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Swiss Watches

Swiss watchmakers are taking timepieces to a bold newlevel
| By Edward Kiersh | From J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

On a road leading to the small Alpine city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, numerous hairpin turns daunt even the most intrepid sports car enthusiast. Amidst these curves and spectacular vistas outside Neuchatel, Switzerland, drivers normally slow down, submit to their surroundings, and shy away from testing modern life's power over time.  

Luigi "Gino" Macaluso isn't one of them. A flamboyant, hard-driving adventure seeker who is always looking to capture the moment, he's dedicated to conquering time, to making it an aesthetic experience and to working high-tech, horological wonders.  

While this ambitious pursuit typically finds him designing chronometers or chronographs, Macaluso, the owner and chairman of the Girard-Perregaux watch company, also finds it exhilarating to race around the Alps in his electric-blue Ferrari 45.  

Macaluso is a curious figure in the staid circles of Swiss watch making. He is just as content repairing one of his 29 classic rally cars as he is designing expensive timepieces. In Switzerland, where the good ol' boy network of power brokers and faceless conglomerate czars strictly adheres to Old World rules of low-key refinement and decorum, Macaluso's particular brand of enthusiasm is something new.  

"In watchmaking, like racing, there are lulls, and as Girard's team leader, it's my job to push the accelerator, to always encourage the best performance," says the 51-year-old Macaluso, sitting in his office. "I must engage people, lift spirits. We've achieved a lot, yet we must still race forward. Many of the complications [watches offering several functions] we'll be introducing in the next few years will be extremely intriguing if we keep on striving for excellence."  

An aggressive leader with a self-described manic personality, Macaluso has brought Girard-Perregaux back from the brink of extinction. In 1992, he assumed control of a firm that was asleep, if not dying, and transformed its image by deftly marketing new pieces and reworked classics, reestablishing the cachet of this legendary firm whose roots go back to 1791.  

Today, Girard-Perregaux, which produces about 16,000 watches annually, is extolled for such intricate complications as the Opera One carillon minute repeater, the Pour Ferrari collection, and the Tourbillon with three gold bridges chronograph. It also sells masterfully crafted movements to a host of high-end manufacturers (most prominently Piaget and Vacheron Constantin).  

The reason Girard-Perregaux was struggling and little recognized in the early 1990s was its exclusive focus on craftsmanship at the expense of marketing, contends Philip Warner, president of Asprey & Garrard, a London-based jewelry firm. "Macaluso brought energy, style and vision to the company," says Warner. "[He's] just superb at brand management; he's made the world aware of Girard, one of those few Swiss manufacturers which designs, makes and assembles the total watch."  

That vision is best viewed at the Villa Marguerite. Adjoining Girard-Perregaux's factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, this recently restored, early-twentieth-century mansion is not only a museum laden with such treasures as gold Hunter pocket watches, diamond-studded pieces and limited editions graced with the magical Ferrari "Prancing Horse" emblem. It's also a smoker's paradise, as visitors are treated to an idyllic retreat for lunch, where the dining-room walls are lined with humidors brimming with Cuban Cohibas and Bolivars (tours can be arranged by calling 41 32 911 3333).  

Macaluso was excited at the prospect of reviving these opulent surroundings. After graduating with a degree in architecture from Turin University in Italy, Macaluso dreamed about racing the Grand Prix circuit. He became friends with Enzo Ferrari's son Piero and Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, and competed in a number of prestigious European races, such as the European Rally Championship in 1972 and the Italian Championship in 1974. While he enjoyed braving hairpin turns and 200-mph bursts, Macaluso realized it was an unpredictable, if not dangerous, lifestyle. So, in 1974, he left professional racing and went to work for SSIH (which became Swatch), first in the advertising department and later climbing the ranks to become the firm's managing director in Italy.  

Macaluso left SSIH in 1982 to establish his own watch distributorship, Tradema, which handled Girard-Perregaux, Breitling and other brands. By 1987, thanks to the relationship he had cultivated with Girard-Perragaux head Francis Besson, Macaluso owned a 20 percent share in the company. At the time, the brand was "tied to a conservatism that badly hurt us," according to Willy Schweitzer, who works on product development with Macaluso. "We didn't promote ourselves. It hardly mattered that we were one of those rare companies that made its own movements. We were unknown."  

