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5. september 2011
"I have no conviction when I create: I'm afraid"

4 June 2019

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François-Paul Journe in his workshops. © FP Journe

Twenty years after having created the Sovereign Tourbillon, the master watchmaker François-Paul Journelaunches the Vertical Sovereign Tourbillion. During a long interview, he returns to the highlights of the last twenty years, he evokes his masters and the importance of the past to invent the present, he explains his particular sense of the passage of time during the creative process he tells the reasons for Chanel's entry into his business and he laughs too, sometimes. - Isabelle Cerboneschi.

The first time I met François-Paul Journe it was early 1990’s. He had just moved to Geneva in an office without charm, but that did not matter because his treasure was entirely in his head and in his hands. In 1999 he presented me his Sovereign toutbillion with equal winding. Twenty years later, in his factory, he explains to me his new Vertical Sovereign Tourbillon. Faced with him for the umpteenth time, the listener tells of these new complications, as if the thing was self-evident and everything was simple, I became aware of all that time, when it is well used and that the track is right, can accomplish on a destiny.

It is a form of indifference to a future in which he did not want to project that led this "difficult" student to the Lapérine College in Marseille (now Leonardo da Vinci Vocational High School) to study there. watchmaking. Marseille is the city where he was born and he kept a little sun in his voice. After a stint at Pierre Girard College in Paris, family loyalty did the rest. His uncle, Michel Journe, a famous restorer of old watchmaking, had opened the way for him in watchmaking.. Why not follow him? And so uncle and nephew worked together, restoring the watchmaking masterpieces of the past.

The passion for this world of the precise and precious infinite has not fallen on him like a revelation: it has been revealed little by little, in a natural way, by doing the work. Because he did not have the means to create a watch designed by the illustrious Abraham-Louis Breguet, whom he admired, François-Paul Journe decided to make his own pocket watch with a swirl, entirely by hand. He was 20 years old. It took five years to complete it. This tenacity, this will is still strong today.

As he learned to repair old timepieces, he understood that the way forward was a subtle equation between the quest for perfection, the technical feat, and a timeless aesthetic. His watches are the synthesis of that. They reflect his respect for watchmaking history, a personal taste for classicism and a certain idea of contemporary watchmaking. His timepieces have an ageless quality, marked not by the signs of time, but by the history of time. Hence his motto "Invenit and fecit" (he invented and he did, ed) engraved on his dials.

François-Paul Journe is one of those few master watchmakers who have never sacrificed his vision, tirelessly pursuing his iconoclastic ideas, always guarding the masters of the past. Last September, the group Chanel put in 20% into his company, adding to the other two partners of François-Paul Journe, to ensure the sustainability of his company. The master watchmaker, since, apprehends life with a lightness that we did not know him for..

In his own horological pantheon, Abraham Louis Breguet is the master. The next one is George Daniels, the master watchmaker who died in 2011. We could add a third man to this list: the watchmaking expert Jean-Claude Sabrier, which François-Paul Journe bought the library in 2015. The master watchmaker has a touching way of venerating: he does so in an absolute, radical way, mirroring his character. The day we met, he introduced me to one of his biggest fans who runs the blog The JourneGuy. This collector learned French just to be able to interview him without a translator. In this famous interview, François-Paul Journe confided to him that he dreamed of an impossible meeting: to sit beside Breguet.The JourneGuy offered him a painting directed to his attention, showing him at the table with Abraham-Louis Breguet and George Daniels. The master watchmaker was speechless.

François-Paul Journe is of the obstinate kind: to continue all the Grail, but one at a time. It would take six years to create the Sovereign Ringtonewith minute repeats that he launched in 2006 and removed from the 2018end catalog. This timepiece was a watchmaking feat and "a great lesson in humility". It temporarily gives way to an astronomical watch that will be launched on the occasion of the charity sale Only Watch. But the day we met, it was mostly about the Vertical Sovereign Tourbillion, which he began to present. Francois-Paul Journe was serene, like a man who no longer needs to prove to himself that he is capable of doing the impossible.

