An interview with Francois-Paul Journe
The tourbillon — a rotating mechanism designed to counter the effects of gravity, first patented in 1801 — is almost a ‘basic’ offering these days for high end watchmakers. But back in the late 1970s, they were rarely seen; more likely to be found in books than on a wrist. At that time, quartz dominated the watch consumer market, and for a while the survival of Swiss watchmaking as we know it today was in the balance. François-Paul Journe, a graduate from the Paris School of Watchmaking in 1976 was working with his uncle, Michael Journe, a well-known restorer of old watches and clocks, when he decided to create his first tourbillon. Looking through books, in particular George Daniel’s The Art of Breguet, it took him five years to do so and in 1983 his own entirely hand-made tourbillon mechanism finally came to life. Looking back at his first mechanical watch, the 57-year-old watchmaker readily admits it wasn’t one of his best. “Even George Daniel told me that his first watch was not that great, but it’s normal, we all went through it. Still, I think it was a very courageous decision. I really wanted to create something and I was truly motivated. When you’re young and you have nothing, you have to prove to the world you exist,” he recalls.
And prove it, he did. Today, some of his early watches, like the Resonances, are sought after at auctions, even more so because “Journe collectors do not like to sell their prized possessions because of the difficulties finding the watch again,” says William Rohr, Bonhams Consulting Specialist for Fine Watches. Journe’s early watches made between 1999 and 2000, such as the Tourbillon Remontoir d'Égalité or the Resonance, are particularly prized, he said, because they were fitted with brass movements and some of their dials aging process created very unique patinated colors.
Ever since he founded his eponymous brand FP Journe in 1999, the watchmaker has been on a constant quest for mechanical innovation while aiming to continue the traditions of excellence first set by the 18th century French watchmakers he most admires: Jean-Antoine Lépine, Abraham-Louis Breguet and Louis Berthoud. Over the years he has created new mechanisms such as Sonnerie Souveraine, a grande and petite sonnerie with minute repeater, the Centigraphe Souverain, which can measure time mechanically in hundredths of a second, and the Tourbillon Souverain with remontoire and dead-beat second (the second hand hops from one second to the next), all of which have earned FP Journe many prizes, including three Golden Hand awards at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie of Geneva.
“It’s funny how in life people are never looking for complications, but when it comes to watches, it’s something else,” Journe muses.
FP Journe watches are engraved with the motto Invenit et Fecit (Invented and Made) as a reminder that everything is designed and produced in house. The watchmaker produces all its movements in 18K rose gold, a first in the watch industry, as Journe points out, “Rose gold has a higher tenor in copper than yellow gold and that makes the component much harder, giving it superior mechanical qualities.”
Asked to characterize his watches, Journe says: “It is not gratuitous watchmaking. Watches were first created to tell the time as precisely as possible and that is my basic aim. Then, you must also ensure comfort in use. It may be a complication, but it shouldn’t make reading the time complicated, it should make it simple. The complication should be easy to use. I guess you could say they are watches complicated in their simplicity.”
As a result, his creations start with the design of the dial. “That is the most important feature of the watch, like a face, that’s the first thing you look at. There should be an aesthetic equilibrium in that face that has a certain functionality that will work with the mechanism,” he says. His creative process can actually take years. One of his most recent innovations, the Elegante, was eight years in the making. The electromechanical watch, his first ever for women, offers an unusual premise: when the wearer takes it off, it stops beating after about 30 minutes and then resets itself automatically when worn again. He is currently working on a “very complicated and complex” new watch the design of which has taken him five years.
Necessity is often the mother of invention and for Journe this has meant learning to create with fewer components, something he’s particularly proud of, as he prefers to take a “less is more” approach to his creations.
“Today’s young designers use way too many components. That’s because with new technologies and machineries, they’re not the one who have to manually create all the components. But when I started, I often had to spend one entire day creating just one component. So you learn to eliminate what you can and build multi-functional components to save time and also gain in reliability because fewer pieces will mean fewer problems in the future,” he says.
His most complex timepieces, the Grande Sonnerie, was created using “only” 450 components, he proudly points out, while a typical Grande Sonnerie from other watchmakers would have over 500 components. “I believe it’s a real achievement to have created a synthesis and eliminated some [components],” he says.
Paradoxically for a man who creates anything but “proletarian” objects, Journe has assembled over the years the largest collection of burnished steel watches, also called gunmetal watches, produced from 1880 onward as an affordable alternative to gold watches. He says that while these watches may have used steel for their cases, they were far from being plain as some could sport white enamel or a guilloche engraved dial. “I’ve rarely seen enamel dial faces of that quality. Of course the finishing techniques are not there, but the intelligence of the mechanic is,” he notes, adding that while he used to have a nice collection of vintage watches by well-known watchmakers, he sold it in the 1980s “to invest in tools.”
“I sold them without regrets, so it probably means I’m not a real collector. I’m more of a lover of beautiful things,” he muses.
As first published in Blouin Lifestyle Magazine