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05-28-2012, 02:37 AM #1
Dominique Loiseau on Girard-Perregaux: Q&A
French-born watchmaker Dominique Loiseau first caught the attention of watch collectors in the 1980s, the great wasteland years of the mechanical watch industry when quartz ruled the watch-world roost. His complex and creative inventions, such the Rose des Temps clock, the Blancpain 1735 wristwatch and the 1f4 models from his own independent atelier, have made him a legend among the collector community. Early this year, Loiseau joined Girard-Perregaux to strengthen its “think tank.” Here, in an exclusive interview, Loiseau tells WatchTime about his life in watchmaking and his plans for strengthening G-P as a 21st-century manufacture.
WT: At what age did you develop a passion for watchmaking?
DL: It was kind of a voyage… a pilgrimage of discovery. It started with an interest in literature and philosophy. In my teenage years, I was very attracted by the great thinkers, creators, and poets — Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the Serialist movement. But at the same time I was very attracted to mathematics and philosophy. So it was a clash between two very different types of thinking. On one hand there was the freedom of poetry, the creative license, but on the other there was the rigor of mathematics and philosophy. And in a way, I wanted to find the natural extension of all of that, but with my hands. I was around 19 when I realized, and I still insist, that mechanical watchmaking lets you do this. It has the technological rigor of mathematics, but it also allows a way of expressing oneself, almost as if it were painting — there’s this kind of visual pleasure and visual delight when you look at the finished product, but at the same time there’s real mathematical discipline that goes with it.
WT: Because of what was happening in the mechanical-watch world in the 1970s and into the ‘80s with the rise of quartz, did you have much encouragement to go into watchmaking as a career?
DL: Definitely not! Clearly, quartz had invaded the world; it was a new technology. But there’s something that everybody forgot to bear in mind back then: all a quartz watch can do for you is tell you what the exact time is. Well, I was absolutely convinced that the world of mechanical watchmaking had a magnificent future before it, on one condition: that we could take up the challenge to inject some of the human concerns, the issues of mankind, into the process of mechanical watchmaking.
Loiseau entered mechanical watchmaking at a time when it had been left for dead by the quartz revolution.
WT: When did you decide to go to watchmaking school and what was your first job in watchmaking?
DL: At first there were problems. In secondary school, I studied literature and philosophy. Now, in France, they stick a label on you, and once you’ve got that label, there’s no way to “cross over,” no bridge whereby you could learn a manual trade. There was only one such school in France, located 80 kilometers from Paris. It was a semi-private school and I had to get a scholarship from the French state. You had to get a public scholarship if you lacked the means, and I didn’t have the means. Now, the whole point of this school was restoring antique watches, which meant that as a student you had to be capable of manufacturing, really, any part that was needed. So we worked with the old, antique pocketwatches and clocks from legends like Jaquet Droz, Breguet and others. But the whole challenge was to create parts in the same style as the originals that were made way back when. The disadvantage was that we knew all of these different styles, we knew the world of these antique watches, but we didn’t really know anything about modern-day watchmaking.
Switzerland, of course, was the El Dorado, the Mecca of modern-day watchmaking. So, of course I wanted to emigrate to Switzerland, and I did so precisely at the time when everyone was saying mechanical watchmaking in Switzerland was over and done. But I continued my studies, I got my degree and then the past caught up with me, so to speak, because precisely when I finished my studies there was a competitive examination to be a craftsman and teacher at the Museum of Fine Watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds. That was how I started my career in mechanical watchmaking. It was strange, because I was only 24, and I was sometimes teaching students who were quite a bit older than I. So I was still restoring antique watches, but this was really intensely frustrating for me because I was restoring what the great masters had done, but there was no creative license; I couldn’t be creative myself.
In 1981 there was kind of a turning point; prices of antique watches were falling and the whole career of restoring them was on shaky ground. I felt this irresistible impulse to make my first piece, my first watch. I named it “Renaissance,” because for me it marked a kind of renaissance in mechanical watchmaking. It was interesting because the headlines were saying that this was the last bit of fireworks for the world of mechanical watchmaking, the swan song. But I kept at it, creating different pieces and especially one idea that really shook things up, called La Rose des Temps. It had rose petals that would open every half hour and then close again on the half hour. It would do a complete rotation every 12 hours, and it had a base with 16 different modules; you could change the position of these modules and create your own motifs. Inside this creation, I tried to invoke all of the major themes, the recurrent themes in humanity. There was the idea of pollution, represented by a minute repeater in which you could see waves, but the waves were polluted. There was a reference to Guernica, a reference to Kafka, a reference to the myth of Sisyphus, the guy who keeps rolling the stone uphill and it keeps rolling back down. This really hit like a bombshell, because in 1985, it sold for 4.5 million Swiss francs, and for mechanical watchmaking, that was a first in the history of the sector.
Traditional watchmaking techniques are the rule at Atelier Loiseau
WT: Was La Rose des Temps a unique piece?