Though Girard-Perregaux won few accolades at the time, Macaluso seized the opportunity to acquire the company. Convinced Girard-Perregaux could be reinvigorated "with a shot of horsepower," he quickly set out to revamp the brand by negotiating a deal with Ferrari that allowed him to use the fabled stallion logo on watch dials. He has designed many of those dials (and other features) himself and is particularly proud of his 1994 debut work, the limited-edition, automatic split-seconds chronograph, which paid tribute to his friends at Ferrari.  

"It was very natural to honor them this way, since these cars and GP watches are extremely accurate in their technology," says Macaluso, who also styled a $150,000 Ferrari watch with a diamond bezel and a stallion logo carved out of rubies in 1995. "Having a watch with the mythical Ferrari name is certainly a way for us to reach a male audience. But mainly it's a brand that inspires unique emotions among all people, and the same can be said about Girard-Perregaux watches."  

The link with Ferrari was further celebrated in 1996 with the limited-edition F50, an automatic chronograph with perpetual calendar that honors the car maker's legendary "ballistic missile," the 203-mph F50. (A perpetual calendar is a complication that adjusts automatically to account for the different lengths of each month, including February during a leap year.) Girard-Perregaux later developed a full line of sporty Pour Ferrari timepieces. One of the most coveted pieces in that collection, introduced last year, is the SF Seconde Foudroyante, an automatic split-seconds chronograph with a coaxial pushpiece for "jumping" seconds, in a platinum, white, yellow or pink gold case.  

With the assistance of the Ferrari racing department, Macaluso recently unveiled another revolutionary aluminum alloy piece, a chronograph with a case that he claims is 50 percent lighter than titanium. He also recently received help from Asprey & Garrard's Philip Warner, who helped develop the concept of the limited-edition Ferrari F156 chronograph, an 18-karat-gold $13,500 tribute to 1961 Formula 1 world champion Phil Hill, the first American to win the championship for Ferrari ($4,950 in stainless steel).  

"We wanted a vintage-looking piece unique to our company, and what appealed to me was Girard's zealous attention to detail in the complications," says Warner. "My wife wears the steel chrono and I love the gold. All of Girard's complications are beautifully designed and built."  

That's particularly true about Girard-Perregaux's signature work, the Tourbillon with three gold bridges. This much-lauded $65,000 timepiece (best appreciated when styled with a "skeleton," or transparent, case, which allows the wearer to view the watch's movement) brought firm founder Constant Girard a gold medal at the 1867 Paris World Exhibition. (In 1906, Girard's son, Constant Girard-Gallet, acquired the assets of a watchmaking company that was founded in 1791 by Jean François Bautte.) The tourbillon remains the ne plus ultra of the watchmaker's art.  

All the finer houses produce a tourbillon, a device that compensates for the negative effects of gravity on the regular running of awatch movement, particularly when in a vertical position. Girard-Perregaux's creation is especially elaborate; it takes six to eight months to construct the 74-part, 0.3-gram tourbillon and the three gold bridges--each of which is enhanced by a glittering ruby--that span the delicate movement.  

A three-bridge tourbillon also distinguishes the new Opera One, a minute repeater that nearly replicates the exquisite chimes of Westminster Abbey.  

Another minute repeater that the firm is showcasing is a tonneau-, or barrel-shaped watch with a delicate striking mechanism, a moon-phase indicator and a perpetual calendar. The watch is an update of a classic design that first appeared decades ago. Another new piece, the Vintage 1999, part of the the Vintage 1945 line, is Girard-Perregaux's new curved and spherically shaped chronograph that gives the numerals an easy-to-read, three-dimensional effect. The sporty, yet still elegant F and Laureato collections feature stunning diamond- and gem-studded pieces to broaden Girard-Perregaux's appeal to women.  

Another watchmaker renowned for craftsmanship is Audemars Piguet, the Swiss firm founded in 1875, which has pioneered numerous horological advances. The company has introduced such treasures as a split-second chronograph with minute counter as early as 1882, and the Grand Sonnerie, a watch that chimes the hours and quarter hours, which requires three years of work. Overall, production is limited to 15,000 watches annually.  

