The Watchmaking of F-P. Journe

by Watchbore

November 2002

I. The rise to anonymity

François-Paul Journe is a French watchmaker who was born in Marseilles in 1959.
His family came from the Provençal countryside popularized by the writer and
filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol. An unruly child, he was sent to a local technical
college at the age of 14. He went on to graduate from the Paris watchmaking
school in 1976.

His first job was with an uncle, Michel Journe, whose restoration workshops in
Paris looked after the major state and private horological collections. Journe
had privileged access to some of the world’s most important timepieces,
particularly from the golden age of horology — the late 18th and early 19th
centuries.

Journe completed his first watch in 1978, a sprung-detent tourbillon
pocket-watch in the manner of Abraham-Louis Breguet. He went on the demonstrate
the most difficult horological exercises in a series of one-off pieces in the
Breguet style, notably: constant-force tourbillons, an astronomical (planetary)
watch, a sympathique clock-watch combination, and a self-winding
perpetual-calendar pocket-watch, with fusée-detent escapement and
constant-force remontoir, showing retrograde date, moon-phase and equation of
time. All Journe’s unique pieces are in private collections. His latest, and
10th, watch is a minute-repeating wristwatch with clockwork chiming grand or
small strike in passing, retrograde minutes and power reserve indicator, having
the repeating work under the caseback and the hammers striking under the dial.
It was sold for $400,000 US in 2000.

By the time he opened his own workshops in Paris in 1985, the leading collectors
had spotted Journe. His work won awards as well as the respect of the
watchmaking’s elite, notably Georges Daniels, Anthony Randall, Svend Andersen
and others. But by this time wristwatches had replaced pocket-watches in
high-value horology.

From 1987, the watchmaking action was in Switzerland and Journe started
supplying Swiss luxury brands with much needed horological expertise, designing,
prototyping and manufacturing complicated mechanisms. He became partner in a
Geneva workshop in 1987, and opened his own workshops, TIM S.A., in 1996. Among
his clients were Cartier, Breguet, Piaget, Corum, Asprey, the British Masters,
and Harry Winston.

There is an iron rule in the Swiss watch industry that once you start supplying
brands, you become anonymous, forbidden to seek recognition, to claim authorship
of your inventions or even to identify your clients. However brilliant they may
be, those who make the watch can never outrank the brand that markets it.

II. A resonant come-back

Watchbore first met Journe at a Basel Fair cocktail party in 1998. He was
accompanied by an attractive dark lady with flashing eyes who drew passing
interest, including Watchbore’s, to a watch that Journe was showing people. He
explained that it had two independent movements and it worked by resonance. He
intended to put it into series production under his own name.

This phenomenon, whereby an oscillating object induces another body to vibrate
at the same frequency, was reported in 1665 by the Dutch physicist Christiaan
Huygens. As the first to apply sprung balances and pendulums to watches and
clocks, Huygens is rightly considered as the founder of modern horology. Since
1662, he had been working for the Royal Society, London, developing pendulum
clocks that would work precisely enough at sea to calculate longitude.

His equipment consisted of two heavily weighted clocks suspended from a beam at
the bottom of the ship — a necessary redundancy at sea to maintain timekeeping
during the maintenance of one or other of the clocks. In 1665, Huygens wrote to
the Royal Society, reporting “an odd kind of sympathy between these watches
[pendulum clocks] suspended by the side of each other.” The pendulums swung
with exactly the same frequency and 180 degrees out of phase; when the pendulums
were disturbed, the antiphase state was restored within a half-hour and
persisted indefinitely.

Resonance caused problems when hyper-accurate scientific clocks were built from
the 18th century. A swinging pendulum sets up sympathetic vibrations that affect
the rate of the clock. And when the driving weight descends past the pendulum
bob, it starts to sway in counterphase, sapping the energy of the pendulum.

