Interview with Michel Parmigiani

by Michael Friedberg

December 2001

MF: Michael Friedberg –

MP: Michel Parmigiani

MF: Mr. Parmigiani, thank you for telling us about yourself, your company and your fine watches and clocks. I’d like to begin by asking about yourself and your history.

I understand that you originally started with Marcel Jean-Richard, a descendant of a famous watchmaking family. I assume that is the family of Daniel Jean-Richard. Could you tell us a little about that experience –how you got started in watchmaking and what it was like at the beginning?

MP: When I took the decision to set up my own business, before 1975, I was encouraged by a friend to approach Marcel Jean-Richard, guardian of a body of inherited technical expertise.

In his day, his father had been a great specialist in chiming minute repeater watches, and one of the most complicated pieces that he created was a watch with seven gongs playing the Swiss national anthem and the “Ranz des vaches”, as well as a carillon playing the German national anthem.

Marcel himself on the other hand specialized in complicated watches such as a monumental clock displaying astronomical information.

In view of his advanced age and being aware of my motivation and manual skills, he entrusted me with completing some important pieces that he could not cope with.

So, Marcel Jean-Richard was a key person who encouraged me and confirmed me in the direction to which I had committed myself: the noble profession of the art of horology.

Well, it was above all enthusiasm, curiosity and the discovery of the world of horology, with the many tangible examples of its history, that influenced me.

MF: But wasn’t that during the 1970s, when quartz was changing the entire Swiss horological landscape?

MP: At the time when I was starting out, I was going against the tide in an unfavorable period. I persisted and never admitted that one could no longer practice the art of horology, following in the historical continuity of this profession.

The illustrious masterpieces that passed through my hands demonstrated the ultimate technical expertise of the master horologists of the past, and made me humble in the face of these exceptional creations.

MF: You seem to have, if I may say, a philosophy behind your work. You called your company, in part, the art of time. Could you expand upon the notion that you are engaged in an artistic endeavor

MP: This notion of perfection in craftsmanship is the guiding principle that inspires me. It is the history of these masterpieces, linked with the philosophy of the period and with the work of all craftsmen, that provides the essential motivation that enables me to view the future; an exemplary lesson, and highly inspiring for everyone who has discovered its substance.

MF: What you did, and still do, is a
rare specialty, restoring fine timepieces and precious antiques. What is
it like to work on something like the Breguet Sympathique from 1820 that
others said could not be restored?

believe that in life there are challenges to take up. Each work of
complicated restoration represents a challenge and we must weigh up
whether we are capable of intervening or not, in the light of the
experience accumulated by all the craftsmen working in our company.

MF: Parmigiani Fleurier today uses the
phrase “restoring collectors’ timepieces. Handcrafting new ones”. How did
you evolve into making new timepieces?

This was a question of concept and of vision associated with a selection
of technical choices. Following the example of the effort put into the
creation of the masterpieces revealed to us by the history of horology, we
as craftsmen and engineers wanted to perpetuate this technical expertise
within our company.

width=347 align=left vspace=8>MF: One hallmark that I’ve
noticed about your watches is their fine and often unique dialwork, and
special goldsmithing on cases. Your watches are distinctive and extremely
finely made. There seems to be a emphasis on the high craft of dials and
cases. Would you concur that this is part of your philosophy of a watch as
a work of art?

MP: Extreme care is taken in
the creation of every dial. The base is a sheet of 18-ct gold, to which
different treatments are applied. It is precisely this invisible
refinement, similar to that of our movements, that brings about the extra
value of Parmigiani Fleurier watches.

This philosophy of the
highest quality of manufacture is not reserved only for exceptional and
unique pieces: it is applied to all our models.

MF: Could you tell us a little about
your development of a wristwatch calibre, the L.U.C. 1.96, for Chopard?

MP: In the early 1990s, I received
a commission from the house of Chopard to create a design for a
gentlemen’s automatic movement. This research was accomplished with the
creation of the movement with twin superimposed spring barrels with
automatic winding.

This movement brought about a marked improvement
in the regular timekeeping of the watch, since the graph showing the
performance of the watch indicates that the driving force is much more
even in this design that in that of a traditional watch.

