First in a long line was the sundial. It gave way to devices that would function under overcast skies and at night, mostly clepsydras and hourglasses. Next came mechanical frequency generators, then quartz and later atomic. They sprung from the need to organise community life and in turn inspired progress in other domains, such as maritime navigation, railroads, aeroplanes, computers, GPS and mobile telephony. Giulio Papi takes a resolutely technical and forward-looking approach to his trade, beyond the romance that surrounds the measurement of time.
A culture of timekeeping
“A watchmaker doesn’t measure anything and certainly not time, which has no tangible existence. Nor does he measure the conventional divisions of life. Instead he artificially reproduces them in watches whose purpose is to be increasingly precise.” With this outlook, mechanisms hold a natural fascination for him. “There’s a dreamlike quality to a mechanical movement, which probably explains why it survived the advent of quartz.” What interests him, however, is not so much to preserve a heritage than to take it further. History has taught him the foundations of watchmaking and the reasoning behind them. “I don’t really care who did what. I’m more interested in understanding the whys and the wherefores. This is how we avoid mistakes and continue to progress.”
For Giulio Papi, “the foremost principle of watchmaking is the measurement of time. A watchmaker’s raison d’être is to find ways to make more precise movements. If we choose to use systems devised specifically for that purpose, such as the tourbillon, the remontoir d’égalité or constant force device, results must be a significant improvement on the past. Complications are usually driven by a base movement, and the accuracy with which this movement functions will determine overall performance. Then it’s a question of craftsmanship, the desire for a ‘job well done.’ This implies developing solutions that will ensure comfort of use and limit the risks of the movement breaking down, as much as the choice of materials, and the production and finishing of the different parts. At the high end of the market, a watch is judged by the quality with which each component is made, and the amount of work that goes into each one. Finally, I wouldn’t be this passionate about mechanical watchmaking if it were closed to innovation. I have a natural tendency to question established rules, and I think our products show this, provided, of course, this doesn’t diminish technical performance.”
On the importance of passion
He continues: “I’m also a firm believer that a watch must function for years to come, and that at any point in the future, it should always be possible to restore a movement. This is why we keep new materials for static components, meaning plates and bridges. Moving parts, because they are subject to friction, are still made from brass or steel. Whereas there will always be brass and steel, and we’ll always be able to work them using the engineer’s traditional tools, we can’t be sure that high-tech materials and the machines that produce them will always be around. As for movement decoration, I never lose sight of practical aspects. The raised lines of Côtes de Genève and circular-graining are dust-traps whereas polishing protects against corrosion. It’s wonderful to combine technicity and aesthetics this way. Creating contemporary decorations implies making something that is as good, if not better. From a complete respect for tradition to absolute nonconformity, the fact remains that every choice must respect the customer’s identity.”
Ultimately, Giulio Papi lets the Manufacture’s products, and the attraction and passion they inspire, speak for themselves. “You can work in watchmaking without feeling any real spark. However, it does take a certain amount of passion to produce high-end watches. You need to be totally focused on what you do. It’s about concentration, finding solutions, anticipating problems. Passion brings the courage and the energy to start over and over again until you reach your goal. Without passion, you soon give up. That said, I do try to make every person’s work go smoothly by involving every specialisation from the very beginning of the creative process. They help define the methods that will work best. We’re not looking to make their life more complicated!”