Jaquet Droz, simplicity and complication

Interview with Thiébaut Bentz and Stéphanie Kirkorian at Baselworld

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15 May 2013

At the entrance to the Jaquet Droz booth at Baselworld 2013, a man was standing there, performing one of those magic acts. He was holding two inverted metal cups, lifted one, there was a watch underneath it, put it down, lifted it again, and the watch had disappeared. He lifted the other cup and it had reappeared there. Easy trick, you may say. But the cool thing was that he was an automaton. The sort of thing that was made by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in about 1770, such as 'The Writer,' a mechanical man with a 6,000-part movement, which moved its head, dipped a pen into an inkwell, and wrote 'Bonjour' on a piece of paper.

This year, Jaquet Droz are celebrating their 275th anniversary, and they have published a book, 'The Génie Jaquet-Droz,' which tells the story of Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his creations, which included automata, singing birds, and of course, superb watches. He created the asymmetric dial with the figure-of-eight layout, the Grande Seconde, and met countless members of European royalty and aristocracy – as well as cultural giants including philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The maison have also marked their anniversary with a remarkable piece, with links to Pierre's historic singing bird clocks. We spoke to Thiébaut Bentz, head of marketing at Jaquet Droz, and Stéphanie Kirkorian, PR and events manager.

"We began the bird saga in 2010, with a hand-painted dial. In 2011, the bird was in relief. This year, we are presenting an automated bird, in a minute repeater: the bird not only moves, but also sings." Thiébaut Bentz showed us this amazing piece, with a beautifully-crafted songbird. "We have built a new, patented movement, which adapts the singing cage bird to a wristwatch."

This piece shown at Baselworld was a prototype; it cheeps the time to perfection on command, but it will be launched on the market in about another year, after a few final refinements and industrialization. The cheeping sound is produced by three tiny cylinders, visible in the very modern movement.

How long have you been working on this piece?

"From the first idea to this prototype, it has taken two years, so in total, it will take three or four years. Five engineers have been working full time for two years, and at Jaquet Droz, this is a major commitment."

Stéphanie Kirkorian continued the story. "In the area where Pierre Jaquet-Droz was working, Le Locle, there were lots of birds in the forests, such as bluetits, and so this watch provides a link with the history and the crafts expertise. Working at this level, it is important to have an internal atelier d'art."

Do you have problems in finding the crafts people?

"Of course, it is hard to find them, and it's also hard to keep them. They have to feel compatible, they have to like what they are doing, and at the end of the day, they are artists, and they have their own character... At Jaquet Droz, we train them ourselves, step by step after they have left their college. They have to feel part of a family, an experience, and have the feeling that they are doing something positive and useful, so that they are proud of having participated in the project. Take The Loving Butterfly, for example. This is an anniversary piece, with the beautifully-painted butterfly and the hand-engraved caseback."

Pierre's Grande Seconde design is still in your catalogues...

"Oh yes, it has been a favourite from 1785. It is the iconic Jaquet Droz, that we made in a steel version 2 years ago, and now we have introduced some new features, such as this blue piece, with Geneva stripe decoration. The steel version is now our best-selling piece, with an entrance price of CHF 9,000. Of course, the Grande Seconde was originally a pocket watch; we still make two, and they are coming back into fashion, particularly in the U.K. It goes well with a smart suit."

Do you see an increase in interest in your watches from women?

"A few years ago, our breakdown was 80% men, 20% women, but today we are seeing a more balanced trend. This year we have launched a totally new women’s collection."

Stéphanie described one of the new models. "This piece, The Twelve Cities Aventurine, is a small complication. The dial is in mother-of-pearl, in a 39-millimetre case. Hours are shown in the window, and there is a single minutes hand. By pressing the button, you change the city displayed, along with the hour."

"The Lady 8 is something completely new, a development of the Grande Seconde shape, with a dome-shaped dial and, in the top part of the '8,' a ball bearing in mother-of-pearl ball or another precious stone. It rolls, and you can't help but play with it, it's like an anti-stress game! We have invented a new pastime..." (Shown below, The Lady 8).

Jaquet Droz watches are often remarkable for their practicality, with dials whose extreme simplicity conceal the superb movement underneath. Thiébaut showed us another new model, the Grande Heure GMT.

"This has another small complication. There is a single crown, that is pulled out to set the second time zone, and again to change both the local time and the other time zone. When the two time zones correspond, the hands are superimposed to form a two-colour motif. You see that there is no minute hand, so that it shows the time to the nearest five minutes."

Stéphanie said, "That's why we call it the 'luxury of time,' because it means that the user can afford to luxury to be five minutes late without it mattering!"

"But don't use it for Baselworld appointments!" said Thiébaut. "Here, you have to be on time!"

Read more:
Baselworld 2013, an overview