Watchmaking’s living legend François-Paul Journe talks about jumping into bed with Chanel and staying autonomous despite the latter’s minority stake in his eponymous brand

SINGAPORE (Apr 8): It is the watchmaking world’s good fortune that François-Paul Journe had been a “bad student” who never did well in his academic studies.

At 15, Journe was sent to a local technical college in Paris where his cousin was the principal. For the first time, he was exposed to the vocational trades of printing, micromechanics and watchmaking.

The teen fell instantly in love with the latter.

“It was totally different from the traditional subjects such as French, mathematics and history and, suddenly, I became a good student,” he tells Options, through a business associate who is translating our conversation in the Malmaison boutique by The Hour Glass.

Journe’s affinity for horology was quickly kindled and he would lose track of time whenever he was immersed in his newfound passion. He went on to start F.P. Journe in 1999.

In the almost five decades since picking up his first loupe, the Marseille-born watchmaker has produced a succession of masterpieces that has earned him a place in the horological hall of fame. F.P. Journe is the only brand to win the Aiguille d’Or grand prize at the Fondation du Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève three times: in 2004 for the Tourbillon Souverain; in 2006 for the Sonnerie Souverain (with no less than 10 patents); and in 2008 for the Centigraphe Souverain, a chronograph in which the timekeeping is isolated from the chronograph mechanism, allowing the chronograph to measure hundredths of a second despite a 3Hz movement.

Awards, however, are not what drives Journe to create.

“The real grand prix of watchmaking is not the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève but Only Watch — because people pay [for the latter],” the 62-year-old master watchmaker says with a smile.

Journe is referring to the highly anticipated and esteemed auction that takes place every two years, in which haute horlogerie brands donate a specially made, one-of-a-kind watch to be auctioned off for charity. The rarities that cannot be obtained anywhere else often go under the hammer at eye-watering prices in the millions. All proceeds go to the Monegasque Association against Muscular Dystrophy, which researches the rare Duchenne strain of muscular dystrophy.

At the last edition in 2017, Journe’s Chronographe Monopoussoir Rattrapante Bleu — an entirely new creation with a tantalum case and blue chrome dial that the Geneva manufacture has never before offered — fetched CHF1.15 million, far exceeding its high estimate of CHF400,000.

The Chronographe Monopoussoir Rattrapante, a one-of-a-kind creation featuring oracle bone script numerals designed specially for the Ball in Monaco, was auctioned off for $400,000 — four times more than Journe had expected

More recently, the Chronographe Monopoussoir Rattrapante incarnation of the split-second chronograph, with a blue dial featuring oracle bone script numerals, was created for the 10th anniversary of the Ball in Monaco auction held at Marina Bay Sands last November.

The biennial fundraising gala dinner is organised by reigning monarch Prince Albert II of Monaco and benefits the Monaco Foundation, which supports environmental projects to help limit the effects of climate change, promote renewable energies, safeguard biodiversity, manage water resources and combat desertification.

Journe’s unique piece was among the highly coveted auction items, which included a “Balloon Dog” sculpture by neo-pop artist Jeff Koons as well as a trip for two to the Monaco Grand Prix Formula One 2019, inclusive of business class flights, luxury accommodation and a special reception at the Prince’s Palace.

The auction opened with a starting bid of $50,000 for the Chronographe Monopoussoir Rattrapante. It was eventually sold for $400,000, four times more than what Journe said he had hoped for during our interview on the day of the ball.

Engraved with the words “Prince Albert II Foundation” on the caseback, the piece took Journe two years to develop and pays tribute to ancient China with its oracle bone script numerals — an idea that came from The Hour Glass’ boss, Michael Tay, he says.

The highly pictographic style is one of the oldest known forms of Chinese writing. It was carved on animal bones or turtle plastrons and used mainly for pyromantic divinations.

Lending a touch of oriental charm, its use on the dial — applied in Superluminova for enhanced readability — amplifies the uniqueness and desirability of the timepiece as a rare collector’s item while being the very embodiment of Journe’s “Invenit et Fecit” (meaning “invented and made” in Latin) motto found on the dial of all his watches.

Raising the stakes

For Journe, the recognition attained at auction is a far greater validation of his talent than those awarded by industry peers. This is perhaps due to the varied and nuanced forces at play in determining the auction piece’s commercial value — beyond that of technical excellence, which every F.P. Journe timepiece already delivers in accordance with the watchmaker’s high standards since it was founded.

