The Watchmaker's Art

| By Bruce Goldman | From 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.

A tourbillon, a sophisticated device designed to eliminate errors caused by the pull of gravity, consists of a mobile carriage or cage that carries the escapement, with the balance in the center, and generally rotates once a minute. The escapement is made up of an escape wheel with teeth and a pallet that interact to send impulses that drive the balance; when the balance, a wheel whose weight is concentrated along the rim, and an attached hairspring receive the impulses, they oscillate back and forth at a consistent rate, keeping proper time.

The tourbillon is of such complexity that only a few hundred have been made since Abraham Louis Breguet patented the invention in 1801. Muller is one of the few watchmakers since to receive a patent for improving the tourbillon, and a second patent is pending.

"The tourbillon is very difficult to make and very difficult to associate with other complications, yet it results in a watch with better timing," says Muller, whose 1996 Imperial Tourbillon watches retail for about $85,000. "Collectors understand the watch and want something very special. They know that I'm the first watchmaker to put the tourbillon with this complication, with that complication, etc."

Signing his first wristwatch "Franck Genève," which adorned all his subsequent creations until he formed his company in 1991, Muller continued to endow his watches with the most complicated mechanisms imaginable, while at the same time designing them in a simple yet elegant style that harkened back to yesteryear. The end result: wristwatches that stood out from the crowd.

"They're large on the wrist--you can see them very well across the room," Joe Thompson, editorial director of American Time magazine, says about the bold, large styling of Muller's watches. "Rolex has this same kind of distinctive look." And, says Abe Azaria, manager at Cellini jewelers in Manhattan, Muller's "cases are extremely tasteful. Whether they're curved or round, he's got maîtrise [mastery]. That and the amount of complications that he's introduced in his cases--he really blew quite a bit of people away in the industry."

"They were refreshing compared to what everybody else was doing," says Colin Jensen, co-owner of Jensen Stern in Ketchum, Idaho, which in 1992 became the first U.S. store to carry Franck Muller watches. "The proof of that statement is that when he came out with his curved-case timepiece, everybody in the industry, including Patek Philippe and Bregeut and Vacheron and Audemars [Piguet], has made a tunnel-shaped or curved timepiece themselves. I think they've come clearly short of producing something as pleasing as Franck Muller's curved timepiece."

In 1987, fresh off the success of his first tourbillon wristwatch, Muller introduced the Minute-Repeater Tourbillon with free oscillation, a timepiece two years in the making in which many of the several hundred components are visible through its skeleton dial. In 1989, Muller debuted the retrograde Tourbillon Minute-Repeater wristwatch with a perpetual calendar, complete with a mechanism that takes care of those pesky leap years.

The following year, he introduced his first chronograph, coupling it with the intricate tourbillon. Later versions of the chronograph--which incorporates the functions of a stopwatch--offered wearers a "double face": conventional time and "world time" of cities in 24 time zones on one dial, pulsimetric indication (calculation of pulsations per minute) on the back dial, in 1991; a tourbillon and perpetual calendar, in 1992; a double face (now patented) whose second dial now included indication of two other measures: telemetric (distance between an acoustic event and an observer) and tachymetric (speed of an object over a certain distance), also in 1992; and a perpetual calendar with a moon phase and retrograde monthly equation, which indicates the difference between the true sun day--the interval of time that passes between two straight passages of the sun at the meridian--and the average sun day--24 hours, or the average of all the days of the year, in 1994.

In recent years, Muller has introduced the simple but elegant Art Deco-style "Casablanca" line and a series of glittering diamond watches, as well as a number of timepieces sporting the sophisticated technology for which he has become renown. Among these are several minute-repeaters and a double jumping hour watch, which led to two additional patents for Muller. One patent was for the striking mechanism indicator, which allows one to visualize, via a path of a hand through a sector, the lapse of time during which the minute-repeater mechanism is in motion. The other patent was for the double jumping hour, which lets the wearer adjust the hour of a second time zone independently from the local time.

While the complications became increasingly complex over the years, Muller never forgot the other key ingredient to a successful watch: it had to look good. As he was slowly increasing production from 300 watches in 1992 to the 3,500 a year that his firm makes today, he was creating the never-before-seen three-dimensional Cintrée Curved cases to complement the traditional Classiques, or round ones. The 18-karat gold cases and the meticulously crafted dials, hands and straps meant the owner could look fashionable while he was figuring out the time on the next continent. Muller was living testament to the marriage of design and machine.

"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).

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."

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.