I kicked off my tour in the Musée d’Horlogerie in Le Locle. Maurice-Yves Sandoz donated an important part of his personal collection of automations to the watch museum in Château des Monts. Click if you missed it!
Manufactures Horologes de la Foundation
Since 1996, the Sandoz Family Foundation has been developing a Watchmaking Centre based around the Parmigiani Fleurier brand. Accompanied by five other manufactures in the Sandoz Family Foundation, the circle is able to create watches from A to W (few things, like sapphire glasses and leather straps have to be obtained from external sources). The home brand Parmigiani Fleurier takes precedence, of course, but the workshops specialized on various parts, complex products and skills may work for other selected high-end watchmakers, too.
During my few days in the Jura I visited all six establishments – some of them make sure that time is measured with precision while others dress up the moment to please the eye.
Make you wanna move
It was a nice and sunny hour and a half’s drive from Neuchâtel to Alle to arrive to Atokalpa. The company that originally specialized in traditional watch gears nowadays produces a range of high-end components too, such as spring balances, pallet forks, escapement train wheels and oscillator parts.
Atokalpa creates miniature elements but Elwin goes even further; Elwin produces micro-mechanical components, like pinions, tiny wheels and screws. They have to respect extremely low tolerance, which in many cases is less than a micron (one thousandth of a millimetre). Just to picture it: the diameter of human hair ranges from 17 to 181 µm. To be the master of the micro-world what you need is good machines and skills to operate them. Elwin has both, in fact they even constructed numerically controlled bar turning machines when they needed them. The firm is so renowned for top machinery, programming skills and especially their consistently high quality batches that many watchmaking companies order parts from outside the conglomerate.
Engineers have the space to experiment and they do develop new ways of machining. For instance, how to cut screws without stressing the metal made the employment of softer precious metals as high duty screws possible. Thus, some of their products are truly unique.
Vaucher Manufacture handles the heart of the timepieces. The firm has a long tradition and it originates in the 18th century, when the Vaucher family produced their first movements in Fleurier. They became a member of the Sandoz Family Foundation in 2003 with a mission to produce high-quality manual and automatic mechanical movements and additional modules. The production is organized in two complementary flows: one for the Prestige and Vaucher Private Label ranges, the other for the Personalised line. The first two offer a high level of finishing and certain customization of bridges and the oscillating weight. The Personalised range has been specially designed to serve as the ideal base for the creative talents of individual clients and new movements conceived by a joint effort. Naturally the price level changes accordingly.
Vaucher workshops include CNC, cutting and stamping machines, and facilities for watch pre-assembly, assembly, adjustment and finishing (such as the different hand decorations and hand bevelling of all components). You should have seen the sparkling eyes of my guide when she spoke about her decorating skills in action on the most complex and often unique bridges and plates – the real source of endorphin.
Optional modules are available for the base movement or even separately. These include chronographs, perpetual and annual calendars, moon phases and second time-zone complications. Research and development has been encouraged at Vaucher with a dedicated department to liberate creativity and to increase the range of products of course.
Appear with style
The most complex and technically advanced mechanical movements deserve the best stylists, so all functions they provide appear in the nicest outfit.
Les Artisans Boîtiers is responsible for high-tech complex watch cases. The LAB has all the knowledge and technique to precisely process any materials. CNCs operate here too, and parts are finished by hand to reach the highest level of aesthetics. Houses, such as the beautifully curved 18 ct gold case of Bugatti Super Sport are made in the LAB.
The dials of Parmigiani watches are produced by Quadrance & Habillage. Dials are the “canvas” of craftsmen, where imagination takes shape and at Quadrance & Habillage artists have the freedom to play. They may test new techniques, colours and materials and an amazing variety of finishing methods to deliver astonishing artworks. Strict quality control applies to each step of colouring, the surface protection or the process of applying the indexes.
At Parmigiani Fleurier Manufacture, complete timepieces are designed and created by assembling the parts they make themselves and others that they obtain from the sister manufactures mentioned above. Restoration and after sales also happens here.
Last day I met two gorgeous ladies, both designers of Parmigiani. They talked about their work, inspirations as well as the creative process. One particular project they mentioned was very interesting: “The art of falconry”, an Art Deco inspired clock based on the animal drawings and sculptures of Edouard-Marcel Sandoz. He was – among others – a famous sculptor in the 20th century (look at Edouard Marcel Sandoz: An important and unique chat for example). The “Falcon and the Bustard” pays homage both to the work of Sandoz and the Middle Eastern tradition of falconry.
The project took about a year to complete and a great amount of that time was spent on research. Artists sought drawings of the bird in the archives and created many sketches to freeze the movements of the graceful, strong and redoubtable falcon.
Falconry remains an important part of the Arabic culture. The so called saker falcons are swift and powerful, and are effective against medium and large game bird species, such as the bustard.
The brave lines of the birds, the motifs on the clock are reminiscent to the Art Deco genre incorporating some Middle Eastern effects.
This extremely complex piece took 1800 hours to make and the masterful application of various techniques, including silver and gold sculpturing and diamond setting. The special clock movement turns the Falcon in a 1-hour circuit and the Bustard escaping 6 times an hour.
Edouard-Marcel Sandoz also liked the fish motif; drawings, sculptures, a knife with an eel or a Flying Fish salt cellar were among his creations.
I got a little glimpse of the visual development of another unique piece, too, the white gold Tecnica Carpe, inspired by a bronze sculpture of his. It is a minute repeater with chronograph and perpetual calendar and the main motifs on the dial are carps swimming in the water among lily leaves. Each element of the dial is carefully designed and executed. The fishes are gold appliqués with “ramolayé” technique – a so called “pounced ornament” resulting from a hand-engraving method, where the cuts made by a graving tool are smoothed with a small file. The leaves are also hand-engraved and covered with translucent enamel, similarly to the water which borrows the feeling of depths.
The watch has an engraved and enamelled double case-back, decorated similarly to the leaves.
Hermès and Parmigiani
There are several ties between Hermès and the Sandoz Family Foundation manufactures. La Montre Hermès S.A. is the member of the Association of the Friends of the Le Locle Museum. Hermès International also possesses 25% of the Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, and the movement company provides a number of calibres for Hermès. Several Parmigiani timepieces receive Hermès leather straps.
The designer at Parmigiani showed me a few experiments of hers, which ended up with new Hermès straps emphasizing another attractive side of the Parmigiani watches.
The financial stability brought to the brand by the Sandoz Family Foundation, Michel Parmigiani’s genius and Jean-Marc Jacot’s strong yet easy going phenomenon give very safe havens for creative work. Engineers and artists are true believers of the brand and it is present in every aspect of their communication. Opportunities that the six companies embed are endless and this is very rare at such a size – the conglomerate is far from huge, but big enough to be almost completely independent. And they are INDEPENDENT with capital letters. At the same time they are still at the size where every watch component also has a human face associated with it. The personal stories and the far from loud but honest appearance make Parmigiani very attractive and undoubtedly a love brand of haute horlogerie.
I’d like to thank Parmigiani for the hospitality and the exceptional guide!
Photo credits: Atokalpa, Elwin, Les Artisans Boîtiers, Vaucher Manufacture, Quadrance & Habillage, Parmigiani Fleurier, Loupiosity.com.
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