For close to 20 years, F.P. Journe was fiercely independent, fending off interest from external investors (of which there were many). It avoided being swallowed up by one of the major luxury watch groups — till last year.

In September 2018, news broke that Chanel had acquired a 20% stake in Geneva-based Montres Journe SA, with Journe retaining the remaining 80%.

While the acquisition would certainly help secure the company’s future, concerns of any compromise to the brand’s integrity swelled expectedly. These were swiftly allayed with both parties assuring brand devotees that Journe would maintain full creative and management control of his company.

Two of the most pressing questions by industry observers at the time were: “Why now?” and “What does it mean for the brand hereafter?”

Speaking entirely in French throughout the interview, Journe explains his decision as his associate translates: “He has two kids: One is 30 years old and he’s a historian, and the second one is 17 and he wants to play basketball.

“And for 20 years, he has received offers from almost all the luxury companies and he didn’t even look at them. Many clients and collectors have also asked him what’s going to happen to the company after he’s gone. So, to protect his children and to secure the company, he chose Chanel so that if something happens to him, no companies on the stock market can approach his children.”

Of all the multi-brand watch groups, why Chanel?

“He’s very good friends with the owners of Chanel and they are also collectors of his watches,” his associate says. “And he’s convinced that the owners of Chanel would continue to take care of the company with the same philosophy as him.”

Chanel is privately owned by Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer, who was an early business partner of the late Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The company, which also has its own watchmaking division, has made similar minority stake investments in two other independent watch brands: Bell & Ross in 1998 and Romain Gauthier in 2011.

“If your next question is… Is F.P. Journe going to make Chanel watches,” Journe’s associate offers pre-emptively, “that’s not the idea.” Neither are F.P. Journe and Chanel collaborative limited-edition models on the cards, though a casual sharing of expertise may transpire, he acknowledges. “And if he needs a key to open certain doors, they will give it to him.”

This guaranteed autonomy with the security of financial backing would allow Journe to keep pursuing his horological creative work secure in the knowledge that F.P. Journe’s brand philosophy will continue to be upheld.

Vertical horizon

We are approaching the end of the interview and Journe wants it known that he will be retiring the Sonnerie Souveraine, which won the Aiguille d’Or grand prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

Considered one of the most complex of horological creations, the grand-strike clockwatch provides unfailing strikes 35,040 times a year. The greatest difficulty in its construction lies in its ability to achieve full clockwatch capability from the limited energy in a wristwatch — without compromising on the sound and reliability of the chime.

The reason for ceasing production is because the mechanism is so complex that Journe is unable to find enough watchmakers who are sufficiently skilled to produce it.

“There are maybe a hundred brands who dream of realising a complication like this. Real luxury is to know when to stop producing,” he says.

The halt in production will further secure the Sonnerie Souveraine a place in the hearts of collectors, as the prized model, considered one of Journe’s greatest masterpieces, becomes rarer still.

Aficionados will be pleased to know, though, that the watch will be making way for a new grand complication, which will debut this year at Only Watch.

In the meantime, there is the new Tourbillon Souveraine Vertical to lust after. Unveiled at the annual Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie in January, the new model celebrates the 20th anniversary of Journe’s Tourbillon Souverain with an extraordinary invention that quite literally turns the tourbillon on its head.

The new Tourbillon Souveraine Vertical features a tourbillon in a vertical cage instead of the traditional horizontal cage, with remontoir d’égalité and deadbeat second that makes one revolution every 30 seconds

Instead of a traditional horizontal cage, the tourbillon sits in a vertical cage, which enables the tourbillon’s functions to remain constant whether the watch lies flat or is placed on its side. Its amplitude is consequently the same, whether the watch has a deployant clasp and lies on its side or an ardillon buckle and lies flat. The vertical tourbillon with remontoir d’égalité (used to provide constant force to the escapement) and deadbeat seconds makes one revolution every 30 seconds, which is faster than the average of one minute, thus increasing its accuracy and enhancing the technical sophistication of the entire mechanism while making it more visually arresting.

It is yet another stroke of genius from one of the greatest living watchmakers today. Journe says he is still grateful for the fateful turn of events in his youth, and to his cousin for setting him on the path of watchmaking.

“Who knows, if my cousin [had been] the principal of a butcher school, I would be a very good butcher today,” he jokes.

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful

This story first appears in Issue 875 (April 8) of The Edge Singapore.

Subscribe to The Edge now