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Vianney Halter, in with the old

Vianney Halter, in with the old

Friday, 20 June 2008
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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5 min read

Step over the threshold at Manufacture Janvier in Sainte-Croix and you immediately understand that this is a temple to watchmaking in the most traditional sense, although not without some concessions to modern technology.

Manufacture Janvier in Sainte-Croix (Vaud) is a 1950s industrial building that stands slightly apart at the edge of the village. The common of mortals probably wouldn’t give it a second glance. But for those in the know, to step inside is to enter the lair of a man whose eyes light up at the sight of a mechanical movement made the traditional way. The reference to Antide Janvier, a renowned eighteenth-century French watchmaker, is with good reason. Vianney Halter, for this is his workshop, is quick to acknowledge the one thing that put him where he is today: “I came to watchmaking out of a love of vintage timepieces.” Indeed, he started out as a restorer of antique watches in Paris before accepting his friend François-Paul Journe’s invitation to leave France for Switzerland. “In Paris, I was working with next to nothing. The legacy of past generations of watchmakers and industrial expertise had simply disappeared. In Switzerland, I saw that there was still hope.”

Trio Grande Date © Vianney Halter
Trio Grande Date © Vianney Halter
Tools from a golden age

His choice of location is part of this quest for tradition. In the middle of the last century, Sainte-Croix was known the world over for its expertise in the manufacturing of musical boxes, a craft that is still brilliantly represented by Reuge. When Vianney Halter first settled here some fifteen years ago, the region’s businesses were struggling to weather the storm that had hit suppliers full-on after quartz swept the board in the 1980s. Some didn’t make it and were forced into bankruptcy. With CNC tools and automated production just around the corner, no one was interested in buying even the most proficient machine tools. All except Vianney Halter who leapt at the chance to equip his new workshop. He bought skip-loads of engine lathes, jig bores, mills and machines for applying Côtes de Genève that were otherwise destined for scrap. “Suddenly we found ourselves with tools dating back to the second half of the twentieth century, the culmination of machines inherited from our ancestors,” he explains. “These were the last generation of machine-tools to come straight from the golden age of watchmaking, before mass production took over and changed the deal. With tools like these, producing something ordinary just isn’t an option.”

For Vianney Halter, this devotion to making watches the traditional way doesn’t just mean using our grandfathers’ tools. It is also evident in the care and attention given to finishing each part, all of which are made in the workshop. Even parts that will be barely visible to the naked eye are finished by hand. This explains why much of the workshop is occupied by specialists in chamfering, circular-graining or polishing. “A slip of the hand means hours of work for nothing,” the master watchmaker observes. “But the end result gives the parts an aspect that simply can’t be achieved by machine. It’s this accumulation of small touches that demonstrates our approach, which is to always move further towards a concept of watchmaking that ultimately very few professionals will achieve. Of course, a philosophy such as ours couldn’t be further from the profit-driven mentality that is taking over the profession.”

Classic Hour Minute Second © Vianney Halter
Classic Hour Minute Second © Vianney Halter
Ancient and modern

While Manufacture Janvier may see itself as the defender of the watchmaking faith, it has no intention of turning its back on modern technology. Optical reading, CAD software and even CNC, which Vianney Halter himself has adapted to his old machines, have all entered the workshop. “We’re not so blinkered as to cut ourselves off from these resources. I remember making my first watches using nothing but trigonometry, which allowed me to understand how watchmakers used to calculate in the past. Now I use software. Having said that, these tools tend to make us think we’re intelligent and that anything is possible, the problem being that this can be “anything” from the sublime to the ridiculous. And we’re told these are feats of technology! This is why the training I give matches state-of-the-art technology with age-old expertise. It’s a way of preserving the past and understanding how we got where we are today.”

Vianney Halter shares this approach to watchmaking as an art in itself with a few other masters in the profession, including those who have joined together as Time Aeon. “This association allows us to express ourselves, to share our vision of a profession whose roots are anchored in the past and give it greater resonance. The trend in the watch industry today is to play down these origins to better focus attention on other aspects related to new technology. Put simply, the profession’s extraordinary growth is pushing history into the background to put profit first. But let’s not forget that history is never a smooth process. It’s full of ups and downs. The problem today is that some of the watches we see aren’t watches. They are made from metals such as bronze, which has no place in watchmaking because it will oxidise, and marketed by people who aren’t watchmakers. As for me, I certainly didn’t become a watchmaker so I could run roughshod over my predecessors!”

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