Michel Parmigiani’s timeless approach to horology
Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier, at Palladio in Vancouver, surrounded by timepieces that bear his name. ( Photography by Milos Tosic )
Michel Parmigiani is on time for his interview. Exactly on time, if you must know. Which, of course, is exactly what you’d expect of a master horologist. As the designer and craftsman behind some of the world’s most distinctive, most prestigious timepieces, Parmigiani has developed an acute sense of time — not only the function of it, but the beauty of it too.
Parmigiani has been making time march on for over four decades now, first as a restorer of centuries-old clocks, pocket watches, and other mechanical wonders. “It was curiosity that made me enter this profession,” Parmigiani says. “My curiosity led me to the horology of the past.”
But there was also a bigger idea that led him to take up the ancient trade of watchmaking in his native Switzerland. “I was alone against the current for about twenty years,” Parmigiani reflects. During the height of Swatches and quartz watches, “everybody advised me to abandon this trade and go into banking, or insurance. But I found it very sad that the younger generation didn’t know about this legacy. Because this is culture — this is important.”
And so Parmigiani became a defender of what is perhaps the most iconic part of Swiss culture: craftsmanship. “I saw the excellence in fabrication across the ages. I [wanted] to continue this lineage.”
Reverence for the past, inspiration for the present: A 19th-century masterpiece by English jewellers Vardon and Stedman (left) was one of the first Parmigiani virtuosically restored and is the inspiration for Parmigiani’s Ovale Pantographe (right). The telescopic hands of both timepieces extend and shorten as the hours go by to follow the contours of the elliptical case.
Much of Parmigiani’s early career was spent restoring the extensive collection of the Sandoz family, heirs to the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. The collection includes a range of timepieces and automata of historic importance, including several works from Carl Fabergé. There are over 100 pieces in total, spanning 500 years of history. Such was the Sandoz’ faith in Parmigiani’s abilities that they made him the primary restorer and conservator of the entire collection.
To this day, his reputation as a restorer is unsurpassed, in part because of his work restoring several timepieces that stand on the border between history and art. Case in point: the Pendule Sympathique, an 18th-century pendulum clock by Breguet with a self-winding stopwatch at the top. To auction house Sotheby’s, the piece was considered unrepairable. To Parmigiani, it was simply one more test of his mettle. After 2,000 hours of painstaking restoration by Parmigiani and his team, the piece went on the auction block and was purchased by the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. Many could hardly believe it.
The process of restoration (very different from repair — a distinction Parmigiani is quick to point out) led him to develop a reverence for past techniques, and a humility in the face of what the artisans of previous ages were able to accomplish. “We are constantly fascinated,” Parmigiani says. “To [make] all this — who had machines? It is an extraordinary thing.” The atmosphere in his restoration rooms is “church-like,” he tells us.
In 1996, after manufacturing parts admired and utilized by those at the pinnacle of the industry, Parmigiani struck out on his own and created a new luxury brand, Parmigiani Fleurier. The name pays homage to Parmigiani’s home village in the west of Switzerland. Two centuries ago, the town was home to “farmer-watchmakers,” some of the finest watchmakers in the world, a cottage industry of skilled artisans who tended the fields in the summers and built watches in the long Alpine winters. After suffering from an exodus of talent following the introduction of mass-produced quartz watches, the village regained its reputation for making the world’s best mechanical watches, in the 1990s. Currently, the industry and its related sectors employ over 700 artisans.
And “artisan” is the operative word. Speak with Parmigiani for a while and you get the sense that watchmaking is a trade where tradition, profit, and engineering go hand in hand with artwork. His manufacturers carve gorgeous designs into even the tiniest pieces before laying them inside the heart of each watch where they may never be seen again. Why?
One of the first timepieces Parmigiani developed after founding his brand, the Tonda 1950, remains an iconic example of the master horologist’s penchant for the “concord” between art and engineering.
“If you asked Parmigiani producers ‘Why decorate the inside pieces of clockwork?’ they would look at you like you were crazy,” Parmigiani announces with pride. “That’s simply the tradition: it’s simply how things are done and how they’ve always been done by these Swiss farmer-watchmakers… beauty inside and out.”
And it’s also the way it’s being done now. While the rest of the world has embraced mass production of battery-powered digital watches, Parmigiani Fleurier has stubbornly done the opposite, embracing age-old techniques. In an average year, the company will make only about 6,000 timepieces, including several bespoke pieces. Each one of those is handmade, and each one of them takes about 400 hours of labour to manufacture.
Instead of making his business simpler, Parmigiani looks forward to taking on exceptionally challenging movements: Parmigiani himself has created watches based on lunar calendars, perpetual calendars, even Islamic calendars. His famous Bugatti Super Sport model made a splash in the automotive world by having its dial and face shifted 90 degrees — so drivers aren’t required to turn their wrists while their hands are locked at ten and two. Such artistry doesn’t come cheap: the price for the Bugatti Super Sport is north of $230,000USD.
“We create contemporary pieces, in the image of the past,” Parmigiani says. It’s not just the craft of the past that Parmigiani wants to resurrect — it’s also the philosophy. “There must be an agreement between the mechanical and the aesthetic,” Parmigiani explains. “That’s why I created the brand.”
You can see these ideas on display when you hold a Parmigiani Fleurier. The 1950 Tonda model (so named for the year of the founder’s birth) is just one example. The design is one of the first the company created, with a simple, refined elegance that transcends fashion or trend. All the detailing has been done by hand, down to the screw holes. The model has a transparent caseback, so you can see the movements in all their glory. Indeed, this sense of transparency is a hallmark of Parmigiani’s work: “It’s a showcase for the horology,” says Parmigiani. “It is, for me, the [relationship] between the exterior and the interior — the interior is immaculate.”
Is it a joy, this work? “Yes, yes, of course,” Parmigiani says. There’s a gleam in his eyes when he says it, a slight smile on his face. And that’s when you understand: Parmigiani’s products are about time, his brand is about timelessness. And ultimately, so is the man.
Parmigiani Fleurier timepieces are exclusively available at Palladio in Vancouver.
Images Courtesy of Parmigiani Fleurier / Photography by Milos Tosic
Placing the flying tourbillon in the Tonda 1950. The delicate mechanism improves accuracy by counteracting the disruptive influence of gravity on the components inside the timepiece.