Antique-Looking Modern Watches

Courtesy Parmigiani Fleurier

Swiss Watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier keeps up with the giants of Geneva
with serious horology and a nod to fantastical antique timepieces.

Parmigiani Fleurier may not be a household name to those who aren’t cult-watch enthusiasts, but inside the world of connoisseurs, few companies command more respect. Though Parmigiani Fleurier is a relative newcomer by the hoary standards of watchmaking history (it’s a mere 15 years old), its watches are coveted for their distinctively elegant cases and best-of-show mechanisms.

It helps that the company is a labor of love. Parmigiani Fleurier takes its name from its home in the Swiss mountain village of Fleurier, and from founder Michel Parmigiani, one of horology’s greatest experts in restoration and conservation. He’s among the few adepts capable of putting the exotic mechanical fantasies made in the late-18th and early-19th centuries for European merchant princes and royal houses back in working order.

Parmigiani, who grew up near Fleurier, began his career as a watchmaker in 1976, when he set up a small workshop in his apartment and began restoring antique timepieces. (He bucked the tide of history by joining the industry at the height of the crisis in mechanical watchmaking, which was caused by the introduction of commercial quartz watches in 1969; by 1976, thousands of skilled artisans were out of work, with thousands more to follow.) Slowly but surely, Parmigiani developed an international reputation as the foremost horological restorer, and his company—then called Parmigiani Mesure et Art du Temps—worked with museums and collectors alike.

The pharma-tycoon Sandoz family (its Basel, Switzerland–based firm merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis in the 1990s) discovered Parmigiani in the ’80s, when they commissioned him to restore their now-famous collection of 18th- and 19th-century clocks and objets d’art. A friendship soon followed, and in 1996 the family provided the start-up capital for Parmigiani to launch his own company. His first collection, which included wristwatches, pocket watches and table clocks, was presented a year later. Since then, the firm’s idiosyncratic designs and portfolio of stunningly finished movements have earned it considerable acclaim; a partnership with French car manufacturer Bugatti led to the creation of the Parmigiani Bugatti Type 370, which was named Watch of the Year in Japan in 2006. (The first Bugatti watch was gifted to well-known Bugatti collector Ralph Lauren.)

Unlike most manufacturers, Parmigiani Fleurier makes all its movements and most of its other components (the only exception is the Hermès-made straps). Staffed largely by locals whose families have worked as watchmakers for centuries, the company’s headquarters—which now includes separate workshops for dialmaking, casemaking and the creation of vital escapement components—produces just 5,000 watches per year that range from $7,400 to $600,000. Their unique, softly curved biomorphic cases sit sensuously on the wrist and make them instantly recognizable, but to watch connoisseurs it’s what is inside that counts the most: The movements are laboriously hand-finished using old-school manual techniques, and it’s this time-intensive work (a single component out of hundreds in a mechanism may take the better part of a day to bevel and polish) that gives the brand the chops to go toe-to-toe with big-name houses that have been at it for centuries.

Parmigiani Fleurier’s timepieces—there are about 20 women’s and men’s collections altogether—are decidedly modern, but there’s no mistaking the deep influence of Michel Parmigiani’s restoration knowledge in the designs. Jean-Marc Jacot, CEO of Parmigiani Fleurier, says it’s the company’s restoration department, still led by Parmigiani, that keeps the creative juices flowing. Case in point: an unusual pocket watch from the Sandoz collection crafted at the beginning of the 19th century by London makers Vardon and Stedmann. The oval piece has remarkable hands that expand and contract like an accordion. “Because of the restoration department, we can observe the creativity of even five centuries ago,” Jacot says. “The watch with telescoping hands is an example; it’s not so complex mechanically, but it’s so creative!” Parmigiani has now re-created it as a wristwatch.

The past feeds the present in other ways. The Tonda 1950 (from $16,900) represents what used to be (and is becoming again) the definitive elegant watch. Thin, gold, round, with no superfluous ornamentation and needing none, it’s the kind of watch that shows off the near-forgotten gentlemanly virtues of self-restraint and discretion. Then there’s the new Transforma (from $27,500), which the owner can convert at will from a wristwatch to a pocket watch to a table clock through the use of clamshell outer cases that facilitate the transition of the watch from one incarnation into the next. The pocket watch variation is another style comeback kid, thanks to the return of the waistcoat as a de rigueur article in the well-dressed man’s closet. Watch fans know these pair-cased watches were also proudly carried by the hose-and-doublet-wearing male fashionistas of centuries ago.

If you want to see ancient and modern mechanical artistry at their best, 50 of the rarest pieces from the Sandoz collection are currently on display in the States for the first time since 1950 (see “Haute Heirlooms”). Alongside Parmigiani’s prized restored pieces are his modern counterparts.

For more information on the watchmaker, go to parmigiani.com.

Haute Heirlooms

The Sandoz collection is considered one of the world’s best when it comes to antique clocks and watches, but viewing it at its remote Le Locle, Switzerland, home is not an easy feat. Last year the Sandoz Foundation sought out Parisian-based horology expert Bernard Pin to curate its first outside exhibition in more than 60 years, and the collection is now on display until November 26 at New York’s A La Vieille Russie (where it was last shown in 1950). The Kiev, Ukraine–founded purveyor of rare objets d’art, well known for its expertise in Fabergé pieces, was also the dealer that supplied many priceless works to Maurice Sandoz, the family’s original collector. Exhibition highlights include watches with automata (miniature clockwork robots), which are usually designed as animals, such as mechanical singing birds. Despite the social turmoil of the late-18th and 19th centuries (when most of the collection’s pieces were created), the era’s watchmakers made some of the best horological exotica of all time. Also on display are Parmigiani Fleurier’s modern watches, including the new oval watch with telescopic hands and the Toric minute repeater, which were designed especially for the exhibition. At 781 Fifth Ave.; alvr.com.

Antique Watches: What’s Old Is New

The original Vardon and Stedmann pocket watch with telescopic hands and royal-blue enamel on guilloche back (circa 1800) has been part of the Sandoz family’s private collection for more than 65 years, but for its first U.S. showing, Michel Parmigiani has incorporated its unique design in a new wristwatch that will be released during the New York exhibition. The oval watch with telescopic hands has the same shape and accordion-like telescopic hands but is further inspired by the architecture of the Eiffel Tower. It also has a gold dial and grand feu enameling on both sides; it will be released in a limited edition of 300 pieces. From $100,000.