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François Paul Journe: "There is nothing perpetual: it does not exist."

January 12 2018

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François Paul Journe was not destined to a particular job but to what would come to him when the day came. This was the watchmaking art. A few days before the opening of the International Salon of Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), where he will exhibit for the first time in the Carré des Horlogers, he puts some of his clocks back on time. - Isabelle Cerboneschi.

F

rancois-Paul Journe manufactures about 900 watches a year, but as he rightly says, instead of calculating the number of watches produced, one should rather count the number of joules spent on making them.

It took him six years (and how many kilojoules?) To create the Sonnerie Souveraine he will withdraw from the catalog at the end of the year. This great complication will give way to an astronomical watch that will be launched when it is ready, like all FP Journe watches.

For the first time this year, this irreducible independent will present his elegant collection in the Square of Horlogers, located in the heart of the SIHH which opens its doors in Geneva on Monday 15 January. The proof that he softens his posture with the years.

The opportunity to meet and talk about a bit of everything, the time it takes to develop a new model, independence, parallel market, training, and even magic.

IC: What convinced you to join the Carré des Horlogers at SIHH?
François-Paul Journe: It's a combination of circumstances. Speaking one day with Pierre Jacques who was running MCT at the time, I learned that he was not renewing the lease of his stand. He offered it to me with a discounted price. It seemed to me that it might be a good idea for the Elegant. And then it was not very expensive: it was an opportunity! (Laughs). I spoke to Fabienne Lupo, the President of SIHH, who of course explained to me that it did not happen quite like that, and that there was no question of discounts. But we took it anyway: we already had a project.

Eight years of development for the Elegant movement. It's two years longer than the time it took you to develop your great 2006 ringtone!
Yes, because I am completely incompetent in electronic circuits. I had to rely on specialists. The entire mechanical part is made at the factory, so it is under control. The electronic part is made in Switzerland, but out of our control. We had to call in engineers. The first team was a bit too optimistic and made mistakes. It is a twin engine system and not two separate engines. But there was a lot of magnetic interference between the delivery of the seconds and the reset to the hour of the minutes, it was necessary to change many parameters. We had to call on a new team from EPFL to correct everything and it lasted three more years. If it had been a three-needle mechanical watch, we would have developed it in a year.

This watch that stops without stopping is almost a meditative watch, a watch to enjoy the present time. But I guess it was not your intention when you created it ...
No, everything I do is relatively pragmatic. We make unisex watches, but women always tell us, "There is only for our husbands and not for us".  It was a time when all watchmakers - wrongly elsewhere - said that the revival of the mechanical watch for women, it was the complications. But this concerns only a handful of people in the world. I must have two or three serious collectors as clients, but they are not interested in a woman's mechanical watch,  they want some serious men's watches. By the way, if you take the brands specialized in women's pieces - Cartier, Piaget, Chopard - 80% of their lady watches are quartz. I had to create an electronic watch. But quartz watches have flaws: the autonomy is not enough and the battery dies too fast. How to improve longevity? By saving energy. We made the watch stop and restart. And besides this system is fun: it's as if there was a little magic in the watch. When the first pieces came out, I played with all the time.

It has another magical feature: it shines at night!
We managed to develop a fully luminous dial, Super-LumiNova®, but it was so complicated that our supplier almost dropped us. Which in a sense is a good thing: as it is very difficult to manufacture, they will not do it for another house. Bemusing customers like us, he does not want others! (Laughs). Like what it's good to be a bit difficult ...

The Elegant has an autonomy of 8 to 10 years ...
That's theoretical. I do not have the necessary perspective because I launched them in 2012. But the watches on which I measure the battery regularly and who are four years old, have not moved. The battery is still practically in its original state. When the batteries are new, they are at 3,5 volts, very quickly they arrive at 3 volts to die at 2,7 volts. But all our batteries are still 3,10 volts: which means that they have not yet stabilized at 3 volts. We can therefore hope for an autonomy greater than 10 years.

And if there was a problem with the microprocessor?
The microprocessor can not have a problem. It is a watch that has no oil, it does not require maintenance.

So no after-sales service?
No, it was the goal not to have one. I chose the world's most manufactured battery to be sure it's still there in twenty years, and besides the battery and the watertightness, there's nothing to check.

