As watch brands go, Parmigiani Fleurier has a trump card many others don’t: an eponymous master watchmaker actively involved in the business. At 62, Michel Parmigiani is born of a pedigree not enjoyed by most other master watchmakers.
Growing up in the canton of Neuchatel in Switzerland, he was exposed to skilled craftsmen and watchmakers since he was a child. As he observed, questioned and learnt from these masters from whose hands creativity and precision flowed, he decided to take up training in watchmaking – and started a career restoring old clocks and watches. This was some 30 years ago.
While modern watchmakers are forward-looking, breaking design rules and forging new frontiers in material usage, Michel’s strengths and skills were honed from studying traditions, methods and age-old techniques. In the span of his career, he famously restored timepieces such as the Pendule Sympathique Clock by Breguet in 1990.
“In watchmaking, tradition is very important,” says Michel. “Restoration helps you understand the past and project yourself to get some vision for the future. It’s important to understand history in order to understand what may happen in the future. This applies, in particular, to watchmaking.”
Starting his career as a restorer and repairer of clocks and watches turned out to be an advantage when he decided to manufacture his own timepieces and movements. Having restored the La Cueillette des Cerises pocket watch in 1986, which happened to be a timepiece from the Maurice-Yves Sandoz collection, Michel caught the eye of the Sandoz Family Foundation, and his work ethic and vision for starting a watch company fit well with the Foundation’s plans.
One of the wealthiest families in Europe with private banking, hotel and pharmaceutical businesses, the Sandoz Family Foundation was in 1996 looking to diversify its portfolio and decided to invest in a typical Swiss expertise: watches.
Having the Foundation back Michel’s passion turned out to be a win-win arrangement for both parties. For starters, the connections of the Sandoz family helped Parmigiani secure an exclusive arrangement with Pierre-Alexandre Dumas of Hermès to supply all the leather straps of Parmigiani timepieces. In turn, the luxury leather goods company invested in Vaucher, the movement manufacturing company owned by Parmigiani – and Vaucher now produces all the movements for Hermès timepieces.
The Vaucher Manufacture
It would be easy to say: “the rest is history”, but in reality, says chief executive Jean-Marc Jacot, there is still a long way to go for the brand.
“It is never a finished job,” he says. “From now, we need a minimum of some four to five years more to establish the brand more seriously worldwide. It’s a long and heavy investment, creating our watches from scratch to finish. But I’m sure if we plan well, Parmigiani will be a very good brand.”
Parmigiani timepieces are all hand-finished, with most of the components produced in-house
Michel is one of the few watchmakers in the industry who consciously learns from the past to create the new. In his own words, it was curiosity, interest and a willingness to learn from the masters of watchmaking that led him to start his career thus. “By restoring you will learn and understand how things have been done, you understand how the watchmakers of the past created and manufactured their timepieces,” he believes. “But this asks for a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of patience.
“Restoring a timepiece also provides a sort of roadmap for the future, from understanding and seeing the skills and the values that have been put into these very old collections. If you own a very old watch that functions quite well after a long time – I’m talking a hundred years or so – this testifies to how well made it is. You start to have a great respect for the watch because you know the watchmakers during that time didn’t have the tools we have today.”
Michel has indeed been inspired by some pieces he previously restored to create new timepieces under the Parmigiani brand. “Some of the watches have been inspired by old collectors’ pieces,” he reveals. “To pay tribute to the Sandoz family collection, who held an exhibition in New York, I was inspired by one of those pieces to create a contemporary piece: the Capital timepiece.”
Perhaps it’s his penchant for perfection, or perhaps it’s the restoring and repairing of timepieces – either way, Michel was determined to produce the best quality parts for his timepieces, whether or not this is visible to the wearer.
For this reason, the Sandoz family made the strategic decision to invest in the manufactures that produce the most important parts of the watch: Vaucher, for the movements; Atokalpa, for the wheels, micro-gears, escapements and balance springs; and Elwin, for the screws. This is a concerted effort to ensure control of every aspect of the watchmaking process.
The parts they don’t produce are sourced from some of the best in the business. Jacot elaborates, “We don’t produce the straps; we have a contract with Hermès. The glass is sapphire – we buy this because it is not strategic for us to produce it. We also don’t produce the quartz movement, but we have a partnership with Patek Philippe for that.
“That’s exactly the philosophy of Parmigiani. We try to give the best to the consumer. If we don’t want to produce, we always use the best. But we don’t change the name of the original source. For the movement that is Patek Philippe, if you open the watch, you’ll see it’s Patek Philippe. We don’t cover the movement to give the impression that it is all Parmigiani. We try not to lie. We really want to be honest with our consumers.”
Incidentally, all three manufactures owned by Parmigiani also produce parts for some of the most recognisable watch brands today. “It takes time to receive a movement from us. If we’re not able to produce the screws and wheels the way you saw it, we would not be able to produce a watch the way we wanted. Because at the end of the day, a watch is 90 per cent mechanical,” says Jacot.
