Independence and Complication

Independence and Complication

A Tradition Continues

by Curtis D Thomson

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The Vallee de Joux has a watchmaking tradition that dates back to 1740, with Antoine LeCoultre being its modern father. This tradition includes all forms of watchmaking, but most especially complications. Complications of all sorts were made in the Vallee for companies in Switzerland, Germany and England. Even America shared in these skills, as Waltham used chronograph and repetition work from Vallee makers. And, from the shadows of the thick and abundant pine trees of the Vallee de Joux, a young would be auto mechanic finds a different path. "I was not accepted as a mechanic. My math was terrible!" explains my companion with a smile and fondness that appreciates life's ironies. "So I entered the Ecole Technique de la Vallee de Joux, as a watchmaking student."

After graduating from the watchmaking school his skills were honed by working for many prestigious watch companies in Switzerland and abroad. In 1978 he decided the regimented work and factory mentality was not for him, so an attic workshop was set up in his Le Sentier home. Restoring historically and financially valuable pocket watches, he developed a keen eye for not only recognizing the style, but also the methods of each master. This, the most important of training grounds, continues until 1982 when the VdJ tradition of the manufacture of complicated watches is reborn with Philippe Dufour.


Making the decision to leave the security of one's current employer is not easy, but one that is done often enough and with sufficient success as to not cause a stir. The decision, on the other hand, as a self-employed watchmaker, to limit one's restoration work to just enough to maintain a family, and embark on the manufacture of a pocket sized clock-watch minute repeater, is Halley's Comet - a rare thing indeed. Well, call Philippe Dufour Halley, because in 1982 he did just that. Without a word of intention he began to construct and fabricate a movement, which would not only elevate him from master restorer to master maker of watches, it would place his name alongside the great Vallee de Joux makers of complications.

Having restored many beautiful old complicated watches and realizing 70% of these masterpieces were made in the VdJ - assembled and finished by some of the worlds biggest and most respected brands - it was only natural for someone with Philippe's scarcely matched skills and artist's sensibilities to continue this tradition. With his mind made up to make watches his attention would be directed to what kind of watch to make. Yes, it will be in the VdJ tradition, complicated, but how so? How does one decide what to make when nothing is beyond your capabilities? Does it fall to personal pleasure, i.e., "I like chronographs, so I shall make a chronograph" or is it a matter of ego - the more difficult and complicated the merrier? While those are viable speculations the truth lies in chance. Philippe had rescued some old tools from the beginning of the 1900's, which were used to make a specific kind of complication, so it was this complication that was made. As mentioned, his first watch would be a striking watch, one that sounds the hours and quarters in passing, a clock-watch, with minute repetition. A clock-watch is any watch that strikes in passing, i.e., automatically. This "in passing" feature distinguishes it from a repeater, which only strikes when manually activated. A clock-watch may be Grande and/or Petite sonnerie. A Grande sonnerie (full strike) sounds the quarters and hour at each quarter. The Petite sonnerie (small strike) sounds only the quarters and then the hour at the hour.

A clock-watch is one of the more challenging watches one can make and to add minute repetition makes this watch exceptional. It is even more exceptional when one accounts for all construction and fabrication elements are the work of one man, as opposed to the teams of designers, prototypists, machinists and watchmakers that "make" the majority of available watches - simple or complicated.

Using a face-lathe, jig borer and classical watchmaking hand tools, Philippe worked for a period of 2000 hours, from 1982 to 1983, to make the movement. During this time he maintained restoration work, as needed, and kept absolute silence regarding the brilliance taking shape in his attic workshop. The movement was designed as an open faced pocket watch, i.e., pendant at 12 o'clock, with the fourth wheel in the same line. This allows for sub-seconds at the six o'clock position.

With the first Philippe Dufour movement complete, he donned his finest clothes and began searching for clients through out Switzerland. With many pats on the back and congratulations nobody would take the risk and place an order from an unknown watchmaker. Finally, he found a taker, but this was not to be an idividual client. No, Philippe Dufour's first client was the Vallee de Joux's most illustrious watch company, Audemars Piguet.

Ph. Dufour & AP (1983-88)

Never was there the intent to become a complications maker for the industry, but none the less, Dufour had found independence, with Audemars Piguet's order of five Grande & Petite Sonnerie with minute repetition watches in 1983. This contract would occupy his time and efforts, almost exclusively, for the next five years.

The lever escapement, with mono-metallic balance, auto-compensating overcoiled hairspring vibrates at 18,000. The 19 ligne, nickel plated movements are made from German silver and are some of the most beautiful movements ever seen. All surfaces have either a matt, perlage, Geneva waves or black polish finish and the execution is flawless. The bridges are beautifully shaped and accented with highly polished bevels - a combination of crisp internal angles and sweeping curves that leads one's eyes around the movement like a rennaisance master captures an audience with canvas and paint. The Vallee has not seen the likes of this mastery since the days Victorin Piguet.

