The PuristS Interview Philippe Dufour

The PuristS Interview Philippe Dufour

by ei8htohms and Curtis Thomson
© March 2002

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Philippe and ThePuristS Philippe Dufour is truly an inspirational figure in the world of modern horology. Although he humbly insists that he is not an inventor, he is responsible for creating the Duality, the world's first double escapement wristwatch, the revolutionary and beautiful Grande and Petite Sonnerie and Minute Repeater and most recently, possibly the finest simple wristwatch ever created: The Simplicity.

What is even more astounding than the attention to detail, immaculate execution and superlative design that each of his timepieces embodies is the fact that the care and passion of the Master are present in every step of the process. I can think of no other serially produced watches that are more thoroughly crafted from scratch by an individual Master Watchmaker. As such, it is not an exaggeration to say that the timepieces of Philippe Dufour are truly works of art.

I hope you enjoy reading Mr. Dufour's candid observations as Thomas, Curtis and I certainly enjoyed gathering them. He is truly a gentleman and a gracious host, among his other accomplishments.


TPS: How would you personally sum up the essence of watchmaking?

PD: Horology should be, used to be, I would say, an art. Now it's more a big marketing thing, big mass production. On my side, I consider watchmaking as an art. It's like painting and I think people who are buying my product understand that, you see? And I'm working in a niche. A small part of the cake. A very tiny piece of cake, maybe 0.001%. It's plenty enough for me. The 99.999% I leave for the others. I don't want to eat everything, you know?

TPS: Have you ever conceived of a new idea for a watch and when you went to put it into practice you couldn't complete it?

PD: Well, I have some project, which are not finished. But it's not because I can't finish it, it's because I can't afford to finish it.

TPS: So you've never had the idea and then when you tried to do it it was beyond your capability or was a bad idea in practice?

PD: Not really. Because I don't consider myself an inventor. I like to make something a bit different than the others but still very classical. I didn't invent anything. I adapt things to wrist size and so on. If somebody is inventing things in watchmaking, he could find this kind of problem. He has the idea, it works on the computer but in the real size it doesn't work. Yeah, of course.

TPS: This next question is more of a request. A fairly astute collector, he was a Patek collector for some time but he's not very happy with them anymore . . .

PD: Surprising (we all laugh).

TPS: So, he's ventured into some other brands and he's still not happy. So this is what he'd like: 35 millimeters, yellow gold case, movement on the thin side, automatic, second hand, day and date windows with chronometer rating. Would you consider doing something per request?

PD: Well, first I don't have any automatic movement for the moment. And I cannot make him a watch with an automatic movement with a Lemania movement, for example; he's not going to be happy. I prefer to say no. Wait some years, maybe, one day, I make automatic movement. There's no other way. To make a good automatic, is not easy. You have many automatic on the market, but not many are giving good results. In terms of winding and working on a long term. You know what I mean? We have very fast beat and is a lot of wear in a very short time. That's why, actually, I don't want to make an automatic for the moment.

You see, I found out something: I have to be different. People are used to wearing either quartz watches or automatic watches and they forget they have a watch.

I found out in Japan, it was amazing, to see some 60 years old customer, some ordered from me a watch through the shop in Japan. And the way they rediscover the way of winding a watch. It's amazing. (Imitating the moment of epiphany) And the click, ah! And they used to do it, because, you know, when they were 20 they used to handwind watch but since they had a quartz or automatic. And people forgot how to do it, and they rediscover. It's amazing. And now they belong to a team: the watch and the guy. Because the watch without the guy, is dead. He knows that every morning he has to do this little thing and it's a great pleasure for him. He looks at the moment he sees the click working, the tick, tick, tick and he's happy for the day. You see? It's a different approach.

And it's the first time somebody asked me for an automatic watch.

TPS: Yeah. (Laughing)

PD: Yeah. (He probably winked here but I don't remember specifically)

TPS: So, good question but he's not gettin' it.

PD: No, not yet. I don't say no, I say, not now.

TPS: Will you ever attempt a basic chronograph, possibly incorporating your double escapement?

PD: Yeah. I'll do something, yes, but probably different. To incorporate let's say, a chronograph with the double escapement, I don't see the point of it really. I'm not very keen on this cocktail of complication. To say, "Well, we have 12 complications. We have one hands more than you!" For what? There's no point. You make a tourbillon or a double escapement watch, that's it. Or you make a chronograph. Or you make a Grande Sonnerie. But why mixing up all of them?