Artisans at this family-run watchmaker continue to perform magic with their rectangular, 2871-caliber Tourbillon Canape (only 6.10 millimeters thick, this $95,000, micro-mechanical marvel has 146 components) and the automatic Millenary perpetual calendar in glittering 18-karat pink gold. The company is most widely celebrated, however, for its Royal Oak collection, octagonally shaped pieces whose power and elegance have made Audemars Piguet a leader in the luxury sports watch market ever since their introduction in 1972.  

"Though it is the most expensive, stainless steel chronograph [$15,200] on the market, the Royal Oak Offshore is our flagship, the ultimate piece when it comes to flaunting the fact you have the strength to wear a big, heavy watch," says Francois Bennahmias, the president of Audemars Piguet, North America. "While we've introduced a titanium Offshore [only 100 grams as compared to its 250-gram stainless steel sister], the Royal Oak is still a planet removed from our amazingly thin pieces. It's the watch that really says, 'Look at me.'"  

Arnold Schwarzenegger recently collaborated with Audemars Piguet to design a limited-edition Offshore chronograph celebrating his recent millennial film, End of Days. The watch, which has a "devilishly black" dial, automatic movement, tachymetric scale, stainless steel case and bracelet buckle, is built to withstand the most extreme underwater and shock-producing conditions.  

Whether it's the steel chronograph, the 450-gram yellow-gold model, or the even larger Grand Complication ($650,000), the flamboyant Royal Oak line is one of the world's most fabled collections. Yet that renown, according to Bennahmias, has also cast a long shadow over Audemars Piguet's other pieces. "The Royal Oak's fame is certainly a positive, but it's also bad," he says. "Since those pieces get so much attention, people don't know we do lots of other incredible things."  

One of the company's most noteworthy achievements is the Batman, or Night and Day Double Hunter pocket watch, which is studded with 38 carats of diamonds, 9.95 carats of yellow sapphires and 48.72 carats of blue sapphires--1,599 precious stones in all. Priced at $4 million, it depicts a starry night illuminated by a radiant moon, and a sun's golden rays. The intricate gear-and-wheel mechanism magically animates the winged Batman symbol.  

The Ladies Minute Repeater Carillon, a testament to Audemars Piguet's renewed efforts to appeal to sophisticated women, also flaunts bold engineering. The smallest wristwatch of its kind, with 340 parts shoehorned into two cubic centimeters, the complication employs three bells and three hammers to produce distinctive chimes for minutes, quarter hours and hours.  

Audemars Piguet's manly version of a minute repeater, the $360,000 Jules Audemars Tourbillon Split-Second Chronograph, is its tour de force. Besides producing clear, melodious sounds, this elegant, yet strong-looking, limited-edition watch (only 20 pieces were made) is a complex technological delight. The chronograph, named after company co-founder Jules-Louis Audemars, comprises 474 components, including 40 jewels, a guilloche dial, a transparent sapphire caseback, mechanical safety systems that guard against overwinding, and a device that ensures synchronization of the hours, quarters and minutes. The watch is presented in a sumptuous wooden cabinet with ample space for other items. Audemars Piguet will continue to unveil one limited edition of the Jules Audemars each year through 2006.  

Finely crafted technological timepieces have long distinguished Breguet, the legendary L'Abbaye, Switzerland, firm founded by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1775. Breguet was esteemed as the father of the modern wristwatch, responsible for such inventions as the self-winding perpetual watch, the independent seconds hand and the tourbillon. The company's early clients included King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Czar Nicholas II. In the twentieth century, Winston Churchill owned Breguets and Ettore Bugatti adorned his Royale dashboards with them.  

Today, classical Breguet watches--with their renowned blued steel pomme (or apple) hands and patterned guilloche dials--are no longer the exclusive domain of European royalty or industry titans. Under the spirited leadership of Jean Jacober, the former chief operating officer at Patek Philippe, Breguet is offering six-figure objet d'art complications, along with a wide range of pilot watches and Marine chronographs priced to appeal to a young, discerning audience. In keeping with Old World traditions, the company limits total production to about 9,000 pieces a year.  

