“The watchmaking business is 90% engineering. The watchmaker himself – the process of assembling the components – is just 10%. Without good components, you can’t make a good watch!”
We are talking to Jean-Marc Jacot, CEO of Parmigiani Fleurier, a brand created in 1996 with the unfailing support of the Sandoz Family Foundation, in Fleurier, where Michel Parmigiani had opened his first workshop back in 1976. At that time, Fleurier had been declared a disaster area, hard hit by the quartz revolution that saw the disappearance of most of the traditional watchmaking companies. Over the course of the last two decades, Parmigiani Fleurier has helped breathe new life into the region, attracting other prestigious brands. A complete watchmaking hub was formed, bringing together all the skills involved in watchmaking: balance spring, gears, case and dial. This vertical integration creates what is known as a ‘manufacture,’ an industrial structure comprising all the trades needed to make a watch, guaranteeing total control over component quality.
“When we started, we could have either invested in marketing, or in industry. We chose industry, because to make good watches, you have to find the people. There is a fundamental difference between things made by nature or by man, and things made by machines. At Parmigiani Fleurier, half the people are young, in the process of being trained, to perpetuate the savoir-faire.”
In addition to making watches, Parmigiani Fleurier is highly active in the restoration of historic pieces, bringing them back to fully functional operation. “For young watchmakers, restoration provides a good opportunity to see what has happened in the watchmaking industry over the last three centuries, and observe the way in which these hand-made masterpieces are different to watches made by a computer.”
While a ‘manufacture’ is easily feasible for a company making hundreds of thousands of watches a year, it is more difficult for a brand such as Parmigiani Fleurier, making exclusive, high-end watches. Their production is currently about 6,000 watches per year. “When I joined the company in 2000, I proposed the idea of developing a manufacture. It would cost millions and a minimum of 15 years.” They achieved it by acquiring a number of industrial units in La Chaux-de-Fonds and in the Jura valley, and the hub now comprises 600 craftspeople, 50 trades and five production sites. Nonetheless, production is still at comparatively low figures.
“We are small, and we like to be small. For us, luxury is to be rare, and we want to keep things that way. We are aiming at an expansion of 15% per year, so that we can reach a production of 10,000 watches a year. That figure will help our visibility.”
Watches and investment
We asked Jean-Marc Jacot about the investment value of Parmigiani watches. “Our customers want something rare and exclusive, perhaps even customized. When we are selling a watch that costs say 500,000 euro to a Chinese customer, the first question he asks is, ‘is it a good investment?’ And I say, if you want to make a good investment, buy an ingot of gold and put it into your safe! You should collect what gives you pleasure, whether it be watches or paintings. Money is not luxury. You have to remember that years ago, people collected clocks and pocket watches, but today, nobody wants pocket watches any more. That’s why you should collect the things that you love.”
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that watches by Parmigiani Fleurier continue to attract attention from everyone interested in fine watches, and this includes women. “Mechanical watches are more romantic than quartz, with that sound at 60 vibrations per minute, very close to the rate at which your heart beats. It’s psychologically and philosophically significant. In addition, though a quartz watch is accurate, it’s just a machine: a perfect machine, but perfection is an enemy of charm. Charm comes from imperceptible differences, and that’s why we make every part by hand. To polish the bridge of a tourbillon, our artisans use wood, making their own tool, and working for from 12 to 15 hours on just this one component.”
This is the sort of approach that is possible at a manufacture, and a surprisingly small number of watchmaking companies have this sort of structure. “At Baselworld, there are perhaps 15 brands with this vertically-integrated organization. The rest are making ‘pre-cooked’ watches. In other words, they don’t make the movement, they don’t make the case… what do they make? The box?”
How can a consumer tell the difference between a manufacture watch and other types of timepieces? “The best way is to visit the workshop. People are always surprised to find that we make 95% of our movements. That’s the way we are able to make high-quality watches.”
Parmigiani Fleurier and Pomellato
One of the most exciting developments in the watch industry is Parmigiani Fleurier’s new collaboration with Pomellato. “Our customers are receptive to all forms of luxury. We have partnerships with Bugatti, Pershing, and now with Pomellato. This is perfect chemistry for us, because we don’t want to move into other sectors of production. The partnership began well: we started with something simple, using the Tonda watch and giving it the Pomellato look. We achieved this in just a few months, because we have the necessary expertise in-house. It looks like it’s going to be a wonderful partnership, because we share the same values. We have recently opened a boutique in Gstaad, and I suggested to Pomellato that we could present our watches in one part of the store, and Pomellato jewellery in the other. And the amazing thing is that when you’re in the shop, you get the feeling that it’s just one company! At the moment, there is some interesting design work going on. It will be interesting to see where the project goes.”