The Prix Gaïa awards represent the ultimate accolade in recognition of the men and women whose achievements give prominence to the history, techniques or industrial aspects of watchmaking. They are presented by the world-renowned Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, hence their prestige, and are widely regarded not just as awards but as distinctions that shine the spotlight on what is often a lifetime’s work. Frequently described as the horological equivalent of the Nobel Prize – though less well-known – since 1993 the Prix Gaïa have distinguished those individuals who devote themselves to the measurement of time, and who have become part of its history. Over the course of these twenty-plus years, the awards have singled out such industry luminaries as Jean-Claude Biver, Franco Cologni, George Daniels, Philippe Dufour and Nicolas G. Hayek, alongside others whose names are perhaps less familiar to the general public – Pierre-Yves Donzé, Henri Dubois, Elmar Mock, Jacques Mueller – but who have made a no less decisive contribution to their chosen field.
This year’s crop of winners is no exception, honouring both famous figures and the less well-known. The recipient of the award in the Artisan-Creator category, Vianney Halter, needs no introduction. Widely regarded for his groundbreaking designs and innovative time displays, he is behind watches that include Opus 3 for Harry Winston, Antiqua, Trio Grande Date, and most recently Deep Space Tourbillon with central tri-axial tourbillon. Born in 1963 on the outskirts of Paris, Vianney Halter began his career repairing antique clocks and watches. He then teamed up with François-Paul Journe and Denis Flageollet in the Alpine village of Sainte-Croix, where the trio specialised in the production of complicated movements for brands such as Breguet, Cartier and Franck Muller. In 1994 he set up his own business, which he called Manufacture Janvier after the renowned eighteenth-century horologist Antide Janvier. Now truly independent, he has been able to express his personal idea of watchmaking to the full, with retro-futuristic creations inspired by the imaginings of Jules Verne and the scientific instruments that emerged with the industrial era. With around five hundred timepieces carrying his name, Vianney Halter belongs to the generation who set the stage for today’s “new school” of watchmaking.
Academia and atomics
The award in the History-Research category goes to Roger Smith, a specialist in watchmaking in eighteenth-century London and exchanges between England and Switzerland. Smith has spent fifteen years researching production and trade in luxury items in the Age of Enlightenment, with particular focus on clockmaking and the spread of technical know-how. His knowledge of the pan-European context, a characteristic of horological production of that time, prompted Neuchâtel University to invite him, in 2013, as a guest speaker for a series of lectures entitled “Manufacturers and merchants: making and exporting clocks and other luxury goods in the 18th century”.
The third award, for Entrepreneurial Spirit, singles out Giovanni Busca and Pascal Rochat. “The judges wished to distinguish the fundamental role these two individuals have played in repositioning the Neuchâtel Observatory and in industrial applications for research into the atomic clock,” declared Régis Huguenin, curator of the Musée International d’Horlogerie and chairman of the jury, in his presentation of the winners to the press. Giovanni Busca, a research scientist, lecturer and director of the Observatory between 1988 and 2001, has contributed to the development of frequency standards for rubidium clocks and hydrogen masers. These findings have been successfully transferred to industry, not least by Pascal Rochat’s company, SpectraTime. Employing 70 staff, it was the only company able to supply the European Space Agency with the two types of clock needed to equip the 30 satellites in the Galileo satellite navigation system. SpectraTime currently makes around 4,000 atomic clocks a year. Despite having no clients in Switzerland, and not a single competitor in Europe, the company is world-renowned… and now has the added distinction of a Prix Gaïa.