TPS: So the answer is that you would consider . . .

PD: Yeah, I have some ideas but probably not going to be a mix-up of complications.

TPS: It would be similar to the Simplicity in that it would just be a chronograph, but executed perfectly?

PD: Because this movement, the Simplicity movement, is done for, for future, you know? It's not just done for a simple watch.

TPS: So you have plans on building on that.

PD: Yeah, you can carry something on it.

TPS: Would you consider doing a rattrapante?

PD: A three-hands rattrapante. (Smiling slyly)

TPS: Three hands?

PD: Yes.

TPS: Really? (We're all laughing now)

PD: It does exist in pocket size. (Imitates the pushing of three buttons on a pocket watch) Why not? Why not?

TPS: Right now you're concentrating on the Simplicity.

PD: Yes.

Philippe and Bernard

TPS: Are you going to fulfill the orders that you have now and then say, "From this point," let's say in a year, "I have to move on to something else." This seems like it is going to be a bread and butter watch for you. People are always going to have an interest in owning one, so you may not ever have free time to do anything else unless you get four more Bernards in here (Bernard is his assistant).

PD: It's going to be my classic. Probably I will always do some Simplicitys, you see? Besides that, why not make a second generation of Simplicity with something else, you know?

TPS: Right.

PD: Right now we have to be careful of what we are doing. I mean, I'm talking about myself, ok? Doing a complication for doing a complication, I don't like it so much. I prefer to do something less complicated but perfect. You see? Because we have been through everything, you know? We didn't invent anything because everything was done before us. We have to recognize. We have to be modest, some people forget sometimes to be modest (smiling), but everything has been done by our grandfather or great-grandfather. Even the repeater, everything. Now we adapt that to a certain size and so on. Ok, now everything has been done. You come out with a rattrapante; well everybody has a rattrapante. A very cheap rattrapante from ETA and so on. What's the point of doing a rattrapante? Unless you make it classical, you know? With beautiful springs, nice shapes, difficult to do. And you don't add something new in complication but you add something in art, the way it's done. You see?

And now, for myself, I think it's what I have to play. I don't want to follow the mass production and try to do exactly the same. No, I have to do what I like to do and to do it the best I can, even if it's nothing new. The Simplicity is nothing new. More simple to disassemble, more classical. You cannot find more classical, that's it.

TPS: So it's a matter of art and execution.

PD: Exactly. And on my side its what it's all about. What my product are, the added value on something made like a plate and bridges made with tools or cutters or a lathe (motioning to the tools in his workshop), ok? And, the plate done here (motioning to a watch magazine), or the plate done by X or Y, is no different. The difference is what I add to that. The added value of handwork. And this is what is missing in most brands. It's just mass produced, that's it. There is no emotion inside. You don't feel anything because everything is done by machine.

Philippe's first Sonnerie/Repeater

But here, every one will be different. Because today I feel a bit more heavy and my edges will be a bit deeper on this watch from this one, well that's the way it is.

TPS: Do you try to put any kind of scientific or academic approach to your repeater, regarding its sound and how loud it is?

PD: It's not scientific it's . . . It's a question of experience. And of experience I got through all the repeaters I restored. And from that you find out the way things are done. Why this watch is better than the other is not always because of the movement or the steel of the gong, you know? Sometimes I had some watches, pocket watches, with a marvelous song but it [the gong] was just a steel block with two German silver wires and it was just marvelous, because it had a nicely made case.

The difficulty we have now, I would say, you can make the nicest movement and very often you don't find the right person to do the case. Because they don't know anymore how to do it. Because in a watch, in a repeater, the case has two purpose. The first purpose is to protect the movement and to hold the movement and hold the dial and hands. A normal watch is like that. Now a repeater is different because you have this first purpose, plus another purpose is to amplify the sound. It's like a violin.

And now I say, I always fight with casemakers and I tell them "I want a case made like last century. You know? Respecting the size of the vein of the gold, and the way it's done, the way it's spread and so on." And they say, "Well, we don't have the tools we don't have the people anymore."

Now, they make a case with a CNC machine with, I don't know, four, five, six, seven axes.  No problem, you know? It's perfect but it's dead, the material is dead. And they don't understand why and I say, "Listen, it's very simple." If you make a violin with a CNC machine ok? You take a piece of wood, you program your machine, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, it's done. Ok? You make another cover, you put the cover, you stick it, you glue it. Your violin is perfect, but peculiar, he will never sound. It's dead! Because you didn't respect the vein of the wood. And you use only one wood, but in violin you have three or four different wood, must be a reason, you know? It's not just because it's nice to look at. A watch is like that, and the most important thing is the case.

