The Dufour Of My Dreams
Ever since Phillips announced the sale of four watches by Philippe Dufour, I’ve fantasized about buying all of them. Then a more interesting fantasy took over – what if I bought only one?
Maybe the Simplicity? One feature of the Simplicity is undeniable – it’s perfection. The dial, hands, case, and most importantly, movement display impeccable geometric proportions; nothing is too big or small…everything is just the right size.
Perfect geometry enhances another feature of the movement – naturalness. With gentle, seamlessly aligned curves; faultlessly beveled edges on bridges and plates; and smooth Côtes de Genève stripes, the movement resembles the petals of a rose and not a metal mechanical device.
Philippe’s successful pursuit of perfection means the Simplicity does not look like what it is, a handmade watch. The Simplicity possesses the qualities of something organic, something created and not merely made.
But, the Simplicity is the most numerous of Philippe’s creations, as over two hundred have been made. Shrinking my bank account by the amount of money necessary to purchase a Simplicity requires a watch produced in lower numbers.
How about the Duality Number 8 in pink gold with that differential gear?
The Duality is an astonishing watch. In 1996 when Philippe unveiled it few people in watchmaking had heard of a differential gear – a double escapement and two independent balance wheels connected by a gear that allows them to turn at different speeds maintaining accuracy. Philippe created the Duality in part because most watchmakers at that time were obsessed with the tourbillion complication. He wanted to do something different. Philippe’s contrariness is one of the man’s most admirable qualities.
Also, his decision to position the seconds sub-dial at 8 o’clock just over one of the balance wheels – at the time an unusual choice – adds intrigue to the watch. It’s as if Philippe’s dial design is hinting that the movement is something out of the ordinary.
Most of all, what gets me about the Duality is the story of how Philippe developed the watch. While studying the catalog of the (now defunct) Museum of Time in Rockford, Illinois, Philippe noticed a watch made in the 1930s by students at the Ecole Technique de la Vallée de Joux, his own alma mater.
On the dial were two words – double regulateur (two balances). How, Philippe wondered, do you create a watch with two balances? As he told me for my book, Masters of Contemporary Watchmakers, “when I saw that I said, okay, I want to try. When you want to do something, it is sometimes better to try. So, I bought some old movements in a flea market. I started with a brass plate. I put one balance and escapement on the left, and I put one balance and escapement on the right. After that I realized the way it is working.”
Fascinating. Philippe Dufour reverse-engineered a watch from the 1930s without examining it under a loupe or even holding it in his hands. He opted for the direct, in-the-metal experience, and that led to the Duality.
Grande et Petite Sonnerie Pocket Watch Number 1
Even though the Duality on sale is one of only nine completed by Philippe, there is another of his watches I would rather own.
It’s not The Grande et Petite Sonnerie Wristwatch Number 1 in yellow gold; the first-ever Grande et Petite Sonnerie wristwatch. Wow! Who wouldn’t want to own this masterpiece? Miniaturizing a Grande et Petite Sonnerie movement is the watchmaking equivalent of solving Fermat’s last theorem. Strapping this baby on my wrist knowing it’s mine…what a sublime pleasure! But, I’d rather have another…
The Dufour for me is the Grande et Petite Sonnerie Pocket Watch Number 1. As the Phillips' press release states, this is a piece unique; the only one in the Dufour oeuvre. That immeasurably adds to the watch’s seductive qualities, but it’s not everything.
In the 1980s Philippe made five Grande et Petite Sonnerie pocket watches for Audemars Piguet. He received payment for his work, but zero recognition. Then came “the incident” – a sales representative for the brand visited retailers to show them the watch. After one appointment, rather than return the watch to its box, the representative dropped it into the left-hand pocket of his coat. A few minutes later, he climbed into his car and shut the door, crushing the watch between the door and car seat.
Faced with a massive repair job and appalled by the lack of respect for his work, Philippe decided the time had come to do things for himself.
That’s one of the attractions of this watch – It is Philippe Dufour’s declaration of independence. Owning the first watch that Philippe marked with his name is like owning the first great Picasso painting. With this watch, Philippe is saying something important – that there must be a space in horology for individual watchmakers who want to put their own name on the timepieces they create.
The most important reason, though, is something Philippe told me about his ideal vacation, which, unsurprisingly for a watchmaker, involves time travel.
The Vallée de Joux, Philippe’s Swiss birthplace, and for decades the site of his workshop, is not ideally suited for farming. For nearly six months of the year, the valley is encased in snow and permeated by bone-cracking cold temperatures. For centuries farmers supplemented their incomes and filled the hours during the long winter months with metalworking. By the 17th century, the same farmers were producing components for watches. Entire families specialized in producing certain components or complications, or even entire movements. These environmentally induced activities meant watchmakers in Geneva acquired a reliable supply source, while the Vallée de Joux found a path to prosperity, especially when its inhabitants started establishing their own brands.
Philippe’s longed-for dream vacation is to travel back in time to meet his valley forbearers; to absorb the grit and grain of the watchmaking culture of the valley by living with those farmers turned watchmakers.
In my view, when Philippe created this pocket watch, which might have been produced during a harsh Jura winter over two hundred years ago, he did journey back through time and matched the accomplishments of those days.
I like beginnings, the early days of a creator’s endeavors. Beginnings reveal potential and intentions. More than anyone, Philippe Dufour has kept alive the traditions of the Vallée de Joux watchmakers, which is exactly what he set out to do. For all those reasons the Grande et Petite Sonnerie Pocket Watch Number 1 is the Dufour of my dreams.
Video: Philippe Dufour – The Complete Set
For more information on Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XIV, visit the auction house’s website.
(Images & video © Phillips Watches)