The Flower of Neuchâtel

by Carlos Perez

November 25, 2002

While Geneva has long been the crown jewel of 'Swiss' watchmaking, Neuchâtel has long been the power - often hidden - behind the prestigious watch brands of Geneva and the rest of Europe, and over time it developed many of its own horological celebrities. Outside of its diverse mountains and its many well known centers of watchmaking, the small commune of Fleurier in the Neuchâtel district of Val-de-Travers has had a small but unique place in the heritage of Neuchâtelois watchmaking, and in the last ten years has experienced a remarkable renaissance. A new spirit and identity of independence has taken root, fed by the greater mechanical renaissance of the industry as a whole. The modern contribution of Fleurier is only beginning, and the fruit that it will bear in time shows great promise.

The seed of this new flowering was planted by Michel Parmigiani, a master watchmaker native to the Val-de-Travers, born in Couvet and raised in Fleurier. In 1975 he founded his own atelier, Parmigiani Mesure et Art du Temps (PMAT), beginning as a true cabinotier working alone in a small workshop in his apartment in Fleurier. From this humble beginning Michel Parmigiani built up a reputation as the premier restorer of antique pre-20th century clocks and watches, also working on the contracted development of complications and other mechanisms for the great houses and manufactures. Over the years he gathered around him a first class team of watchmakers and other artisans.

In 1989 he took the first step in putting Fleurier back on the horological map by purchasing the rights to the brand name Bovet. It is Bovet which was the most significant symbol of Fleurier as a watchmaking center in the larger heritage of Neuchâtel. It began with a watchmaking family native to Fleurier a few years after the principality of Neuchâtel joined the Swiss Federation in 1814. Edouard Bovet and his brothers founded the watchmaking house of Bovet by charter in London in 1822, with a trading company in Canton China, and with Fleurier as their center of manufacture of watches for the Imperial Chinese market.

"Chinese watches" as they came to be called, were elaborately decorated pocket watches typically sold in symmetrically opposed pairs. Their gold cases often featured elaborate painted enamel images, cloisonné, and/or champlevé - typically of flowers, and were bordered with pearls (as shown top). Bovet further specialized in the art of engraving and skeletonizing movements, which enhanced the appeal of its high-end Chinese watches with its Mandarin customers. Fleurier became the European center for the lucrative manufacture of Chinese watches, with several brands dedicated solely to that market. Like most manufactures producing Chinese watches Bovet also produced lower end pocket watches for the Cantonese general public, under its Bo-vay brand.

After the end of the Taiping Rebellion in 1864 the Bovet family sold the Bovet group of companies, though a few Bovet's remained in watchmaking. The market for Chinese watches began to fade in the 1880s, and was gone by the Republican Revolution of 1911. Most manufactures went out of business, though a couple survived by moving to other markets. During these decades Bovet passed through several hands, including some Bovets, until it was owned by Favre Leuba in 1948. The Bovet brand was laid to rest in 1950 when Favre-Leuba elected to use the Fleurier factory to produce Favre-Leuba brand wristwatches, until it sold the plant in 1966 to one of the large Swiss watchmaking cooperatives. All that remained of Fleurier's watchmaking legacy was Edouard Bovet's opulent home, known as the Chinese Palace (built 1826-30), which had served as the Fleurier town hall since 1905.

In 1990 Michel Parmigiani sold the Bovet trademark to a new company, Bovet Fleurier SA, which registered in Fleurier with the stated intent to begin the development and manufacture of wristwatches. However nothing happened until 1994 when Bovet Fleurier was acquired by Roger Guye and Thierry Ouelevay. They based their company administration in Geneva, introducing the first new Bovet wristwatches in 1997. Producing less than 1,000 watches annually, the company appropriately specializes in the production of elaborately decorated pieces in the Chinese watch tradition, often in small series. Bovet Fleurier remains in the independent ownership of a number of private shareholders.

While some of its watch production takes place in Fleurier at Parmigiani Mesure et Art du Temps, Bovet is otherwise only nominally a part of the Fleurier renaissance, as it has no direct presence in the commune. But as Bovet went to Geneva, one of Geneva's most well known luxury brands turned to Fleurier. Beginning in 1993, Michel Parmigiani and his design team at PMAT began work upon a new 11 ½ ligne micro-rotor automatic calibre for the house of Chopard. PMAT produced the first prototypes in 1995, which were further refined that year as Chopard rented a factory space in Fleurier - quite possibly the old Bovet factory - from ETA. In 1996 the design of the first calibre was completed and the Chopard Manufacture, S.A. of Fleurier was opened. Chopard purchased the factory outright in the year 2000.

