Philippe Dufour's Simplicity - A Documentary
By Ron DeCorte
If you look at a map of Switzerland and run your finger along the French border about 60 KM north of Geneva you will find the famous Vallee de Joux. Steeped in the traditions of watchmaking and isolated firmly in the Jura Mountains, there’s a powerful sense of timelessness that cannot be ignored. I’ve spent most of my “Swiss time” in this Vallee, a place that is home to many of the world’s great watchmakers, past and present, and the birth place of Philippe Dufour.
Every trade and profession has a keystone, someone who holds the profession dear to their heart without compromise. In watchmaking that person is Philippe Dufour. From the boardrooms of the mighty watch companies to the small ateliers of the independent watchmakers, everyone knows his name and more importantly his workmanship.
I first stepped off a small train in this Vallee more that a decade ago. The purpose of my journey was to meet the man who is making the world’s finest crafted watches. I found him, or should I say he found me, the next morning in an antiquated parlor of the hotel I was staying. And so a friendship was established that has endured all these past years and I’m certain into the future.
Arriving at Philippe’s atelier recently on a cold snowy March morning brought back fond memories of past times when I studied with him. An immediate barrage of good-natured harassments and jokes made me feel as if I had never left. After catching up over a coffee and a smoke we moved on to the matter of watches, Simplicity to be exact. When I first met Philippe he was making his famous Grande and Petite Sonnerie Minute Repetition wristwatch. Later I was privileged to make some construction and study with Philippe while he made his equally famous double escapement Duality. Currently Philippe is making his extra quality watch Simplicity.
Simplicity is Philippe’s simple watch in that it’s a manual wind watch without complication. But don’t be misled by its simplistic name. The technical and masterful execution of Simplicity is beyond reproach. Simplicity is not a compromise by any definition. It begs you to look closely and rewards you in return. Click the images below to see larger versions. Look closely and enjoy!
Simplicity dressed in 18K pink gold with silver Guilloche dial.
Simplicity in 18K white gold with enamel painted dial.
Simplicity undressed. Quality is the result of attention to detail. Let's have a close look...
Excellent Cote de Geneve without steps or overlap. Beveling is uniform with sharp internal and external intersections. Screws are flat polished and beveled, including the slots. The hand engraved solid gold plates are recessed into the bridges. Even the spokes of the wheels are beveled and polished. It doesn't get any better than this!
Ratchet click spring, before and after hand finishing. Note that the finished spring has a “speculaire” finish, also known as black polish. Hence it has a black color when viewed from above. To make black polish on a curved surface such as the right part of the click spring is extremely difficult. The objective with all flat, or black, polish is to create a mirror finish without scratches. Historically the blank parts were stamped using a die mounted in a simple press. Today the blanks are produced using modern wire EDM, electro erosion. If you look closely at the top spring you will see a small pip on the side. This was the starting and ending point of the EDM process.
The subtitles of hand finishing: Notice the perfectly executed “sharp’ corners of the beveling, internal and external bevels meet in a sharp corner (not rounded) and the sides of the spring are mat finished. The sinks are perfect quality. Even the locating-pin heads are flawlessly polished.
Details of a ratchet wheel, matt finished with polished beveled teeth, masterful finishing rarely seen today.
Set bridge and spring. Grained finish using a shellac stone (Pierre gomme-laque), and hand beveled. Hand beveling is an extremely time consuming process. An experienced finisher would need several hours to finish a typical set bridge. A click spring as seen earlier could easily require half a day to finish properly because of its complexity.
Decorative spotting of the main plate. Notice the perfectly finished sinks (bevels) at every hole and radius
Proper bridge beveling, sharp corners and mirror finish. The Cote de Geneve has not been applied. Material for all plates and bridges is maillechort (German silver), an alloy of brass-zinc-nickel. After final decoration is applied the plates and bridges are rodium plated.
The Dufour balance wheel and spring with ten screws and two eccentric weights on the balance arms for micro timing. You will notice from an earlier picture of the watch movement that there is no regulator on the balance cock. All Philippe’s watches are free-sprung, similar to a marine chronometer, to ensure stable time keeping.
Philippe Dufour in his Atelier.
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Here are a few technical definitions that might be helpful:
Guilloche: A decorative pattern of crossing or intersecting lines. Historically this decoration was accomplished using an engine turning machine, rose engine, or straight line engine lathe. You will see this art applied to dials and cases primarily. This process requires an extremely steady hand at the machine and has absolutely no tolerance for mistakes. More recently this time honored art is being created via computer aided machines but is still costly and tricky to produce.
Cote de Geneve: Parallel stripes of arcs are created with a round wooden lap charged (impregnated) with a mild abrasive such as emery. Generally applied to bridges. Each line (stripe) is generated by gently applying the lap and moving the surface along by hand at a steady pace. The machine is then indexed for the next stripe and the process repeated. I have a short video of this process coming in a future article. Visible steps between stripes, and overlap of the arcs are to be avoided. Also known as Geneva waves, and Geneva stripes.
Speculaire: To produce a flat mirror finish. Also known as black polish, and flat polish. Generally this is reserved for the surface of steel springs, levers, repeater hammers, cap jewels, etc. Occasionally it is used on flat gold surfaces. The process of flat polish is possibly the most revered art of watch finishing. There are a thousand excuses for its failure and more than enough mystery to write a novel. In general a block of tin and/or zinc is prepared flat with a fine file. A light paste of diamantine mixed with oil is applied to the surface of the block. The part is then set on a champagne cork held in the vise and the block is used like a file to create an absolutely flat surface. An alternate method is to hold the part in a small fixture and move it across the surface of the block. In either case the result should be free of any scratches, even with magnification, and the surface should not be cloudy or hazy.
Pierre gomme-laque: A block of shellac mixed with an abrasive such as emery. Also known as a shellac stone. Used to create a straight grained finish on steel surfaces such as springs, levers, cap jewels, etc. The process of using the shellac stone is very similar to making flat polish except that the stone is moved across the surface in a straight line. Historically all parts that will be flat polished are first made flat using a shellac stone.
© Ron DeCorte 2004, All rights reserved
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