A wristwatch made by a young watchmaker - chosen to be the horological link between the knowledge and skills of past masters and the next generation - is up for grabs at an auction in Hong Kong tomorrow. The watch is one of a series of 11 made by Michel Boulanger, a teacher at the Watchmaking School of Paris, as part of the Naissance d’une Montre initiative.
I first met Boulanger when he turned up at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) watch fair in 2015 with the first prototype of the watch as part of the aforementioned initiative. Le Garde Temps – Naissance d’une Montre (French for Guarding Time – Birth of a Watch) was a project initiated by arguably the highest collective of horological knowledge that exists today – master watchmaker Philippe Dufour, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey (of Greubel-Forsey fame) - following concerns that rapid industrialization was wiping out artisanal craftsmanship from the watch industry.
The concerns were very valid; Forsey and Greubel were among the last generation of watchmakers who received proper training before mechanization took over nearly all of the manufacturing processes. Dufour, a master of finishing techniques, has long bemoaned the fact that modern watchmakers were not trained in finishing techniques such as the ability to correctly polish ratchet wheels and countersinks.
As part of the Naissance d’une Montre project, the trio would teach everything they knew about traditional techniques to one lucky young watchmaker, who would in time, be able to pass them on to the next generation. The chosen one would build a limited number of high-quality timepieces, by hand, using his newly-acquired skills and without the use of any computer controlled (CNC). “The sharing and transmission aspects of the adventure are really important to us as we are concerned about the disappearance of the practical training for watchmakers,” said Forsey. Each step of the process involved in the creation of the timepiece would be archived so that future generations would have access to a databank of information.
Boulanger was picked because of his passion for watchmaking, his talent and the fact that he was a teacher at a watchmaking school. It also helped that he had some experience in the restoration of ancient pieces, which was a clear demonstration of his interest in horological heritage. Dufour described Boulanger as “humble and courageous to enter this adventure”.
“Robert [Greubel] and I know each other from the Anet Watchmaking School in France. We kept in touch over the years and I knew Stephen [Forsey] from Renaud & Papi,” said Boulanger, who admitted that he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility on being attached to this project. “We are talking about haute horlogerie here. More than fear and apprehension, I felt responsible. These are not ordinary watchmakers; Greubel-Forsey and Philippe Dufour command extraordinary respect in the industry and I knew that this wasn’t going to be an easy journey.”
It was anything but easy; it took him about a year just to get the concept for the timepiece approved. “I made a lot of suggestions but they didn’t like any. Twice a month we would come together for a meeting and I would think that I had it all figured out, but it was the same result again – they would ask me to go back and try again,” said Boulanger. “The idea behind this project was not to set out to make a watch with a grand complication because the project itself was complicated – everything was going to be made by hand. It was meant to last three years – start to finish. Finally after a year of presentations, Robert said to me, ‘If we are finally clear about what we want to do, it’s time to bring Philippe Dufour in’,” recalled Boulanger.
The concept of the watch, first sketched out, was simple – it would show the hours, minutes, and seconds. “I finally asked them, ‘Can I at least have a little tourbillon?’ and they agreed,” he said, breaking in to a grin.
The techniques used mirror those employed between 1750 and 1850, an era that is considered the golden age of watchmaking; it was the time of greats like Abraham-Louis Breguet and John Arnold, a time for innovation and invention. Boulanger spent the first 18 months in preparation as he shuffled between his atelier in Chartres, just outside Paris; Le Chaux-de-Fonds (where Greubel-Forsey are based) and in the Vallée de Joux with Dufour.
The big challenge was to find the old machines to build components, they either didn’t exist anymore or didn’t work from disuse. “We had to test a whole load of machines just to ensure that working on them would yield the kind of results we wanted,” said Boulanger. These include a watchmaker’s lathe, a milling machine, a pointing machine, and drills and so on. “We consulted museums, but in the end it was Philippe [Dufour] who came to the rescue. He had them all in his atelier. The machine used to polish the pinions was probably the hardest to find, also the one used to cut the tooth of the pinion. Whenever I couldn’t find anything I needed, I would think ‘perhaps Philippe might have this machine’, and invariably he did’.”
Boulanger says the oldest machine he used was from 1870 – a Tour à Burin Fixe (a lathe with a slide rest). Apart from the aforementioned trio, Boulanger could also rely on micro-mechanics expert Jean-FranÇois Erard for help whenever he ran into a brick wall trying to build components. “Building the pinion escapement was a nightmare,” he recalled. “I had to redo almost half the initial work on the pinion escapement because it wasn’t good enough the first time; it’s hard because these are incredibly small components. Finally, I had to plead with Jean-FranÇois Erard to help me.”
Dufour is a rarity in the watchmaking world today. Considering a living legend, his reputation is forged on the unshakable belief that a high-end Swiss watch should be made a certain way, using superlative hand-finished techniques. Dufour guided Boulanger through the process of creating the balance spring. He helped Boulanger transform a raw balance spring into one ready to be used in a balance. It’s a skill that few watchmakers possess today. Boulanger went through about 100 balance springs in trying to create a Breguet coil that beats at 2.5 hz (18,000 vibrations per hour) in the watch.
The dial carries the names of Greubel-Forsey at 12 o’clock and Philippe Dufour at 6 o’clock on the off-center dial that shows the hours and minutes. No sign of all the effort that Boulanger has put in? “Oh, my name is etched on the tourbillon,” said the pupil beaming. Each of the 11 timepieces were sold at CHF450,000. The “school watch” was sold for $1.46 million at the Christie’s Important Watches Hong Kong Auction in 2016. On July 13, No. 6 of 11 made is up for grabs again. The watch has a pre-sale estimate of HK$4,000,000 - HK$8,000,000 ($518,617 - 1,037,235). With a dial that carries the names of Dufour, Greubel-Forsey and Boulanger, it remains to be how much it will fetch at the auction tomorrow.
UPDATE: The watch just sold for HK$6,845,000 (Approx. AED3.24 million or $883,200)
This article is an updated version of the version that was originally published in our Spring 2015 edition.