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Craft to conservation

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 9 min read
Craft to conservation
Michel Parmigiani reflects on his journey from honing his watchmaking skills to restoring timepieces
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Michel Parmigiani faces a dilemma: Does he prefer restoring watches or creating new ones? Known for his mastery in both, he often contemplates this question. He cherishes the art of restoration, bringing historical timepieces back to their former glory. At the same time, he enjoys the innovative process of designing and crafting his distinct watches. 

The soft-spoken Swiss responds through an interpreter: “I like both, as they offer two very different experiences. Restoration involves bringing back and enhancing something from the past, reviving it to learn and understand the techniques of watchmakers or creators from that era. On the other hand, creating my own timepiece allows me to express my creativity.” He also mentions that in restoration, one doesn’t express one’s creativity but reinstates something created by someone else. Nonetheless, restoration and creation are activities he enjoys.

We asked him about one of his most challenging restoration projects, and he highlighted the Sympathique clock, which was initially deemed “unrestorable.” Parmigiani described the restoration of this Breguet clock as a significant feat. Despite doubts about its restoration, a collector from Basel, Switzerland, trusted Parmigiani's skills, stating: “I know someone who can make it happen”.

The auction house, Sotheby’s, hesitated to auction the clock because of its perceived lack of value in its damaged state. They were unaware of its restoration potential until Parmigiani took over. He dedicated 2,000 hours to the restoration, equivalent to a full year of work. Today, the clock is showcased at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.

According to Breguet’s website, the “Sympathique” clock was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795 and was first showcased at the National Exhibition of 1798. This unique system consists of a clock and a watch. The clock is designed to hold the watch, which is automatically adjusted and reset when placed in a designated space. Breguet chose the term sympathique (a French word that means sympathetic in English) to express the idea of harmony and unity. In a broader sense, ‘sympathy’ represents the universal principle that aligns harmoniously the organs of the human body, the human race and the cosmos.

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Parmigiani not only restores clocks and timepieces but also revives nearly discarded automatons. Automatons are mechanical devices that imitate human actions or perform tasks automatically, from simple toys to intricate machines, showcasing early automation and craftsmanship.

He recalls restoring the celebrated Maillardet Automaton, clarifying that it is not a cigarette box automaton as some have perceived but rather an 18th-century marvel capable of drawing four images and composing poems.

Repairing the magician, carrying a pocket watch, proved particularly challenging. This automaton features a magician who selects a card from one of the drawers to respond to a posed question. Parmigiani explains: “When you pull a drawer containing a question like ‘What is the most precious thing in life?’ The magician’s answer is a friend.”

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Learning from the past
Exploring ancient watchmaking inspires Parmigiani’s new creations, exemplified by the Tonda PF Hijri Perpetual Calendar Table Clock he conceived in 2011. Inspired by restoring a pocket watch featuring an Arabic calendar, Parmigiani crafted a clock that was downsized into the Hijri Perpetual Calendar wristwatch. This impressive innovation led the Maison to be awarded the 2020 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) Innovation Prize.

The reissued timepiece comes in a stainless steel case featuring a Viridian green dial. The Tonda PF Hijri Perpetual Calendar pays tribute to the Tabular Islamic calendar, dating back to the 8th century, with insights from Muslim scholars and astronomers. This calendar system simplifies the conversion of Islamic dates to Gregorian dates, allowing for the development of the Hijri Perpetual Calendar.

Significantly, the Hijri calendar began in 622 CE, marking the Prophet Muhammad’s Hijrah, his journey from Mecca to Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia. The lunar Hijri calendar follows a 30-year cycle based on the moon’s phases. Each year consists of 12 months, with months having either 29 or 30 days. Within this cycle, 19 common years have 354 days and 11 leap years have 355 days.

These remarkable creations stem from the skilled watchmaker who bravely embarked on his watchmaking journey in 1976, a time marked by the ascendancy of the quartz revolution overshadowing mechanical watches. In a statement, Parmigiani reflects on those trying times: “Restoring antique timepieces saved me from nihilism. Working on so many wonders from times gone by, as I was at this time, made the idea that traditional watchmaking might disappear absolutely unthinkable.”

He adds: “Restoration gave me the confidence to pursue my watchmaking dreams, which seemed to be at risk. It taught me that only quality work and genuine craftsmanship could transcend time. This has been integral to my career and serves as the cornerstone of Parmigiani Fleurier, a genuine centre of expertise that harmonises modern watchmaking with a devotion to the timeless craftsmanship exemplified by our ancestors.”

