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).
The use of two springs rather than one is meant to compensate for the effects of gravity on the watch balance: the two springs ensure that the balance’s center of gravity is always at the precise middle. The movement, Caliber FBN 916.01 (the initials stand for Ferrier Barbasini Navas), had a power reserve of 80 hours.
The watch was called the Galet Classic Tourbillon Double Spiral. It debuted in 2010.
Some of the watch’s features would become hallmarks of the brand. These include its case (the galet in the name is French for “pebble,” a reference to the case’s smooth contours), the arrowhead-shaped hour hand, and the simple design of the dial. The tourbillon is visible only from the back of the watch. Through the caseback you can also see two bridges with what Ferrier calls a trompe l’oeil construction that makes them look at first glance like four bridges. This is an homage to the observatory pocketwatches of yore. (Two bridges are better than four because they enable better rate performance, Ferrier says.)
The watch was a hit with connoisseurs. The year it came out it won the prize for best new men’s watch in the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Ferrier says the prize helped greatly in raising consumer awareness of the brand. Although people liked the watch, few could afford it: the price was 185,000 Swiss francs. Collectors asked Ferrier to make something more affordable.
The next year, 2011, Laurent Ferrier unveiled the Galet Micro-Rotor, priced at SF44,000 and SF45,500 for rose and white gold, respectively, and containing Caliber FNB 229.01.
It has some unusual technical features. Ferrier knew he could not simply introduce a three-hand watch with a Swiss lever escapement. If he tried to market such a watch, he would be competing with the likes of Patek Philippe and Breguet, whose prices he couldn’t match because of his tiny output —just a few watches a year — and high labor costs. He needed something unusual to set himself apart from the big brands.
So he incorporated a rare type of escapement, a so-called “natural” escapement, in which two escape wheels apply impulses to the balance in both directions of its rotation. Ferrier compares it to “a swing being pushed in both directions.” The energy transmitted to the balance is thus maintained at its peak level, he says. The advantages of the escapement are that it improves efficiency and enables more precise timekeeping.
The natural escapement is not a new idea; Abraham-Louis Breguet invented it in the late 18th century. Ferrier’s escapement is a modified version of that device, with fewer components. Breguet made very few watches with natural escapements. The device never came into widespread use in part because in pre-CNC-machine days, manufacturing techniques were not precise enough to produce the escapement’s components. Nor were suitable materials available, Ferrier says.
(The natural escapement, or, as Ferrier calls it, the Double Direct-Impulse Escapement, is now catching on with independent watchmakers: both F.P. Journe and Kari Voutilainen use versions of it.) Ferrier’s escapement incorporates a silicon lever and nickel phosphorus escape wheels. Both lever and wheels are made using the LIGA process (LIGA is the German acronym for lithography, electroplating and molding).
Ferrier’s natural escapement goes hand in hand with another of the watch’s unusual features: the micro-rotor. Ferrier wanted to use such a rotor, rather than a large, center-mounted one, so he could show off as much of the movement as possible. Microrotors, however, are innately less powerful than full-size ones. But thanks to Ferrier’s choice of a natural escapement over a less-efficient traditional one, he was able to use a micro-rotor and nonetheless achieve an impressive power reserve of 72 hours.
It’s no ordinary micro-rotor. Rather than sitting flush with the movement, it is placed between the mainplate and a bridge. The rotor spins on an axle with jewels at either end. Ferrier says the position of the rotor makes it more stable than a standard micro-rotor. The construction also means the movement can be thinner than it would otherwise have to be. Moreover, the rotor’s position makes visible more of the movement’s components.
The company launched another watch in 2011: the Galet Secret. It’s an exotic (and even more expensive) version of the Galet Classic Tourbillon Double Spiral. The Secret has a fan-shaped screen that opens and shuts to reveal or hide the dial underneath. The dial itself can be customized using miniature painting or other métiers d’art. The company is able to program the watch so that the dial opens and shuts every day at a time of the owner’s choice. (Opening and closing each take one hour.) The screen can also be opened and shut on demand by the use of a pusher incorporated into the watch crown. The company makes just a couple of these watches a year, with prices starting at SF260,000.
In 2013, Ferrier introduced the Galet Traveller, which has a modified version of the Micro-Rotor movement. The company integrated into that movement a GMT function; the local time, shown on the center-mounted hour hand, is adjusted by means of two pushers on the side of the case. The home time is shown in an aperture at 9 o’clock and the date, which moves automatically forward or backward as the local time is set, is shown at 3 o’clock.
In 2013, the company also unveiled a Classic Tourbillon with redesigned balance, lever and escape wheel. The goal was to improve its efficiency and precision. (At a customer’s request, the company will have his watch certified as a chronometer by the Besançon Observatory in the former watchmaking city of Besançon, France. Besançon’s standards, like those of Switzerland’s COSC, are based on ISO 3159. However, the Besançon Observatory tests watches that have been cased, while COSC tests them uncased.)
Two years later, the company launched the Galet Square, which, despite its name, is actually cushion shaped. The brand followed up this year with a cushion-shaped version of its tourbillon watch and a Traveller model fitted with an enamel dial bearing a map of North America.
Ferrier says the brand is working on two new calibers. One of them, a chronograph, may be on the market in two or three years. The company moved to its current headquarters from Vernier, near Geneva, where it first set up shop, in 2014. It has 15 employees, who include watchmakers, finishers, a movement designer (Christian Ferrier, who constructs movements based on his father’s ideas) and logistics experts. The movements and watches themselves are assembled in house: one watchmaker assembles each movement from A to Z. The company manufactures no components: it wouldn’t be practical, Ferrier says, given the tiny number of watches the company makes each year: only about 100. All the appearance parts – crown, dial, case, and even the strap – are designed in house.
Aesthetics are as important to him as technical features, due in large part, he says, to the decades he spent working on watches’ exteriors at Patek. He tries to duplicate in the brand’s styling the old-time elegance of pocketwatches. This can be seen in the simplicity of the dials and in such details as the big, fluted crowns. There are no screws on the watches’ casebacks, Ferrier points out: they would mar the watches’ beauty.
The hands posed a special challenge, Ferrier recalls. He sketched the hands he wanted, reminiscent of the elegant, rounded, hands on expensive pocketwatches, and took the drawing to a hand manufacturer he knew from his long watch-industry experience. The supplier no longer had any workers capable of making them, so it called on a former employee, one who had been laid off during the financial crisis, to handle the project.
Movement finishing is done entirely in house. Skillful anglage is so important to Ferrier that he hired a specialist, Coralie Imberti, who does nothing else. Ferrier even worries about whether his watches sound nice when they’re being wound. For that reason, he chose a winding pawl with a long blade. Unlike a short-blade pawl, it creates a satisfying, sonorous sound, he says, and has the added virtue of being the type of click used in vintage pocketwatches. What Ferrier aims for, he says, is that 50 years from now, when a watchmaker opens the back of one of his watches, he’ll say, “Very nicely done.”