Michel Parmigiani Makes It Work
Swiss watchmaker Michel Parmigiani describes his intimate knowledge of complications and restorations.
Interview by Jennifer Parker
Portrait by Philip Schaub
January 31, 2018
"Restoring antique timepieces saved me from nihilism," says Michael Parmigiani, world-renown horologist and founder of Parmigiani Fleurier.
You’ve spent your life making and restoring luxury watches. What keeps you going?
Curiosity. And the desire to discover this noble work.
Why is it noble?
It’s a vocation that requires mastery of your own hands, mastery of your actions. And before you can do that, you must first master your mind. It is a life discipline, similar to that of a surgeon. One must learn how to use tools, while maintaining complete control over them.
I’ve read that you initially wanted to be an architect. Is this true?
Architecture has always captivated me—building houses and bridges, the ability to measure and produce a certain form. It is a source of inexhaustible inspiration, and horology is very similar. At first, I really hesitated between these two professions. But there was a watchmaking school fifteen minutes from my place in Fleurier [in Western Switzerland]. So, I enrolled there.
Just a small selection of the many treasures hidden inside Mr. Parmigiani’s office.
You launched your brand in 1996. The watch world was a very different place then—we barely had the internet. What’s different now?
The simple parts of watchmaking have become industrialized, and computers certainly help us achieve more, and more rapidly. But in the end, a fine luxury watch must still be made by hand. Take our 1950 Tourbillon, for example. Its creation requires a very high-end process that we’ve been developing for twenty years. You need both machines and experienced watchmakers to deliver it. There is no other way to compose this work of art but by patience and experience.
Why did you choose the Toric Memory Time as your debut watch?
Before we launched, I was walking on a beach in Malaysia and picked up a shell with a striking shape. It was thick in front, but if you turned it just 45 degrees, it gave the impression of being very thin. I said to myself, When I launch my first watch, I’m going to capture this optical illusion. Toric Memory Time also displays a second time zone for travelers. For the launch, it was important to demonstrate my know-how, my savoir faire. This watch is particularly complex, and I’ve been developing different models of it ever since.
Parmigiani Fleurier's Toric Chronomètre in white gold (left) and rose gold (middle); Tonda 1950 Tourbillon (right) retails for $130,000.
Back in 2011, you created something called the Hijiri Calendar, which tracks the lunar cycles of the Islamic calendar. Why did that interest you?
The moon has great importance in our lives, and we don’t pay much attention to it. So I wanted to create a perpetual lunar calendar, which meant I had to be able to measure it. The lunar year is faster than the solar year, with difference of about 11 days. It’s not religious symbolism. It’s a scientific instrument that depicts the lunar cycle in mechanical form. When you look at it, you can see the days, months, and years of the moon.
This took years to develop. Did your colleagues call you crazy?
I’ve always been considered crazy for doing this job in the first place! When I started in watchmaking, the industry was in a quartz crisis. But, for me, it is very important to develop new projects and new ways of thinking—which allows the industry to evolve.
Mr. Parmigiani at the Fleurier atelier. Last year, he took home a double-win at Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, watchmaking's equivalent of the Academy Awards.
You also spent a great deal of time restoring a 200-year-old gold-and-pearl pistol that fires a chirping mechanical bird. Why?
It wasn’t working. Before launching my brand, I was known for restoring old timepieces, including pocket watches. When you see what has been created in the past, it’s very humbling. As for the pistol, it took a year and a half to restore. I ended up restoring three of them for our collection.
The world’s top watchmakers enlist your company—which employs roughly four hundred watchmakers, in five separate manufacturing houses—to make parts for their products. How do you explain what sets you apart?
We’re masters of the tools we use. We’re nimble, efficient, and one hundred percent Swiss-made. Not many houses can say that.
How do you see Parmigiani Fleurier evolving?
We don’t plan to buy anything, or expand. We just want to make beautiful mechanical watches and remain independent. Over the past twenty years, we’ve invested in a strong staff that has truly mastered the tourbillon and chronograph. Of course, we won’t stop there. In November, we launched a crazy new watch [the Parmigiani Fleurier Bugatti Type 390] that explores new movements.
For me, it’s simple: I want to break the rules and make something you cannot find anywhere else.
Parmigiani’s Fleurier headquarters, on a traditional-looking Swiss estate, in Val-de-Travers. More than one-third of the town's residents work in the watch industry.