TPS: So creating the sound in yours, it's the quality of the case primarily?

PD: And of course, the smaller you go the less results you have. If you want to have a nice repeater you have to make a 17-ligne movement and you wear it on a 50-millimeter watch. It's easy; you will get a good result.

TPS: Would you consider using any of the new technology that may allow you do something to a very small size or . . . ?

PD: I always say that watchmaking is an art and it's huge. Like I was telling you before, Switzerland has about four hundred years old of history, now we have all this knowledge. We cannot say the modern is shit, we use only the old one. Or the old thing is shit; we use only the modern. No, we have to mix up, to take in every period and every technology. Here in this shop we have a mix-up of technology. We have a computer, we have a cutting machine from the 30s, some from the 60s. We have some Geneva lathe from the beginning of the century. We still sometimes, we make all the sink around jewel and around the screw, we still do it with a bow. It's a mixture. I cannot say, "I reject the modern". What counts . . . I've got all those parts which are cut, the steel is prepared with a hole and some cuttings and the shape, the profile is done with spark erosion. It could be spark erosion is faster, more accurate. I could do it with a saw but the result is the same. Because it could be done with a saw or spark erosion I'm going to add the same amount of hand finish. What counts is the result.

Because when we say, "It is done be hand", with your hand you don't do anything. You need at least a file. A minimum of a file or graver at the end of your hand, otherwise forget it.

TPS: What is the role of accuracy in the modern mechanical watch?

PD: I will answer by question, who needs accurate time? We have accurate time everywhere. On the radio, on the TV, in the street, everywhere, even in your mobile (phone).

I always say we have to be honest. We can not reach the accuracy of quartz watches with a mechanical. If somebody says so, he's a liar. We have to be honest.

But people are buying different things. They are buying something with plenty of life. The tick-tock is something, the way the watch is winding or things like that. The accuracy is not . . . of course I wouldn't say it was normal that a watch is making one minute a day, no this is not the question. But between some seconds a day is normal. It is not possible to do better. We have to be honest.

TPS: Do you think that accuracy in watchmaking is primarily the result of good design, good execution or good adjustment?

PD: Hmm. Design is important. If you want to have long-term accuracy in a watch, the design has to be done in the right way. I was telling you before, sometimes be scared about the fast beat. Because in the long term, I don't know what is going to happen unless you service it every year.

Design is important, the way things are done also and the adjustment also. And the conception of the escapement and the balance, this is very important. For example, I use a free-sprung balance. It's not just for fun; it's because I think it's much better in the long term. Because the regulator pins, everybody knows it gives you problems. You make a nice adjustment today, between the flat and the vertical is nice, fifteen days later, you check it, it is different. Why? That's why I threw away the regulator pins in my watches.

TPS: Can you speak about the difference between epicycloidal tooth-forms and microgear tooth-forms?

PD: The ETA you mean, yeah? Well, again it's a question of things being practical. The modern gears, I call it the ETA shape, the ETA profile, it's done again to have watches assemble easy. This type of gear allows you . . . the result of the gear is not as good as the old way. A little bit lower, the . . . (some discussion about the proper word in English) efficiency is not as good. It allows you to have some out of round. If you take a normal gear with the old type, ten microns, one percent, out of round it's ok. But if you have a wheel maker, you ask for ten microns, he says, "Oh, it's going to be difficult, be expensive" because he's used to have two or two and a half percent with the modern and it runs. It could be out of round but it's still running. It's very practical gearing for modern assembling and so on. If you want to use the old shape you have to be more accurate.

TPS: So it's merely a compromise to suit mass production?

PD: Exactly.

TPS: How do you feel about the importance of overcoils (the terminal curve of the hairspring)?

PD: The Breguet or the Phillips? I prefer Phillips; it's closer to my name (laughter). It's a must, I mean if you want to make something accurate. It's very simple to understand. You see on a projector for example a flat movement and you see how the hairspring goes one side and it's stacked to the other end. The hairspring with a Breguet overcoil is breathing like a heart, expanding on every side. And it brings you of course a better result.

TPS: Do you feel that chemically blued screws are dishonest?

