Paragon and Prodigal

Aspects of Janus in Genevan horology.

by Carlos Perez

April 15, 2001



In the mid-to-late 20th century the appellation “Swiss Made” became, and remains, the basic hallmark of quality in commercial horology. What was once intended to flush out so-called “Swiss fakes,” is now a brand of distinction in the mind of the common consumer. Watches of even the highest quality from other nations still earn at best a grudging and limited acceptance. Yet standing apart from the merely “Swiss Made” is an older tradition, a self-established mark of pride in their craft and of exclusivity: the appellation of “Genve.”

The Republic and Canton of Geneva is both an old city-state and one of the youngest cantons in Switzerland — steeped in tradition but undeniably cosmopolitan. Like Schaffhausen far to the north, it is a small archipelago surrounded by a foreign nation. For centuries Geneva was an independent city-state, aloof from the control of the Swiss Federation, the Kingdom of France, and the Duchy of Savoy. Indeed it was the exodus of religious refugees from France to this independent oasis which established watchmaking in Geneva in the mid-16th century (around 1554). These newly established watchmakers of Geneva set up the world’s first watchmaking guild in 1601 in order to protect the reputation of Genevan watches. In time it became customary to mark “Genve” on the watches and movements produced in the Republic.

Much akin to the cabinotiers of Paris, the cabinotiers of Geneva produced high-grade luxury watches for a primarily aristocratic clientele. The most well known example of an 18th century cabinotier is Jean-Marc
Vacheron, a representative of the time when Genevan watchmaking had achieved technical and qualitative parity with the best of Paris. In both Paris and Geneva the most successful of these cabinotiers established watchmaking houses that survived them. Their names became brands, a few of which we still know today. Of old independent Geneva, the house of Vacheron Constantin remains the living legacy of J. M.
Vacheron.

It was only after its brief annexation by Imperial France that Geneva finally joined the Swiss Federation in 1814. Yet the spirit of Genevan watchmaking as something distinct and special within the growing Swiss watchmaking industry continued on. In 1886 the Bureau de contrle des Montres de Genve was founded under the guidance of the Ecole d’Horlogerie de Genve in part to regulate and oversee the usage of Geneva origin marks in Swiss watch production. Of course all marks of origin are necessarily exclusionary, and the modern legal use of “Genve” builds further upon the present exclusivity of “Swiss Made.” As all cognac is brandy but not all brandy is cognac, all Genevan watches are Swiss, but not all Swiss watches are
Genevan.

There are basically two levels of requirements for watches and movements to earn the right to bear the origin marks of the Republic of Geneva. The first is specifically regional: At least half of the cost of production must have been incurred within Geneva, and at least one of the major assembly operations must have occurred within Geneva: Assembly of the movement or casing of the movement. Any “Swiss Made” watch meeting this minimum standard is entitled to bear the inscription “Genve.”

The second, higher standard is a code of qualitative criteria that codifies and preserves various characteristic elements of the haute genevois style of movement design, manufacture, and finish, which evolved over centuries in the work of Geneva’s best cabinotiers, etablissuers, and manufactures. Any mechanical movement that meets the technical criteria of this code as well as a tighter regional restriction requiring both assembly and regulation of the movement within the Republic, is entitled to the bear the Geneva Bureau’s hallmark, the coveted Poinon de Genve ( lit. “Punch of Geneva”) — which depicts the heraldic seal of the city. The hallmark is typically punched on both a bridge of the top-plate and upon the main-plate, as shown here on a Vacheron Constantin calibre 1002..

The Geneva hallmark is unique in the world of watchmaking, with no parallels within Switzerland or the rest of the world. However, I think that it should not be seen as a special sign of horological holiness (as it often is), but rather as the minimum standard to be expected from any haute genevois house. We will now take a brief look at two independent Genevan manufactures that meet this high standard for all of their mechanical watch production, but which build upon this watchmaking tradition in quite different ways.