It's almost a perpetual motion?
No Alas. There is nothing perpetual: it does not exist. An engineer once said to me, "There is only one perpetual movement, that of engineers who seek perpetual motion" (laughs).

What was the primary purpose of this service?
All brands want to be able to control their own watches that are traded on the second market. I did not know how to do it. One day, an American customer wanted to buy a watch that we no longer manufactured. He asked us if we knew where to find it. It was reported that one was going to be on sale at Christie's. But the customer wanted a guarantee, absolute security. He therefore asked me to buy it, to put it back in perfect condition, and to sell it to him as new, making a profit but with a guarantee, as if he had bought it at the time. From that moment, the idea of ​​developing this service started to germinate.

It interests what type of customer?
We have new customers who are interested in us and who were not market players 10 or 15 years ago. They could not acquire at the time the watches they want today. We redeem our watches at around 80 - 90% of their original prices. We sell them a bit more, given the service and the refurbishment, but it's not an operation on which we make a profit. Rare pieces, on the other hand, are hard to find, even for us. A customer from Hong Kong wanted to buy the Octa Calendar with the Ruthenium dial. On the Internet, there was one for sale at 70'000 francs but I found the price exaggerated. We were lucky to be able to buy one over the counter, a little cheaper and for less than 70'000 francs our client had it completely revised. I do not want to raise the odds too much.

You do not want to raise the odds but the fact that your Optimum Chronograph was auctioned in favor of Action Innocence in 2017 up to 200'000 francs - 2,35 times its price - does that do not not exactly up the odds of your watches?
No, it was a unique piece, with a unique dial, sold as part of a charity where the auction goes up for the cause. It's a little different.

What is your biggest fear: finding your watches on the parallel market?
No it has always been: it is also a good sign! When they are in the parallel market, that means there is a market. The worst are those who do not have watches on this market, and those who have too much.

"Those who have too much", are the brands that have pushed retailers to over-store?
Yes, because they do not know what to do with their watches anymore. When there is too much, the odds can reach less than 60% of the price in the shop, and that is catastrophic.

And yours, we find them at what price?
The watches in limited series are resold at the original price, or even more expensive. As for those in the current collection,they are found between minus 20% and minus 30%, which is normal for a used watch that can still be bought new in the shop. With the exception of the Blue Chronometer, which has a higher rating because it is rare. There was a shortage because we could not make the dials anymore. This is the only model that is not limited edition and that sells more expensive than the price in the shop.

The situation is down for some groups, but it seems that you are not affected by market developments. How do you explain it?
Because we do not make a lot of watches. Right now I am focused on complication, which requires more energy, so we do less. Everything is related to the time spent on a model. It's hard to say that we make so many watches a year. One can not compare a Sovereign Ringtone and an Elegant, as if one was worth the other. We should not calculate the number of watches produced per year but joules! How many joules have we spent to make our watches this year? (Laughs).

Many independent watchmakers complain of the difficulty for them to survive. Is independent watchmaking ultimately condemned to join a large group?
To survive, no. But maybe to get secure. It's always a bit the same story. Some small independents lack a global vision and have not invested in their distribution network. In 1998 I presented my first "ready-to-wear" watches, in 1999 we presented in Basel, in 2003 I opened my first shop in Tokyo. Of course it's easier to use retailers. In the beginning I also loved working like this: they were sent the watches, they paid thirty days, it turned quickly. Except that you have to be crazy to think that it will last. Retailers do not work for you but for them: they are happy to work for you if they sell your watches, but if they do not sell, they move on to another brand. We made them loyal because we shopped and they know we can get them out of the network. This has recently happened to us with a historic retailer in the United States.

Each year you award a prize to a young watchmaking talent - the Young Talent Competition - which will be handed on Wednesday 17 January, at SIHH. What about your desire to create a watchmaking school?
The creation of the school is conditioned by the possibility of raising the building. But we'll get there someday ...

Tomorrow a young person comes to see you, and says: I am passionate about watchmaking, I want to learn the trade, I want to build my own brand, you tell him what?
Dark! This happens quite often, by the way. But between making a mark and making a watch, there is a difference: he must already start making a watch and then, according to his impulses, he will see how far he can go.