The Flower of Neuchâtel

by Carlos Perez

November 25, 2002

While Geneva has long been the crown jewel of ‘Swiss’
watchmaking, Neuchâtel has long been the power – often
hidden – behind the prestigious watch brands of Geneva
and the rest of Europe, and over time it developed many
of its own horological celebrities. Outside of its
diverse mountains and its many well known centers of
watchmaking, the small commune of Fleurier in the Neuchâtel
district of Val-de-Travers has had a small but unique
place in the heritage of Neuchâtelois watchmaking, and
in the last ten years has experienced a remarkable
renaissance. A new spirit and identity of independence
has taken root, fed by the greater mechanical
renaissance of the industry as a whole. The modern
contribution of Fleurier is only beginning, and the
fruit that it will bear in time shows great promise.

The seed of this new flowering was planted by Michel
Parmigiani
, a master watchmaker native to the
Val-de-Travers, born in Couvet and raised in Fleurier.
In 1975 he founded his own atelier, Parmigiani Mesure
et Art du Temps (PMAT), beginning as a true cabinotier
working alone in a small workshop in his apartment in
Fleurier. From this humble beginning Michel Parmigiani
built up a reputation as the premier restorer of
antique pre-20th century clocks and watches, also
working on the contracted development of complications
and other mechanisms for the great houses and
manufactures. Over the years he gathered around him a
first class team of watchmakers and other artisans.

In
1989 he took the first step in putting Fleurier back on
the horological map by purchasing the rights to the
brand name Bovet. It is Bovet which was the most
significant symbol of Fleurier as a watchmaking center
in the larger heritage of Neuchâtel. It began with a
watchmaking family native to Fleurier a few years after
the principality of Neuchâtel joined the Swiss
Federation in 1814. Edouard Bovet and his brothers
founded the watchmaking house of Bovet by charter in
London in 1822, with a trading company in Canton China,
and with Fleurier as their center of manufacture of
watches for the Imperial Chinese market.

“Chinese watches” as they came to be called,
were elaborately decorated pocket watches typically
sold in symmetrically opposed pairs. Their gold cases
often featured elaborate painted enamel images,
cloisonné, and/or champlevé – typically of flowers,
and were bordered with pearls (as shown top). Bovet
further specialized in the art of engraving and
skeletonizing movements, which enhanced the appeal of
its high-end Chinese watches with its Mandarin
customers. Fleurier became the European center for the
lucrative manufacture of Chinese watches, with several
brands dedicated solely to that market. Like most
manufactures producing Chinese watches Bovet also
produced lower end pocket watches for the Cantonese
general public, under its Bo-vay brand.

After the end of the Taiping Rebellion in 1864 the
Bovet family sold the Bovet group of companies, though
a few Bovet’s remained in watchmaking. The market for
Chinese watches began to fade in the 1880s, and was
gone by the Republican Revolution of 1911. Most
manufactures went out of business, though a couple
survived by moving to other markets. During these
decades Bovet passed through several hands, including
some Bovets, until it was owned by Favre Leuba in 1948.
The Bovet brand was laid to rest in 1950 when
Favre-Leuba elected to use the Fleurier factory to
produce Favre-Leuba brand wristwatches, until it sold
the plant in 1966 to one of the large Swiss watchmaking
cooperatives. All that remained of Fleurier’s
watchmaking legacy was Edouard Bovet’s opulent home,
known as the Chinese Palace (built 1826-30), which had
served as the Fleurier town hall since 1905.

In 1990 Michel Parmigiani sold the Bovet trademark to a
new company, Bovet Fleurier SA, which registered in
Fleurier with the stated intent to begin the
development and manufacture of wristwatches. However
nothing happened until 1994 when Bovet Fleurier was
acquired by Roger Guye and Thierry Ouelevay. They based
their company administration in Geneva, introducing the
first new Bovet wristwatches in 1997. Producing less
than 1,000 watches annually, the company appropriately
specializes in the production of elaborately decorated
pieces in the Chinese watch tradition, often in small
series. Bovet Fleurier remains in the independent
ownership of a number of private shareholders.

While
some of its watch production takes place in Fleurier at
Parmigiani Mesure et Art du Temps, Bovet is otherwise
only nominally a part of the Fleurier renaissance, as
it has no direct presence in the commune. But as Bovet
went to Geneva, one of Geneva’s most well known luxury
brands turned to Fleurier. Beginning in 1993, Michel
Parmigiani and his design team at PMAT began work upon
a new 11 ½ ligne micro-rotor automatic calibre for the
house of Chopard. PMAT produced the first prototypes in
1995, which were further refined that year as Chopard
rented a factory space in Fleurier – quite possibly the
old Bovet factory – from ETA. In 1996 the design of the
first calibre was completed and the Chopard
Manufacture, S.A. of Fleurier was opened. Chopard
purchased the factory outright in the year 2000.