Jewelled to the hammers, with mirror polished countersinks for all jewels and screws, this movement has two barrels. Both barrels are fitted with Geneva stop works, with dual recoiling clicks. The winding arrangement is elegant - rotating the crown in one direction winds the going train barrel and rotating the crown in the other direction winds the striking train barrel. It is necessary for the barrels to wind independently, as they are not the same size. The striking barrel is larger than the going barrel, as it must provide enough motive force for striking (grand or petite sonnerie) in passing and minute repetition on command.

The co-axial push button on the winding crown releases the repeating mechanism, which strikes the hours, quarters and minutes, at anytime when pressed. There are two slides on the case band, one on either side of the pendant, which are, as viewed from the dial side, for Silence or Strike (on the left) and Grande or Petite Sonnerie (on the right). Designing the case and dial, as well, this watch, all in, approaches 400 parts.

It is well documented that independent makers of watches have a long and financially difficult road to travel. While Philippe had some sense of security due to the contract with Audemars Piguet, he couldn't solely depend on this work to sustain his family during this five years period. Other work was needed, but working long hours making the clock-watches offered little available time or energy for other work. And, one can only imagine the professional pressure and family strain this project put on him. This balancing act of making watches, with selective restorations when needed, would come to a head when personal finances would demand another spectacular achievement from the workshop of Philippe Dufour.

JW Meylan

Not only a maker and restorer of watches, Dufour also appreciates watches. Fine watches that exhibit the art, science and craftsmanship that he holds in such high esteem often find a home in his collection. In particular, movements from Vallee makers are treasures to him. One such movement, actually an ebauche, by noted VdJ complications maker, John William Meylan, was purchased in the 1980's from a retired watchmaker of the Meylan family. The ebauche was made around 1900 for a hunting styled case (winding at 3 o'clock and sub-seconds at 6 o'clock), with Grande & Petite Sonnerie, minute repeater, chronograph, perpetual calendar with phases of the moon. I am told it was love at first sight. He wished to keep it for himself, as a historical piece of VdJ watchmaking.

Alas, this love was not to be. Once again, real life concerns forced Philippe's hand and in 1986, while in the midst of making the clock-watches for Audemars Piguet, he approaches the company again. Would they be interested in purchasing the JW Meylan ebauche and having it finished and prepared for AP's pleasure. They accepted the offer and he added it to the "to do list." Besides being a ebauche, unfinished and without escapement, the chronograph and perpetual calendar mechanisms were missing levers, springs and, for the perpetual, some stars.

Using the same basic tools to make his clock-watches he fabricates the necessary parts. A suitable escapement was found for the ebauche, so a balance staff was turned and a hairspring vibrated and shaped as required. After all the components were made and tested, the entire movement was finished in the fashion of JW Meylan - keeping true to the original makers style and intentions. As with the clock-watches, he designs the case and dial and specialists execute his wishes. The case and dial makers are the same for both projects and the specialists he still uses to this day.

After 10 months of difficult work Dufour is able to present this unique watch to Audemars Piguet. "I was proud to finish such a high grade movement," he tells me, and AP was proud as well. So proud were they that the watch was exhibited at the Basel Fair and purchased by Asprey, London in 1990. This watch may also be seen in Audemars Piguet: Masterpieces of Classical Watchmaking where the following details are given: Gold hunter case, selectable grande and small strike, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, leap years, moon phases and chronograph. 20 ligne rhodium plated, 35 jewels, lever escapement with monometallic balance and Breguet balance spring.

Completion - 1988

Five fabricated Clock-Watches with Minute Repetition of original construction, one unique Clock-Watch with multiple complications and numerous restorations jobs were achieved by Philippe Dufour during the span of five years (1983-88). This, in itself, could be the accomplishments of a lifetimes work, which only a scant few watchmakers could ever reach. Yet, only four short years later, Philippe Dufour would shock the horological world at the 1992 Basel Fair, with the world's first Grande & Petite Sonnerie with minute repetition clock-watch for the wrist... complicatedly amazing!

Following the clock-watch for the wrist (two variations) he presented Duality at the 1996 Basel Fair. A wristwatch with a single going train, two escapements, which beat via a differential system. Again, he was the toast of the horological world. This acheivement would be followed with Simplicity - the perfectly executed hand wound, time only, wristwatch. His most successful watch to date, with orders reaching to 2006, the solitary watchmaker who created some of the worlds most technically interesting and beautiful watches nolonger works alone. Austrian watchmaker Bernhard Zwinz and Philippe's daughter, Magali, now work with him. This, obviously, allows for greater production in the workshop and presumably will give this master of his craft a different type of independence... the time to create once again.

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Copyright March 2003 - Mr. Curtis D Thomson and - all rights reserved

Pictures provided by Philippe Dufour, except where noted. Special thanks to Dawn Bard for the use of two Ph. Dufour portraits.