If you own a grand complication, there is a good chance that you have unknowingly experienced Christophe Claret’s genius. Before founding his own brand at age 54, Claret spent 30 years developing movements with exceptional complications on behalf of renowned companies such as Ulysse Nardin and Harry Winston.
“I’ve already worked for 65 different watch brands,” Claret recalled in a conversation recently. After working so long in the background, Claret finally stepped into the well-earned limelight in 2010, following in the footsteps of colleagues like Roger Dubuis and Richard Mille, who had similarly ventured onto center stage years before.
Numerous talented watchmakers have ventured down this path in the past, but it has led most of them into financial difficulties. Claret is certain that this fate won’t befall him. He sees himself as the rare combination of an entrepreneur with savvy business sense and a visionary designer. His success has proven him right. He and his team of 75 have worked together for several decades in Manoir du Soleil d’Or, a 19th-century villa near the Swiss watchmaking mecca of Le Locle.
The old house charmingly reflects its owner’s attitudes. The style of the 19th century dominates the ground floor, where the walls are covered with tapestries and polished wood paneling. Modern machines fabricate components for Claret’s watches in the cellar. The second and third floors provide the space for modern, brightly lit ateliers, where watchmakers sit at their worktables, patiently assembling highly complex timepieces.
Forty percent of production is presently dedicated to watches and movements for Claret’s own label – a meteoric ascent for a new brand. Claret works ceaselessly to ensure that this upward trajectory continues. He spent most of last year traveling and presenting his watches around the globe.
But this scion of an upper class family from Lyon was predestined for an entirely different career. “My parents wanted me to choose a classical French profession befitting our family’s social status.” The French aristocracy prefer to remain among themselves, so his parents expected him to attend a top-ranking prep school and afterward enroll in one of the so-called “Grandes Écoles,” which are the traditional breeding grounds for France’s future business executives, industrialists and political leaders.
But after 12-year-old Christophe Claret’s first visit to a watch restorer in his home city of Lyon, the boy knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up: to design and make watches. Claret explains his early career choice: “I was never a child who was interested in soccer or other childish pursuits.”
One of the rooms in his parents’ spacious palace housed a large workshop, and this was where young Christophe could usually be found. He would take apart and reassemble every timepiece he could get his hands on. He also repaired motorcycles, a sideline which, he says, “supplemented my allowance.”
But let’s return to watches. When Claret turned 16, he left high school and went to Switzerland on his own, where he enrolled at the famous École d’Horlogerie (School of Watchmaking) in Geneva. Claret, who was already a very independent young man, enjoyed spending his leisure time with his fellow classmates, most of whom were also not natives of Geneva. “Nevertheless, I was at home with my family fairly often because Geneva isn’t very far from Lyon,” Claret recalls.
After graduating from watchmaking school, Claret returned to Lyon, where he restored antique clocks and watches. In 1987, he visited the Basel watch fair and met Rolf Schnyder, a Swiss businessman who had recently revived the old Ulysse Nardin watch brand. Schnyder gave Claret his first big commission: an order for 20 minute-repeater watches that would later become well known under the name “San Marco.”
Schnyder’s order marked the beginning of a decades-long collaboration between Christophe Claret and the Ulysse Nardin brand. This liaison still continues today, although Ulysse Nardin has been part of the Kering luxury group since 2014.
Together with the designers Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi, Christophe Claret co-founded the RPC Company in 1987, which specialized in designing and fabricating complications for major watch manufacturers. When Claret became sole owner of RPC in 1992, he renamed it “Christophe Claret SA.” Known to be a workaholic, Claret also owns the Jean Dunand watch company.
When Claret has an idea for a new watch, he accepts all associated risks because what he has in mind is always a totally new complication that has never before existed in this form. If the unprecedented device actually works, imitators are sure to follow – as Claret has learned from experience. An attentive observer, he travels extensively to discover interesting things and to continually broaden and deepen his expertise in art, mechanics and a diverse array of other fields. He cultivates an aristocratic lifestyle by tradition, so to speak, residing with his family in a palace in France.
The watches that bear his name are ticking testimony to their creator’s inventiveness. For example, Claret has designed and built several of the world’s most beautiful watches for ladies. “In the past, I frequently offered my clients the opportunity to order complications created expressly for ladies’ watches, but they always declined because they felt that the market wasn’t big enough.”
As has often been the case, Claret proved exactly the opposite. The Marguerite, for example, is one of the world’s most complicated watches: It combines 730 components and, at the push of a button, it reveals a secret message of love. Its wearer can then press the button again to conceal the amorous missive. And the watch’s caseback invites its wearer to play a mechanical variation of the familiar game, “He loves me, he loves me not.” Playfulness also distinguishes the men’s watches in Claret’s Gaming line: Their wearers can play blackjack, poker or baccarat on the dials. Claret is also famous for audible complications, which have been a trademark of his right from the start.
To be able to further expand his business, Christophe Claret plans to sell 25 per cent of the shares in his company later this year. This expanded ownership will assure that he’ll also be able to continue transforming his ideas into new complications in the future. With good reason, his motto is: “Everything in watchmaking has already been invented, and everything in watchmaking still remains to be invented.