Interview with Michel Parmigiani

by Michael Friedberg

December 2001

MF: Michael Friedberg -
MP: Michel Parmigiani

MF: Mr. Parmigiani, thank you for telling us about yourself, your company and your fine watches and clocks. I'd like to begin by asking about yourself and your history.

I understand that you originally started with Marcel Jean-Richard, a descendant of a famous watchmaking family. I assume that is the family of Daniel Jean-Richard. Could you tell us a little about that experience –how you got started in watchmaking and what it was like at the beginning?

MP: When I took the decision to set up my own business, before 1975, I was encouraged by a friend to approach Marcel Jean-Richard, guardian of a body of inherited technical expertise.

In his day, his father had been a great specialist in chiming minute repeater watches, and one of the most complicated pieces that he created was a watch with seven gongs playing the Swiss national anthem and the "Ranz des vaches", as well as a carillon playing the German national anthem.

Marcel himself on the other hand specialized in complicated watches such as a monumental clock displaying astronomical information.

In view of his advanced age and being aware of my motivation and manual skills, he entrusted me with completing some important pieces that he could not cope with.

So, Marcel Jean-Richard was a key person who encouraged me and confirmed me in the direction to which I had committed myself: the noble profession of the art of horology.

Well, it was above all enthusiasm, curiosity and the discovery of the world of horology, with the many tangible examples of its history, that influenced me.

MF: But wasn't that during the 1970s, when quartz was changing the entire Swiss horological landscape?

MP: At the time when I was starting out, I was going against the tide in an unfavorable period. I persisted and never admitted that one could no longer practice the art of horology, following in the historical continuity of this profession.

The illustrious masterpieces that passed through my hands demonstrated the ultimate technical expertise of the master horologists of the past, and made me humble in the face of these exceptional creations.

MF: You seem to have, if I may say, a philosophy behind your work. You called your company, in part, the art of time. Could you expand upon the notion that you are engaged in an artistic endeavor

MP: This notion of perfection in craftsmanship is the guiding principle that inspires me. It is the history of these masterpieces, linked with the philosophy of the period and with the work of all craftsmen, that provides the essential motivation that enables me to view the future; an exemplary lesson, and highly inspiring for everyone who has discovered its substance.

MF: What you did, and still do, is a rare specialty, restoring fine timepieces and precious antiques. What is it like to work on something like the Breguet Sympathique from 1820 that others said could not be restored?

MP: I believe that in life there are challenges to take up. Each work of complicated restoration represents a challenge and we must weigh up whether we are capable of intervening or not, in the light of the experience accumulated by all the craftsmen working in our company.

MF: Parmigiani Fleurier today uses the phrase "restoring collectors' timepieces. Handcrafting new ones". How did you evolve into making new timepieces?

MP: This was a question of concept and of vision associated with a selection of technical choices. Following the example of the effort put into the creation of the masterpieces revealed to us by the history of horology, we as craftsmen and engineers wanted to perpetuate this technical expertise within our company.

MF: One hallmark that I've noticed about your watches is their fine and often unique dialwork, and special goldsmithing on cases. Your watches are distinctive and extremely finely made. There seems to be a emphasis on the high craft of dials and cases. Would you concur that this is part of your philosophy of a watch as a work of art?

MP: Extreme care is taken in the creation of every dial. The base is a sheet of 18-ct gold, to which different treatments are applied. It is precisely this invisible refinement, similar to that of our movements, that brings about the extra value of Parmigiani Fleurier watches.

This philosophy of the highest quality of manufacture is not reserved only for exceptional and unique pieces: it is applied to all our models.

MF: Could you tell us a little about your development of a wristwatch calibre, the L.U.C. 1.96, for Chopard?

MP: In the early 1990s, I received a commission from the house of Chopard to create a design for a gentlemen's automatic movement. This research was accomplished with the creation of the movement with twin superimposed spring barrels with automatic winding.

This movement brought about a marked improvement in the regular timekeeping of the watch, since the graph showing the performance of the watch indicates that the driving force is much more even in this design that in that of a traditional watch.