Breguet's flagship piece is the $170,000 Equation of Time, a unique self-winding perpetual calendar that indicates the difference between the mean solar time measured by watches and clocks and apparent solar time that would be shown on sundials. "We only make about 15 of these a year, and it's definitely my favorite, for we're going against the myth that the day is 24 hours," says Jacober, the president of Breguet's management team (the company has recently been acquired by Swatch). "There are 360 days, which are really plus or minus one to 15 minutes. We measure that, so this watch is our rebellion.  

"But even though you have to be affluent to buy this piece, I want the dream of owning a Breguet to be accessible to more people. In line with that strategy, we're going to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the company with a very simple $15,000 to $18,000 item with enameled hands and hand-painted numerals which tells the time and date. We recently launched our Art Deco-inspired tonneau, or barreled-shaped, Heritage chronograph [$26,000] and we're also right on target with pieces that look nothing like classical Breguets: the sporty Type XX Aeronavales and Transatlantiques."  

The Type XX watches, originally designed in the 1950s for the French air force and navy, are fitted with the retour en vol, or fly-back, function, which returns the chronograph hand to zero by a single touch of the lower button. There are three sundials for second, 30-minute and 12-hour counters, and the new titanium version has a self-winding, 25-jewel movement. The carbon fiber dial with luminous hands and Arabic numerals is a handsome tribute to Louis Breguet, one of the founder's descendants and an aviator instrumental in the creation of Air France in 1933.  

The Retrograde Perpetual calendar, with indicators for day, month and date in 18-karat yellow gold, and the Tourbillon Chronograph, featuring a hand-engraved movement and dial with skeleton back in 18-karat rose gold, are also worthy of Breguet's time-honored stature. Both complications are painstakingly crafted by an elite team of watchmakers cloistered in the factory's research and development sanctum.  

"Breguet complications are mechanically superb," says Leon Adams, the president of Cellini, a New York watch emporium. "We just don't get them back for repair. Too many of the other companies' grand complications are temperamental. But Breguets work, and are truly exemplary."  

Carlos Dias and Roger Dubuis are seated at a Geneva restaurant, smoking Montecristo A's and conjuring up watch designs on paper napkins. In an industry bound by tradition, it's quite unusual to find a Portuguese ready-to-wear fashion mogul (Dias) associating with a scholarly Swiss developer of complex mechanical watch movements (Dubuis).   Yet Dias and Dubuis are stirring excitement among the cognoscenti. The duo founded Manufacture Roger Dubuis only five years ago and offers timepieces from $10,000 to $1 million.  

The Sympathie Bi-Retrograde Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, in a square-cambered 18-karat rose gold, white gold or platinum case, epitomizes Dubuis's devotion to moving art ingenuity and flawless mechanics. This fly-back piece (the two hands, known as bi-retrograde hands, indicate the month and day of the week) also features phases of the moon and date, and is mechanically programmed for two centuries; it is the first time that these horological functions have been combined into a single watch. Like all of Dubuis's meticulously assembled pieces, this limited-edition watch, which sells for as much as $59,100, bears the Geneva Seal, the highest hallmark of quality given to Swiss timepieces.  

"The critical difference between us and other brands is that if someone buys one of our pieces, they know it's only one of 28 watches in the world," says Dias, who financed the shop setup and now manages the business, in addition to designing all the dials and cases. "We want to be unique, to present new complications that automatically become collector's items with lasting value. That's the dream. To let our imaginations soar way into the future, and to develop a whole new heritage of innovative movements."  

That ambitious goal has already been partially realized by the Hommage self-winding window perpetual calendar with moon phase in 18-karat white gold, the $260,000 Bi-Retrograde Perpetual Calendar Minute Repeater, and their newest creation, the Much More mono-push chronograph with a large 47-by-34-millimeter case and ivory-lacquered dial.  

Dias and Debuis are now working on a table clock, due to be released this year, that they will sell for $6 million. A gem-studded timepiece with a Grand Sonnerie, a bi-retrograde perpetual calendar, a constant force tourbillon, and 32 days of power reserve, this pièce de résistance is a yearlong effort that's meant to usher the firm into another rarified market.  

"This marvel is just the beginning," says Dias. "We want to do more complicated clocks and pocket watches, quality pieces that won't hit you over the head but will be as magnificent as Cohiba Esplendidos and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas."  

Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.