Parmigiani Fleurier CEO Davide Traxler on two key values that propel the watchmaker

It is not often that the CEO of a watchmaking company chooses to begin his presentation with a video of a handgun. But this is no ordinary firearm. Nor is it an ordinary watchmaking maison. When Davide Traxler hits play, a man in the video toys with the weapon and pulls the trigger, firing … a songbird.

The muzzle opens to release a minuscule bird that perches on the edge of the barrel. It ruffles its ornate feathers, each autonomously mobile, as it trills a pitch-perfect melody that fills the private room at Swiss Watch Gallery in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, which distributes Parmigiani Fleurier’s timepieces.

“The Pistol and Its Songbird automaton is one of our restoration pieces,” says Traxler. “We have restored timepieces spanning 500 years of watchmaking. This was something initiated by our founder Michel Parmigiani, who was a renowned restorer before he became a watchmaker. The image of traditional watchmaking is a watchmaker isolated somewhere in the mountains, working on his creations using methods known only to him. This is why most brands only restore their own timepieces, to retain that exclusivity, but Michel had a bigger vision. He wanted Parmigiani to restore quality timepieces from any maker to preserve the patrimony of horology.”

Conservative restoration is practised, which honours the era of a product’s origin. “If we have to restore a piece, we use the same techniques that were used in the making of the original,” says the CEO. “If we have to cut a component for an old timepiece, for instance, we won’t use lasers — each component is built as it was in its time. This is what Parmigiani is about; we learn what withstands the test of time through endeavours like these and apply them to our work today. We don’t make things we cannot restore tomorrow.”

With that aim, alongside developing its own independent and vertically integrated hub of expertise, Parmigiani acquired illustrious firms specialising in cases, dials, movements and micro-components for its watchmaking centre.

“These skills and tools allow us to express watchmaking any way we want,” he continues. “In fact, many of our industry peers look to us to supply them with parts or components. We want to not only maintain a high level of watchmaking but also share it.”

Born in New York, Traxler spent his youth learning adaptability as he followed his diplomat parents on postings from Brazil to Europe and Africa. Upon graduating with a master’s degree in political science, he embarked on a 20-plus-year career in watchmaking under Bulgari, Chopard and Corum. Stewardship of Parmigiani was entrusted to him in 2018, with a mandate that included bringing the lossmaking brand into profitability. He set about refocusing investments according to market share, ensuring the right people were in the right places — “The US and Greater China are our biggest markets, but not a single top manager was from there, so we hired local CEOs,” he says — and revamping its communications strategy for more two-way interactions between the brand and its customers.

Parmigiani occupies a niche in the market that naturally attracts connoisseurs of certain horological maturity, but it wants to tap into a young generation of enthusiasts. “We are listening to what they tell us,” says Traxler. “We are a serious watchmaker, but we also want to resonate with customers looking for something fun, who will look at our products and go, ‘Wow, they’re talking to me’. One of the ways we’re doing this is through expanding our choices of colours and designs.”

Consider the Tonda 1950 Double Rainbow Flying Tourbillon for ladies, a nod to the trend of rainbow timepieces and a spectacular feat of engineering with the ultra-thin PF517 movement. Rather than a sombre black or blue to counter the extravagant show of sparkles, it pairs the dazzling double rainbows and icy stones strewn across its dial and bezel with a bold red strap. For the discerning gentleman this season, the dress watch is reimagined in the form of the Tondagraph GT, which unusually combines an annual calendar with a chronograph in a sporty, urban aesthetic.

However, it is the Middle East that inspires the brand’s most intriguing revelation of the year. The Hijri Perpetual Calendar is the epitome of Parmigiani’s mission and identity, combining its foothold in restoration and innovation, and its commitment to heeding the voices of its diverse clientele. The idea of incorporating the Hijri or Arabic calendar into a timekeeping instrument struck Michel in 1993 when he was restoring an old pocket watch that beautifully executed the concept. The ambitious watchmaker worked the Hijri calendar into a table clock in 2011 — a world-first as no lunar calendar had ever been designed to operate continuously — and this year, unveils the first Hijri calendar to reside in a wristwatch.

Rather than solar time preferred by the Gregorian calendar, its Arabic counterpart is dictated by lunar phases, featuring short and long months comprising 29 and 30 days respectively, and common and abundant years. It began with the emigration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in the year 622, known as Hijri, and informs Islamic festivals and holidays. The Hijri Perpetual Calendar incorporates Arabic architecture elements into the design — the bridges adopt the growing and shrinking silhouettes of the crescent moons — and cultural cues like the absolute absence of gold as Muslim men are discouraged from wearing the precious metal.

“This was the most challenging presentation I ever had to make, and it had to happen in Dubai,” says Traxler. “The audience really knew their stuff and threw so many questions about how and why this model was created. We had to address them with careful deference to cultural and religious practices. But this was the timepiece that garnered the most chatter and sharing on our social media platforms because it touched the core of a people whose calendar has been in existence for hundreds of years but has never been addressed in contemporary timekeeping.”

Demand for the limited-edition Hijri Perpetual Calendar has poured in from Switzerland to the US, affirming that the release was right on the nose. Parmigiani Fleurier walks its own path, but it does not walk alone. Whether it draws from the greats gone by or riffs off current trends, here is a watchmaker confident in its niche and panache. Where it goes, others will follow — some to copy and others to covet.