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Where it all happens
Founded in 1996, Parmigiani Fleurier upholds a legacy of over a century of watchmaking expertise through its founder. Parmigiani embarked on this entrepreneurial journey with the backing of the Sandoz Family Foundation. His commitment to horological traditions and forward-thinking vision for modern innovation established the foundation for the maison, which still thrives.

Born in 1950 in Couvet, nestled in the Canton of Neuchâtel — the French-speaking province in western Switzerland, bordering France — Parmigiani has long cherished the harmonious forms of nature, architecture and art. His educational path led him through the watchmaking schools of Val-de-Travers and La Chaux-de-Fonds, culminating in a specialisation in restoration, a field reserved for the best watchmakers.

Exploring the intricacies of crafting timepieces like those made by Parmigiani involves a journey to the manufacture, where the artistry of watchmaking unfolds. A select group of media members had the exclusive opportunity to explore the Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier (VMF), located approximately two hours away by car from Geneva. VMF, the watch movement division within the Parmigiani Fleurier watchmaking centre, epitomises precision and inventive excellence in watch movement production.

Moving from one room to the next, we witnessed the meticulous development of mechanical movements, including self-winding and hand-wound varieties. The facility embodies the Val-de-Travers watchmaking legacy, which is evident in its CNC machining, cutting and stamping operations, extensive mechanical workshop, and dedicated watch assembly workshops.

Each phase of the process is guided by skilled watchmakers using artisanal methods, encompassing the detailed creation of main plates and bridges and the precise hand bevelling of all components. These artisanal techniques elevate the calibre to a coveted symbol of craftsmanship.

Within VMF, is the Research and Development department essential for propelling innovation within the watchmaking centre and moulding its continuously advancing, technologically sophisticated product range. This department’s responsibilities include creating the technical schematics for the movements and meticulously outlining all necessary operations. Building upon this groundwork, VMF assigns distinct responsibilities to each division housed within the Parmigiani Fleurier watchmaking centre.

In addition to the manufacturing, there is Atokalpa, where only a select few watchmakers possess the expertise to craft the regulating organ entirely — including the escapement wheel, pallet fork, balance and balance spring. Atokalpa provides a diverse range of these crucial components to cater to the manufacturer’s requirements.

Atokalpa demonstrates excellence in a diverse range of operations, emphasising its expertise in the industry. Using computerised machinery, the facility performs precision tasks such as stamping, cutting, bar turning and tooth shaping with remarkable accuracy up to 0.001 mm. Following these precise procedures, meticulous finishing touches like heat treatment and burnishing are implemented to enhance the hardness of components, particularly focusing on the balance spring through drawing, rolling and shaping to ensure durability and responsiveness.

The production process also integrates aesthetic elements with techniques including circular graining, snailing, polishing and bevelling, which are meticulously applied to each piece, ensuring impeccable quality standards. The name Atokalpa originates from Sanskrit, symbolising the measurement of time from the earliest era to the future, reflecting a journey forward from the past.

The future
During our visit to the Restoration Workshop, renowned as one of the most sophisticated in the world, we witnessed the meticulous care given to timepieces from public and private collections. Parmigiani felt most proud and at ease within this space, almost as if it were his haven. Everywhere we glanced, restoration projects at various stages of repair were displayed under glass cases to protect them from dust and dirt, preserving these centuries-old works of art.

Adorning the walls were completed works already returned to their respective owners. Parmigiani eagerly retrieved a transparent folder, showcasing the visual progression of each restoration project from inception to conclusion. We were fortunate to view a recently finished work, a walking stick with a top that houses a secret that when wound, unveiled a bird, whistling a cheerful melody before retracting back into the cane.

Among his many accomplishments lies the restoration of historic watch collections at institutions like the Patek Philippe Museum and the Château des Monts in Le Locle, further solidifying his reputation as a distinguished watchmaker and restorer.

With Parmigiani’s profound expertise in watchmaking and restoration, his attention is captivated by one particular marvel: The Peacock Clock in Russia, located within the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This intricate automaton clock, known for its grandeur, features three life-sized mechanical birds — a peacock, an owl and a rooster — each designed to move and emit sounds at specific intervals.

Parmigiani says: “Restoring this clock that once belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia would be a monumental challenge. It is of such a grand scale that it currently seems impossible, especially given the current circumstances in Russia. Although I have seen it, I was approached to assess it for restoration, but it didn’t materialise.”

He adds: “Additionally, I am fascinated by singing birds, contemplating the genius of those who crafted these wonders in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even with today’s advanced technology, we can’t help but feel awestruck by the ingenuity of those craftsmen of the past.”  

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