It also resulted in an increase in the number of revolutions and consequently in the number of hours of power reserve.

MF: Let me ask, if I may, about the movements you use at Parmigiani Fleurier. Originally, I understand that you used Lemania base movements in many wristwatches. Your chronographs use a Zenith base and your Basica line uses an F. Piguet base. If I'm correct here, could you explain why these ebauches were chosen?

MP: When our marque was launched in 1996, the Lémania movement was one of the few calibers available. Its finish and quality of manufacture meeting the stringent requirements of our company have endowed this movement with notable additional value.

For the caliber based on the Zénith chronograph, significant modifications are carried out, particularly to its appearance and its finish. In this way both the quality of the movement and its value have been increased. The high standard of quality of this movement meets the demands of our marque.

The Piguet caliber is a base movement that is used in our first collection. It provides an interesting alternative.

MF: Could you also tell us in general what finishing, elaborations and the like Parmigiani Fleurier does to these base movements?

MP: The required standards of aesthetics and finish that we have imposed are achieved as a result of the care and technical expertise of our horologists and craftsmen, who are subject to very strict quality standards according to our own procedures.

MF: But the crowning glory has to be, I would think, your own movements. Could you tell us about the process behind the development of the Ionica?

MP: The original idea was to develop a movement made completely in the workshops of our manufacture, with the quality standards corresponding to our aspirations. Our objective was to create a movement running for a week, with a power reserve one day longer, thus providing further security for the user who might forget to wind the watch on Sunday. At home it is the custom to wind the clocks on Sunday, and this is why we have based the watch on the horological tradition according to which clocks as well as marine chronometers and some rare deck watches run for a week. They almost always have a power reserve of eight days.

MF: More recently, you introduced an automatic movement with two barrels, the Calibre 331. It's a beautiful movement and I've read the specifications. Could you tell us about its special characteristics? Will you be using it in more models?

MP: The idea of creating a base caliber, whose characteristics you know, is to be able to use it in our collections in future. It meets our standards of technical and aesthetic quality which are not currently to be found on the market.

MF: Correct me if I may be wrong, but it seems that your philosophy is to produce beautiful watches – extraordinarily executed cases, dials and movements. I noticed you recently introduced a rattrapante and you recently showed a unique piece, the Technica II, that has a repeater, a perpetual calendar and a tourbillon. However, compared to some other great houses, Parmigiani Fleurier seems to emphasize less what one person called "complication cocktails". Would you concur?

MP: Our concept is not necessarily to make the most complicated watch. Our approach has an academic direction: daily we try to excel so as to improve, or even to surpass ourselves. We are always seeking perfection, whether it is a Basic watch or a Grande Complication.

MF: Could you tell us a little about the company's production? How many people work at Parmigiani Fleurier? What percentage of those people produce wristwatches? Can you tell us about the exclusiveness of your total production?

MP: Currently 100 people work at Parmigiani Fleurier, with a production of several thousand watches a year. The company has a number of different activities, including the development of calibers, and the restoration of works of art and antique pieces, as well as a department making unique pieces.

MF: What, may I ask, is it like to have a major Swiss institution, the Sandoz Foundation, as a majority partner? This is relatively unique within the industry. What do they do?

MP: It is because of the personal friendship which I have with the chairman of our board of management, as well as the recognition of our traditional technical watchmaking expertise by the Sandoz Family Foundation, that we can ensure the permanence of our creations with all that that implies.

MF: Could you tell us about your role within the company? Do you still work on watches and clocks? Do you make all final design decisions?

MP: As the creator, the conductive thread of my philosophy shows through all the products we design. The approval of the models is discussed by a management committee within the company, led by M. Emmanuel Vuille, managing director or our manufacture. It is thanks to him that Parmigiani Fleurier is experiencing encouraging growth.

MF: I would think that it's thanks to you too. My compliments on what you have achieved and my thanks for your time with this interview.

Copyright © 2001
Michael Friedberg
Past Time
All Rights Reserved
Login / Register
Register for TimeZone!
Registering provides access to enhanced features on the site!