5 Minutes with Watch Master Francois-Paul Journe

FLARE sits down with the timepiece genius to find out what makes him tick

Known as a genius among his peers, watch master Francois-Paul Journe is serving up some of the most one-of-a-kind timepieces in the world. With a steadfast appreciation for the history of time measurement, Journe borrows from the masters of the past to create modern marvels that are unparalleled in the industry. FLARE had the privilege of sitting down with the watchmaker while he was in Toronto for an exclusive event hosted by specialty boutique Louis Black, to discuss his world-famous watches and what makes him tick.

What sparked your passion for watchmaking?

Growing up in Marseilles, let’s just say I never really excelled in school. After being expelled, I attended a technical school at the age of fourteen. From a young age I was fiercely independent and wanted to be innovative—I didn’t like having people tell me what to do. After being expelled a second time, I began working with my uncle in Paris to restore old 18th and 19th century clocks. I began to meet a lot of collectors, and I came across a tourbillion that was so rare it inspired me. Realizing I would never have enough money to buy one, I decided to make my own. It took 5 years but once it was completed people started to take notice and the rest is history.

Being such a young company — established in 1999 — and a small independent manufacture, how can you compete with some of the older and well-established watchmaking companies?

I don’t try to fight them, I simply ignore them. I don’t consider myself a part of the industry. I am a craftsman first and foremost and I am lucky enough that collectors and customers like what I do. I am never going to be like the larger more established brands; it’s simply not me. People often ask “why don’t you expand and produce more”? I am living a dream right now, why would I want to live a nightmare? I’m not trying to compete; I’m just here to do what I do best.

You are one of the only companies to conceive and produce watches independently, from sketch to finish, how long does it take to create each watch? Can you describe the process?

On average each watch takes 2 to 3 years to produce, although some have taken up to thirty years. Each watch I design starts with a mental image of the dial. The dial is the soul of the watch, the eyes, and everything unfolds from there.  The ideas come from different places, often from discussions with different people—they just kind of pop up. Once I have an idea I try to translate it into a physical object by starting with a simple sketch and from there I begin contemplating the mechanics. Sometimes this takes years, one watch I just created I began thinking about twenty-five years ago.

How do you balance the design component with the mechanical one?

The design is crucial. If a watch isn’t beautiful than I don’t want to make it but the mechanics are the hard part. They say genius is 1% idea and 99% sweat and hard work, I would say this is accurate. The mechanical core’s overall volume is less than 3 cubic centimeters; this puts obvious constraints on the design. The main purpose of the watch is to tell time, I am not going to do anything from a design perspective that will be counterproductive to the function of the watch.

How many watches do you produce a year?

In a normal year we produce between eight hundred to nine hundred watches. Last year, due to a technical problem with one particular watch, we had to pool our resources into resolving this issue so the output went down a little. Our strength is in our independence. Because we don’t answer to share holders or the bank, we can focus on the quality of our product. We are the only watch company in Switzerland where the owner, CEO and watchmaker wears all three hats, this gives us an advantage—everything is coming from one source.

All of your watches are inscribed with the Latin phrase “invented and made”, why is this phrase in Latin and why is it so important?

The phrase is an homage to the past. In the 18th century, Latin was the scientific language of the time—this was the language that the great master watchmakers used so this is a tribute to them.  I chose this phrase because it is very important for me to be able to say “I’ve invented this and I’ve made this”. All of my pieces are one-of-a-kind and are not mass-produced in any way, like so many others in the industry. Integrity and independence are key for me. We are a watchmaking horological company and we manufacture every component of the watches ourselves.

Who is the F.P Journe customer?

We started off being popular mostly among collectors, but recently our non-collector customer has risen from 5 per cent to around thirty percent. This non-collector group is made up of people who appreciate the true luxury in craftsmanship. There is nothing flashy about these watches: they aren’t status symbols but the true customer knows what they are wearing. They appreciate the artistry and wear it for themselves.