There was a time when a watchmaker used paper and pen to sketch out and design a watch. He or she had to devise everything from a gear train and the proper tolerances to the wheels, complications and dial layout. After sweating over the details, he then cut the plates, made the wheels, crafted the complications –all this using good ol’ elbow grease and know-how.
With the advent of the computer, watchmaking changed completely. Young bucks wielding a computer mouse whipped up various blueprints and CNC machines took over making the parts. Nothing wrong with using the tools at your disposal. Computer rendering has opened the door to some outstanding possibilities.
But ask the majority of watchmakers today to cut off their electricity and build a watch from scratch and you’d get a lot of head scratching. The valuable skills and knowledge acquired through centuries of watchmaking were dying out. Literally. Right now very few people have the ability to build a watch entirely by hand. What will happen when no one is left?
Philippe Dufour, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey didn’t want to imagine such a world. They possessed the knowledge and skill set of their horologic forefathers and wanted to ensure it lived on. They decided to put together the project ‘Le Garde Temps – La Naissance d’une Montre’ (Guarding time – Birth of a Watch).
Needing a guardian, a person with the talent and passion to learn the craft and pass it down to the next generation of watchmakers, they found their man in Michel Boulanger. It’s quite an honor to be chosen so what makes Boulanger so special?
Robert Greubel weighed in on the decision. “We chose him for his passion for watch making, his talent, his career and his profession of teacher at the watch making school in Paris,” he says. “His desire to learn and transmit the traditional techniques of handmade watch making, made him the ideal candidate. His former experience in the restoration of ancient pieces and his commitment to preserve the horological heritage are, without any doubt, elements that lead us to choose him for this adventure.”
Under the supervision of the godfather trio, Boulanger is making a tourbillon watch from start to finish, working only with traditional tools. We had the rare opportunity to speak with Boulanger about his position.
How did you meet Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and Philippe Dufour?
Robert and I met at
the Anetwatchmaking school near Paris. Robert was attending an advanced watchmaking course while I was learningbasic watchmaking. As for Stephen, we met at Renaud &Papi. It was Antoine Simonin who introduced to me to Philippe Dufour and I then saw Philippe from time to time at exhibitions such as Baselworld and Belles Montres. Thanks to the ‘LeGarde Temps – La Naissance d’une Montre’ project, I have been able to strengthen my relationship with Philippe, which I have to admit has been impressive,butalso somewhat daunting as well.
Are you trained with CAD and on CNC machines? Is this how you usually work?
I already have some knowledge of CAD programs but have no experience of CNC machines. But that does not bother me because the project doesn’t involve the use of CNC machines. Restoring antique clocks and watches and working as a watchmaking teacher require empirical knowledge and traditional working methods rather than modern technology.
Are you very familiar with the traditional tools needed to create a watch by hand? Will you need to learn new techniques? If so, who will teach them to you?
Thanks to my experience of restoring antique timepieces, I am already somewhat familiar with these tools. Nevertheless, to master a 500-year-old craftas well as the hundreds of tools and machines associated with it, it is essential to have external guidance. Indeed, books give you theoretical knowledge but that is not enough. The techniques need to be explained orally with the theory followed by practical demonstrations. Fortunately, Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and Philippe Dufour have a broad knowledge of traditional techniques and tools, plus there are other watchmakers who have this knowledge and are willing to share it. It is just a case of finding them and learning as much as possible.
Will you immediately start to teach these age-old techniques to your students?
Not immediately because before teaching these techniques, I need to completely master them and that takes time. A lot of practice and repetition are required to learn and absorb these traditional techniques.
Have you ever made your own watch before?
No. I have created a few components before,but never a complete watch.
Which historical watchmakers do get your inspiration from?
In the horological landscape comprising 500 years of technical knowledge and famous watchmakers, we chose the period from 1750 to 1850 for this project.
Do you have a favorite watch that you admire?
It’s more that I have great respect for watchmakers who have a technical and theoretical knowledge of their craft and who quietly, but profoundly, express their mastery of the art.
Why did you choose to create a manual winding tourbillon with three hands? In other words, why did you choose a tourbillon over another complicationor a combination of complications?
Early in the ‘Le Garde Temps adventure, Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and Philippe Dufour asked me to create a watch. I was given carte blanche as regards the dimensions, the possible complications, and so on. The brief was simple: make by hand a wristwatch “from sketch to finished timepiece”. I remember that having presented various ideas regarding movements to complications, we selecteda mechanical hand-wound movement with three hands and a traditional tourbillon because it would be a good balance between simple enough to be realistic, while complicated enough to be interesting.
The timepiece offers the classic purity of a three-handed watch combined with the complexity of a tourbillon and, in the tradition ofthe finest watches, should be a testament to the acquisition of traditionalskills and technical mastery.
Have you designed the watch from start to finish, including the dial?
Yes, but I am guided in all my work because it is all about transmission of skills and knowledge.
To what extent are Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and Philippe Dufour involved in the design, the configuration of the movement, etc.? Will the watch bear their names to show it meets with the their expectations and will be ready to be made as a series?
The design of the watch and movement is a joint effort between all of us. But I will be alone when it comes to making all of the components for the timepiece, with Robert, Stephen and Philippe there to support me. As forwhose name it will bear, we will see over time;today we are only at the beginning of a long, difficult and exciting adventure.
Who is your favourite artist?
Me… (Laughs). Those who are dead because they can no longer put us in the shade.
What are the most interesting things about you?
Driving myN70 Renault tractor on the few completely flat roads in my area.
You can follow Boulanger’s progress on the Le Garde Temps – La Naissance d’une Montre site here.