Keeping It Real: Michel Parmigiani
Parmigiani Fleurier has something that money cannot buy – authenticity. Other big names in watchmaking are not shy about using its expertise, and it is time the broader watch enthusiast community took notice.
When one thinks of a watch manufacture, one might think of the sort of building shown here, or something like it. Certainly, Swiss watch brands do lean into this idea, emphasising the well-worn story that Swiss watchmaking began as a part-time affair, when farmers had downtime in winter. This is sort of true, but it certainly does not reflect the history of watchmaking definitively. Nevertheless, when one visits a manufacture, even a spruced up one, there is usually a visual somewhere that showcases the original premises – often the family home of the watchmaker. This connection with the original spirit behind whatever brand you might think of helps to elevate brand perception, or so the thinking goes.
When the watchmaker is alive and active in the business that bears his name, everything goes to another level entirely. In the case of Parmigiani Fleurier, you need not imagine the original watchmakers at work – Michel Parmigiani is still very much an active part of this manufacture. The website for the brand makes much of this fact, recognising that most big names today cannot put a face to their watchmaking. Of those that can, quite a number demur because their founders are not watchmakers. Michel Parmigiani very much is, and he famously says he thought up the brand back in 1976, even as both he and his trade roughed it out during the quartz crisis.
So what does the man himself have to say about the brand Parmigiani Fleurier, especially with regards to the watches sold under that name since 1996? “At Parmigiani, the watchmaker makes his watch from A to Z – that kind of comprehensive craftsmanship hardly exists at the industrialised companies…In our case, we know we know who made every watch, so we’re responsible for it,” said Michel in an interview published in the 2017 edition of the firm’s own glossy magazine. The finishing on Parmigiani Fleurier watches underscores this message, as you can just barely tell from the images illustrating this story.
According to the Journal Haute Horlogerie, a publication of the Foundation Haute Horlogerie (FHH), every component in a Parmigiani Fleurier movement is finished by hand. It goes without saying of course that most of these components are also made in-house, although the Vaucher manufacture does employ a high degree of automation. We get into the various firms that make up the in-house production capacity of Parmigiani Fleurier, but the following list covers everything the brand resorts to outside vendors for: sapphire crystals, synthetic rubies, leather straps, bracelets and the mainspring.
To get back to the finish of the movements, this is only possible because production volume remains low to this day, with Hodinkee reporting that roughly 5,000 watches are made annually (upper estimates stand at 10,000, according to The Watch Journal magazine). Of course, this puts Parmigiani Fleurier in the same league as A. Lange & Sohne, for some reference, and far fewer than the likes of Patek Philippe, which President Thierry Stern asserts stands at 60,000 annually. Today, Michel Parmigiani heads up the design office at the manufacture and remains closely linked to the heart of the brand – restoration of historic timepieces, which is his background.
Back in 1978, Michel’s firm Mesure et art du temps was engaged in the art of restoration, working on significant pieces from the Patek Philippe museum and Chateau des Monts. The genesis of the Parmigiani Fleurier brand arose from the restoration work, which began when Michel worked with the Sandoz Family Foundation on its very important collection of clocks and automatons, the Collection Edouard and Maurice Sandoz. Indeed, the manufacture has made these points in various forms over the years, so the messaging has remained consistent.
Parmigiani Fleurier deserves much more recognition than it receives. It might be that you do not even remember the full range of watches from the brand, beyond the Tonda and Kalpa standard bearers. Well, small series production pieces that they are, let us take a look at the entire range, briefly. Aside from these, there is also the Toric and the Ovale, as far as men’s watches go. Parmigiani Fleurier does make watches specifically for ladies but we do not have space to get into that here. Check in with us in our annual women’s watches and jewellery issue later this year for more on that.
Of the four collections mentioned, it is notable that two are proper form watches, with form movements to boot. Outside of Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, such a commitment to the idiosyncrasies of shape is unheard of. For some context, A. Lange & Sohne no longer has any form watches in its assortment, and even H. Moser & Cie reserves its form watches for special editions only. Given that the round watch (or pseudo-round shape, arguably) is king as far as luxury watchmaking is concerned, Parmigiani Fleurier may yet decide to change things up, but for now the diversity of the entire range is remarkable.
