Laurent Ferrier grew up in a kind of watch paradise. As a boy returning after school to his family’s apartment in Geneva, he came face to face with exquisite timepieces every day. His father restored and repaired complicated watches and clocks in a workshop directly across from Vacheron Constantin.
The family’s apartment was above the workshop; to reach it, Ferrier traversed the shop, passing his father at his bench, surrounded by the rare treasures he was fixing. Ferrier’s maternal and paternal grandfathers had also been watchmakers. Both nature and nurture, it seemed, dictated that young Ferrier become an avid watch lover.
He didn’t. “I was not that passionate about watches,” Ferrier, 69, recalled matter-of-factly one recent afternoon in the Plan-les-Ouates headquarters of the watch company he founded. He did study watchmaking, at the Geneva Watchmaking School, and did extraordinarily well there: after graduating he got a job in the movement-prototype department of Patek Philippe. But he entered watchmaking chiefly for the sake of family tradition, he says.
So where did the young man’s passion really lie? “I was more interested in cars than watches,” Ferrier says. So interested that he left Patek after a relatively short stint to take a job in the car industry. Three years later, Patek hired him back to head up a new technical department devoted to the so-called “appearance parts” of the watch: the case, dial, hands, etc. Patek Philippe’s then owner and president, Henri Stern, and his son, Philippe Stern, would bring to Ferrier drawings of watches they wanted to manufacture. Ferrier’s job was to realize the designs by finding the right component makers.
Ferrier liked the job. But automobiles kept their hold on him. When not working, Ferrier drove race cars. Although he was an amateur, he vied with professional drivers, and drove in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race seven times in the 1970s and ’80s. It so happened that one of his racing teammates was another amateur, a French entrepreneur named François Servanin. In 1979, the team scored a triumph at Le Mans: it finished in third place (just behind Paul Newman’s team). Not bad for a couple of hobbyists. To celebrate the event, Ferrier gave Servanin a watch made by his employer, a Nautilus. The gift gave Servanin an idea: Ferrier knew high-end watches. He himself knew the ins and outs of business. He declared to Ferrier, “I promise you, one day we will launch our own watch brand.”
Nearly three decades passed. The men remained friends. Ferrier continued to work at Patek Philippe. Servanin continued to dream of starting a watch brand. They kicked the idea around from time to time but never acted on it. Then, one day in 2008, Servanin, then 67, had a carpe diem moment. Time was running out, he knew. He approached Ferrier, then 62, with an entreaty. “This is our last chance,” he said. Ferrier could not pass it up. He resigned from Patek Philippe, three years before he was due to retire, to found, with Servanin’s financial backing, the Laurent Ferrier brand.
Usually, Ferrier points out, a major investor in a watch brand has a very clear idea about the kind of watches the brand should produce. Not Servanin. He gave Ferrier carte blanche to do anything he wanted. If the watch sold, good. If not, they’d take another tack.
Ferrier’s son Christian joined the new company. He had worked at the high-end movement company La Fabrique du Temps, founded by Enrico Barbasini and Michel Navas (and today owned by LVMH). The Ferriers enlisted Barbasini and Navas to work on the brand’s first watch, a tourbillon with two balance springs, called a Straumann Double Balance Spring (named for the inventor of the Nivarox balance-spring alloy, Reinhold Straumann).