In the slightly bizarre world of high luxury, the recency of Swiss watches is anathema. Newness is something that is not only frowned upon, but actively campaigned against.
For instance, walk into any one of the two major watch fairs that are held each year in Basel or Geneva.
Watchmaking heritage: (Clockwise from far left) Michel Parmigiani; the company’s manufacturing unit at Fleurier; and the Fibonacci-Savonette pocket watch.
You will find only two kinds of brands. The kind that can and will say they have been around for centuries—“Depuis 1775”, “Since 1843” and so on—and the kind that can’t and, therefore, won’t. Revered brands, such as Breguet, work their provenance into their logos. Ancient years, important dates and reproductions of ancient documents and photographs line the walls of their booths and the pages of their catalogues.
Upstarts prefer to talk about amorphous ideas, such as “Swiss watchmaking heritage”, to deflect attention from their recent births. Sometimes they have to resort to using double the gold and triple the number of diamonds to get noticed.
Which is why it is somewhat extraordinary to see the respect accorded to Parmigiani Fleurier by other brands. The brand, as we know it today, was established in the Swiss village of Fleurier by master watchmaker Michel Parmigiani in 1997. It is just 14 years old—a period that barely registers on the timeline of Swiss watchmaking (to put this in perspective, Rolex has been making its classic Oyster Perpetual Submariner range since 1954, shortly after Michel Parmigiani was born).
Yet, talk to any of the large or small brands that exhibited along with Parmigiani at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) watch fair in Geneva, and they talk about “Parm” with ungrudging respect. This is not an upstart that has unleashed marketing millions (in fact, it is anything but. Almost all of Parmigiani’s regional brand managers, and some of their retailers, talk of the need for much greater investment in marketing and communication).
Gilded secret: (left) A close-up of the movement of a Parmigiani watch; and the Parmigiani Bugatti Atalante, around Rs1.24 crore.
The reason for this, for the time being, is the watchmaking skill of the man whose name is on the building. Since going into business as a watchmaker and restorer in 1976, Michel Parmigiani has developed a reputation for both restoring extraordinary timepieces and, more recently, creating new ones.
“It is quite extraordinary to see my name there,” said Michel Parmigiani through an interpreter in January at the SIHH fair in Geneva. “It is humbling. But also a little scary. Now, I have to do everything I can to uphold the brand.”
Michel Parmigiani speaks in bursts. He listens intently to your questions and usually doesn’t wait for his interpreter to finish. Then he speaks quickly and somewhat impatiently. Once he is done he seems to withdraw a little, waiting for the translation to be complete.
At least once or twice later at the fair I spotted him strolling around his own booth, the one with his name all over it, like a curious visitor—peering into displays. Reading labels. While he doesn’t comically trip over things or pick up a Mars bar to answer a phone call, there is more of the absent-minded professor to Michel Parmigiani than immediately meets the eye.
The Parmigiani head office in Fleurier is housed in a three-storey building that looks like nothing but the home of a wealthy provincial administrator of some kind. The building belongs to the Sandoz family, the billionaire Swiss pharma heirs who are also the patrons of the brand. Michel Parmigiani began his association with the family when he began restoring antique clocks and timepieces from the Sandoz collection in the 1970s.
Across the road from the head office is a more modern building, one of a complex of manufacturing facilities owned by Parmigiani that exist within a 2-hour radius of the head office by road. While the lower floors of this complex house large, loud, unromantic machines that make watch cases, the uppermost floor houses the restoration section.
The genesis of the brand is here, where Parmigiani and a couple of understudies bring back to life watches made hundreds of years ago. When we visited the office two months ago one of the pieces undergoing refurbishment was a small vanity pistol with a tiny watch built into the handle. A pull of the trigger and a tiny bird pops out of the barrel. Then, inside the pistol, a system of bellows begins to operate. And the bird begins to sing. And flap its wings.
The effect is mesmerizing. The bird is no bigger than a thumbnail. Yet its wings have textures, its eyes glitter. The birdsong is both beautiful and precise, each note crystal clear.
And it is all achieved with clockwork. The pistol is around two centuries old. Hardly any drawings or notes exist and all parts that need to be replaced need to be made by hand. In short, this is exactly the kind of challenge that built Michel Parmigiani’s reputation.
Starting with restoration work in 1976, Parmigiani slowly began to make movements for other brands. Over time, his work found its way into watches by brands such as Chopard and Breguet. Meanwhile, he also became the sole restorer of timepieces for the extensive Sandoz Family Foundation collection. Then in the early 1990s, the foundation wondered why it wasn’t capitalizing on Parmigiani’s considerable skills.
In 1997, the brand Parmigiani Fleurier was born and shortly thereafter a series of collections were launched for men and women—Tonda, Kalpa, Pershing and the Bugatti watches.
The best place to start looking at a Parmigiani watch is from the side. Note the unique shape of the lugs—the bits of metal that connect the strap to the case. See how the lugs have the profile of a slightly curved tear drop. That might seem like the outcome of a freeform curve with a pen on a piece of paper.
It is not.
“In 1969, I discovered the golden ratio while reading a mathematics text book. That has completely changed the way I look at life,” Michel Parmigiani told us.
The golden ratio is a number that approximately equals 1.618033. For centuries it has been associated with a certain divine mathematics and divine proportions. Building things in this ratio makes them, it is believed, more pleasing to the eye. Everything from Greek buildings, Da Vinci’s paintings and even the newest version of Twitter’s homepage have been found to contain the golden ratio.
Parmigiani referred to it as the “number of mystery”, the “number of life” and the “divine proportion”. He implements it in some interesting places. Those lugs are designed using the golden ratio and are a signature aspect of most Parmigiani watches: “You can identify if someone is wearing a Parmigiani just by getting a glimpse of the lugs from inside his cuffs…”
The letters in the brand logo are also inspired thus.
“Why is the Taj Mahal so beautiful?” he asks. “Simple. It is built using the golden ratio!”
Michel Parmigiani is at his most effusive when we are talking not about business or brands or history, but when he is asked about mathematicians such as Fibonacci and Luca Pacioli, and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright.
“Architecture and watchmaking are totally related,” he says. “In both cases, you use a series of rules and ratios to build things for human use.”
The products of Parmigiani’s mathematics are slowly beginning to get their due. The collection, in comparison with older brands, may not have any classic or collector items yet. But it is only a matter of time. The Pershing, for instance, is a superb sports watch that is brutally masculine yet very refined.
The watch Parmigiani himself was wearing when we met him, the GMT Tonda Hemispheres, is both sharp and sensual. The deft touch in choosing playful numerals gives the watch tremendous personality.
The Bugatti watches are brash and gimmicky. But they did get noticed. This year, Parmigiani launched a limited-edition lunar table clock that works with the Muslim Hegirian calendar. Michel Parimigiani said: “That is a tremendously difficult project to execute. One you can do only once in a while. Otherwise, you will go mad. The movement is so different from regular clocks.”
In a business where brands vie to prove their ancient heritage, it is rare to see a new brand garner respect. Parmigiani is doing it for the right reasons: movements, design, craftsmanship, and Michel Parmigiani’s mathematics.
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