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The seven lives of Daniel Roth
Culture

The seven lives of Daniel Roth

Wednesday, 04 December 2019
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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

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7 min read

Behind the Jean Daniel Nicolas name is the incomparable talent of Daniel Roth, who continues to use traditional techniques to hand-make… three watches a year. A look back at an extraordinary career.

In his fifty years as a watchmaker, Daniel Roth has probably seen and done it all. He has produced many truly outstanding timepieces and worked with several of the most revered brands. After such a long and distinguished career, one could be forgiven for thinking he had hung up his loupe for a well-earned retirement. Far from it. Under the eaves of his home in Le Sentier, in the peaceful Vallée de Joux where so many horological masterpieces have come to life, Daniel Roth is the epitome of independence as he continues to hand-craft virtually every component of his watches using traditional techniques. Helped by his son and with his wife’s support, he has created the ideal surroundings in which to work and create, answering only to himself and the demands of the exceptional.

Into the Valley

“I couldn’t be happier,” he smiles. “I get to make beautiful watches, at my own pace and with nobody telling me what to do. At the end of the day, all I’m asked is to create something precious. Which obviously takes time.” In these few words, Daniel Roth describes what has been keeping him busy since 2001: making watches under the Jean Daniel Nicolas brand – named for himself, his son and his wife, given that Bulgari has owned the Daniel Roth name since 2000. Anyone hoping to admire the master’s work in-store will be disappointed. So few Jean Daniel Nicolas watches are made – at the very most three a year – they are spoken-for long before they even come near a boutique. Now that this new identity has become more familiar – partly thanks to Phillips auctioneers and especially to Maxima Gallery, the organising company of The Masters of Art Horology travelling exhibition dedicated to the most talented independent watchmakers -, Daniel Roth, or rather Jean Daniel Nicolas, is back on collectors’ radar.

I was the only watchmaker at Audemars Piguet who wasn't from Le Brassus. You can bet they kept a close eye on me.
Daniel Roth

This return to the spotlight is probably the best thing that could have happened to Daniel Roth, a man of many great achievements. As a young apprentice in Nice, on the French Riviera, he would listen to his teachers wax lyrical about Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux and its master watchmakers, and so it wasn’t long before he swapped Mediterranean sunshine for the snow-capped Jura mountains, where he cut his teeth at Audemars Piguet. “Back then, I was the only watchmaker who didn’t come from Le Brassus, the brand’s historic home,” he recalls. “You can bet they kept a close eye on me. But I did learn an incredible amount from the older watchmakers, particularly as I asked to spend time in every department, including customer service. That’s where I learned the traditional techniques needed to make replacement components for the antique watches that came in for repair.”

Breguet's renaissance

With this grounding and after seven years with Audemars Piguet, Daniel Roth was offered a new opportunity by the Chaumet brothers, the then owners of Breguet. “They wanted to restore the brand to its former glory and were looking for a watchmaker who could make that happen. I was upfront. I gave them a two-page CV. On one, I listed everything I knew how to do and on the other everything I still had to learn. They must have admired my honesty because they hired me and agreed to give me a year to complete my training at the watchmaking school in Le Sentier, again in Vallée de Joux.” This would be the start of a golden era for Daniel Roth. Having finished his school piece – a perpetual calendar pocket watch that was sold to finance this transitional period – he found himself shouldering a huge responsibility. Fortunately, Daniel Roth isn’t one to shirk a challenge, even one that involves such a storied name as Breguet. In fact the fourteen years he spent helping to rebuild the brand would define the Breguet we know today. The Breguet style, the finishing, the complications all bear the signature of Daniel Roth.

Daniel Roth © Fred Merz / LUNDI13
Daniel Roth © Fred Merz / LUNDI13

Despite their determination, the Chaumet brothers were no match for the quartz crisis and in 1987 Breguet was sold to a private equity firm, Investcorps, whose inaptitude to manage a watch brand soon became apparent. Saying goodbye to his third life, Daniel Roth decided to go it alone. In 1989 he set up under his own name. This new structure not only enabled him to express his immense talent; it also brought him well-deserved recognition. The independent watchmaking scene was bubbling under and Daniel Roth would be instrumental in bringing it to the fore. Regrettably, his extraordinary talent as a watchmaker wasn’t matched by his business skills. Having lost his main distributor, he had no choice than to find another partner. In 1994 the Singapore-based retail giant The Hour Glass took a majority stake in the company, though not for long. Six years later, after losing its biggest customer, the Sultan of Brunei, The Hour Glass sold Daniel Roth SA to Bulgari, along with the Gerald Genta brand. For Daniel Roth, this marked the end of Daniel Roth watches.

The phoenix rises from its ashes

“I heard it all at Bulgari. The production manager was clearly set on getting rid of me, and I obviously had no intention of carrying on working in those conditions. I had a one-year fixed term contract and as soon as the twelve months were up, I left.” Following Roth’s departure, Daniel Roth watches remained part of the Italian brand’s offering before being absorbed into the wider collection and ultimately disappearing. While this may have been the end of Daniel Roth’s sixth life, his talent remained intact. Like the phoenix rising from its ashes, in 2001 he decided to strike out on his own a second time. “It meant starting from scratch,” he recalls. “First I drew the plans for my next project then I bought in a few ébauches to help with the heavy lifting. Everything else I did by hand. It took me two to three years to complete my first movement. Fortunately I had the backing of Shellman, a retailer in Japan that only carries independent watchmakers and which placed a small order.” Subsequent to this, the first Jean Daniel Nicolas Two-Minute Tourbillon saw daylight in 2005.

Everything about a Jean Daniel Nicolas watch is testament to Daniel Roth's immense talent.

Everything about a Jean Daniel Nicolas watch is testament to Daniel Roth’s immense talent. The attention to detail and finishing borders on the obsessive, without neglecting harmony of forms or complexity. A collector who sees his reflection in the cage of a tourbillon whose bat-wing bridge takes ten days for the chamfering alone experiences a moment of raw emotion. The rest of the watch is of the same ilk: the result of patient, painstaking work worthy of an Abraham-Louis Breguet. To even call it a watch serves only to emphasise how its primary function has been largely eclipsed by the genius within. Proof that Daniel Roth “is still here”.

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