The new LUC
calibre 1.96
and the variant 3.96 were both
initially released in limited editions of 1,860 for the
founding of Chopard in 1860, and named in honor of
Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The former bears the Geneva
hallmark and features a swan-neck regulator, and all
LUC movements are COSC certified. Additional variants
have been added over the past few years including the
central seconds calibre 4.96, the four-barrel 9-day
calibre 1.98, the shaped tonneau calibre 3.97, and the
soon to be announced 9-day tourbillon calibre 1.02
which will feature the in-house designed Variner adjustable-intertia
balance
. Also of special note, Chopard is one of
only a few manufactures using hand-formed overcoil
hairsprings, and the only one offering them in watches
priced under $10,000.

The line of LUC wristwatches is quite a diverse one,
though still limited in size and production. Models
range from the initial public offering of small seconds
limited editions, round and tonneau automatics in
regular production, the rare 9-day hand-wind, the quite
popular and accessible LUC 2000 sports watch, the new
Pro One diver’s watch, and the new LUC GMT (shown above
right). One cannot help but wonder whether these
watches bearing Fleurier manufactured movements will
one day trade “Chopard Geneve” for “Chopard
Fleurier.” However one supposes that as less than
3,000 of Chopard’s annual production of 70,000 watches
takes place in Fleurier, Chopard’s established Genevois
identity (based in Meyrin) wins out over this new
offshoot, though these watches and movements now bear
the prestige of the brand.

Concurrent with the development of the Chopard’ s LUC
calibre at PMAT was the development of an in-house
Parmigiani brand of wristwatches, pocket watches, and
clocks. In 1995 the Sandoz Foundation took a
controlling interest in PMAT, giving Michel Parmigiani
the financial backing necessary to take the company in
such an ambitious direction. Part of the original
arrangement with Chopard included the use of LUC
calibres for Parmigiani brand watches, something which
did not come to fruition, and which led the fledgling
house to use ebauches from Nouvelle Lemania, Frederic
Piguet, and Zenith for their wristwatches as they
developed new ebauche designs and independent
manufacturing capacity.

To secure its independence PMAT purchased three
component manufacturers over the last few years,
including the producers of its gear trains and cases,
and now produces 6 base (2 wristwatch) movements
in-house. Even the unique “javeline” hands of
its watches are produced in-house by a dedicated
craftsman. The PMAT companies continue to supply
components to the industry, and the house is now taking
steps to separate ebauche and movement production from
the production of finished Parmigiani brand watches.
Its movement manufacturing capacity is being split off
and expanded under a new subsidiary, Vaucher
Manufacture, which will be based in Fleurier. PMAT’s
component supply capacity is being organized under its
NewTech Co. subsidiary, which will be based outside of
Neuchâtel in Lausanne.

Currently
PMAT can produce 5000 movements a year, but this
capacity will be quadrupled. Ebauches and finished
movements will be sold to 3rd parties under the Vaucher
brand name. Vaucher, like Bovet, was a Fleurier based
manufacturer of Chinese watches (shown bottom) during
the 19th century. In addition to component supply,
NewTech Co. will also be focused on breaking the
Nivarox balance spring monopoly. This new source of
high-grade wristwatch movements and ebauches, as well
as the hoped for development and production of balance
springs, will make Fleurier a bastion of independence
in a luxury segment held hostage by the Swatch Group.

The watches themselves are as nothing else available
anywhere in the international watch market. Michel
Parmigiani’s years of experience working on the
greatest watches and clocks of Europe’s horological
patrimony is clearly evidenced in the modern works
which bear his name. Parmigiani brand wristwatches are
presently divided into five collections: Classique,
Toric, Ionica, Forma, and Basica. The Classique and
Toric collections are the two earliest. The former is
traditionally sized at 34mm, originally with extremely
bare dials made of semi-precious stone – which is still
available in the “Cadran Pierre” model. What
I used to call “the perfect tuxedo watch” has
been made more conventional with a more standard white
enamel dial with stylized Arabic numerals and date
guichet. It now shares more in common with the young
entry-level Basica collection, which features 37mm
cases and COSC certification.

The Toric collection is the most diverse, and was
originally created to serve the new market for large
watches; its 40mm case is the grandest of Parmigiani’s
wristwatch cases. It is here where Parmigiani makes its
most extensive use of guillochage. Reputed to be the
former source of Breguet’s guilloche dials, Parmigiani’s
dials are
also made of gold, whether champlevé, enameled,
silvered, or given some other form of final finishing.
The complications of the Toric collection span from the
Zenith-based chronograph to minute repeaters, perpetual
calendars, and tourbillons. The Toric platform is also
the primary choice for Parmigiani’s many elaborate
unique pieces, and small serie grande complications.

