From the workbench Friday, June 22nd 2012
Taken over by Hublot in 2011, Profusion has virtually doubled in size since. As well as finishing, assembling and gem-setting cases for Hublot's most exclusive timepieces, it brings to the table unique expertise in carbon, a coveted material and a speciality at Hublot.
Jean-Pierre Kohler (right) and Lionel Gavignet, cofounders of Profusion © Hublot
Switzerland's industrial fabric harbours numerous gems; the specialist contractors that work in the shadow of more familiar names, and which are the backbone of fine watchmaking. Profusion is one such firm. Its expertise rightly caught the eye of Hublot which took control of the company in 2011, two years after the two first made contact.
Set up eight years ago by Lionel Gavignet and Jean-Pierre Kohler, Profusion has made a name for all things carbon, a material that ranked high on Hublot's agenda. "Hublot's engineering bureau contacted us in 2008 to ask if we could set up an industrial process for carbon parts," Lionel Gavignet explains. "This is something we'd been working on for some time already, taking our cue from techniques developed for cars, boats and aeronautics."
"Unlike Audemars Piguet's forged carbon, we work by hand to superimpose up to fifteen layers of epoxy resin-coated carbon, which we then hot-press. Rigidity and solidity are generally not an issue. The biggest challenge is shaping the carbon to produce the desired aesthetic. You can count the number of woven carbon specialists worldwide on the fingers of one hand. It took us six months to source the right partners, and another six to develop machining techniques. Carbon puts substantial pressure on cutting tools in terms of wear and doesn't allow for touching-up the piece. It has to be right first time."
At the time of the takeover by Hublot, Profusion had capacity for 500 carbon cases a year. Now the workshops in Gland, a municipality of the canton of Vaud in Switzerland, are producing three thousand. "Hublot wanted to have this technology under its belt, and no-one else could offer that kind of expertise." And more, as Profusion had some other highly specialised strings to its bow, including working with MB&F on new materials - and in this department, the best is yet to come - and gem-setting for clients that include Boucheron.
As the specialist wing producing external parts for Hublot, namely cases (30 components per case on average), dials and gem-setting, Profusion handles around 8,000 pieces. This is 20% to 25% of Hublot's annual production. Most of these are high added-value series in editions of up to one hundred. Profusion can take credit for the cases of such sensational timepieces as the Hublot Antikythera watch, the Cathedral Minute Repeater Tourbillon and Column-Wheel Chronograph in carbon fibre, the King Power Oceanographic, water-resistant to 4,000 metres and also in carbon fibre – that's three world-firsts – and more recently the new line of Big Bang watches for Ferrari, one of which is made from Magic Gold, a virtually unalterable alloy of gold and ceramic which Hublot developed in partnership with EPFL in Lausanne.
Exploring new terrain
Of course, nobody reaches this level of expertise overnight. Lionel Gavignet has been involved with specialist suppliers in La Vallée-de-Joux since the age of twenty-five. "I come from a micromechanics background," he says. "Then I met Jean-Pierre Kohler, at that time production manager for Breguet, after stints with Golay Frères, Rolex and Chopard. We worked together on the Queen of Naples watch. He hinted that if one day I decided to go it alone, he'd be interested in joining me. Which he did, once Profusion had been set up. We'd both had enough of working with large volumes. We wanted to explore new areas and research new materials."
When Hublot came knocking, the opportunity was too good to refuse. Since the takeover, Profusion has doubled in size and now employs some thirty staff and an impressive fleet of machines. Jean-Pierre Kohler has joined Hublot where he organises production. Lionel Gavignet manages production of external parts within the entity which has kept its name and its third-party clients. Says Lionel Gavignet: "Hublot is a well of ideas and this approach to watchmaking suits us down to the ground." ■