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The Watchmaker's Art

Bruce Goldman
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

The young watchmaking student peered at the shiny Rolex Oyster he had just received in honor of his academic achievements. Most recipients of such an exquisite timepiece would have eagerly and proudly wrapped it around their wrist, but Franck Muller was no ordinary student. The Swiss teenager proceeded to take the watch apart, piece by piece, until all the components lay scattered by his side. Looking around the table, something seemed amiss, something gnawed at him. There was something missing in that watch, he thought. Drawing on the knowledge he had acquired in the preceding three years, he began to reconstruct the watch, but not before adding an invention of his own. By the time young Franck had put the watch back together, it had been transformed into the world's first Rolex Oyster retrograde perpetual calendar wristwatch in history.

Two decades, 18 "world premières" and four patents later, Franck Muller has become one of the world's most highly regarded makers of mechanical watches. His swift rise through the horological ranks has been nothing short of phenomenal, and his creations for the wrist are arguably the most complicated timepieces in existence today. From double-faced chronographs to watches that can tell the time in three different countries, from perpetual calendars to "minute-repeaters" that chime the hours, quarters and minutes, the man who calls himself the "Master of Complications" hasepitomized the revival of the Swiss watch industry that just a few short years ago was practically left for dead.

Muller, 38, is almost an anomaly in the staid old world of mechanical watchmaking, which traditionally has been dominated by companies that in some cases trace their roots back more than a century. With the exception of perhaps Daniel Roth or Gerald Genta, Muller is one of the few watchmakers today who has carved out a reputation for himself at the top end of the horology hierarchy. His success stems not only from the watches themselves--which are both technically oriented and classic in appearance--but from savvy, hands-on salesmanship as well. He has earned the respect of his peers and generated a faithful following among collectors, including a handful of celebrities like Demi Moore and Elton John.

"This is a case, like an artist, where people instantly are recognizing his talents," says Bertram Kalisher, the curator of exhibitions at the American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, and the executive editor of Watch and Clock Review and Chronis. "His designs are way above commercial watches. They're just works of art. His dials are magnificent, his case designs are wonderful shapes. And when you delve into the inside, they're backed up with unique complications."

As the central player in Franck Muller Technowatch S.A., Muller can't rely on the age-old reputation of a Patek Philippe or a Jaeger-Le Coultre; everything is riding on his shoulders. He believes in the hands-on approach, whether he's schmoozing with a potential customer--his watches start at $4,800 and head into the stratosphere--or working with the young watchmakers who turn his conceptions into reality at his workshop in Genthod, a serene village just outside of Geneva. Those conceptions can take him up to a year to design and manufacture before they emerge as a new world première. The man professes to put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, but even after 23 years of manipulating some of the earth's tiniest mechanisms, he still thrives on the challenge of discovering a new breakthrough.

It seems as if Franck Muller has always been tinkering with one kind of mechanical device or another. Born July 11, 1958, at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and raised in Geneva since the age of four, young Franck showed a knack early on for taking apart, analyzing and reassembling just about any mechanical object he could get his hands on. Unfortunately, his proficiency in this arena did not extend to his studies, and so, bored with high school, he dropped out at 15.

One day, scavenging at a local flea market--one of his favorite pastimes--Franck chanced upon a watch merchant who would end up providing the teenager with some much-needed direction. "I liked junk and when I was very young I would go the antique market," says Muller. "I would look at the antique things, and one day one of the people saw that I liked the old watches, the antique watches, and he said to me, 'Why don't you enroll in the school of watchmaking?' He said that after the school, I could try to repair antique watches because nobody was repairing them, that it was difficult, the watches were expensive, and the market needed various people to do this job. Since I didn't know what I wanted to do, I went to the school of watchmakers, and the surprise is I had many good results and the school was very good for me."

Before entering the Ecole d'Horlogerie in Geneva, Franck had tried his hands at such trades as cabinet making, mosaic work and motorcycle repair, perhaps deriving the latter interest from his grandfather, Sal. Decades ago, his grandson recalls, Sal Muller imported Harley-Davidsons into Switzerland and introduced the sport of motorcycle polo into the country, which was short-lived because the government wasn't too keen on the noise. The elder Muller, who Franck says headed Switzerland's motorcycle association for 25 years and served as president of the country's automobile club for 20 years, may also have been the first Swiss to import the famed Bugatti automobiles. However, the Great Depression devastated him. Years later, perhaps remembering the family legacy, Franck Muller would team up with one of the world's premier race car builders.

At the Ecole d'Horlogerie, Franck quickly demonstrated a mechanical bent. According to his teacher, André Beahler, he had an edge on his classmates right from the start. "He had both manual skill and intellectual knowledge," says Beahler, who retired from the institute five years ago. "He was a hard worker. There was nothing to reproach him for. He was very positive." Despite young Muller's promise, "I couldn't really tell that he would go so far," Beahler says. "He was only 18 or 19 years old. It was impossible to predict."

After three years at the watchmaking institute, Muller began restoring antique watches for private museums, auction houses and collectors, as well as refurbishing private collections for such watch giants as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet. Noting that little progress had been made with complications--the elaborate non-time-telling features such as calendars, inner dials and chimes--he set out, in the early 1980s, to create his first watch. After tedious research and laborious, painstaking work, he debuted, in 1986, the forerunner to a long line of world premières: a tourbillon wristwatch with "jumping hours" that change precisely at the 60th minute, and a round regulator-type dial, in which the hour and minute hands are separate.


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