"Bonjour," the farmer said to me from in front of his barn. I could hear the cows lowing inside. "Bonjour," I replied, and continued up the hill, above the town of Le Locle in Switzerland. Apart from the cattle and a few rooks, everything was absolutely silent. It didn't seem like the location for one of the most sophisticated micro-engineering operations on the planet.
The building itself is a classical Swiss country house, and inside, it's all timber panelling, creaky floors, and a gigantic traditional ceramic stove. "I was pleased to be able to buy this Mairie," said Christophe Claret, "because it has the same detail and precision as my watches. It's good to have a place where I can welcome people in the right atmosphere. A combination of tradition and innovation."
Rather like the DualTow, an incredible watch that unites classic watchmaking with one of Claret's most dramatic inventions: hours and minutes that are indicated not by hands, but by two rubber belts, one on each side of the watch. In the NightEagle version, the geometry of the case, along with the predominantly black colour, makes it futuristic, rather like the Stealth spy plane. "How did you get the idea for the DualTow?" I asked Christophe.
But he had already moved on. He is a whirlwind of energy. As he took me through the building, from one spotless laboratory to another, he described everything with infectious enthusiasm. It felt like being inside a gigantic watch, the rooms like the different parts of a movement, operating in perfect coordination to produce immaculate results. A futuristic suspended walkway leads to a modern wing where everything is made. The complexity of the Manufacture is incredible. From 3D-design right through to quality control, virtually everything is done in-house.
"In this office, we work on the movies that we make to present our watches. We use special software, the same as that used for Avatar. We're now working on the new movies that will be presented in Basel. Just two and a half minutes of movie takes 4 months work, it's crazy!"
In the prototyping office, there is a quick camera. It operates at 100,000 frames per second, and it's used to check all the microscopic movements that take place inside a watch and iron out any problems. "You know how a chronometer hand returns to zero?" says Claret. "To the human eye, it looks like it swings back to zero and stops. But the quick camera shows that at zero, it oscillates back and forth a bit."
In some rooms there are some very large machines, machining parts under jets of oil, proceeding entirely automatically. A laser-cutting machine is working on a sheet of metal, tiny sparks flying up as the light beam flicks around the complex shape. Like the watches, the machine is also branded, Christophe Claret Engineering. "I like producing fine movements, but I also like producing innovative machines to make the movements. New movements mean new machines." The laser machine is impressively efficient. "A normal machine takes 25 minutes to complete a component. The laser machine does the job in 25 seconds."
The fact that Christophe Claret watches are built entirely in-house can be seen from the metal storage facilities. In one room there is enough maillechort (nickel silver) to last for the next 100 years!
In the quality control office, I watch as a machine presses the hour-setting button of the X-Trem-1, while a monitor plots a line measuring the accuracy of the process. "The button is pressed 2,000 times," says Claret, "and this sort of testing is performed for each watch before we give it the production certificate." The X-Trem-1 was the watch that sent shock waves through the industry at the 2012 BaselWorld show. It marks hours and minutes with two steel balls that hover magically inside two tubes on each side of the watch.
Another Claret speciality is the gaming watch: 21 BlackJack, and Baccara, on which you can play cards and roulette, and throw dice, as well as tell the time. Where did that idea come from?
"Just after the crash in 2008-2009, when the recession hit badly, I had a dream about the crash of 1929, which was followed by the crazy years. So I decided that I would create a crazy product for our crazy years. I thought that the crash would be just a couple of years, now we know that it's taking longer. But my choice is always to invest in new designs."
The challenge of innovation is that it takes time. "For DualTow, just perfecting the rubber belts took 17 months. Creating a new product means designing new systems, building maquettes, testing them, over and over again until it is perfect. For the people who copy us, it's easy, the problems have already been solved." And copies there are many, particularly the belt-drive watches. It's the details on Christophe Claret watches that makes them unique in any case. Such as hands made of ruby, so that they catch the light and glow. "The idea for that came from the speedometer in my car."
Crisis or no crisis, Christophe Claret watches sell well. Some markets prefer certain types of watches, others like different ones. Baccara, for example, is very popular in Hong Kong and Macau. The X-Trem-1 is popular everywhere.
What about the future? "At BaselWorld 2013 I will be presenting a lower-price product, which won't be a limited edition. We have great ambitions for this watch." At the time of the interview, I could only guess what this could be. After tours de force such as the Adagio Minute Repeater, the Westminster chime repeater, and the Orbital Tourbillon, where will he go next? Could it be something related to another of his passions, 16th century culture and the Renaissance? Or something vaguely Mediaeval, like the castle that he purchased near Besançon in France and is currently restoring?
It was actually the work on the castle that gave him another idea. "I hired a mini-excavator, and I was sitting on it, and looked down at the tracks, and thought, 'Mmm, I could put the hours on one track, the minutes on the other, that would make a crazy watch...' and that's what I did." That was DualTow, and he'd answered my question!