The challenges of life in a global health crisis have compelled millions of people to reset. Early in the SA lockdown, time seemed to stand still. Five months later, the opposite is true. “Time is flying” is the slogan Swiss luxury watchmaker Parmigiani applied to their hot air balloon, purchased a few years ago after sponsoring an international hot air balloon event.
My mind veers between imagining the views of Château d'Œx, in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland, as the balloon floats over mountains in a slow waltz, and the tension connected to events timed with a flyback chronograph (which allows you to reset the timer without first stopping the chronograph), channelling the stress of surviving current economic conditions. The Parmigiani Bugatti Aerolithe Flyback Chronograph, from 2014, is much admired and there’s the Parmigiani Toric Chronograph that Prince Charles wears.
This year, Parmigiani unveiled a flying tourbillon in the Toric collection. “It’s in a larger, 43mm case, with the cage at 7 o’ clock, on an engraved slate dial — the perfect example of timeless, classic watchmaking,” says Parmigiani CEO Davide Traxler.
Mentally, I reset again. I prefer to follow the unexpected musical theme to my recent interview with Traxler. It’s a passion we share with the watchmaker himself. “Music is like watchmaking: it exists whenever a tempo is set — it becomes sublime only when we devote our heart and soul to it,” said Michel Parmigiani.
Speaking in isolation from his home in Fleurier, Traxler gives me insight into some of the new designs as well as the history of this young brand launched in 1996. Parmigiani opened his first workshop two decades earlier.
“I think it was Mahler, the musician, who said that when executing classical music, you have to keep the fire alive, rather than celebrate ashes,” says Traxler. “That’s what watchmaking is all about. It’s a technique that’s 300 years old. Rather than celebrating ashes, we have to keep the fire alive with something that’s contemporary. It’s that kind of challenge when you’re in a traditional trade like ours. It’s always difficult.”
That is, unless you are the calibre of watchmaker that Michel Parmigiani is, surrounded by expert craftsmen who work at the cutting edge of watchmaking. His skill as a restorer set him on this path, his reputation leading him to restore precious pieces for the Patek Philippe museum, among others. “Our history and vision are about maintaining mechanical treasures and wonders of the past through restoration and conservation,” says Traxler.
“Meanwhile, our watchmaking hub supports Parmigiani Fleurier and many of our colleague brands in building great timepieces of the future.”
During Watches & Wonders 2020, a digital platform for this year’s new luxury watch releases, Parmigiani also revealed timepieces with “deep-sky aventurine dials and rainbow settings that symbolize hope after the downpour”.
The aventurine dial of the Metropolitaine is a standout feature for me, as is the lacework on the mother-of-pearl Tonda Selene dial. “Aventurine in itself is a challenge. It means a lot of research to choose the right piece to cut in order to get exactly the right amount of insertion for that night-sky effect. Not too much; not too little. It has to be properly done. It’s something we’re very proud of,” says Traxler.
“Lacework on gold is a process we really integrated properly in the past year in our dial factory. Bonding anything to mother of pearl requires a complex treatment, one I think we’ve mastered. We find it rather beautiful ... mixing all the traditional know-hows with a look that has something contemporary. That’s the whole challenge in watchmaking.”
The Metropolitaine collection features VS1 diamonds, the highest level of clarity for the stone size, which is validated by a certificate. “Women understand diamond quality, and that’s something we have to address. It’s why we chose VS1 for the collection,” says Traxler. “I think diamond quality, in general, in watchmaking has gone down. That’s why we thought we’d be different.”
Parmigiani’s market in SA, as for most of the world, is 40% ladies. “That is unusual. Most brands are dominated by men. We’re not gender defined, if you like,” says Traxler.
Traxler was CEO at Chopard Italy for 12 years before taking up the position of COO at Swiss luxury brand Corum. He has headed up Parmigiani since 2018. I wonder what it is about the brand that excites him?
“We have everything with the movement factory, dial factory, case factory ... we can really make things at our own hub that are remarkable. Parmigiani started as a timepiece restorer and we are the only brand to offer restoration for all pieces by all brands. That makes us unique,” says Traxler. “We want to maintain the patrimony of pieces around the world, even if the brand doesn’t exist anymore. That’s special.”
The establishment of the hub is based on the idea of sharing. Watchmaking was traditionally a selfish business, Traxler explains. “If you had a secret, you kept it within your manufacture. You didn’t share it. That brought manufacturers to wanting to do everything in-house to prove that they had a different way, a better way.
“What I find interesting is the concept of the hub. We are completely open about sharing our know-how, tools and workmen with those who want to come and take advantage of it. That’s why so many high-end brands come to us and produce either parts, or whole watches, or whole movements or cases or dials within our hub. It’s a selfless approach towards our colleagues. We don’t call them competitors. Their success is our success. It’s a very different approach to the trade. That’s what I find charming.”
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