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Romain Gauthier, a man with a plan

Romain Gauthier, a man with a plan

Friday, 08 July 2016
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

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6 min read

Resolve and patience, talent and hard work have got Roman Gauthier where he is today. A watchmaker as well as a specialist component supplier, he continues our series of portraits of contemporary artisan-watchmakers who take a different approach to the measurement of time.

“People will really show an interest in Romain Gauthier once the brand has a global presence.” When this kind of statement comes straight from the horse’s mouth, it can only mean one thing: it’s just a matter of time! And time is something Romain Gauthier has in abundance. Literally, with watches that command respect, and figuratively, in the form of stubborn patience. The kind of doggedness and forward-thinking that two years ago landed the watchmaker brand spanking new workshops in his birthplace of Le Sentier, in Vallée-de-Joux. And made him a name to be reckoned with among the artisan-creators who are forging a new school of watchmaking, rethinking the genre in the same way as Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol with New Wave filmmaking in the late 1950s.

Romain Gauthier's purpose-built workshop in the heart of Vallée-de-Joux © Fred Merz
Romain Gauthier's purpose-built workshop in the heart of Vallée-de-Joux © Fred Merz
A champion of hand-finishing

The ateliers still have that newness about them, although there is a distinct smell of machine oil in the air, probably because a large part of the 700 square-metre shopfloor is given over to CNC machines, machining centres and various other watchmaking apparatus. Except for a very few parts (including the balance spring, mainspring and escape wheel), every single component that goes into a Romain Gauthier watch is produced inside these four walls by Gauthier and his 23-strong team. Their expertise has largely contributed to the firm’s expansion. But first things first: our tour of the premises starts on the top floor, where watchmakers hand-build each timepiece, though not before the specialists in the different finishing techniques have had their say. This is a crucial stage for a brand which has elevated finishing to an art, the apotheosis of mechanical science. Imagine: twenty hours for a barrel bridge, a week and a half for a plate-bridge assembly. When a company has made hand-chamfering its religion, there can be no compromising on the standards that are one of the hallmarks of Haute Horlogerie.

Romain Gauthier has always had his sights set on perfection. After a vocational diploma in precision mechanics, and a further qualification in machine-tool construction, he took his first steps at François Golay where he took charge of the recently opened precision-turning department. He would stay there nine years, expanding the department while studying part-time for an MBA. Fortune favours the bold, and Romain Gauthier wasn’t holding back. There was talk of handing over the reins of the company, now part of Swatch Group, to him, but he had other things in mind. “I worked as hard as if it had been my own business,” he says, “but I’d also been developing my own movement. My boss knew about it, in fact I’d shown him the drawings.” Well aware his young employee had other ambitions, but not one to bear a grudge, the same boss authorised him to use the company’s machines after hours to make the parts for his movement. Two years later, Prestige HM was born; an hours-minutes watch which, from the very first adjustments, proved its pedigree by running exactly as hoped.

The brand, which will manufacture 80 watches in 2016, pays special attention to the finishing and precision of its movements © Fred Merz
The brand, which will manufacture 80 watches in 2016, pays special attention to the finishing and precision of its movements © Fred Merz
A crucial mentor

As hoped, or rather as planned, because Romain Gauthier leaves nothing to chance. Even his MBA dissertation focused on a business plan for a watch company. In 2005 he put theory into practice and set up Romain Gauthier SA. By 2006 the Prestige HM was finalised and ready to go. It was unveiled at the following year’s Baselworld, under the watchful eye of a certain Philippe Dufour, widely considered to be the father of contemporary watchmaking. Having a man of Dufour’s calibre looking out for him stood Romain Gauthier in the best of steads. Indeed, his Baselworld debut was a success, bringing in firm orders for the Prestige HM. “Throughout the launch phase, Philippe Dufour gave me a huge amount of help and advice, including for distribution. He facilitated contacts with The Hour Glass group in Singapore. He then stepped back, which is only to be expected. I had to spread my wings and go it alone.”

True to form, the young entrepreneur knew exactly which direction to take. To grow his business, he would need a more solid base than these first watches could provide. At the same time, he wasn’t willing to give up an iota of the independence which he believes stimulates creativity. And so he decided to use the skills he had learned early in his career as the bedrock for his own brand, and manufacture components for others. “It wasn’t long before orders started coming in,” he recalls. “I used advance payments to buy my first machine. Then friends from student days, who were now working at brands, started contacting me for hard-to-machine components. The ones only a few workshops are able to produce.” This specialisation quickly earned Romain Gauthier a glowing reputation. Chanel was one of the brands to come knocking at his door. The Parisian firm was interested in using his services and, delighted with the results, sought not only to secure a supply of parts – the same ones in the recently unveiled Monsieur watch – but also gave Romain Gauthier the means to achieve his ambitions by acquiring a minority stake in his firm. A new decade was beginning, and Romain Gauthier had entered the fourth dimension.

Go global

The components side of business provided critical funds for Romain Gauthier to continue his project to make watches under his own name. Not one to rush things, it wasn’t until 2012 that the Prestige HMS with small seconds and an openworked dial made its debut. It was followed, a year later, by Logical One, equipped with a fusee-and-chain constant force mechanism, visible next to the sprung-balance on the dial side, a pushbutton winding system and, on the back, a power-reserve indicator. This four times patented watch gave the full measure of Romain Gauthier’s talent. It also took home the Men’s Complication Watch prize at the 2013 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. “This award held huge significance for me,” he admits. “I took it as confirmation that the road I had chosen was the right one.”

Now Romain Gauthier is ready to take on the world. With six clients providing as many orders as the workshop can handle, and the guarantee to sell 80 watches over the twelve months of the year (generating two-thirds of business), the brand is firing on all engines. There is a medium-term objective to stabilise production at around one hundred watches a year, thereby preserving exclusivity, and to achieve a more even spread across world markets: currently, the scales are tipped towards Asia. A new unisex model is in the pipeline; meanwhile, the different precious metal options – Freedom, Exception and Heritage – for the three watches in the catalogue are becoming more established. For Romain Gauthier, no doubt business will continue to go to plan!

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