PMAT’s
two in-house wristwatch movements form the basis for
their two smallest collections: The Ionica is a large
tonneau wristwatch which uses Parmigiani’s 8-day
handwound form calibre 110, which was introduced in
1997 – years before the similar Patek Philippe ref.
5100. The dual-barrel movement has been shared in small
lots with Piaget and Bvlgari. The Ionica case has also
been used for a handful of unique pieces. The Forma
model (shown right) features their new 11 ½ ligne
automatic calibre 331 (shown above left) in a uniquely
shaped case, possibly a stylistic derivative of the
classic Cartier Tortue. Calibre 331 is also a dual
barrel movement, but with only a slightly extended
power reserve of 55 hours at 28,800 v/h. The movement
plates are made of maillechort while the winding rotor
is solid 22k gold.

The rest of PMAT’s branded production focuses on low
volume, high value pieces using in-house movements. The
pride of any true manufacture, Parmigiani’s line of
haute horlogerie pocket watches is the most extensive
anywhere. All made in the open-face “Lepine”
style, most feature perpetual calendars and elaborately
decorated and enameled cases as opulent, though more
abstract than Chinese watches. The “Lepine
transparence” pocket watches have skeletonized
movements and sapphire crystal dials, and are divided
between perpetual calendar and simple small-seconds
models. Here too, there are of course a number of
unique pieces and small serie grande complications.

Often treated as a separate endeavour by modern
mechanical horologists, clock making also has an
important place at PMAT. Their primary series of table
clocks feature an 8-day key-wound movement with
perpetual calendar. The cabinets and bases are made of
semi-precious stone (lapis, jade, onyx, etc.), while
the glass is cut from natural rock crystal. The
greatest pride of the house must be its “Object
d’Art” range, which features opulent pocket
watches and clocks using 8-day movements. Unfortunately
I have no images to share, as they defy description. On
the whole PMAT currently produces some 2,000 Parmigiani
brand watches and clocks per year, and intends to grow
this to a cap of 4,000 over the next few years, though
the house’s most elite works will remain extremely
rare. In a confidence unmatched by any other
manufacture, Parmigiani brand watches are guaranteed
for 10 years. The house remains dedicated to clock and
watch restoration, and some 35% of its production lies
in private label manufacture for other brands.

For too long Genevan watchmaking has held a perceived
high ground through its regionally exclusive Geneva
hallmark of quality. In answer to the Poinçon de
Geneve the future now promises a “Poinçon de
Fleurier:” In concert with the Canton of Neuchâtel,
the Regional Association of Val-de-Travers, the
municipality of Fleurier, and the Philippe Jequier
Foundation, Chopard Manufacture, Parmigiani Mesure et
Art du Temps, and Bovet-Fleurier have begun to set up
an independent commission for the testing, evaluation,
and certification of fine watches. Initially
commissioned on September 25, 2001, the Qualite
Fleurier Foundation is at this time still in the
development process. Edouard Bovet’s former home, the
Chinese Palace, will become the Foundation’s new home.

Unlike the Geneva hallmark, the Qualite Fleurier
certification will be open to any brand, not just those
of Fleurier, Neuchâtel, or even just Switzerland.
Further, it will require several steps of progressive
testing, and a pre-requisite to examination by the
Foundation is COSC certification. The first test
administered by the Foundation is a reliability test,
which is then followed by examination of the movement
for the quality of manufacture and finish, followed by
another stage of testing not yet unveiled. In concept
it appears to be an honest attempt to create a
qualitative standard for fine watches, as opposed to
the stylistic preservation of the Geneva hallmark’s
standard. What comes in practice remains to be seen, as
the specific criteria have not yet been made public.

This new endeavour will unfailingly place Fleurier in
the international horological spotlight, regardless of
whether it is utilized by the industry in general. That
the Qualite Fleurier label will accompany the fine
watches of Parmigiani, Chopard, and Bovet, will no
doubt suffice. As the center of the reawakening of
Fleurier, Michel Parmigiani already deserves to be
ranked in the history of horology alongside of
Fleurier’s most famous son, Charles-Edouard Guillaume,
winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Physics, and the
inventor of the still unparalleled Guillaume balance.
Under Parmigiani’s guidance, and under the vision of
those who have been drawn to Fleurier because of him,
this flower of Neuchâtelois watchmaking will flourish.


Thanks to Cristina D’Agostino

Image Credits

Bovet Chinese watch and calibre (circa 1840) courtesy
of Antiquorum

Chopard LUC GMT courtesy of Chopard
& Cie, SA

Parmigiani Technicum, calibre 310, and Forma courtesy
of Parmigiani Art
du Temps, SA

Vaucher Chinese watch (circa 1835) courtesy of Antiquorum


Copyright © Carlos A. Perez
 2002

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