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A Meeting With Mr Parmigiani

Founder of Parmigiani Fleurier, Michael Parmigiani, talks pushing the boundaries as the brand develops a timepiece that could point towards the future of watchmaking

The 1990s was the decade of the eponymous rock-star watchmaker. Franck Muller kicked things off when he established the original off-the-wall watch marque in 1991. Industry enfant terrible Roger Dubuis joined the party in 1995, before Richard Mille exploded onto the scene four years later.  

In-between, another self-styled, albeit less shouty, watchmaker announced his arrival – Michel Parmigiani launched Parmigiani Fleurier in May 1996. Along with Muller, Dubuis and Mille, Parmigiani would help usher in the age of the avant-garde indie, when, a decade later, brands like De Bethune (2002), Hautlence (2004), Greubel Forsey (2004), Maîtres du Temps (2005) and MB&F (2005) all came to market. 

In the ensuing years, horologic discourse has tended to centre around the fevered attempts of watch houses, large and small, to verticalise their production processes in a bid to make as much of a timepiece as possible ‘in house.’ The more of a watch you can manufacture without the assistance of third party suppliers, the notion goes, the more accomplished a watchmaker you are. Thanks to his proximity to one Monsieur Pierre Landolt, president of the Sandoz Family Foundation, an organisation established in 1964 to promote Swiss entrepreneurship and innovation, Parmigiani achieved autonomy quicker than most.

Having started out as an independent clock restorer, Parmigiani was, by the 1980s, the principle custodian of the Sandoz collection – an assortment of Fabergé eggs, pocket watches, mechanical singing birds and other animal automata amassed by Swiss artist, musician and philanthropist, Maurice-Yves Sandoz, in the early 20th century. 

In 1996, with the Sandoz Foundation as patron, Parmigiani gained the means to create his own company. Over the next six years, largely by acquiring a series of component manufacturers, the brand established a centre capable of producing almost every aspect of a mechanical timepiece by itself – from dials, cases and movements, to screws, pinions and spindles. 

It comes as no surprise, then, to hear that Parmigiani considers sovereignty fundamental to serious watchmaking. “If you buy a movement that already exists, you cannot have any influence on the form, the components, the characteristics. When you verticalise, you can do everything your own way; if you want to create a component that’s shaped a unique way, you can. You can create things in a much shorter time frame, too.”

The Kalpa Hebdomadaire, Parmigiani Fleurier’s debut wristwatch, arrived in 1999. Two years later, the brand announced a partnership with one of the world’s most revered supercar manufacturers. “Bugatti was looking for a new watchmaking partner,” says Parmigiani. “The company it was looking for had to have a verticalised production process, the founder had to be alive, and by looking around, it became obvious we were the right choice.”

The subsequent Parmigiani Bugatti Type 370 featured a pioneering lateral time display, which enabled someone holding a steering wheel to tell the time without tilting their wrist. Inside, a regulating organ, gear train, power reserve and two barrels were set across five different oval-shaped mainplates. Housed in a tubular rose-gold case, the watch resembled a mini engine block. So far, the partnership between Parmigiani and Bugatti has yielded a further five ultra-contemporary, albeit increasingly refrained, timepieces. 

The future of watchmaking?

In January 2016, Parmigiani announced a timepiece that forced the entire watch world to sit up and take note. The most talked about wristwear from the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, one of the industry’s two major trade shows, may have still been in the concept stage, but if the ‘Sefine’ could make good on the promises Parmigiani was making, it would become one the most significant footnotes in modern horologic history. 

Like most timepieces, the Sefine would be powered by a mainspring, gear train and balance wheel. Unlike most timepieces, which typically oscillate at a frequency of either 18,000 or 28,000 vibrations per hour, and measure their power reserves in hours, the Sefine would beat at 115,200, and, said Parmigiani, run independently for a previously-unheard-of 70 days. 

The bold claims were the result of a new type of escapement, a mechanism that has remained, for the most part, unchanged since its invention in 1754. Whereas the balance wheel in most watches swings through an arc of somewhere between 260 to 320 degrees, the arc of the Sefine’s balance wheel is just 16 degrees. Add an escape wheel with extremely small teeth, a lever consisting of extra long and flexible silicon pallets, and other low-friction materials (once the preserve of the aerospace industry), and you get a watch that beats at an incredibly high frequency while using far less energy. 

Since its announcement, we’ve heard relatively little about the Sefine’s progress. So where are we now? 

“We’re still working on it,” says Parmigiani. “We have completed the fundamental research, the physics, and now we are in the application phase. We’ve mastered the technology, the materials, and are looking at applying this technology to a timepiece. We’re able to deliver it in a large format, and now the idea is to make it smaller.” 

At the start of this year, Parmigiani Fleurier lowered its entry level price point by presenting the first ever steel version of its ultra-thin (7.97mm) Tonda 1950. It’s now possible to become a Parmigiani punter for £7,950. In the warped world of luxury watches, where a brand of this pedigree is concerned, you can consider that a bargain.