It also resulted in an increase in the number of revolutions and consequently in
the number of hours of power reserve.

MF: Let me
ask, if I may, about the movements you use at Parmigiani Fleurier.
Originally, I understand that you used Lemania base movements in many
wristwatches. Your chronographs use a Zenith base and your Basica line
uses an F. Piguet base. If I’m correct here, could you explain why these
ebauches were chosen?

MP: When our marque
was launched in 1996, the Lémania movement was one of the few calibers
available. Its finish and quality of manufacture meeting the stringent
requirements of our company have endowed this movement with notable
additional value.

For the caliber based on the Zénith chronograph,
significant modifications are carried out, particularly to its appearance
and its finish. In this way both the quality of the movement and its value
have been increased. The high standard of quality of this movement meets
the demands of our marque.

The Piguet caliber is a base movement
that is used in our first collection. It provides an interesting alternative.

MF: Could you also tell us in
general what finishing, elaborations and the like Parmigiani Fleurier does
to these base movements?

MP: The required
standards of aesthetics and finish that we have imposed are achieved as a
result of the care and technical expertise of our horologists and
craftsmen, who are subject to very strict quality standards according to
our own procedures.

MF: But the crowning glory
has to be, I would think, your own movements. Could you tell us about the
process behind the development of the Ionica?

MP: The original idea was to develop
a movement made completely in the workshops of our manufacture,
with the quality standards corresponding to our aspirations. Our objective
was to create a movement running for a week, with a power reserve one day
longer, thus providing further security for the user who might forget to
wind the watch on Sunday. At home it is the custom to wind the clocks on
Sunday, and this is why we have based the watch on the horological
tradition according to which clocks as well as marine chronometers and
some rare deck watches run for a week. They almost always have a power
reserve of eight days.

width=362 align=right vspace=8 border=0>MF: More recently, you
introduced an automatic movement with two barrels, the Calibre 331. It’s a
beautiful movement and I’ve read the specifications. Could you tell us about its special characteristics? Will you be using it in more models?

MP: The idea
of creating a base caliber, whose characteristics you know, is to be able
to use it in our collections in future. It meets our standards of
technical and aesthetic quality which are not currently to be found on the market.

MF: Correct me if I may be wrong, but it
seems that your philosophy is to produce beautiful watches –
extraordinarily executed cases, dials and movements. I noticed you
recently introduced a rattrapante and you recently showed a unique piece,
the Technica II, that has a repeater, a perpetual calendar and a
tourbillon. However, compared to some other great houses, Parmigiani
Fleurier seems to emphasize less what one person called “complication
cocktails”. Would you concur?

MP: Our
concept is not necessarily to make the most complicated watch. Our
approach has an academic direction: daily we try to excel so as to
improve, or even to surpass ourselves. We are always seeking perfection,
whether it is a Basic watch or a Grande Complication.

MF: Could you tell us a little
about the company’s production? How many people work at Parmigiani
Fleurier? What percentage of those people produce wristwatches? Can you
tell us about the exclusiveness of your total production?

MP: Currently 100 people work at
Parmigiani Fleurier, with a production of several thousand watches a year.
The company has a number of different activities, including the
development of calibers, and the restoration of works of art and antique
pieces, as well as a department making unique pieces.

MF: What, may I ask, is it like to have
a major Swiss institution, the Sandoz Foundation, as a majority partner?
This is relatively unique within the industry. What do they do?

MP: It is because of the personal
friendship which I have with the chairman of our board of management, as
well as the recognition of our traditional technical watchmaking expertise
by the Sandoz Family Foundation, that we can ensure the permanence of our
creations with all that that implies.

MF: Could
you tell us about your role within the company? Do you still work on
watches and clocks? Do you make all final design decisions?

MP: As the creator, the
conductive thread of my philosophy shows through all the products we
design. The approval of the models is discussed by a management committee
within the company, led by M. Emmanuel Vuille, managing director or our
manufacture. It is thanks to him that Parmigiani Fleurier is experiencing
encouraging growth.

MF: I would think that it’s
thanks to you too. My compliments on what you have achieved and my thanks
for your time with this interview.

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Copyright © 2001

Michael Friedberg

Past Time

All Rights Reserved