Patek Philippe SA

Born in the new “Swiss Geneva” in 1845, the story of Patek Philippe begins a mere thirty odd years after Geneva joined the Swiss Federation. Started as Patek & Co. by Count Antoni de Norbert de Patek and Jean Adrien Philippe after the dissolution of Patek,
Czapek, & Co., the company would be renamed six years later as Patek Philippe & Co. in acknowledgment of the latter’s ascendance to full partner status. As a maker of high-grade pocket watches with the expected peppering of illustrious clientele, Patek Philippe introduced a few significant technical advances, including keyless works in 1860. It is also likely that Patek Philippe was one of the forces behind the institution of the Bureau de contrle des Montres de Genve in the 1880s, and thus of the Geneva hallmark.

The modern era of Patek Philippe begins in the dawning age of the wristwatch, when it was purchased by Charles and Jean Stern in 1932. This brought a significant change to the company’s philosophy of watchmaking and business practices. The use of private label watchmakers like
Jaeger-LeCoultre slowly diminished, and the old multigrade system of quality was discarded. The company invested more and more heavily in movement development and manufacture, in time only coming to rely on ebauches for lower volume movements like the ultrathins of Frederic Piguet and
Jaeger-LeCoultre, and the chronographs of Valjoux and
Lemania.

The first half-century under the Sterns was the golden age of the manufacture. In the new world of wristwatches it created design icons, its movements were at the pinnacle of the craft and universally hallmarked by the Geneva Bureau, its calendar complications set the standard for the industry, and it continued to advance the art with new innovations, the most pivotal of which was the Gyromax balance in 1952. The quartz revolution shook Patek Philippe as it did the entire watch industry, but the manufacture emerged in our new renaissance uncontested as the best of Geneva, Switzerland, and the world.

But what makes Patek Philippe “the best?” What sets it apart from the other first tier brands? In my opinion it is the quality of their watchmaking not just at the limited production haute horlogerie level, but at the basic, commercial, so-called “entry level.” That the fine sound of their minute repeaters remains unmatched is of little concern to the average buyer of a simple handwind or automatic. What makes these buyers turn to Patek Philippe is that the construction and finish of these simpler watches is held to a standard that other companies reserve for their most exclusive works. An excellent example of this fundamental approach at Patek Philippe is its use of freesprung adjustable-mass balances throughout its mechanical watch collections. Master watchmaker George Daniels has oft been quoted as saying that regulators are adequate for mass-produced watches, but are not appropriate for “fine” high-grade watches. It is the use of regulators which is the tragic flaw of other first-tier brands, including
Blancpain, Breguet, and Jaeger-LeCoultre, and of most of the work of Audemars Piguet and dear old genevois Vacheron
Constantin.

While there will always be some difference between the degree of craft put into watches at the high horology vs. commercial horology levels, it is the relatively narrow difference at Patek Philippe which allows it to set the standard not only in terms of its best trademark complications, but for simple watches as well. Indeed the watchmaking house of Antoni de Norbert de Patek and Jean Adrien Philippe remains the most staunch supporter and producer of “gentleman’s wristwatches” in the traditional mode: small, thin, and gold.

While all of this clearly portrays a paragon of Genevan horology, it is not the sum of Patek Philippe — the manufacture did not emerge unchanged from the Dark Quartz Age. While the company has been long under the guidance of Philippe Stern, the heir apparent Thierry Stern has recently joined the company as head of Patek Philippe’s Department of Design and Creation. How many of the recent changes in design can be attributed to this new leadership cannot de definitively said, but there is undoubtedly a new youthful spirit in Patek Philippe’s latest offerings.

In the simplest terms, Patek Philippe has begun to repackage its classic designs and movements into larger, more current, “sportier,” fashion-forward cases. In some instances replacing the old classics, and in others keeping both — the past and the present together. For their repeaters this will probably mean bigger sound, and for the others a larger more modern wrist presence. Shown above is the new 40mm ref. 5074 which replaces the much smaller 3974, and the new ref. 5107 which is now a larger sibling to the classic 3998. No doubt there is much more to come of this new wave at Patek Philippe which, while nouveau in form and not to my personal taste, remains true to the Stern philosophy in essence.

