To enter the workshops of Parmigiani Fleurier is to experience watchmaking at a level of comprehensive vertical integration seldom seen in an independent—much less in one that produces fewer than 10,000 timepieces a year.
By: Jonathan Bues
While many larger brands enlist third parties—who also happen to be their competitors—to source the most important components, Parmigiani Fleurier performs almost every watch manufacturing function itself. It has even turned the normal Swiss watchmaking equation on its head, becoming a supplier to many larger, group-owned marques.
Parmigiani Fleurier watches are crafted in a handful of highly specialized workshops that include Vaucher (the movement maker), Elwin (screws, wheels, and pinions), Altokalpa (escapements), Les Artisans Boîtiers (cases), and Quadrance et Habillage (dials). This arrangement, known as etablissage in French, has its roots in the early history of Swiss watchmaking. During harsh winters, Swiss farmers in Fleurier, the Vallée de Joux, and other rural areas receded into their farmhouses to practice a single, highly specialized horological trade. Making one component, and doing it well, guaranteed a steady source of income through the lean winter months, when the local fields and valleys lay blanketed with snow. The farmhouses and barns of yesteryear may be gone, but the principle of extreme specialization prevails. The parts made in Parmigiani-owned facilities continue to support some of the biggest names in contemporary fine watchmaking by lending excess capacity and supplying dials, cases, screws, and more to companies such as A. Lange & Söhne, Greubel Forsey, Zenith, and more.
What started as a dream of the expert watchmaker and restorationist Michel Parmigiani—to make his own watches under his own name, without any compromises—is now a 20-year-old independent watchmaking company that operates under the aegis of the Sandoz Foundation. Michel Parmigiani became acquainted with members of the Sandoz family when he was tasked with restoring watches, clocks, and automata from the Maurice Sandoz Collection, one of the finest assemblages of horological masterworks in the world. Impressed by Parmigiani’s prodigious skill and creativity, senior members of the family provided the resources that helped get Parmigiani Fleurier off the ground.
Michel Parmigiani’s reference points in horological design are as diverse as the watchmaker’s capacious imagination, with sprinklings of influence arriving via his many restoration projects, where he encounters rare and obscure complications. A case in point is the Ovale Pantographe Or, featured on this issue’s cover, a masterpiece whose focal point is a pair of telescopic hour- and minute hands engineered to extend and retract along the uneven contours of its namesake oval case.
Parmigiani developed the watch after he encountered an 18th-century pocket watch with the exact same complication. The watch, created by the English jewelers and watchmakers Vardon and Stedman, arrived in the Parmigiani restoration workshops in 1997. But while that piece was one of a kind, the Ovale Pantographe, first premiered in 2013, is a production model crafted from modern materials, using the resources and technologies available in a state-of-the-art-horological studio. Taking a handmade curiosity and industrializing it was a challenge matched by the skill and ingenuity of Michel Parmigiani.
“We use the same mechanism as the original, but we specifically designed it for a wristwatch, taking into consideration the challenge of the size and impact,” Parmigiani reflects. “The original piece is a pocket watch, always intended to be worn in a pocket close to the body. Here we have readapted this complication for a wristwatch. Every person is different and therefore we can’t really control the dynamism in which they move.”
While the telescopic hands do not technically constitute a horological complication—they tell the time alone—they do present Parmigiani watchmakers with a similarly significant challenge. When you consider that a typical watch hand constitutes a single part, you begin to understand what an undertaking the Ovale Pantographe Or is. Nevertheless, the watch is high-complication in the traditional sense intended by Swiss watchmakers—it boasts a power reserve of eight days.
“The hands alone in the Parmigiani Ovale Pantographe take approximately four days to assemble,” says Michel Parmigiani. “There are 32 components to each hand, so it is quite a journey.”
The mechanism beneath the dial that actuates the extension and retraction of the telescopic hands consists of two pawls in a cam—essentially the same mechanism that intrigued Parmigiani during the Vardon and Stedman restoration.
The challenge for Michel Parmigiani lay in taking his inspiration, found in a pocket watch and worn in a static position, and making it suitably durable for wear on the wrist. He had to find the right compromise between the weight of the mechanism’s components, the system’s balance, and the reliability of the watch’s timekeeping.
After an exhaustive search for the right material from which to craft the hands, Parmigiani decided on an alloy from the auto industry that consisted of aluminum with a magnesium base. This alloy was the only metal that would bend in all the necessary ways.
Powering the watch itself is a movement made not of brass, or even the more common German silver. Instead, the movement is made of 18-karat gold, a metal known not just for its high price and warm luster, but also for its relative ductility. While technically softer than brass, gold movement components are actually more difficult to machine using modern CNC devices. They’re also nearly impossible to finish with conventional watchmaking tools. The metal wants to stick to the business end of many of the traditional instruments of watchmakers. Parmigiani responded to this challenge by developing a new finishing process specific to its gold movements, which are rare but not entirely new to the range. (The Parmigiani Tonda Chronographe Anniversaire from last year, launched to celebrate the company’s 20th birthday, used this same process.)
On the dial side, the Ovale Pantographe Or has a sophisticated “barley corn” pattern that’s been fitted with applied indices. These raised markers, which replace the transfer-printed ones of the first-iteration Pantographe, represent a triumph over a technical stumbling block. Initially, raised numerals were always part of the watch’s plan. But during the prototype stage, Parmigiani found that the hands caught on the markers, hampering precision. After years of work on the problem, Parmigiani can now estimate the displacement of the telescopic hands during shocks. The fact that the company makes its own hands is already a distinction that puts it in rare company. That it would take on such a complex project as the Ovale Pantographe’s hands in-house is a telling statement about the values of the manufacture.
And though Parmigiani crafts at least 95 percent of its components within its own facilities, some things, like leather straps, are best left to outside experts. For these, Parmigiani calls on the master of all things tanned and stitched, Hermès, as one of its few outside suppliers. It’s a friendly partnership that goes both ways: the Paris house purchased a minority stake in Parmigiani’s Vaucher factory, whence its own high-end watch movements come.