IC: What does the Sovereign Vertical Whirlwind bring to the one you created twenty years ago?
François-Paul Journe: What is great is that the first article on the Sovereign Whirlwind, you wrote it! You should be able to answer this question (laughs). It will bring a new life to this whirlpool because it is a slightly different product. The most difficult thing was to find him a look. A watch is an emotion. She has to ravage people. I tried to keep the spirit of the first swirl bracelet I made in 1991, while adding something modern. The dial is made of guilloché movement with a small enamel dial.

Why a vertical vortex?
Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon for pocket watches, gold in the pockets, the tourbillon was positioned vertically. Then, when the person discarded it, put it vertically on a support. This one is the same except that it is a wristwatch: when you put it on a table, the Tourbillion remains vertical. Once they are laid flat, all the horizontal swirls lose 4 seconds in the night, because there is more friction on the tip of the pivots. We lose seconds, even with an equaliser.

Would it have been possible, technologically speaking, to create it twenty years ago?
I did not miss anything but I did not even think about it! Ideas come little by little.

The very clean face of this timepiece, where does it come from?
I came back to my first love. There is a great classicism in this model. On the enamel dial, I wanted to recreate one of the finest fonts that existed on the clocks of the eighteenth century, when the enamellers were able to make large dials, to 1770. They then tried to create very clean fonts. It is a choice that is very personal to me: in this watch we find a little history of watchmaking, classicism and modernity. It's this mix of everything that makes my style. We will see what I will do in twenty years for the next. I hope you'll come back (laughs).

Last year you removed from the catalog the Grande Sonnerie that you wanted to replace with an astronomical watch. Is she ready soon?
The prototype of the astronomical is made, the movement turns, it is a long-term job. There are still a few small details to settle but it will be unveiled at the next edition of Only Watch. It is hoped that it will save money for myopathy research!

In general, the watches sold to Only Watch are unique pieces. I imagine you will redo other copies for your customers?
This is the prototype we are selling. Then there will be the series. Finally, when I say series: I imagine that we will make as many copies as the Grande Sonnerie. In 2006, when we launched the Grande Sonnerie, we had twenty orders, and again, we were not too well known! When the astronomical goes around the world with Only Watch we will certainly have 40 orders, at least. We will try to hold them but we may not be able to. In the Grand Sonnerie there were 465 components and in this one there is 900! To succeed in making an astronomical watch is also a story of prestige. Franco Cologni (president of the Haute Horlogerie Foundation, ed) had invented a scale of complications, much like the Richter scale: the level 10 corresponded to a great Sonnerie. There are at least 200 or 300 brands that would like to reach the level 10 and we did it! (Laughs).

Yes, but the astronomical watch exceeds the 10 level!
It's way better than 10! But the astronomical is a compilation of complications that are necessary if one is in love with the sky and the stars. Mine was designed to observe the sky. It is an instrument that could have served an astronomer of the eighteenth or nineteenth century: he would have given him at least the information needed to do his job. The Grande Sonnerie, on the other hand, is as if we were doing a triple back flop by receiving on tiptoe, without even being disheveled. It is a very difficult exercise.

It took you six years to create the Grand Sonnerie
Yes, and much more for the astronomical: I started it in 2006 There are many indications on the dial and I could not find the aesthetic. For six years, I looked for how I was going to draw the face of this watch. I did I do not know how many drawings! And when I found the formula, we were able to work relatively quickly. As long as it's not good, I postpone the project and in the meantime I'm doing something easier.

Meanwhile you have launched the Elegant, with its electromechanical movement that stops working when the person stops wearing his watch and automatically returns to the time when it is taken in hand.
Yes, but I did not work much on it because it was a research project. The most complicated was to run the first series: I solder the coils to the binocular with the soldering iron! The development of the concept took a year. We have redone the integrated circuits three or four times. Now all is fine.

