Even at events such as SIHH or Baselworld, where an interest in watches is par for the course, they’re easy to spot. Retailer or collector, the ultimate cognoscenti, they devote themselves to a handful of brands. Pressed on the subject, they will confess to desiring one watch above all others. The one that encapsulates their wildest dreams. Secretly, they harbour the desire not just to own it but to make it unique; to break with convention but never ethics. It’s by frequenting many such individuals that Emmanuel Curti, an acclaimed watchmaker and founder of Les Gardiens du Temps in Satigny, near Geneva, came up with the idea of taking Fine Watch customisation as far as possible. “It all started when a customer commissioned us to retrofit a tourbillon in a steel Rolex Milgauss,” he says. In other words, a complication that just doesn’t exist at Rolex. Jaws dropped among the community of watch fans, who quickly rallied to the idea.
Customisation for all
The movement under scrutiny is a Rolex 3131, a reference among calibres. Label Noir removed 51 components, modified two and added 94. Frequency went from 28,000 vibrations/hour to 21,600 vph (4 Hz to 3 Hz). The flying tourbillon, which is mounted on a ball bearing, makes one rotation per minute. The thickness of the case is unchanged, as are the dial and hands. The customer asked that the case be blackened, hence the name of the company: Label Noir (Black Label), set up in 2011 and incorporated last year.
Since going public with the Rolex tourbillon a few months ago, four similar orders have landed on Emmanuel Curti’s desk, hinting that the concept is destined for success. And why wouldn’t it be. The possibilities are vast, after all, provided they are carried out in a rigorous and highly professional way. Which they are. Label Noir refuses any request that comes down to copying an existing watch or doesn’t comply with a strict code of conduct. Apart from that, the company puts no limits on customers’ imagination. Its teams have the requisite expertise to “operate on” any watch. The service they provide is intended to complement that of the major brands which, as well as the obvious limited editions, also offer a personalisation service. This, however, is reserved for an elite whereas Label Noir adapts the degree of customisation to the amount the customer wishes to spend. The context is ripe, too, with a growing tendency towards creative exploration within the luxury sector, and a demographic – millennials – that have no qualms about paying for exclusivity. Label Noir is probably the only atelier to date whose customisation service goes beyond the watch’s exterior to also include its “engine”. It’s the stuff of dreams, and the reason the company has customers coming to it from all over the world.
The ideal commission
Emmanuel Curti says the ideal commission is one that will carry the customer’s name. He reminds us that the first prestigious watches were made to order, more often than not for crowned heads. As such, certain models have gone down in history by their owner’s name. Think of the Marie-Antoinette or the Queen of Naples which Breguet made for Caroline Murat. Think of the Henry Graves Jr. and the James W. Packard, two ultra-complicated pocket watches by Patek Philippe. Closer to home, a certain Rolex Daytona is referred to as the Paul Newman, and even became the most expensive watch in the world when it sold at auction last year for over €15 million. In fact it should come as no surprise that Rolex is, by a long chalk, the brand that brings the most customers to Label Noir’s door.
The company can count on a team of partners when meeting these individual requests. “There are some 60 watchmakers working at sister companies on our behalf,” explains sales and marketing director Christel Bourget. Options include exclusive treatments, such as a 3D laser-performed texturing operation to replicate the visible surface of the Moon, copied from a NASA photograph, on an Audemars Piguet watch that was shown alongside SIHH. It should be noted that Label Noir’s warranty replaces the original brand warranty.
The firm can expect to garner more attention as one of the names carried by a stylish concept store that was recently opened on Rue du Mont-Blanc in Geneva by former managers of the Colette concept store in Paris. Here, you can shop to your heart’s content, particularly if you’re a man with a well-furnished wallet. Meanwhile, in addition to a growing Instagram presence, Label Noir is working on extending its scope and has its sights set on the women’s market.