Atop Swiss Watchmaking Peaks, Rarefied Air
New York Times, March 30, 2006
NEW YORK — Cellini, an exclusive watch retailer in the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel here, waited nearly two years for its first Jean Dunand Grande Complication, a complex mechanical toy worth $775,000 to any number of collectors.
The watch, a display model, arrived at the end of February and "will be gone by the end of the month," Philip Duffell, Cellini's manager said.
In the highest reaches of the luxury universe the mere suggestion that something is unavailable seems to trigger a Pavlovian urge to own it.
A coterie of watchmakers ensconced in Switzerland's Jura mountains lives by this quirk of the human psyche. Having cast a cool eye on the industry, they have concluded that the high-end is too accessible.
"We need to pull the watchmaking pyramid higher," says Thierry Oulevay, president of World Première Watchmaking, a three-year-old Swiss company that created Jean Dunand, an ultra-exclusive brand that customizes one-off timepieces for its customers - people for whom money (and time) is no object.
"A circle of highly demanding customers are saying, 'It used to be rare, it used to be exclusive and now you see it everywhere,'" he says.
The "it" that Oulevay refers to is an obscure watch feature called a tourbillon, the French word for "whirlwind." Patented by the French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Bréguet in 1801, the rotational device, which improves accuracy by counteracting the effects of gravity on the gears of a mechanical watch, has long distinguished the horological elite.
"Today, I get a little skeptical when I see a simple tourbillon," says Bernard Bieger, director in New York of the watch auction house Antiquorum. "It doesn't do the trick anymore. It has to be a double-axis, a triple-axis or combined with other features." Multiple-axis tourbillons use additional rotating cages to achieve increasingly precise consistency in the time-keeping movement.
The increasing availability of timepieces containing esoteric mechanisms, known as "complications" in the industry, is a reflection of the new boom in mechanical watches. Swiss exports of mechanical wristwatches are up 60 percent by value since 2000, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, a trade group.
An entry-level tourbillon watch from Chronoswiss starts at $44,000. Drawn by the allure of such pricing and enabled by computer technology that has replaced techniques once exclusively done by hand, upstart brands like Chanel have crowded the mechanical watch field. The company's one-year-old J12 Tourbillon, its first "grande complication," with repeater chimes, chronograph and perpetual calendar functions, exemplifies the fashion- meets-function phenomenon that is forcing Jean Dunand and others to up the ante.
"We have to be much less visible, have a much lower volume, be more exclusive and much more difficult to access," Oulevay says, emphasizing his goal of establishing no more than 12 points of sale worldwide.
Twenty years ago, the Swiss watch industry was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the wisdom of such a business model would have been questionable. Cheap, accurate quartz watches from Japan ruled the market, and predictions of a future in which tourbillons were ubiquitous would have seemed absurd. It took the industry until the 1990s to regain its luxury footing. Ever since, the Swiss and their counterparts in Glashütte, the German watchmaking center near Dresden in Saxony, have outdone themselves in the quest to produce ever more complicated mechanisms.
One leader in the field is Cristophe Claret, a master watchmaker who is both a founding partner in World Première and the guiding spirit in his own homonymous company, providing watch movements for some 15 prestige brands.
For the Jean Dunand brand, named after a Swiss-born Art Deco craftsman who died in 1942, Claret developed and patented its first model, the Tourbillon Orbital, in which a "flying tourbillon" circles the dial once an hour on a revolving movement called the Calibre Io 200, after Jupiter's moon. Claret's other movement for Jean Dunand is the Grande Complication, which combines a split-second chronograph, a minute repeater chime, a tourbillon and a biretrograde perpetual calendar.