The new LUC calibre 1.96 and the variant 3.96 were both initially released in limited editions of 1,860 for the founding of Chopard in 1860, and named in honor of Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The former bears the Geneva hallmark and features a swan-neck regulator, and all LUC movements are COSC certified. Additional variants have been added over the past few years including the central seconds calibre 4.96, the four-barrel 9-day calibre 1.98, the shaped tonneau calibre 3.97, and the soon to be announced 9-day tourbillon calibre 1.02 which will feature the in-house designed Variner adjustable-intertia balance. Also of special note, Chopard is one of only a few manufactures using hand-formed overcoil hairsprings, and the only one offering them in watches priced under $10,000.

The line of LUC wristwatches is quite a diverse one, though still limited in size and production. Models range from the initial public offering of small seconds limited editions, round and tonneau automatics in regular production, the rare 9-day hand-wind, the quite popular and accessible LUC 2000 sports watch, the new Pro One diver's watch, and the new LUC GMT (shown above right). One cannot help but wonder whether these watches bearing Fleurier manufactured movements will one day trade "Chopard Geneve" for "Chopard Fleurier." However one supposes that as less than 3,000 of Chopard's annual production of 70,000 watches takes place in Fleurier, Chopard's established Genevois identity (based in Meyrin) wins out over this new offshoot, though these watches and movements now bear the prestige of the brand.

Concurrent with the development of the Chopard' s LUC calibre at PMAT was the development of an in-house Parmigiani brand of wristwatches, pocket watches, and clocks. In 1995 the Sandoz Foundation took a controlling interest in PMAT, giving Michel Parmigiani the financial backing necessary to take the company in such an ambitious direction. Part of the original arrangement with Chopard included the use of LUC calibres for Parmigiani brand watches, something which did not come to fruition, and which led the fledgling house to use ebauches from Nouvelle Lemania, Frederic Piguet, and Zenith for their wristwatches as they developed new ebauche designs and independent manufacturing capacity.

To secure its independence PMAT purchased three component manufacturers over the last few years, including the producers of its gear trains and cases, and now produces 6 base (2 wristwatch) movements in-house. Even the unique "javeline" hands of its watches are produced in-house by a dedicated craftsman. The PMAT companies continue to supply components to the industry, and the house is now taking steps to separate ebauche and movement production from the production of finished Parmigiani brand watches. Its movement manufacturing capacity is being split off and expanded under a new subsidiary, Vaucher Manufacture, which will be based in Fleurier. PMAT's component supply capacity is being organized under its NewTech Co. subsidiary, which will be based outside of Neuchâtel in Lausanne.

Currently PMAT can produce 5000 movements a year, but this capacity will be quadrupled. Ebauches and finished movements will be sold to 3rd parties under the Vaucher brand name. Vaucher, like Bovet, was a Fleurier based manufacturer of Chinese watches (shown bottom) during the 19th century. In addition to component supply, NewTech Co. will also be focused on breaking the Nivarox balance spring monopoly. This new source of high-grade wristwatch movements and ebauches, as well as the hoped for development and production of balance springs, will make Fleurier a bastion of independence in a luxury segment held hostage by the Swatch Group.

The watches themselves are as nothing else available anywhere in the international watch market. Michel Parmigiani's years of experience working on the greatest watches and clocks of Europe's horological patrimony is clearly evidenced in the modern works which bear his name. Parmigiani brand wristwatches are presently divided into five collections: Classique, Toric, Ionica, Forma, and Basica. The Classique and Toric collections are the two earliest. The former is traditionally sized at 34mm, originally with extremely bare dials made of semi-precious stone - which is still available in the "Cadran Pierre" model. What I used to call "the perfect tuxedo watch" has been made more conventional with a more standard white enamel dial with stylized Arabic numerals and date guichet. It now shares more in common with the young entry-level Basica collection, which features 37mm cases and COSC certification.

The Toric collection is the most diverse, and was originally created to serve the new market for large watches; its 40mm case is the grandest of Parmigiani's wristwatch cases. It is here where Parmigiani makes its most extensive use of guillochage. Reputed to be the former source of Breguet's guilloche dials, Parmigiani's dials are also made of gold, whether champlevé, enameled, silvered, or given some other form of final finishing. The complications of the Toric collection span from the Zenith-based chronograph to minute repeaters, perpetual calendars, and tourbillons. The Toric platform is also the primary choice for Parmigiani's many elaborate unique pieces, and small serie grande complications.

