His towering frame reflects the measure of a project which, ultimately, can be summed up in just a few words: “Three renowned watch creators, united by a common goal of recording and preserving for posterity traditional watchmaking techniques; a young watchmaking teacher entrusted with the role of learning such techniques; and a true handmade timepiece realised in the most authentic spirit of traditional watchmaking. These are the actors and resources of the project.” Few words but a full-scale adventure for Michel Boulanger, the “young teacher” in question whose mentors, the “three renowned creators”, are none other than Philippe Dufour, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey. The crème de la crème of contemporary watchmaking who have embarked on an odyssey by the name of “Le Garde Temps – Naissance d’une Montre”… The Timepiece – Birth of a Watch.
The four protagonists have spent the past four years working towards what some might describe as an extreme and uncompromising goal, namely for a watchmaker to learn to produce a watch from start to finish using only traditional tools. Exit the modern technology and CNC machines that handle every task from machining the most complex parts to engine-turning, even setting gems. And so the teacher went back to school, with nothing but his own two hands to rely on for the conception and production of a time-only watch with tourbillon escapement. Not forgetting the crucial finishing and decoration of every movement part. With three such demanding master watchmakers at the helm, one can imagine the difficulties that lay ahead for Michel Boulanger. But did he? “At first, I didn’t fully realise what I was getting myself into,” he confides. “Then we fell behind schedule too. I also had a heavy workload last year as I returned to my teaching post at the same time. And despite all this, what an experience!”
A form of watchmaking that commands respect
Michel Boulanger, now a regular figure at his workbench during the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), has plenty to smile about. He’s about to finish his montre école or school watch: a watch for the sake of the watch, one could say, as it will never be sold. “It’s 95% ready,” he says. “I’ve been working on it for weeks, thankfully with help from Séverine Vitali, who is head of hand-finishing at Greubel Forsey. She’s been training me at the same time. These are techniques I’d never needed to perform before, so I’ve had to learn everything from scratch.” The next step will come in March, when Christie’s Hong Kong will auction the very first finished piece by Michel Boulanger, a prototype with an undecorated movement, made prior to the school watch. Proceeds from the auction, and from the sale of the eleven watches still to be made, will help finance the second stage in the project, which is to pass on the knowledge accumulated during these first years of experience. Through a school?
Meanwhile, Michel Boulanger is preparing himself mentally for what’s to come. After the SIHH, he will set about production of the watches that customers have been patiently waiting for: certain collectors signed up for one of the “Naissance d’une Montre” timepieces at the very beginning, four years ago. The first watch should be delivered at the end of this year. “I’m already looking forward to what will be a moment of sheer joy, for me as much as for the customer,” says Michel Boulanger. “I’ve been there when Philippe Dufour’s customers have come to collect their watch, two years after ordering it, and it really is an emotional moment. The collectors who came onboard four years ago believed in an idea. They embraced a concept even though we had nothing to show them. It’s an extraordinary vote of confidence.” Given how beautifully the “Garde Temps” is shaping up, this is clearly recognition of a form of watchmaking that commands respect.