DL: Yes. But it went all over the world, to all these different cities for a year. And it made the headlines on the TV news; everyone saw it as a kind of political statement. It was also a statement that things were finally starting to move in the world of mechanical watchmaking and that mechanical watchmaking can still move people, can trigger emotions. It really was the start of something new. So in 1982, 1983, because this creation had so shaken things up, moves started being made at firms like Blancpain and Audemars Piguet and by people like Gérald Genta. We were the pioneers. And if you look at where mechanical watchmaking is today, it’s because that’s when things started to move again. We really threw ourselves into this body and soul. We realized that we had to create an event, not just tinker away in a corner and develop magnificent movements that nobody ever knew about. There had to be a statement.
WT: So when the mechanical watch industry really come back in the 1990s, what was your next step?
DL: Everything that I had created before then was limited by the tools that were available. The problem was volume: you couldn’t do any kind of large-scale production and you couldn’t work in really tiny dimensions. Today, if you come to a watch manufacturer and look around, you’ll see we are using a lot of the same traditional tools that they used back in the 18th century for pocketwatches and grandfather clocks, but they are much more precise; they allow us to work with much greater precision.
WT: Tell me about how you came to work with major brands like Blancpain.
DL: Jean-Claude Biver, who was running Blancpain at the time, was a man who was moved by the same passions as I am, and he had a love for challenges. But I’d say I had an even greater challenge than he did and I’ll explain why. Biver was really into the haute horology concept, so that they brought out a new complication about every 18 months. He would say, “I’ve got this idea: we’re going to put three complications in the same watch.” I said, “We could, but in the time it takes, someone else will put four complications in a watch. Why don’t we shoot for the moon and go for six right away?” So this is how the adventure started. It was three years in development and the idea was to produce 30 pieces. And we had to rely on the technology of the era. This was around the time computers entered the watchmaking industry. The Blancpain 1735 was designed using auto CAD software that ran on an old IBM system, really pre-history in terms of computers. We were pioneers; nobody was using that at the time, but we saw what we could get out of it. So we used computers as we could, but when it came to actually manufacturing the watch, we used traditional techniques, to achieve the intrinsic beauty of a fine mechanical piece. Over a few years, we produced 14 out of the 30 pieces. Then I took some time off from that project and I did some other things for the Swatch Group, and that’s when I met Michele Sofisti [now CEO of Sowind Group, which owns Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard].
Loiseau collaborated with Jean-Claude Biver on the groundbreaking Blancpain 1735
05-28-2012, 02:38 AM #2
WT: What was interesting to you about Girard-Perregaux specifically, and what can you tell me about the work that you’re doing for that brand?
DL: After [my work with the Swatch Group], I continued with some of my own projects, the Atelier Loiseau watches. My last creation was the Loiseau 1F4, of which my atelier produces only two per year. Then I came to Girard-Perregaux at the invitation of Mr. Sofisti, who wanted me to work with him. When I look at G-P, I see two things. First, its history and background is genuine. It’s not just a brand; there’s a whole history behind it. Also, it is a real manufacture that reflects many of my own philosophies. And now, there’s this incredible challenge that we’re going to take up together. In all of the watchmaking industry, what do you see? You see people that design things kind of opportunistically. Often, there’s no internal coherency within the product assortment. Let me draw a parallel with the automobile world. Let’s say that you’re going to design this incredible V12 engine. And then you’re going to derive a V8 model, a V6 and a V4 model from that V12. You’re going to vary the complications, but you’re going to have a common starting point. For the first time in the watchmaking world, we intend to have a 100 percent coherency within the whole product line. Whether you’re buying the V8 model, the V6 model, the V4 model, it all comes from the V12 model. It’s a little chunk of that dream that starts with the top-of-the-line model. This is our goal.
As an independent watchmaker, Loiseau produces limited, complicated models like the 1f4 Grand Sonnerie Complication..
WT: Does that mean you will be starting with a very complicated base movement and making simpler versions of that movement?
DL: The base will always be the common denominator. Then we can take one element away, or change or modify another. But it’s all from the same starting point.
WT: Will this be a revamp of the entire Girard-Perregaux collection, or a new family within the brand’s portfolio?
DL: I wouldn’t say it’s a new family; it will be in a similar spirit to Girard-Perregaux’s Opera models, which are already part of the collection, and represent the brand’s highest levels of haute horlogerie. Hopefully it will have an impact on the whole collection.
WT: Is it also a goal that Girard-Perregaux will no longer use any outside movements?
DL: G-P already produces a number of its own movements and components, but here we’re not just talking about a policy change for the sake of change, we’re trying to really strengthen the manufacture. Everybody says, “We have a manufacture,” but not everyone really has one that really meets the definition, so there’s no point in bullshitting people. What really counts is transparency, and the whole idea is to strengthen G-P on the ground as a manufacture, which also gives it a lot more creative license. When we’re producing something, you don’t have to say, “Well, I have to go source this part from Company X or Y.” This means that you can really take over more and more of the production process yourself. Obviously, this is not something that happens overnight; it will probably take two or three years. But this is really where we’re moving now.
Loiseau's work for Girard-Perregaux will produce haut-de-gamme models like the brand's Opera One (above).
"The whole idea is to strengthen G-P as a manufacture," says Loiseau of his role at the historic Swiss brand.
05-28-2012, 05:33 AM #3
Amazing work, and an amazing guy