The Advantage of Youth
The Parmigiani headquarters in Fleurier, Switzerland
In an industry where heritage is venerated and the brand’s age is deemed to equal experience, Jacot is not shy about touting Parmigiani’s relative youth – after all, the company was only officially founded 15 years ago.
“But honestly, we’re not so young as a brand,” he shares. “Many watch companies, they claim to be ‘since 1822’, ‘since 1911’... They’re lying. You know why? Maybe one guy created the company in 1822. But between 1825 and 2002, nothing happened. By this count, do you know we are older than Breguet? Michel started making watches before Breguet started again. So we are not so young.
“For me, age on paper means nothing. Only one company in all of Switzerland never stopped making watches from the beginning: Vacheron Constantin. Let’s take the car business, for example. Ferrari is a very new company, but that is not a problem. Lexus is very young; it’s not a problem. But are we so stupid in the watch business, that the age is the most positive thing we have to say? Why do we need to put this stamp ‘since’? It’s so stupid.”
If tradition and age are not its best selling points, how will he answer watch aficionados’ burning question: “why buy a Parmigiani?”
“I think aesthetically speaking, we have a unique design,” Jacot says. “It’s a design that helps you recognise the watch. I believe you can recognise a Parmigiani timepiece when you see it, because of the shape, the volume, and the profile of the watch. We are the only company in the watch business which has the same profile for any kind of watch shape. It is unique. We also do very specific colours for the dials, unique colours specific to Parmigiani. We are also very proud of the quality of our timepieces.
“If you don’t have good components, you cannot have a good watch,” he continues. “You realise how difficult it is to make a good wheel, a good screw. That’s why other companies come to us to buy these things, because they are very difficult to produce.”
While Parmigiani is young as a brand, its marketing vision is anything but.
“Vaucher was created for Parmigiani. We opened the company to competitors for two reasons. First: volume. We need the production volume for the company to be sure we can go long-term. Secondly, it’s very good for stimulating the people who work for us. For example, to produce a movement for Richard Mille is very challenging. Nobody else in Switzerland wants to produce a movement for Richard Mille because the movement is in titanium. Titanium is the worst thing you can have in the production set. It’s very complicated; it’s very bad for the machinery; it’s very expensive.
"So when Richard came to us, he was so happy that somebody could finally produce his movement. We are now producing something like 80 per cent of his movements. It’s the same for Corum; we are producing 100 per cent of the Golden Bridge.”
He does not rule out that Parmigiani’s focus on quality could have cost it the brand recognition it so desires today. “If we spent what we spend in manufacture onn advertising instead, I think today you wouldn’t ask me why the brand is not famous,” he smiles. “If we spent the same value in advertising we would be very, very famous by now.”
Parmigiani started to sponsor the annual Montreux Jazz Festival in 2008
Eye on the Future
Currently, Parmigiani sells some 5,000 watches a year, globally. And Jacot’s target is for the brand to reach 10,000 watches a year. He says it’s impossible for the brand to be mainstream, given its strict production processes.
“You’ve seen our factory. We can never produce more than 10,000 watches a year. It’s impossible. To me, the target is to make our customers happy.”
The making of the intricate Parmigiani movements
The world’s first Parmigiani boutique opened in Dubai in 2008. In Southeast Asia, the brand has just signed on The Hour Glass as its sole distributor.
“When you’re a new brand, you have to be very careful with the retailers you choose, as they are our long-term investment for the future,” he says. He adds that he is grateful to the brand’s previous Southeast Asian retailer, who “took a risk” with them for the past 14 years.
“The Hour Glass is, in my opinion, very faithful, very serious. It has workshops, it has watchmakers – its watchmakers came here for a few weeks for training. It is not looking for the short-term, and for us it’s a perfect partner in a zone like Southeast Asia.
“We have a very specific plan in working with our partners; we try to support them the best way we can. We don’t say to our partners, ‘okay, you have to sell 500 watches this year’. We don’t care. We’re sure they will do their best to sell the most that they can. But with Parmigiani, in fact, it’s not so important how many watches are sold. It’s how much money you can make with us.”
If there’s one thing Parmigiani wants to be known for, it’s its ongoing quest for perfection.
“Michel is always running after perfection. He is making everybody in the workshops crazy,” laughs Jacot. “But I think for a company like us, it’s very important to have somebody like him, who is running after perfection. You can never reach perfection. Nobody ever reaches it.
"Especially because, when the timepiece is handmade, it cannot be perfect. The human touch is much more important. It’s what Hermès has and it’s good. When you visit Hermès, they have everything handmade and that’s why it’s perfect. To have the luxury to keep a company small like we are to produce perfection, it’s a real luxury.”
Michel concedes, “Watchmaking is a big adventure and yes, my approach is to try to make everything more perfect; to improve the fucntion of the watches. Every mechanical watch is different from the other, even if it’s the same model, because every watch will have some adjustment, some regulations that will make them function slightly differently from the others.
“There is always something to be done.”