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The Watchmaker's Art

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

(continued from page 1)

At the annual Geneva exhibition, says Girdvainis, "He's selling personally to these people, extolling the virtue of the watches and pumping these people up and selling them. He's hands-on all the way."

"It's nice to know that here's a guy that also knows who I am," says Arnold Weg, a New York physician who owns a number of Franck Muller watches. "He's not just some manufacturer who doesn't know who his customers are. He knows what I have, he knows what I'm interested in. He says, 'This would be nice for you, that would be nice for you.' It's a very special kind of feeling. It's the difference between buying in a boutique or going into K-Mart."

Weg, a music collector and cigar enthusiast who prides himself on the 350 Cuban cigars he has amassed over the years, recalls a conversation he had with Muller when the watchmaker visited him in New York last year. "I was impressed that, even though he had just come off the plane and must have been jet-lagged, he was very patient, very engaging. I had thought up questions that I knew I wanted to ask him, and he was absolutely wonderful about explaining it at a level that I could understand. He left me with the feeling that you wanted to buy more. You really wanted to have part of this guy's genius, part of this guy's creativity."

Says Muller: "You have to give the people the time to understand what you do. I think I make so many models every year that it's difficult for the collector to follow me."

In recent years he has broadened his collection, offering more rounded pieces, creating different dials in the curved cases, making some watches thinner and others thicker. He's also aware that, while most of his watches are geared toward the luxury market, there's room for other consumers, too. "He wants to catch a little bit of all the markets, and he also wants people who can't necessarily spend $10,000 on a watch," says Jensen, who, like Muller, is 38 and grew up (on and off) in Geneva, just a few minutes' walk from the Mullers, although they did not know each other then. "He's produced pieces in steel and he's made them a little thinner and he's made them slightly more inexpensive, but they still have the Franck Muller assets. So in light of that, he's enlarged his arena for sales possibilities there. At the same time he's not producing so many watches that he's going to lose the quality that he's known for."

What kind of person might select a Muller watch over his many competitors? Weg, an internist and gastroenterologist who finds many of the functions on his watches useful in his profession, suggests someone who has done his homework, someone who knows something about the man behind the watch. Weg was relieved when he learned that Muller, whom he termed a chain smoker, had given up cigarettes two New Years' Eves ago. A healthier watchmaker is a more proficient watchmaker, Weg reasoned.

"The whole company is contingent on one guy," says Weg, who has been collecting Muller's watches since 1994, and other brands for more than 10 years. "Here were people who were investing--I use the term loosely, but it's still investing--putting large sums of money into Franck Muller; you could just have easily been laughed at. Instead, you could have gone with the sure thing. Spend the money on Patek, spend the money on Vacheron. Nobody's going to consider you an idiot, and if one of the watchmakers in Vacheron comes down with something or runs off with a woman and stops making watches and runs into financial trouble, so what! There's 20 other guys. But you, you're putting a lot of eggs in a basket because of the confidence and the gestalt that you had about this particular individual. And in that sense, it's unique, too. So you were kind of ballsy in some ways. But once you meet Franck, you get even more confident, that, yeah, this is going to be all right."

So far, Muller appears to be living up to expectations, and his recent creations have done nothing to alter that perception. In addition to the Master Banker, last year Muller sculpted the Imperial Tourbillon and minute-repeater wristwatch, introduced a Havana line in cigar-shaped packaging, and crafted his annual one-piece-only Calibre timepiece. The Imperial Tourbillon offers a highly intricate reversed tourbillon that is visible under the dial, as well as two tiny gongs that sound the hours, quarters and minutes. The Havana watches, a mid-priced line that reached stores late last year, have gold in the dial, the first time Muller has done so. Where Muller really goes all out, however, is in the Calibre series. The Calibre 96, his fourth such piece, sparkles with a sapphire glass on one side and 350 diamonds on the other, and is the first wristwatch to combine two time zones with a double minute-repeater. The watch was purchased by an unknown English collector for about $750,000.

Ironically, it is in Muller's most expensive timepieces that he deliberately makes the wearer wind the watch manually. The expensive platinum 950 rotors that he uses for his automatic watches could easily fit into his tourbillon models, but doing so would deprive the owner of an essential connection with the watch. As collector Weg explains: "I asked Franck, when you're selling watches for $100,000, $200,000, why does the person have to be bothered winding it? Franck told me, 'I can put a rotor into it. It's no problem.' But if you're a watch lover and you're a watch enthusiast, he said, then you enjoy taking care of the watch. You want to do something to maintain it every day. And he said if you're winding it, it shows you have to put the attention into it, you have to look at it, you can't just slap it on your wrist."

Franck Muller has been giving careful attention to watches ever since he laid eyes upon his first antique timepiece more than two decades ago. Throughout his career, his ambition has been to break through the barriers of time, to achieve what has never been done before in the world of mechanical watchmaking. At 38, he could easily rest on his laurels. But the way the master watchmaker sees it, much horological history remains to be written. And he wants to be the one writing it.


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