names, like the mod­ern Breguet or a new cre­ation like the Fer­di­nand Berthoud brand, are now more Swiss than French. But there is an­other class of watch critic—the pay­ing cus­tomer—who can de­tect a French qual­ity in French brands, even if the watches are all made in Switzerland. The mod­ern work of Cartier, Chanel, and Van Cleef & Ar­pels con­tin­ues to ex­hibit el­e­gance of form as well as the abil­ity to sur­prise and de­light. Abra­ham-Louis Breguet and Ed­mond Jaeger would surely be nod­ding ap­prov­ingly: It is al­ways bet­ter to be chic.

Fer­di­nand Berthoud Af­ter or­ches­trat­ing the of­fi­cial use of his clocks at sea, Berthoud was named clock­maker to theking and navy.


Ed­mond Jaeger

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