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The Watchmaker's Art

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

(continued from page 3)

Once he has a new idea, Muller must find the technical solution that will take the project from drawing board to reality. The task is seldom easy. If the pieces to the puzzle won't fit, he doesn't become obsessed, but rather returns to the original concept. "I just change the idea and one day the solution comes," he states matter-of-factly. It also doesn't hurt to have an exceptional visual memory--"I see exactly the mechanics in my mind," he says--as well as deft hands.

Muller tries to pass on his demanding standards, as well as a little inspiration, to the four dozen artisans who work for him, many of whom are under 30. "I think it's important to give confidence to young people, to say, 'You're okay, you have big possibilities, you have to use these possibilities.' The major problem in the schools is the schools kill the creativity of the people. It's important to [nurture] the creativity, to give the confidence."

Although Muller spends long days at the chateau and four to five days a month traveling to promote his enterprise, he's devoted to his family, which consists of his wife of 10 years, Danielle, whom he met in high school, and their 10-year-old son, Fabien, who shares his father's passion for watches and has designed a few of his own. Muller likes to shop for antiques, especially objects from the Art Deco or Art Nouveau eras; the family's Genthod home is furnished with such treasures as a sculpture by Edouard Marcel Sandoz, an Art Nouveau lamp by Émile Gallé and a painting by Louis Icart. When he's dining, Muller loves to complement his food with a glass of Pétrus; he also enjoys Cognac. In his free time, he likes to walk, and though he doesn't participate in other sports, he is an avid, and active, fan of auto racing.

In 1995, Muller formed a partnership with McLaren, the race car builder, for entry into the 24 Hour Le Mans BPR Series; last year, McLaren's top car, the GTR F1, finished third. To symbolize his commitment to the race, Muller created the Endurance 24, a chronograph with a dial that indicates time over 24 hours instead of the traditional 12. The watchmaker's association with racing seems fitting, given that the mechanical watch and the automobile are very similar in terms of the importance of design and engineering. (The comparison is even more apt in the case of a classic car, such as a Bugatti, where the craft takes on an art form.)

In the same way he immerses himself in every detail of the manufacturing process, Franck Muller actively participates in the marketing of his watches. Part of what separates him from many high-end watch houses is that he has carved out an individual identity. As Joe Thompson puts it, "You can wear a watch from a living, breathing Swiss watchmaker. He's personalized this brand. It's his brand, it's his name. I think that means a lot to people. You can meet Franck Muller, as opposed to Omega or Rolex or Blancpain."

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."

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