PD: Blued screws, well, they should be done by heat. But sometimes I see some funny blued screws. Some people are buying screws and they polish, buff the head, make it round and they blue it. I don't know if with chemical or with heat, but of course the screw was nickel-plated. Which means the slot is still white. And this I think is not very nice. A blued screw must be blue everywhere. We do some blued screws, we have four blued screws for the gold plate for the number and this is done with the light (alcohol lamp).

TPS: If I say the term "overbanking" to you, what does that mean?

PD: Who is overbanking, the watch or me?

TPS: The watch.

PD: Ah the watch, what does that mean?

TPS: That's the question.

PD: How shall I explain it, to someone who is a watchmaker or not a watchmaker?

TPS: To somebody who is not a watchmaker. (Pause) But the question is not really what is overbanking but whether or not that is an appropriate term.

PD: Ah yes, overbanking. Well, it's not very understandable for somebody who is not watchmaker. I would say more, when you have a horse, if you prick him on the back, he starts to run very fast he cannot stop, how do you call that?

TPS: Galloping.

PD: Galloping, It's a term more appropriate. Your watch start to gallop. It's acting like crazy and it's gaining, gaining, gaining. Without going into the why is it overbanking, but the effect is that it's galloping.

TPS: Is there anything in particular that you enjoy making? Are the making of hands something you enjoy or making an escapement?

PD: I enjoy when the baby is born. This is very important. When you start with some drawings, like the Duality for example. The first time I had my movement with my two escapements working together, this was beautiful. It was like a birth, you know? This was very important. When you see the result. You spend maybe twenty years trying to figure out, make drawings, make parts, and at the end, it's ticking together. This is something.

TPS: With watchmaking being so competitive, particularly with new ideas, do you have any confidants? Other watchmakers you can call and discuss projects you are working on?

PD: Some members of the Academy. We don't talk much about our new projects, no. But maybe if we need some information of how to do this or this or we need an address. We help this way. But just with members of the Academy. But here in the Vallee I have nobody.

TPS: Do you wish there were more openness?

PD: Oh yeah. I would like more openness. And I would like to have more independent watchmakers, especially in the Vallee. We could do things together. Instead of buying one tool if we want to we can share; it's very simple.

TPS: How can individual craftsmen come to terms with technological advancements that exceed the accuracy that is possible by hand? When you have mass production machines that can produce parts with an accuracy of a couple of microns, how can an individual watchmaker compete with that?

PD: You are talking about accuracy of parts, of components right?

TPS: Right.

PD: Of course they are very accurate, but they have to be accurate. Because it's so mass-produced that they cannot afford to have an adjustment. Everything is done within certain tolerances. Now by working handcraft, you can work nearly as good in questions of accuracy and tolerances. And if maybe you are not as good, you can adjust to make things fit. It's not as important because you have more time to do it in fact and more knowledge to do it.

You have to realize, in factories, when they tell you we have 120 watchmakers, sometimes they say 120 Master Watchmakers, well, maybe, I'm not sure. But, it's written in the catalog and so on but in fact it's what we call "small hands". That means these people can put two or three wheels, one bridge and if something is wrong they are stuck. They don't know. But here, if we are stuck with a wheel without enough shake, we know what to do. It's a different approach.

To make mass production, like we take - it's not mechanical, it's quartz - but if you take Swatch for example. It's amazing what they did in accuracy of components to assemble that, everything by robot. But these people think what you did with the Swatch you can do with the minute repeater. And I'm not sure of that.

TPS: Are modern materials and production methods available to individual craftsmen or are they solely the domains of large manufacturers? For instance some manufacturers experiment with carbon composites or plasma cut silicon, is that possible for the individual watchmaker?

PD: No it's not possible because we cannot afford it. It's too expensive. We don't have enough production to make, let's say, I don't know, some Simplicity with special parts in carbon and to test it and to see. No it's not possible. But I think with modern technology we have some interesting materials, which could be used in watchmaking.

TPS: What about hyper-modern production methods that are coming out of Neuchatel? Electro-forming or plasma cutting, is any of that available to the individual?

PD: No, no.

TPS: But if it were available, would you consider it?

PD: I don't know. Maybe it would be ok to make a bracelet buckle or something like that, I don't know.

TPS: What do you envision for important future advancements in watchmaking? I know you don't favor complication cocktails, layering one on top of another. What do you think are important or admirable goals for mechanical watchmaking?

