Jean Francois Ruchonnet
High Frequency

Jean-François Ruchonnet: Faster Than Me You Die

The ‘enfant terrible’ of Swiss Haute Horlogerie is a speed specialist – and this is not confined to watchmaking!... Frequently far ahead of everyone else, he has known how to ‘conduct’ a spectacular career, by opening up the doors of Information Technology, 3D design and video to watchmaking. If he has dared to create the V4, the Double Tourbillon Breguet and the Cabestan, why should he ‘mince his words’ when faced with such a riveting topic?

By Constantin Stikas
Photographer and journalist

First published on

Constantin Stikas: In the sphere of high frequencies, there was only a single protagonist since 1969, beating at 5Hz, the El Primero. In recent years we have seen watches beating at 5, 8, 10 even at 50, 500 and 1000Hz! So how can we define high frequency in relation to watchmaking mechanics today?

Jean-François Ruchonnet: In any case, the highest frequency is quartz. And then, in the ‘80s, there was also a Bulova piece, the Accutron. This was a watch with an enormous battery, which had a ‘diapason’, similar to the one used in music, which replaced the quartz. On these two types of movement there was of course a battery. In my opinion, TAG Heuer is truly the pioneer in this field today.

CS: What do we gain with high frequency?

JFR: We gain in accuracy, that is clear.

CS: What is at risk with a high frequency watch?

JFR: Probably the power reserve. This is normal and it happens across all domains: When we want a car to be able to reach higher speeds, one needs horse power. And when we say horse power, we mean energy. There is nothing without nothing. But what is more important for me, is that we also lose in emotion. With a high frequency movement we enter into the irrational, since the escapement becomes barely visible. We could say that there is no longer anything that moves. It becomes less evolutionary, less beautiful. It is no longer a movement, it is a vibration. We lose emotion by looking for what exactly? With the Cabestan we have arrived at a 5 second divergence per month. And if we remain at a divergence of one minute per week, who cares, everyone today has a mobile phone. So, I find that high frequencies divest a watch of emotion. In watches beating at a conventional frequency there is the tick-tack, there is something going on.

CS: Man has conquered 4Hz, remained at 5Hz for more than four decades, and then TAG Heuer achieved 50Hz, two months later 500Hz and a year later 1000Hz !... Are there any limits to Horlogerie?

JFR: Are there any limits to marketing? Sometimes I ask myself: “What else?”

CS: Why do we see a large number of Houses today presenting watches with high frequency movements?

JFR: It’s just pure and simple marketing. Nothing but that.

CS: The El Primero is a movement that hundeds of thousands of people have been wearing on their wrist for 44 years already, while all the other high frequency watches and especially the TAG Heuer pieces, champions in the field, are what we would term ‘concept watches’. What do you think about the difference between an everyday watch and a concept watch?

JFR: I am the one who conceived the TAG Heuer V4, so I can’t say that I don’t like concept watches. Thanks to the V4, TAG Heuer embarked on this beautiful adventure. And there is a tendency today to forget that the V4 was also the creation of a man who represents traditional Swiss Horlogerie, Mr. Philippe Dufour and when you fuse the traditional with the modern, you achieve nice results.

Notwithstanding, concept watches had to evolve. There were Richard Mille, TAG Heuer, MB&F or even HYT, a project in which I also worked.

Every time, they would tell us “This will never work!” I heard the sane thing about the Hydrotimer, about the Cabestan (“a vertical tourbillon, that will never work”), whereas it suffices to seek to innovate, and every time this works and even does so very well.

So I only think favourably of concept watches. Like I can only think favourably of the El Primero, because it is a movement that is magnificent and that has proven itself.

CS: During the presentation of the TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 someone asked of the TAG Heuer President if the eye, the hand and the brain can grasp the thousandth of a second. What do you think about this?

JFR: I think that it is just marketing. It has no use. We don’r give a damn about the thousandth of a second. If watchmakers could arrive on time and within the established time limit, and if they could deliver their watches within schedule, that in itself would not be bad. And I am the first in this. I found it difficult to deliver my Cabestan within the time limit.

I have never seen people working in the time industry being on time. They are never on time to appointments, always in love and never on time. Be on time, deliver your pieces on time, make them in good quality, and stop pestering us with thousandths of a second.

CS: Maximilian Büsser said in his interview that, “after the ‘70s and the invention of quartz, the mechanical movement has no practical reason for existing... In Watchmaking, we can state that it is the equivalent of relying on steam power in the era of the TGV. Therefore, when we move from 5 to 6, 8 or 10 Hz, (and I am not talking about 500 or 1000Hz), it is the same as if we were straining to make a steampowered machine that is 5 or 10% faster than that of its counterpart...”

And after that, Jean-Pierre Musy, Patek Philippe Technical Director, replied to this remark by Maximilian Büsser: “When we see high-quality watches, they have a chronometric bulletin, COSC values, meaning –6 to +4. There is a daily deviation of 10 seconds! In any case, it is significant, 10 seconds per day, this amount to nearly one minute every minute! Do you believe that there is nothing to be done? I believe that there is something to be done! There is work to be done in order to improve this situation. We cannot allow ourselves to make watches that have upwards of a one minute error margin within the space of a week! The mechanical watch must be more accurate than that!” What is your opinion about this?

That s a real question!... I think that 300 components housed in a 38mm case, machine manufactured and assembled by hand, we cannot demand to have absolute accuracy. It is not a GPS, it is a mechanical watch. I repeat that the time is everywhere, on a mobile phone etc, and possessing a mechanical watch assembled by true watchmakers falls more within the sphere of Art, even if it has been produced on a large scale.

If it is accuracy you seek, buy a quartz. From the moment we buy a mechanical watch, there are divergences, there are ups and downs. With a mechanical watch, the adjustment time for arriving at a good level of accuracy is enormous. We at Cabestan, at the time dedicated an entire week to adjusting a single watch. Can they do that at Patek Philippe?

CS: Switzerland, to most people, is a ‘slow’ country. However, the CERN is located in Switzerland and today we have seen Horlogerie regularly beating high frequency records… What is your opinion on this?

JFR: Switzerland is a country of tradition, where people take the least amount of risks possible. Thus, it is not slowness, it is intelligence. Consider the example: during the ’80s, when quartz ruled the watchmaking world, in France they ‘threw everything overboard’. In Switzerland, by contrast, they preserved everything. The Swiss preserve their heritage and are marked by national sentiment. Had we all been like then, we would have preserved our heritage and we wouldn’t have handed everything over to the Chinese.

Swiss Watchmaking is strong because of its people and its heritage, of which it has known how to maintain, bring out and perpetuate the values.

CS: What is your personal relationship to speed?

JFR: I was never a wise child when it comes to speed: 348km/h in a car, 500km/h in an airplane and 100km/h in a boat. I did circuit racing for 2 years and there is no showing off. It is a different relationship to speed. Either you’re good, or you’re ‘out’!...

CS: Do you think that a speed limit should be imposed on motorways and, if yes, at how many km/h should it be set?

JFR: In Germany, there is no speed limit on certain sections of motorways and there are two times fewer accidents than there are in France. Thus, I think that speed is conducive to concentration. I think that all parameters are improved, tyres, brakes, etc. and all this story about speed limits is based on false premises. On country roads, that are sometimes very dangerous, there it is true that speed limits must be imposed. But the place where there are fewer accidents is on motorways. The only problems on motorways are falling asleep at the wheel and alcohol. Today, cars are a thousand times safer than in the past and there is a direct reflection of this on accidents. We have 4 times more cars than in the ‘70s and the number of deaths has fallen from 30,000 to less than 4,000 per year in France.

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