PMAT's two in-house wristwatch movements form the basis for their two smallest collections: The Ionica is a large tonneau wristwatch which uses Parmigiani's 8-day handwound form calibre 110, which was introduced in 1997 - years before the similar Patek Philippe ref. 5100. The dual-barrel movement has been shared in small lots with Piaget and Bvlgari. The Ionica case has also been used for a handful of unique pieces. The Forma model (shown right) features their new 11 ½ ligne automatic calibre 331 (shown above left) in a uniquely shaped case, possibly a stylistic derivative of the classic Cartier Tortue. Calibre 331 is also a dual barrel movement, but with only a slightly extended power reserve of 55 hours at 28,800 v/h. The movement plates are made of maillechort while the winding rotor is solid 22k gold.

The rest of PMAT's branded production focuses on low volume, high value pieces using in-house movements. The pride of any true manufacture, Parmigiani's line of haute horlogerie pocket watches is the most extensive anywhere. All made in the open-face "Lepine" style, most feature perpetual calendars and elaborately decorated and enameled cases as opulent, though more abstract than Chinese watches. The "Lepine transparence" pocket watches have skeletonized movements and sapphire crystal dials, and are divided between perpetual calendar and simple small-seconds models. Here too, there are of course a number of unique pieces and small serie grande complications.

Often treated as a separate endeavour by modern mechanical horologists, clock making also has an important place at PMAT. Their primary series of table clocks feature an 8-day key-wound movement with perpetual calendar. The cabinets and bases are made of semi-precious stone (lapis, jade, onyx, etc.), while the glass is cut from natural rock crystal. The greatest pride of the house must be its "Object d'Art" range, which features opulent pocket watches and clocks using 8-day movements. Unfortunately I have no images to share, as they defy description. On the whole PMAT currently produces some 2,000 Parmigiani brand watches and clocks per year, and intends to grow this to a cap of 4,000 over the next few years, though the house's most elite works will remain extremely rare. In a confidence unmatched by any other manufacture, Parmigiani brand watches are guaranteed for 10 years. The house remains dedicated to clock and watch restoration, and some 35% of its production lies in private label manufacture for other brands.

For too long Genevan watchmaking has held a perceived high ground through its regionally exclusive Geneva hallmark of quality. In answer to the Poinçon de Geneve the future now promises a "Poinçon de Fleurier:" In concert with the Canton of Neuchâtel, the Regional Association of Val-de-Travers, the municipality of Fleurier, and the Philippe Jequier Foundation, Chopard Manufacture, Parmigiani Mesure et Art du Temps, and Bovet-Fleurier have begun to set up an independent commission for the testing, evaluation, and certification of fine watches. Initially commissioned on September 25, 2001, the Qualite Fleurier Foundation is at this time still in the development process. Edouard Bovet's former home, the Chinese Palace, will become the Foundation's new home.

Unlike the Geneva hallmark, the Qualite Fleurier certification will be open to any brand, not just those of Fleurier, Neuchâtel, or even just Switzerland. Further, it will require several steps of progressive testing, and a pre-requisite to examination by the Foundation is COSC certification. The first test administered by the Foundation is a reliability test, which is then followed by examination of the movement for the quality of manufacture and finish, followed by another stage of testing not yet unveiled. In concept it appears to be an honest attempt to create a qualitative standard for fine watches, as opposed to the stylistic preservation of the Geneva hallmark's standard. What comes in practice remains to be seen, as the specific criteria have not yet been made public.

This new endeavour will unfailingly place Fleurier in the international horological spotlight, regardless of whether it is utilized by the industry in general. That the Qualite Fleurier label will accompany the fine watches of Parmigiani, Chopard, and Bovet, will no doubt suffice. As the center of the reawakening of Fleurier, Michel Parmigiani already deserves to be ranked in the history of horology alongside of Fleurier's most famous son, Charles-Edouard Guillaume, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Physics, and the inventor of the still unparalleled Guillaume balance. Under Parmigiani's guidance, and under the vision of those who have been drawn to Fleurier because of him, this flower of Neuchâtelois watchmaking will flourish.

Thanks to Cristina D'Agostino

Image Credits

Bovet Chinese watch and calibre (circa 1840) courtesy of Antiquorum
Chopard LUC GMT courtesy of Chopard & Cie, SA
Parmigiani Technicum, calibre 310, and Forma courtesy of Parmigiani Art du Temps, SA
Vaucher Chinese watch (circa 1835) courtesy of Antiquorum

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2002
All Rights Reserved

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