PD: Personally I think we'll return a bit backwards and get more original product, more simple product. Because we cannot go any further. The windows of the shops are full of complicated watches, of chronographs, everything. We cannot go any further. We have to come back to more simple things. Maybe the next step will be the ultra-flat watches. Two hands that's it.

TPS: Maybe one hand.

PD: Yeah, maybe one hand. But this, it's a question of fashion. Here we turn. We turn, always.

TPS: What about new escapements? Do you think there is much room to improve?

PD: Of course. But nobody wants to invest in that. Except ETA, they invest in the George Daniels escapement, the co-axial, but it was the first time since 100 years you know?

We have the Freak escapement, we don't know exactly what is going to . . . I just saw at Basel (2001). I cannot say much about it. It's interesting because it's a different approach with modern technologies, modern materials. But I don't know in the long term, I have no idea how it's going to be.

TPS: What do you believe has helped you to realize your goals thus far? What have been the motivation and the driving force for you?

PD: It's mostly what I learn by restoring complicated watches. Every time I . . . I repaired hundreds of repeaters, mainly pocket watches. Every time is the same principle, minute repeater is not many ways to do it, it's always the same principle but everyone had a different way: a little thing, a little spring, a different shape. And by repairing 10 complicated watches from the years 1850 to 1920, I would say on 10, 7 were made in the Vallee du Joux. As a blank, ok? Not signed by people from the Vallee du Joux. No, they were signed by big brands: Patek, Vacheron or even by brands like Glashutte Uhren, Assman or Lange or the English people, the Smiths or J.W. Benson. The complications were made here, ok?

Now by seeing all that, first you start to recognize the maker. Could be a Piguet, could be Aubert. Sometimes you have little letters under a hammer, like a secret signature, you know? You can recognize by the shape. And this pushed me and one day I said, "Why not try to make watches again?" And besides my restoration work, it's what I did. The movement you saw (referring to his first Grand Sonnerie pocket watch movement). It's how I made my first movement. This was my engine. It's where I took inspiration.

Sometimes I see on the forum when people are asking "Why this shape?" or somebody say "Yeah, but the ratchet looks similar to an old Patek." Yeah, it's normal. Because I took inspiration from what was done in the Vallee du Joux. There is a school from this area. I don't want to make a movement like Lange & Sohne, because this is the German school, it's different. Or I don't want to make a J.W. Benson, because it's different. I make from the Vallee. And of course when people say, "Hey, the ratchet looks similar to a Patek", it's normal, because Patek used to buy their movements here.

TPS: Was there a particular antiquarian maker or company that you found particularly fetching? When you were repairing all these repeaters, did one consistently stand out?

PD: We had some watches from Haas Neveux. Pocket watches. Beautiful, very high grade. Or some watches, more chronometre, accurate watches by Potter, for example, this was nicely made. Some Jurgensen were nice too. If I go not on brand but on movement maker, well, all the people from this area. The Aubert or the Piguet from Le Brassus, they were crazy people. When I see what they've done with the tools they had, it's crazy. Now we have some difficulties, we have computers, we have calculators, we have everything. And at the end the product is not as good as before, why? Because we miss something. We miss the feelings, the hands, the workers to do that. We have too much facility now I think.

TPS: How do you personally reconcile the priorities of commerce and livelihood with the Purist pursuit of the art of watchmaking?

PD: Say it again?

TPS: How do you manage making a living while still maintaining your philosphy and staying true to that?

PD: How? It's a big question. You should ask my wife. I make a living, until now, that's it, you see? And fortunately I have a bank behind me, because my father's not a millionaire. That's it. It's to believe in what you're doing and work eleven or twelve hours a day and even the weekends. And forget about the holidays and maybe you can make a living. It's not the easiest way but that's the way it is.

TPS: Have there ever been moments when you see others that you know who have either forgotten their beliefs, or they've succumbed to money and to commerce, when you see the success of some of these people . . .

PD: No, I don't envy them. They choose their way, they choose their philosophy, they do what they want, what they think is the best for them. I don't envy them. But, if I cannot succeed, I prefer to quit. To find a place in the government and sweep the floor, you know? Instead of making something I wouldn't be happy to sell or to wear. Because it's very important, you know? If you make a watch and you are not happy to wear it, how can you imagine other people can wear it? This is terrible. First you have to love what you do, and after the people will love it automatically. But I cannot do something I would not like to wear.

Editor's Note: Final formatting and text editing by Mr. John Davis and Dr. Thomas Mao.
Photo credits: Ms. Dawn Bard and Mr. John Davis

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