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The Watchmaker's Art

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

(continued from page 2)

"Many people love the watch and go crazy for the watch for one simple reason: the watch is technology and art, and it's difficult in the world to find art and technology," says Muller.

There was a time not so long ago that the mighty Swiss mechanical timepiece was practically on its deathbed, gasping for breath as its usurper, the quartz watch, revolutionized the industry in the 1970s. The Japanese firm Seiko led the way, and soon Japanese know-how was making timekeeping a more accurate proposition than the Swiss mechanicals, whose technology was seen as outdated. As more and more people strapped a quartz watch onto their wrist, a new wave of nonconformists swept in, heralding the wild and crazy Swatch era when wristwatches had to make a fashion statement to earn their livelihood. In the '80s, Swiss watchmakers scrambled to catch up, and standard mechanical watches fell so far out of favor that they were literally being destroyed.

Sensing an opportunity, a Swiss watch executive at Omega named Jean-Claude Biver decided in 1982 to revive a dormant mechanical brand called Blancpain, believing that with hundreds of millions of quartz watches inundating jewelers' shelves, the discriminating consumer could again be persuaded to buy a fine mechanical watch. According to Thompson, Biver began buying mechanical movements, many of which were collecting dust in basements, and crafted a catchy advertising campaign to rekindle people's desire to own a mechanical timepiece. The effort paid some dividends, but it was an auction held in 1989 by Antiquorum Auctioneers, the Geneva watch and clock house, that really proved the mechanicals' revival was here to stay. A Patek Philippe Calibre 89, designed to commemorate the company's 150th anniversary and containing 1,728 parts and 33 functions, fetched a mind-blowing $3.7 million.

"Suddenly there was the awareness that these things are going to be rare," says Thompson. "Suddenly, [the Patek sale] created a market among collectors for wristwatches. Prior to that, the wristwatch was not a collectible. Pocket watches were; there was a day when you only made pocket watches. Wristwatches aren't very old, and it was only this century, after World War I, that people started wearing wristwatches. They didn't have any sort of provenance or pedigree. There was no point in collecting them. But when quartz came, that changed. Now there was a point in collecting them."

"Quartz watches do not fall into the category as a creation, being that they're mass-produced," says Kalisher. "The mechanical watch can be compared to an original sculpture by Picasso or a painting by Jackson Pollack. Mechanical watches cannot really be mass-produced. They're assembled by hand; it takes an inordinate amount of skill to make them. And they're another form of investment, as well as having the enjoyment that you can wear it. It's functional art as well as artistically pleasing."

The revival of the Swiss mechanical watch in the late 1980s and early '90s came as Franck Muller was beginning to make his mark on the industry. "The timing was perfect," says Gary Girdvainis, the editor in chief of International Wristwatch. "If he had tried to do what he's doing now in the early '80s, I think he would not have met with [as much] success. He may have succeeded and he may have brought the name Franck Muller to the watch world, but I don't think he would have realized the success that he's had now." Watch dealer Jensen believes Muller's age is also a contributing factor. "Being young, I think he's a little more receptive to doing some innovative things and some other things that are a little bit more daring and not as conservative as what the other watch firms would be doing if they were in his position. And that makes for a more dynamic enterprise," says Jensen, whose family has owned Patek Philippe for three generations.

Still, Muller's artistic and technological success did not translate into economic success, at least not right away. During the late 1980s, when Muller was creating watches for collectors and a number of established brands, he was making only 10 or so pieces a year. Although the work was arduous and time-consuming, he always believed in himself. "When I made my first, and not only my first but every world première, it's really one year's work, and so you can work one year for no money," says Muller. "Imagine if you don't have the confidence. You have to make sure you're going to get the results."

As his reputation spread, Muller attracted the attention of a group of investors. With their backing, the watchmaker was finally able to produce his own brand, and in 1991 Franck Muller Technowatch was born. In 1992, Muller was invited to join the exclusive Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie, a Geneva exhibition for high-end watches that then consisted of Cartier, Piaget, Baume & Mercier and Alfred Dunhill. That same year, Muller concocted what the company proudly proclaims as "the world's most complicated watch": among its features were a big and small striking hour mechanism, a minute-repeater, a perpetual calendar through 2100, a monthly equation of the time by a backward moving hand, moon phases and a 24-hour indicator of the mechanism's inner temperature. To promote this masterpiece and Muller's other watches, the first exclusive Franck Muller store was opened, in Japan. Jensen Stern soon became the first American outlet, and today some 25 shops carry the brand in the United States. Muller watches can also be found in Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, Sidney, Rio de Janeiro, the Caribbean and a host of other locations.

The village of Genthod, where Muller's timepieces spring to life, is a scenic Switzerland setting of romantic architecture and vineyards that dot the hills of Lake Geneva. It is here, in 1995, that Muller and his watchmakers moved into a restored turn-of-the-century castle, vacating their former quarters that consisted of a few rooms in a house. The new headquarters were chock-full of the latest equipment, but exuded Old World charm with period furniture, antique clocks and old-fashioned workbenches.

It is in this peaceful environment that Muller conceives, designs and executes his mechanical marvels. An idea for a new complication can come from anywhere, be it from his own thoughts or an idea suggested by a customer. "I stay very open," Muller says. "I don't close any possibility. This is very important." The impetus for one of his latest watches, the Master Banker, came from a group of bankers whose business required them to keep abreast of different financial markets simultaneously. After listening to their concerns, Muller created a timepiece that tracks the time in three time zones, complete with a winding button that adjusts all three time zones automatically (a patent is pending).

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