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.
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.