To Philippe Dufour, the concept of fame is a strange one. He is considered the greatest watchmaker alive today, a “living legend” as he is referred to in the industry and among collectors. However, he is virtually unknown outside this circle, even to those who admit to having an interest in horology. When strangers in Dubai ask him if he would pose for a picture with them, he is amazed. “I have never even sold a watch here,” says the 67-year-old. 

The business end of a Philippe Dufour Grande Sonnerie.An independent watchmaker, Dufour works out of a workshop in Le Solliat in the Vallée de Joux. Such is the appeal of his work that clients are willing to endure long waiting periods and pay top dollar to get their hands on one of his exquisitely hand-finished watches, prized among aficionados as a cult collectible. Dufour’s reputation is forged on the unshakable belief that a high-end Swiss watch should be made a certain way. He has not spent a dollar on advertising or marketing himself. In an industry where marketing muscle can mold public perception, Dufour is an outlier. He is outspoken, funny and a big proponent of the artisanal values of Swiss watchmaking.

In 1983, he created his first timepiece, the Grande and Petite Sonnerie minute repeater pocket watch, of which he produced five further examples. In 1992, he introduced the wristwatch version, which won the gold medal for technical innovation at the Basel watch fair. In 1996, he debuted the first wristwatch with a double escapement, Duality, and in 2000 the master craftsman presented Simplicity, a simple three hand watch.

Naissance d'Une Montre school watchIn 2007, Dufour along with Greubel-Forsey set up the ambitious Le Garde Temps – Naissance d’Une Montre (French for Guarding Time – Birth of a Watch), a project to preserve the artisanal skills used in Swiss  watchmaking, which was being lost as a result of rapid industrialization. As part of the project, the trio would impart to one recipient the skills and techniques they possess and he would then transmit them forward.

The chosen one, Michel Boulanger – a young teacher at Paris Watchmaking School – unveiled the first prototype of the watch made using traditional methods at SIHH 2015. In June 2016, the Naissance d’une Montre School Watch was sold at a Christie’s Auction in Hong Kong for $1.4 million.

Here are some excerpts from our chat with him.
DUFOUR: It’s a question of choice. I’m not against the use of technology. We have access to a lot of modern technology and we should use it. Let’s take the example of Switzerland: the cost of labour is high, so whatever we produce there is going to cost more, which is fine if we do things differently. But if it’s the same as what is produced everywhere else, then we are in trouble. Compare Switzerland now to what it was in the Sixties just before the Quartz Crisis, you would notice one striking difference – all the machines and tools used in the trade were Swiss. During the crisis we replaced them with giant CNC machines. This technology doesn’t belong to us, it came from Japan. So while I agree that you need to use machines to survive now, I believe that as a Swiss watchmaker, you need to add value to the components that come out of these machines.

This is where your skill as a watchmaker and an artisan comes in. Because if a similar watch can be made using the same machines in China or Thailand for cheaper, why should anyone pay more to for a Swiss watch? I see now that some brands have woken up to this reality and are looking for anglers, the guys who do anglage or beveling of edges in a movement. They realize now that they need to do better to survive. Also, when you add value to a watch, you can justify its high price. 

The reference is not Swiss anymore. It is Glashütte, where brands like A. Lange and Söhne, and now Moritz Grossman, make beautifully finished watches. Nomos is another great-value brand. I always say this to people who ask me for watch-buying advice: you can start your collection with a Rolex because it’s reliable and its after-sale service is very organized. Or you can buy Nomos, a little-known German brand that offers tremendous value for money with its quality of movements and finishing.

In the Nineties when I first introduced myself to retailers in Singapore, they could not really tell how I was different from anybody else out there. Today, the customer is more knowledgeable than the salesman, there is so much more information out there. Now, if a salesman tries to sell a customer a watch, he is likely to pull out a loupe to examine it and go, “it’s nice but don’t tell me it’s hand-finished!”

It makes me happy because independent watchmakers are finally getting their due. For years people like Kari Voutilainen, Romain Gauthier and myself worked in the shadows. We try to make the best watch we possibly can using the methods we believe in. And now people appreciate it because they have the necessary knowledge.

Philippe Dufour wears the Simplicity as his everyday watch.

My first effort as an independent was a Grande and Petite Sonnerie minute repeater pocket watch. But when I tried to sell it, all I got was praise. Nobody trusted me enough to buy it. So I went to Audemars Piguet and they asked me to make five such watches for them. It took me five years to complete their order and once it was done, I was in no mood to work for them anymore. It’s hard when you can’t take credit for what you’ve done. 

