Fresh from a double win at the watchmaking world’s Oscars, and with a stunning new Bugatti watch to tempt connoisseurs, Parmigiani Fleurier founder Michel Parmigiani is riding the crest of success.
Two years ago, at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show, Bugatti unveiled the Chiron, the world’s fastest production car. This speedy number superceded the luxury carmaker’s very own Veyron model, the previous record holder.
Parmigiani Fleurier, a long-term partner of Bugatti, could not stand around and do nothing. Certainly not when the award-winning watchmaker counts such horological firsts as the Bugatti Type 370 in its repertoire. That watch, made to celebrate the launch of the Veyron (circa 2005), was a world-first. It featured a movement built entirely on the transverse axis, like a car engine block.
So, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) 2016, Parmigiani premiered a new concept watch, one befitting the Chiron. Called the Bugatti Type 390, it was equipped with a movement also constructed on an axis. In October 2017, after more than a year of testing and refinement, it was finally unveiled as a production watch in a limited run of 10 pieces.
The Hour Glass, which distributes the brand in Singapore, has already placed orders for the watch, though its spokesperson declined to divulge exactly how many. However, given the watch’s hefty price tag of CHF295,000 ($402,770) and its limited production, the order is unlikely to be huge.
One of the reasons for Type 390’s rarity and high sticker price is the complexity of its make. “It took a lot of time to develop and realise,” explained brand founder Michel Parmigiani on a trip to Singapore in November 2017. Five years, to be exact. Not to mention the amount of human capital invested.
“Every generation of Bugatti [watches] has been a challenge to make it function,” adds Parmigiani. “The Type 370 was already a revolution, and the Type 390 is as well a revolution. Initially, [the Type 370] was a concept watch, but it worked. A lot of concept watches don’t work. Although we’re a small brand, the expertise that has been gained through restoration means that things will work.”
In the mid-1970s, Parmigiani started a company restoring clocks and watches for museums. Meanwhile, he also produced custom-made timepieces for a select clientele. Eventually, he became acquainted with the wealthy Landolt family, who encouraged him to start his own brand. The Landolts own the Sandoz Family Foundation and are heirs to the vast Sandoz (now known as Novartis) fortune. In 1996, with the Foundation’s backing, the Parmigiani Fleurier brand was born.
The 67-year-old Swiss national expressed surprise at the victory. “I was quite surprised because it was the first time we participated in the Grand Prix. I felt that what the brand presented was not in the trend of contemporary watches. On the other hand, this could be why we won two prizes.”
Asked why, despite being around for 20 years, it took so long for the brand to take part in the competition, Parmigiani replies: “I’ve been invited to participate many times, but I’ve always declined. But this time, they insisted, and somehow I relented!”
Surprise was not the only emotion Parmigiani felt. He was also grateful for the accolade, saying: “It’s an acknowledgement of the style, design and philosophy of the brand, representing 40 years of my watchmaking experience. It’s also a recognition of the teamwork of the company, all the members that contributed to it.”
The Toric Hémisphères Rétrograde is a travel watch with two time zones. Unlike other dual-time-zone watches, the dial at 12 o’clock can be set to the minute. This is useful for time zones offset by 15, 30 or 45 minutes, such as parts of Australia or Nepal. This unique movement first made an appearance in 2010’s Tonda Hémisphères. In 2017, it was housed in the Toric case — the very first case that Parmigiani designed. In rose gold with a grained white dial, the watch makes a compelling travel companion.
However, it is the Tonda Chronor that is particularly close to Parmigiani’s heart. Made entirely in-house, the watch boasts an integrated chronograph movement with split-seconds functionality. “That’s an additional challenge, because a split-seconds [complication] is very difficult to master. Therefore, the movement is an achievement for me.
“All the skills and knowledge that the company consists of are like the cornerstone of a building, on which sits the entire manufacture. It’s the combination of all these skills that allowed the realisation of this integrated chronograph with split seconds. So, [the GPHG win is] an acknowledgement that the brand is able to produce an integrated chronograph movement with split seconds, because only very few brands are able to master this skill in-house.”
Simplicity versus complexity
“First of all, I would like to point out that making ‘simple’ watches is not that easy,” Parmigiani says with a laugh. “Having a range of ‘simple’ watches [allows enthusiasts] to enter into the brand, this club of watch owners. Maybe they don’t have the means to own a high-complication watch now, but later they might. At the same time, they can benefit from the knowledge and expertise that’s put into the high-complication pieces.”
The past two to three years have not been kind to the high end of the Swiss watchmaking spectrum. But latest figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry show signs of recovery. The worst might be over, but Parmigiani fears that the problem is systemic and endemic.
“It’s complicated. If you talk about the big groups listed on the stock exchange, they have to provide numbers every quarter. This puts a lot of pressure to show good figures. They have to produce large quantities and come up with new models all the time — whereas haute horlogerie should be something rare. If you give each watch you produce the care necessary for it to be classified as haute horlogerie, you can’t produce that much.
“We are a good example. We don’t have so many watches, because it takes time to produce. We follow the Qualité Fleurier benchmark, and if other brands followed the same benchmark, they wouldn’t be able to produce so many watches. With less supply in the market, there wouldn’t be the problems we encounter today — overproduction, stock everywhere. It’s hard to absorb all this stock when the market is down.”
That being said, what can we expect from the SIHH 2018, which will take place on Jan 15? “One of the focuses will be the Type 390. We will use the SIHH as a platform to launch it on a broader base. But there will also be some surprises,” Parmigiani says. We can hardly wait.
Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries
This article appeared in Issue 812 (Jan 8) of The Edge Singapore.