It was not until the late 1770s that France’s royal clockmaker, Antide Janvier
managed to use this disturbing phenomenon to enhance precision. He built at
least three regulator clocks with twin movements using the resonance generated
by the pendulums to make them beat in counterphase at a common and inalterable
frequency.

Abraham-Louis Breguet was the only other watchmaker known to have successfully
applied resonance as a source of precision. It led to what is perhaps his
greatest achievement — the two twin-movement, twin-pendulum regulators
acquired respectively by King George IV of England and King Louis XVIII of
France. Breguet also extended his experiments to a watch in which twin
independent balances beat at a common frequency, but this watch was stolen from
the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem on the night of April
15/16 1983, along with other pieces of Sir David Salomon’s Breguet collection,
notably the “Marie-Antoinette” watch.

Journe had the opportunity of studying the Louis XVIII resonance clock (the
Breguet double regulator No. 3177, completed in 1819) when he was restoring the
collection of the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Paris in the early eighties.
From then on, he became determined to apply resonance in a watch. His first
attempt, a pocket-watch in 1984, was a failure, and it wasn’t until 15 years
later that he successfully harnessed the mysterious telepathy between
oscillating bodies in a practical modern wristwatch.

Antide
Janvier’s superb twin movement regulator — a magnificent scientific instrument
of great precision, built in the 1770s. More than two centuries later Journe
successfully applied the same horological principle to a wristwatch and acquired
Janvier’s masterpiece for around one million dollars.

In
his resonance wristwatches, the two 21,600 v/h balances have to beat to within
30 oscillations a day of one another and to be set around 0.4mm apart to start
vibrating in counterphase at the same frequency.

The claimed advantage is a greater consistency of rate on the wrist. A shock
affecting the rate of one balance will cause its twin to compensate until both
settle down to their common frequency. The resonance watch is supposed to keep
the same rate on or off your wrist.

Anthony Randall has rated a Journe resonance watch for 30 days, finding an
average rate gain of a second a day at a variation of less than 0.3 seconds a
day.

A remarkable aspect of this watch is that it was Journe’s first wristwatch in 20
years of watchmaking.

III. The remontoir d’égalité, or constant-force remontoir

Journe’s other main line of interest is in an arcane horological device known as
the constant-force remontoir. It consists of a supplementary energy source — a
spring or weights. Armed via the going train by the main power source, it feeds
constant force directly to the escapement. The remontoir thus absorbs the
fluctuations of power coming through the going train, isolating the escapement
from their effects.

The remontoir principle was used in tower clocks where the wind catching the
hands would put pressures on the going train that would disturb the rate, if
allowed to act directly on the escapement. It was also common in the best
observatory regulator clocks, and much of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s research was
devoted to constant-force escapements.

Journe’s tourbillon à remontoir d’égalité, launched in 2000 is the first
application of a constant force device in a wristwatch. A blade spring, armed
every second by the going train, keeps the escapement under constant tension,
even as the power of the unwinding mainspring declines. In the limited space of
a wristwatch, the tourbillon is the only form of escapement that permits a
remontoir. By stacking up the escapement and fourth wheel on the same axis as
the balance, it leaves enough room for the constant-force device.

IV. Brand value

Currently, fewer than 2000 people in the world wear a Journe watch, but that
number will probably double two years hence. Although the owner of an F.P.
Journe watch will probably have a greater depth of horological appreciation than
most participants in a TimeZone brand forum, Journe reckons that there are
enough of those to sustain a production of 1500 a year.

His premises, in a busy artisan’s quarter on Geneva’s left bank, not far from
the private-banking area and the Synagogue, consist of assembly and adjustment
workshops (around 15 watchmakers), a small mechanical workshops to make tools
and prototypes and a design and construction bureau. Production is unlikely to
be much more than 800 watches in 2002. Each watch is entirely assembled
adjusted, cased up and tested by one of the watchmakers specialized in its
caliber. The parts, manufactured and finished to Journe’s specifications, are
delivered by about 40 different suppliers. Journe has an interest in a dial
factory with Cedric Johner and other small watch companies.

