Meeting with the master watchmaker Michel Parmigiani, founder of the eponymous Swiss brand. About his vocation and expertise, we talked about the specifics of crafts and the need to perpetuate them, of course, but also about inspiration and even mysticism. Spotlight on the beauty of master craftsmanship!

At the Swiss watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier, the words “measure” and “excess”, which are also the title of the excellent documentary on the manufactory, awarded at the 5th edition of the Brand Content Grand Prix, take us far beyond the limits of luxury watchmaking. It gives their letters of nobility to these overused words: “tailor-made”, “manufacture”, “haute horlogerie” or “haute couture” wrongly used throughout contemporary creation.  With Parmigiani Fleurier, these words bring us back to the roots of a luxury watchmaking creation endowed with precious virtues: to quench the vital thirst for the beautiful, the unique and the authentic!

The honesty of creation is what matters to the brands. If there is one message to remember from the Swiss watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier, it is this one, says its CEO, Jean-Marc Jacot. Apart from the connoisseurs who can appreciate the subtleties of the models with great complications – these independent sets interacting with each other in a variable way, and not “a battlefield !” corrected a watchmaker – not easy to distinguish the extraordinary from the most banal if not a connoisseur.

Michel Parmigiani. photo : Parmigiani Fleurier

Drawing on the history of watchmaking creation to make people dream

“In any profession, it’s good to look at where you come from, it allows you to project yourself into the future, according to Michel Parmigiani, and to make the dream last because what is ordinary kills emotion. To perpetuate a traditional and artisanal know-how today is a “necessity”. Let us imagine for a moment that knowledge disappears as it did with enamel, which today we do not know how it was made in the 1850s before it disappeared, and then becomes fashionable today. All it takes is one person to leave, and the know-how can disappear.  “We have to reinvent everything. This may require centuries of experience,” insists the man who is also a watch restorer. Each time, the missions are managed as “investigations to be solved,” he confides cheerfully, “it’s like being Sherlock Holmes! ” His tools of the trade: a respect for traditional know-how that is the source of creativity for the present and the future. It’s the watchmaker’s response to the Darwinian argument, anti-patrimonial, sometimes used nowadays, justifying a disappearance considered “natural” in the contemporary world supposed to move forward.

More precisely, and this is a point of view that only a craftsman can evoke:

“Know-how is not a recipe, it’s something we know how to do, but it’s the way to do it once we master the theoretical information.  It is through gesture, gaze and appreciation of color, for example, that everything is played out. The craftsman feels the precise moment when his action must take place.  We don’t have time to explain. This is what takes time to acquire.” He concluded: “Being an artisan is a question of education, culture, training and gymnastics.”

What particularly inspires Michel Parmigiani is the Golden Number, a reference to the use of the mathematical language of beauty found in nature, art and the human body. The geometrical rule, the secret of the divine proportion called the number of Gold or Phi, according to Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione, has been a constant source of inspiration for creators in the artistic fields of painting, sculpture and architecture since Antiquity. “It’s a story that goes very far, I’m not afraid to say it’s divine,” says the passionate about architecture and design from a very young age.

This explanation of beauty through mathematics found in the construction of the Pyramids, the Greek columns, Frank Lloyd Right and Gaudi are inspiring testimonies to the magic of this golden number for the watchmaker. Michel Parmigiani often cites the “natural curve”. “It is the curves of the watch that we can guess from an imaginary point. It generates shapes and proportions. Intuitively, it goes so far,” confides the watchmaker, “it becomes mystical.”

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Modèles Tonda Qualité Fleurier & Pershing 002, Parmigiani, the daily couture, stephanie bui

A set of life skills beyond a know-how

“Seeing inert parts that can start to move on their own, without any electrical energy or whatever, with just metal: it’s still incredible! So yes, we give life to something,” says a young woman who fell in love with her job as a watchmaker who, technically, has the challenge of moving microscopic parts 27,000 times a day in a coherent way! In short, she has to create a universe! It is about “overcoming the technique, oneself in order to go to the end of one’s art. It’s about experiencing excess”,  according to Parmigiani Fleurier. Giving a voice to craftspeople who are too often reduced to their hands: this is the interest and strength of the documentary “Measure and Excess” directed by Frédéric Laffont, presented at the same time as the new Tonda Metrographe watch, in Paris, last March. With an aestheticism reminiscent of the portraits of Flemish painting idealizing the individual, the craftsman is captured in his uniqueness. The portraits evoke this profession perfectly:  watchmaking is a vocation.

