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Philippe Dufour, simplicity itself

Philippe Dufour, simplicity itself

Wednesday, 26 July 2017
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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6 min read

A child of La Vallée de Joux and father of the legendary Simplicity, Philippe Dufour is considered a superstar by collectors the world over. Trails of pipe smoke, the gentle churning of antique machines, and scrupulous hand-finishing constitute the well-oiled mechanics of the master watchmaker’s days. We met him at his workshop, on the ground floor of the old schoolhouse in Le Solliat.

In traditional fine watchmaking, all roads lead to Philippe Dufour’s door. His workshop stands on the main street through Le Solliat; continue a short distance and you’ll come across the big-name Manufactures whose buildings line the roads that weave around the Joux Valley. It’s a squat, unassuming building, once the village school. There’s no shiny nameplate on the wall, no elaborate sign telling passers-by that behind this ordinary-looking door is a watchmaker revered by collectors the world over, especially in Japan. Not a word has been spoken and already the stage is set: authenticity, discretion and simplicity.

Philippe Dufour
While to anyone else, Philippe Dufour's workbench is an unfathomable mess, he knows precisely which tool is where. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13

What used to be the classroom has been his atelier since 1995, wrapped in the scent of tobacco mingled with wafts of old wood and metal. This is where Philippe Dufour welcomes visitors with the avuncular geniality of those who have nothing to prove. Only two of the five workbenches are in use. One is, of course, that of the master himself, with dozens of tools spread across its surface, arranged according to a system only he can understand – files, burnishers, buffs and pieces of gentian wood he’s picked up himself sit alongside components, sketches and cases. The other bench belongs to Paco, a watchmaker now retired from Audemars Piguet who, for the past year, has been assisting Philippe Dufour part-time with the same eagerness to learn as a young apprentice. Silence reigns over this organised chaos. Beyond the windows, fields and forest stretch to infinity.

Philippe Dufour
His workbench affords a view of the surrounding countryside. At the edge of the meadow begins the forest where he volunteers as a nature warden. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
Watchmaker without borders

Philippe Dufour was born in La Vallée de Joux in 1948, one of four children in a working-class family. “My father was sick with polio. My elder brother left home early on, so when I turned 15 my parents wanted me to stay close by, which meant learning a trade here in the valley,” he recalls. “I had a good head and knew how to use my hands, but maths wasn’t my strong point. I was told I was only fit to become a watchmaker. At the end of the day, I can’t really say I chose my profession.” On graduating from the Ecole Technique in Le Sentier in 1967, he was yearning for adventure and so packed his bag and flew to Germany, where he began his career in after-sales at Jaeger-LeCoultre. Not long after, he was sent across the Channel to reorganise the brand’s after-sales service in the UK. Then it was goodbye Europe as he headed for Saint Croix, a Caribbean island 25 miles long, and at that time home to no fewer than 14 watch “factories”. For two years, he honed his skills and his eyesight under the neon lights of a corrugated iron building belonging to the General Watch Company. The experience was cut short by the fall in the dollar. The factory closed and Philippe Dufour had no choice than to bid farewell to the lush palm trees and scorching hot sun. These early experiences left him with one conviction: “Watchmaking is universal. It can be done absolutely anywhere.”

Philippe Dufour
The workshop is filled with dozens of antique machines, swathed in the smell of oil and tobacco. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13

At the height of the “quartz crisis”, Philippe Dufour decided to go back to his roots. After a stint at Audemars Piguet, in 1978 he set up on his own. It was his declaration of independence, a time spent restoring watches and producing grandes complications – many for the firm he had just left. It was a time of well-earned success, as well as some harsh realities. “Restoration work kept me going for five years,” he says. “In 1992 I came out with the Grande Sonnerie and in 2000 the Simplicity. I finally managed to break even in 2003.”

Philippe Dufour
Two versions of the Simplicity. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
Big in Japan

Philippe Dufour didn’t yet know it, but the Simplicity (n° 000 has never left his wrist) would be his masterstroke. A lesson in classicism with its time-only display of hours, minutes and small seconds, it was greeted with uncontained enthusiasm, and exalted by Dufour’s Japanese admirers in particular. Of the 204 he has produced over 17 years, 120 are sitting on wrists in Japan. Like his friend Antoine Preziuso (who, incidentally, slipped him the smart idea of creating a model for the Japanese market), Philippe Dufour is a star in the Land of the Rising Sun. “I get two or three emails a week with requests, but I hate working under pressure. I set the deadlines. I remember an English buyer who agreed to wait six years for his watch!” At almost 70 years of age, retirement is clearly not on the agenda. While the Duality, the watch with twin escapements that he introduced in 1996, may not have had the same success as the Simplicity, some sixty requests are still waiting to be fulfilled, simply through lack of time.

Philippe Dufour
Thanks to Paco, retired from Audemars Piguet, Philippe Dufour has found the ideal "apprentice" to assist him part-time. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
Fan club

As well as trying to keep up with orders for the Simplicity with Paco’s help, Dufour has a project on the go for a reissue of the Grande Sonnerie minute repeater pocket watch that will make a Chinese collector very happy. He also has a couple of trips to Japan planned; he regularly teaches at the Tokyo watchmaking school, in particular lessons on hand-finishing such as chamfering and countersinking – techniques he didn’t learn himself in school. He deplores the fact these skills are no longer part of the curriculum. “Students are taught according to what companies need. Knowledge, the tradition of hand-finishing, it’s all withering away. I’m trying to stem the loss as far as I’m able.” This is one reason why the door to his workshop remains open to whomever wishes to pierce the secrets of the watchmaker’s art. And, why not, to investors too. His trademark pipe still producing a trail of smoke, Philippe Dufour leaves us at the threshold of this former schoolhouse and now temple of watchmaking skills, passed down by word of mouth. “I’m my own man,” he muses with a smile. “I speak my mind. At my age, I’m entitled to!” An authentic watchmaker and meticulous crafter, these few words say it all: Philippe Dufour is simplicity itself.

Philippe Dufour
Philippe Dufour has made his workshop on the ground floor of this house which, until 1995, was the Le Solliat village school. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
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