Manufacture Roger Dubuis SA

Roger Dubuis has had a long and distinguished career as a watchmaker in Geneva. Beginning with his formal education at the Ecole d’Horlogerie de Genve (1953-7), he worked for over twenty years for the haute genevois brands, including 14 years developing complications for Patek Philippe. In 1980 he set up his own independent atelier where he focused upon the restoration of antique complicated watches and clocks, as well as on commissioned development of new complications for the major brands. It was finally in May of 1995 that Roger Dubuis crowned his long career by founding a new manufacture in Geneva under his own brand. This new house combined the proven watchmaking skills of Dubuis himself, and the established design talent of Carlos Dias — who left his design position at Franck Muller Technowatch SA to partner Dubuis in the new venture.

“Art and Respect of Tradition” is the motto that sums succinctly the philosophy of this youngest of Genevan manufactures. As “art” in form, Dias’ novel designs are brought to life through all of the puissance of the craft, in an opulence that evokes the baroque age of
watchmaking. Then like art prints, each design is produced in limited numbered series of 28. This of course is antithetical to the commercialized classicism of form which most other Genevan brands make their bread and butter, and perhaps brings to mind some of the old cabinotier mentality and methodology of centuries past. Watches that are unique or only made in small series is a very old element of “tradition,” from before the mechanized production of the industrial revolution, back when watches were made solely for the aristocracy.

Of course not all is flamboyance and exclusivity, for without a solid foundation of honest watchmaking the watches of the Manufacture Roger Dubuis SA would merely be pretensious hollow shells. To live up to the unapologetic grandeur of the designs, the movements are held to the highest traditional standards: combining the in-house manufacture of licensed movement designs as well as some of the best ebauches available, with complications developed and built in-house, all of which are refined and finished to the Geneva Bureau’s standard. Indeed, as Roger Dubuis makes no quartz watches it is the only Genevan brand whose entire production of watches bears the Geneva hallmark. All movements are also “chronometer” certified by the Observatoire de Besanon, a practice which harkens back to the days of hotly contested observatory trials.

At present Roger Dubuis’ watches are organized into three different design series. The Hommage and Sympathie collections were introduced in 1996, and the Much More collection in 2000 — each of which is defined by a different case shape. The Hommage is classic round as shown above right, the Sympathie a flared and stylized square akin to Gothic
armour, and the Much More a very large cambered rectangle (shown above left), which includes the even larger Much Much More, and the massive Too Much. The watches generally do not bear the appellation “Genve” as they are entitled, but rather the unique subtitle “horloger genevois,” a simple and accurate title for the man himself.

As the haute couture of haute horlogerie, Roger Dubuis has carved out a small and exclusive niche in the wristwatch market, wherein the wristwatch is a fetishized statement of individuality, oversized and exaggerated, yet authenticated by the gold-standard of quality
watchmaking. Fashionable and ever changing, it is a different way than the classicism which seeks perfected forms, universality, and timelessness — but for those who prefer haute couture to pret–porter there could be no better choice. It is my understanding that Roger Dubuis intends to expand into the manufacture of clocks and pocket watches, beginning with a grande sonnerie table clock with tourbillon, perpetual calendar, and 32-day power reserve. No doubt the traditional form once more rendered into art.



We have seen the two sides of Genevan horology: One ever looking back to tradition, pursuing refinement and an almost platonic idealism of classical forms and the old opulence of the baroque. The other looking forward beyond the horizon, indulging in the extravagance of experimentation, seeking evolution, and sometimes simply defiance of classical restraint and obsession. Yet within this dichotomy lies a unifying ethic and vision of uncompromising craft over 400 years old, and it is this that makes them one. Patek Philippe has two new exemplary extravagances in its Star Calibre 2000 (shown above) and the related Sky Moon
Tourbillon: paragons of the craft and a conspicuously prodigal use of limited resources for a small independent house, but could it be otherwise? From simple watches that set the standards to grand complications of unique quality and character, the independent spirit of Genevan horology continues to preserve and advance the old art and craft mechanical
watchmaking, and hopefully will do so for centuries to come.


Thanks to Stephen Sugiyama

Image credits

Detail from Marcantonio Pasquilini Crowned by Apollo by Andrea Sacchi (1599 – 1661)

Geneva flag courtesy of the World Flag Database

Poinon de Genve images by John Davis

Patek Philippe 5074 and Star Calibre 2000 by Joacim Olsson

Patek Philippe 5107 by Mark Kolitz

Roger Dubuis Hommage Chronograph and Much More Perpetual Calendar by Jing H. Goh



Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2001

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