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The obituary of Jean-Claude Nicolet, first prix Gaïa winner

On 8 January 2018, at La Chaux-de-Fonds, the man whom watchmaking purists dubbed ‘the last of the great orlogeurs’ made his last farewells… We reveal his hitherto unpublished last words.

By Joël A. Grandjean

Just how many students were put through their paces by this former watchmaking professor? Whatever the correct answer, one thing is certain, they include dozens of leading watchmaking personalities of our time. To cite but three that spring immediately to mind, we have Jean-Daniel Dubois, the current CEO of Vaucher Manufacture, Arnaud Tellier, former curator of the Patek Philippe Museum, and Carole Forestier-Kasapi, responsible for the development of fine watchmaking movements at Cartier…

A person of great humility

I had occasion to write about him several times. And each time I was surprised at the lack of space dedicated to him in the media. He was a man of superior intellect, humble and religious, blessed with the kind of common sense one finds in the free-spirited, rugged mountain dwellers of the canton of Neuchâtel, I took every opportunity I could to quote him, to sing his praises. I even managed to persuade him to take part in a photo shoot, although he was by nature camera-shy. The sensitive-eyed photographer, Grégory Maillot, fell completely under his spell and succeeded in rendering a true, authentic profile of the man. Not so much a shoot as a personal exchange.

Jean-Claude Nicolet rarely spoke of his academic accomplishments, even though his bibliography is considered a cornerstone of watchmaking expertise and its teaching. Naturally he wrote about time, his work La Pendulerie remains the leading reference on the subject. But, he also wrote about his years with Miettes de Vie, as well as Calvin, another of his passions, and the transcription into modern French of his Traité des Scandales. Sometimes, he presented me with a manuscript, the result of an on-going train of thought, or a sermon (he preached in his local church), or perhaps the beginnings of a book. It was thus I once found myself in possession of the text for a conference he had given on Ferdinand Berthoud at the MIH (La Chaux-de-Fonds International Watch Museum), which was published on Watchonista in 2 instalments, parts 1 and  2. He had suddenly expressed astonishment at his lack of fame compared to other names of the same period. As was his nature, he stepped up to the plate and proceeded to 'set the record straight'.

Faith in a legacy

In this hour of sorrow, where minds are filled with memories, while the funeral ceremony goes on at the La Chaux-de-Fonds cemetery, I am compelled to share with you a few gems gleaned from this correspondence. Such as the following words alluding to the famous lines from Lamartine: "It is true that the finest hours always appear too short and others are always keen to curtail them and it is still one of the miseries of the human condition that happiness should appear short, and suffering, disease, imprisonment and ennui so interminable."

Jean-Claude Nicolet passed away after an illness that affected his mind and memory. Our thoughts are with his family. "Our years fade away and end like  sigh", he said to me once, quoting a verse from Psalms. And likewise, quoting the book of the prophet Hosea, "The appearing of the Lord is as sure as the dawn". From the top floor of his home in the Ruelle de l’Aurore, up on the hill above La Chaux-de-Fonds, he continued to invent and simplify the mechanical watchmaking process. He did so until his sluggish hands could no longer execute their deft manoeuvres, until, finally, his mind fell prey to deficiency and gave way in the above-mentioned home, robbing him of his memory and powers of recall. He made the Bible his bedside reading and made death the crossing point to Eternity. In tribute to the man, we bring you his following, hitherto unpublished last words.

Jean-Claude Nicolet, his last words

"Throughout my 5 years in the watchmaking industry and 37 years in education, I have always been a tracker of time. I have attempted to harness it in timepieces (chronometers), measure it using chronographs, or master it with the aid of regulators. Sadly, in this last case I lost the battle; time has remained unchanged, but it has left its mark on me in the form of age. I still have no idea what time is. I only know that two events can happen simultaneously or successively. When they happen successively, time is said to have elapsed. That's true, but what is time? A fat candle lit at night is almost out by the morning. Time, therefore, takes its toll. Time makes us old, but does it make us wise? But, above all, does time exist? I have never met time. None of my faculties sense time. I can't see it, I can't hear it. It is odourless, colourless, as flavourless as water and yet, like water, it flows. Invisible, intangible time is destroying me. I am dying with each passing hour and the last one will kill me. I'm not too worried about it, the last hour that kills is also the one that will carry me into an eternal bliss, unknown but not unexpected".

Prix Gaïa

The first artist/craftsman to receive this supreme mark of recognition in 1993, master watchmaker Jean-Claude Nicolet was succeeded in the same category by François-Paul Journe (1994), Michel Parmigiani (1995), Philippe Dufour (1998), George Daniels (2001) and Anthony G. Randall (2003). Leading experts who owe him an immense debt of gratitude and respect

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