As we near the end of this section, it is important to note the watchmaking brand called Parmigiani Fleurier did not simply add the second part of its name by chance. Michel Parmigiani was born in Val-de-Travers in Couvet, some five minutes away from Fleurier. He grew up there, frequently walked by a monument to local watchmaking legend Ferdinand Berthoud, and even opened up his own watch workshop there in 1976. Such authenticity cannot be manufactured by any amount of marketing.
In 2021, Parmigiani Fleurier will be raising its profile a fair bit as it embarks on a new course under the leadership of incoming CEO Guido Terreni, formerly President of Bvlgari Watchmaking. Terreni, probably best known for leading Bvlgari into aristocracy of the ultra-thin segment, and earning recognition of the brand’s watchmaking know-how, will probably have his hands full dealing with the COVID-19 fallout, as everyone is. We are excited to learn of his plans for Parmigiani Fleurier, and what he will do with all the intangibles that the brand comes with. He will no doubt be keeping Michel’s mantra in mind: “If you learn to look, art will reveal itself.”
While some watch brands can present sizable corporate offices, and perhaps even beautifully restored chateaus, these are often just so much window dressing. Whatever else happens in these locations, watchmaking is frequently peripheral. Not so at Parmigiani Fleurier, where the entire system of etablissage that characterises traditional Swiss watchmaking has been assembled from the ground up in some cases. There are a few parts to the watchmaking hub here, and they are not owned by Parmigiani Fleurier, per se. Instead, all are owned by the Sandoz Foundation, including the watchmaking brand. The various parts of the Fleurier watchmaking hub are broken down as follows:
This amazing firm does what few others can: produce the components of the escapement. These are the escape wheel, the pallet fork, the balance wheel and the balance spring. According to Parmigiani Fleurier, Atokalpa performs such processes as stamping, cutting, bar turning, and forming teeth on computer-controlled machines (commonly called CNC) with a precision of up to 0.001mm. Finishing processes, both structural and aesthetic, are also performed on the aforementioned escapement components here. In terms of aesthetics, these processes include snailing, circular graining, polishing and bevelling. Every component that requires finishing receives attention, which is a nigh-unbelievable attention to detail. In most other watchmaking firms, all of this work is done off-site. The Swatch Group firm ETA does all of this for innumerable brands.
Bar turning is what this firm is best known for, which is a process of making components out of metal bars by machining them as they rotate. Elwin happens to make its own CNC machinery, which demonstrates the level of its mastery. It also develops its own specialised software. Interestingly, this small company of just 20 makes each employee responsible for his or her own production process, much as one watchmaker handles his entire process. The firm produces screws, pinions, spindles and wheels.
Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier (VMF)
Michel Parmigiani told Revolution in 2013 that in order for Parmigiani Fleurier to fully utilise the capacity of Vaucher, it would have to make between 20,000 and 25,000 movements, and that this is unlikely to happen. In order to optimise the manufacture’s potential, it supplies other parties, even though it was built to supply Parmigiani Fleurier. The most famous of these outside firms is Hermes of course, with the luxury firm owning 25% of Vaucher, and Richard Mille.
Bridges and plates are made here, and movements are assembled. Finishing, including hand-finishing, also happens in its workshops. There is a high-tech side here too, with a research and development department that handles all the watchmaking innovation. The technical drawings of all movements emerge from this department, specifying all operations to be carried out. If Michel is the spirit of Parmigiani Fleurier, VMF is its central nervous system.
Quadrance & Habillage
A specialist in the making of watch dials, this firm has mastered guillochage, sandblasting, satin-finishing, snailing, eparnage and graining, among others. Since 2017, Parmigiani Fleurier has been touting the white grained finish on its dial, and this is a technique Quadrance & Habillage has mastered. Basically, the white grained effect is produced by rubbing silver powder onto a brass plate using a horsehair brush. Needless to say, it is a labour-intensive task that must be done by hand and requires the absolute concentration of a highly skilled artisan. Audemars Piguet and A. Lange & Sohne are notable brands to use Quadrance & Habillage dials.
Les Artisans Boitiers (LAB)
As the name suggests, this is the casemaking outfit of Parmigiani Fleurier. Water-resistance and structural integrity of the watches are ensured here. While CAD and CNC machining are the meat-and-drink of LAB, the company is also able to produce cases entirely by hand, using traditional tools. Interestingly, all Parmigiani Fleurier case middles receive hand-polishing attention, which is hard to fathom. Famous names that have had occasion to use LAB expertise include IWC, Girard-Perregaux, Patek Philippe, MB&F, Corum and Zenith, according to the FHH.