The pipe and the smile are still there, as is his incisive view of contemporary watch production. Only his stand is conspicuous by its absence. The Philippe Dufour stand, usually straight facing the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants. “You could say I’m taking a year off,” explains the watchmaker, who has still made the trip to Basel to take the profession’s pulse. “It was starting to get to me, showing watches but not being able to sell them. I’m taking no more orders for the Simplicity. I realise now that it was sheer madness to announce a production figure of 200. Given that I just can’t get a team together to help me, delivery times will stretch to around 2011.”
Ahead of his time
This time last year, Philippe Dufour could have nurtured some hope as to the new guard. His workshop employed no fewer than five people, each gradually trained in the philosophy of the master himself. Alas, the team has shrunk since then, and today Philippe Dufour has just one person to second him. And as loyal and competent as he may be, he can no more be everywhere at once than clone himself. The result: Simplicity’s successor, whose characteristics Philippe Dufour is wisely keeping to himself, is still stuck in a corner of his mind. “Ideally, I’d like to be able to devote two days a week to it,” he says, “but with just two of us in the workshop, it’s wishful thinking. And because I can only work on it a couple of hours here and there, it obviously takes longer because I have to get back into the feel of it each time. One thing is for sure though: I won’t be announcing the number of pieces beforehand and I’ll start production at twenty, knowing they’ll be gone within a week of going on sale, maybe even snapped up by the same buyer if I’m not careful.”
Clearly this isn’t the worst situation to be in for a man who was deemed crazy when he set about making his own watches in the 1990s. “Looking back, and with no false modesty, I can honestly say I was a visionary in the profession. Not so long ago people were still mocking the way I work. Now everyone is looking to hire chamferers, a profession that was on the verge of extinction. Put simply, no one now can envisage making watches that don’t offer genuine added value. To a large extent this is due to the customer who is increasingly well-informed, in particular through the Internet, and able to judge and appreciate the watchmaker’s work. This has incited companies to do better, such as Eterna which this year is bringing out a rectangular movement, an absolute marvel.”
"Crazy" but in demand
While Philippe Dufour’s purist attitude might not be to everyone’s taste – remember that he is persona non grata at the Ecole Technique de la Vallée de Joux – others are mad about him, among them the Japanese who clamour for his experience in watch finishing. “Who cares if they don’t want me at the school in Le Sentier! Watchmaking is universal. What matters is that we preserve our expertise, be it in Japan or Switzerland. In fact the Japanese produce some magnificent watches and can boast a ten-year lead in terms of technology, as the Spring Drive shows. It’s pretty much the same situation as in the automotive industry, with hybrid engines. Seiko’s collections for its domestic market are an excellent example of this. You should see how beautifully finished the bridges are, the porcelain dials, the efforts they’ve made to increase power reserve from 42 to 60 hours…”
Recent developments show that watchmaking is heading in all directions in terms of complications.
The fact remains that Japan’s answer to Swiss perfectionism comes at a time when watchmaking can do no wrong and the euphoria sweeping the branch means anything goes, in Philippe Dufour’s words: “Recent developments show that watchmaking is heading in all directions in terms of complications, sophistication and design. But these are crazy times and almost all the markets want this kind of thing. Let’s just hope it lasts. Some breathing space, a slowing-down, would be welcome but I’m afraid the consequences of a reversal in the markets would be quite simply catastrophic.” Philippe Dufour takes the example of La Vallée de Joux whose population of 6,200 hasn’t changed since the turn of the century, and whose workforce now comes from neighbouring France. What would happen to the region’s communes if suddenly a large part of their tax revenues disappeared because of an abundance of frontier workers? “Rolex recently bought an old glasses factory in the region to transform it into watch workshops,” he concludes. “Now there’s an intelligent decision.” Maybe things will seem clearer after Baselworld.