The movements are finished in good taste and without extravagance in the classic
Geneva style, and are obviously made with every care.

Whether the styling of Journe’s watches appeals is a matter of individual taste.
But it cannot be denied that it is functional, restrained and original. The
dials are a third of the surface of the face yet they show the hours, seconds
and minutes very clearly. Only half the dial need emerge from beneath your cuff
to tell you the time. In the Octa watches, the chronograph hand or the
retrograde dates-hand interfere with the dial, but otherwise the layout is
harmonious. The look is that of a precision instrument made without frills.

V. Quality problems

However, in April, Watchbore received a communication from Mr H. Victor Katz, a
dealer in watches, reporting the failure of a number of F.P. Journe watches,
notably the Octa watch with power-reserve indicator and large date. Although Mr
Katz had previously registered satisfaction with a similar watch bought in
October 2001 at a discount (USD14,300) from Swiss Fine Timing in Illinois, the
reputation of the Journe watch had slumped in his esteem. The Illinois store was
no longer dealing in Journe watches having had many returned by clients.

Watchbore lost little time in confronting Journe with this information and
learned that in a number of watches the ratchet wheel and/or the dates-wheel had
broken due to an undetected metallurgical fault. The problem affected more than
100 watches, a substantial proportion of the output. By mid-2002, the watches
had been repaired under guarantee. Journe had earlier ceased to supply Swiss
Fine Timing because it sold his watches at a discount, notably to Mr Katz. Now
the Illinois store has promised to stop discounting Journe watches and is being
allowed to sell them again. Moreover, Mr Katz can congratulate himself on having
secured a Journe watch at a discount — even Journe’s best friends have to pay
the full price.

VI. Rebel among the brands

Journe makes the big brands feel uncomfortable because he ought to be a supplier
and not a brand. By setting a standard they cannot match, he competes unfairly
against the cartel of prestigious traditional-watch brands. His work makes their
claims of innovation and creativity sound hollow. He undermines their myths,
upstages their complications and their culture, and his work is of undisputable
integrity. (The only descent into gadgetry that Watchbore can reproach him with
has been to make visible the action of the remontoir by attaching a vane on
top).

Journe lays himself open to prosecution for describing his watches as
chronometers without gaining a certificate from COSC, the only organization in
the world that says what’s a chronometer and what isn’t. He says he did apply to
have his watches tested but has received no reply. The directors of COSC and of
its Geneva laboratories profess never to have heard of F. P. Journe or of the
resonance watch. Journe says COSC is not much of a challenge as the standards
are too low, it is non-competitive, and the static tests, devised for
pocket-watches are meaningless for modern wristwatches, and especially for his
resonance watch.

Like all independent watchmakers, Journe is being squeezed by the monopoly
supplier. He uses the same Nivarox Anachron balance spring as Omega’s coaxial,
where production has increased dramatically. Although he is joining up with
other small manufacturers to secure essential component supplies and
manufacturing services, he remains vulnerable to the whims and jealousies of Mr
Nicholas Hayek.

However, this insecurity is only encouraging Journe to design some kind of
balance or regulating organ that doesn’t need a coiled hairspring.

Another possible danger is that Journe will fall victim to his growing success
and abandon horological purity. As Franck Muller knows, having a successful
brand is more fun, and more lucrative, than making good watches.

However, Journe is not a flashy kind of person, but that pretty dark-haired girl
with the flashing eyes that first attracted Watchbore’s attention to his watches
is how the mother of his second child. They say that a pram in the hallway
spells the death of creativity.

It is Watchbore’s hope that Journe will continue challenging the stuffy
conventions of Swiss watchmaking with more innovative horology. He believes that
Journe still has the potential to surprise, and that future historians of
watchmaking could well rank him up there with Abraham-Louis Breguet, Harrison,
Janvier and Berthoud.

Watchbore


Copyright © Alan Downing, 2002.

 
© 2012 Bourne In Time Inc.