Before the Elegant you had never defined your watches according to a given gender, but it is clearly intended for women.
I repeat a sentence of Jean-Claude Biver: "A watch is like a car. Where did you see that there are cars for women?

Many brands think so ...
I do not believe at all: there are small sizes, large sizes, ... At first, when I wanted to do the Elegant, I wanted a feminine design. I entrusted it to a designer from Paris but the result looked like anything but a FP Journe watch. So I did it myself: a normal design with a dial where you can read the time, a line of minutes round and needles that turn.

Where does this conviction come from when you create a new watch?
I have no conviction when I create: I am afraid. But I know what I want to do. In 1991 when I made my first whirlwind bracelet, it was too early: it did not rain. I exhibited it in Basel when I was at AHCI. People did not understand it. I put it on my wrist and waited. In 1994, I went to lunch at the Hippopotamus of Montparnasse. It was summer, we had the sleeves up. The girl at the desk saw my wrist and said, "What's this watch? It's fantastic ! ". And I told myself that if the Hippopotamus receptionist was able to understand what I had done, it meant that the world had changed and the time had come. I started drawing the collection. At the time I lived between Paris and St. Croix.

In 2016 you have created the Heritage service, which allows collectors to buy watches that are no longer in production, but that you revise entirely. How is this service evolving?
Very well. The idea came by chance: customers were looking for a particular model. They did not want to buy it in public sale or on the internet. They asked us to buy it for them, restore it and give them a guarantee. The first year, we made a figure of 1,7 million. Be careful, it's not gain, because it's a service! You do not really make money with that: the margin is very small. But it's good for the image and good for our customers who are happy to be able to buy a watch in perfect condition, almost as if it was coming out of the factory. I buy them from Christie's at Sotheby's. I recently bought a watch that had been stolen during the burglary of the Geneva Watch Museum (in November 2002, ed), which had been bought by the insurance companies. We lent it in 2002 and it came back to us after going all the way.

During the last International Exhibition of Haute Horlogerie, you participated in the presentation of the Young Talent Competition to discover young apprentice watchmakers. Transmission in your business is essential. Do you feel that schools leave some trades aside?
Yes, but it's normal. Schools are made to train general watchmakers, because houses need that. They can not create artists.

The prize allows apprentices to buy their own tools and give them media visibility. Is that enough?
My Uncle Michel's studio was in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in the antiques district. He sold watches and old clocks, which we repaired and immediately, I was immersed in the bath of collectors. I knew these people. When I made my first watch, immediately customers were there. These young people, who are coming out of school, have not had this chance: they need important media coverage to be visible. This will allow them, if they are talented and have the sense of trade, to talk to collectors and make proposals. They will do their first business and if they work well, they will do a second one and it will follow.

Speaking of learning, who was your greatest teacher?
George Daniels. He was an autodidact who loved watchmaking foolishly. When he was 15 years old, to make a living, he played poker on the docks. Then he began to take an interest in watchmaking mechanics and when he discovered Breguet's universe, he did like any other watchmaker: there is nothing more beautiful than the first tourbillon of Breguet and he made his own version. Me too, my first watch, I created it compared to that of Breguet. Everyone goes through this as it is the original pipeline

The big problem of independent watchmakers is the transmission of their knowledge and their company. In September 2018 you made an agreement with Chanel that took a stake of 20%. This is not the first time we approach you. Why did you choose Chanel?
They are friends, they love my job. They had already asked me to join the company ten years ago but I was waiting to see what my children would do. My grand, Charles, who is in Paris, is studying history. It's a living library but it's not in watches. The kid, I wanted to bring him to the watchmaking school, in Geneva, there is 3 years, but his passion is basketball. Whenever I went on a trip, I was worried. I told myself that if something happened to me, I would not want a group to annoy my children. That's why Chanel: we are in the same business, luxury on a human scale. This should reassure everyone.

Are you happy ?
Whenever I'm asked this question, I answer with a understatement: I'm not unhappy (laughs).

The Sovereign Vertical Whirlwind.

François-Paul Journe. Photo: Nasha Gazetta.