So I tried again, this time I wanted to make a Grand Sonnerie wristwatch. This took me two and a half years and I had to learn to use CAD to design the watch. And then I had to sell, which was tougher. I remember meeting retailers in Singapore and they were not used dealing with a watchmaker directly. When asked about the size of the discount I could offer, I was outraged. I told them, “There is no discount, this is my baby!” That didn’t go well. It was my first time negotiating in Asia and maybe I was a bit too hot-headed. They asked me to go back to my hotel, think again and come back the next day. After 10 days of negotiations, we came to an agreement. It was a huge learning [curve].

I was planning to make 25 pieces of my second watch Duality, but I only made nine in the end. In 2007, #00 in platinum was on auction with Christie’s in Geneva. The auction house didn’t know what this watch was about, so I had to send them information for their catalogue. Back then, the watch retailed for CHF70,000. Christie’s estimate for this was only CHF25,000-35,000. Now, I didn’t want to play games at the auction. I know of brands that secretly bid on their own watches to hike prices. I knew the watch was good enough to sell itself. It was eventually sold for CHF180,000, more than six times the original estimate. A lot of collectors were hearing about the Duality for the first time. 

I have a list of 64 people who want a Duality now. I don’t want to refuse them, so I tell them I’ll get in touch if I decide to make more. With the Simplicity, I sometimes refuse two or three orders a week. I receive mails from as far as New Zealand and California. They specify the case material and ask for my bank account to transfer the payment. I have about 80-100 people on the list for Simplicity now. I can’t make any more watches because I am alone. 

Two months ago, a friend who retired from Audemars Piguet said he wants to work with me. He needs to do something with his time, so I’m teaching him my way of working. In the next step, maybe we’ll hire someone and my friend will train him. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of teaching. I trained a lot of apprentice watchmakers, but they don’t hang around. Maybe this is a failure on my part. I may not be the easiest person to work for when things are not done the way I want. 

My expectations are very high and I won’t compromise. I want to be better tomorrow than I am today and the problem is that the younger generation cannot keep up. I have macro pictures of tiny details in my watch movements that I show watchmakers who work with me. These pictures are from the Internet put up by collectors. The level of expectation is very high, I cannot compromise. I am a small player and if my product is not up to the mark – a broken screw or a scratch on the bridge – my reputation is ruined. And some people are waiting for me to make a mistake. The young generation has the ability, but they don’t have the character to sustain it over long periods. 

I have a few ideas for the fourth watch, but don’t know when I’ll make it. Right now, I’m finishing a Grand Sonnerie for a customer that I started 10 months ago. 

Of the 204 Simplicity watches I made, 120 were sold in Japan. I think the Japanese appreciate the fact that they can meet the man who made their watch. They respect this human relation. In 2000, the Shellman Company (it retails my watches in Japan) organized an exhibition for me at its store. It gave me 12 display boxes to showcase my watches. I only had one watch to show, so I filled the rest of the display boxes with my tools and drawings to explain my method. The audience understood what I was doing and I started receiving orders from Japan. 

For the Japanese, it was important to know that this man with gray hair, the one they took pictures with, made their watch. I call this ‘traceability’. Buyers want to know who made their watch, they want to know how it was made. This is important if you are selling a premium product. I understand this is not possible in an industrial set-up, but if you are an independent watchmaker, it is important to make this connection with your customer. 

Dufour is impressed by the finishing on the VC Harmony Ultra-ThinWHY SOME BRANDS GO UNRECOGNIZED
I joke that more brands need George Clooney to sell their watches because they don’t get the right exposure. But they do not realize that their factories are full of George Clooneys. I say put the people who are doing the job upfront, let customers see them. This is what they want to see. For most customers, a Manufacture visit or a guided tour of a watchmaking facility is like a visit to the aquarium. There is no interaction. If you are visitor, go meet the woman who is working on the Breguet overcoil. Take a closer look at what she does, let her explain her work, watch how she bends the hairspring. The day you get your watch, you now know who’s worked on the hairspring. That adds tremendous value to your timepiece.

The A. Lange & Söhne Datograph is the only watch I have bought and is the nicest chronograph ever made. And then I saw the Vacheron Constantin Harmony Ultra-Thin Split-Seconds Automatic Chronograph in platinum. The movement is superbly finished, you can see that the beveling has been done by hand. It makes you go wow! It invokes an emotional reaction and that’s special.

(This is an abridged (and updated)   version of an article that first appeared in our November 2015-January 2016 print issue)