For some watchmaker, taking the time to enter the watch with a magnifying glass is like entering “a huge cathedral where you can walk like an insect” or “a heart that beats and that you have to keep alive”.  Then, attention to all the senses is urged. Sometimes of the finesse of a hair or a mu (a millimeter divided by a thousand), the piece requires the use of other senses than augmented vision: hearing in order to recognize the good noise, the sign of successful manipulation, and touch it. “With my fingers, I can feel which side the six hundredths pivot is on. Touch is very important. It is something we learned, and we caress the mu every day. The need to work sometimes from six to twelve hours on a single microscopic part requires “the control of one’s fingers, body, mind and attitude to work with extra small scales. We have to be both perfectionists and humble.

When bugs occur, “the third eye” is necessary: that of the colleague. Are there Stress, haste, nervousness? No way, they have to be banished. Pain, on the other hand, is sometimes necessary: the fingers are bloody from filing… In all circumstances: perseverance is required. 

“When you roll a balance shaft,” explains a craftsman at the factory, “you roll a hair. It’s quickly wounded, bent. You have to be calm and never give up. You have to control anger… If you let go, you get angry, it’s over. We’ll never succeed in making the piece. The satisfaction is there: did I do everything I could to achieve my result? And then, the piece is there (…) The appearing piece is like a delivery, and then you can always improve.”

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Transmitting the values of excellence of watchmaking

“If you do not have the notion of transmission in a profession of fine watchmaking like ours, you must not do so,” affirms Jean-Marc Jacot.

In order to perpetuate its know-how, twenty apprentices from the age of 15-16 are trained each year, while five others complete their studies with the assurance of easily finding a job in one of these professions: watchmaker, micro-mechanic, commercial, dial-maker, bar turner… That is enough to ensure the sustainability of these professions, most of which have remained so mysterious and so precious to the company. Located in the cradle of Swiss watchmaking, which counted 600 watchmakers in 1860, Fleurier now has about 200 of them left, with Michel Parmigiani, who came to the village in the early days of the watchmaking crisis. It was because he could no longer find any components that the factory was forced to meet its own needs. Its internal mastery of the manufacture of all its watch components, an expertise that has become very rare in the watchmaking sector, has made the Manufacture the supplier of some twenty watch brands.

Parmigiani Fleurier’s beautiful adventure, created with the support of the Sandoz Foundation, continues with its watch brand, designing 5500 pieces per year, and set to expand throughout the world with the opening of boutique workshops bringing together its models with great iconic complications and new contemporary urban lines such as the new and superb Tonda Qualité Fleurier with its vintage aestheticism or its jewellery watches made in collaboration with the Milanese jeweller Pomellato.

Parmigiani Fleurier proved to master the art of the aha moment as well :  the Daily Couture was among the lucky guests from the press to immerse in the values rooted in the watchmaking tradition dear to his brand through the experience of a hot air balloon flight! Sounds not that obisous at first sight, but it is. “The DNA of the balloon flight and that of Parmigiani Fleurier’s watchmaking creation are surprisingly similar,” explains the CEO, Jean-Marc Jacot. Interviewed by The Watchers on this very subject, the CEO then insisted on tradition. “People who love hot air balloon flights love tradition, as do the watchmakers who work at the Parmigiani factory. There is the tradition and ethics of creation. Whether it is a hot air balloon flight or a timepiece,” Jean-Marc Jacot compares : 

“We know when we start preparing for our activity, we know where we want to go but we don’t know when we will get there or how long it will take to get there…”

The Daily Couture had this wonderful experience on May 27, 2014 during the 22nd edition of the Trophée François 1er, the international competition for hot air balloon flights in the Loire Valley with our balloonist Raphaël Zuccollo from the Parmigiani Fleurier balloon.

Slow Travel, Slow Made: same values, same fight!


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Parmigiani Fleurier website

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