Christophe Claret is one of the pioneering complications specialists in Swiss watchmaking. Claret started his career in 1986 when Rolf Schnyder of Ulysse-Nardin commissioned the now famous San Marco repeater with automaton. Since then he has gone on to create over 60 different calibres, all of them complications, for dozens of brands including Bovet, Breguet, Cartier, Chopard, Corum, Girard Perregaux, Harry Winston (including more than just the Opus 4), Jorg Hysek and Parmigiani.
His manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds is one of the best equipped; as Claret explains below he spares no expense when investing in manufacturing technology. (Click here to see Don Corson’s report on his visit to Claret manufacture.) Claret not only conceptualises and designs movements, but also produces nearly the entire calibre.
2009 marked the 20th anniversary of Christophe Claret and saw the unveiling of the DualTow. Though officially the first Claret-branded timepiece, the DualTow actually comes a few years after Claret presented a music box watch under its own label that uses the same movement as the Girard-Perregaux Opera 3.
Here Christophe Claret talks to me about on various complications, and what it is like to be a complicated movement specialist.
This interview was conducted in late 2010. Below is an edited transcript of the interview. Many thanks to Sincere Watch Ltd, Claret’s representative in S. E. Asia, for arranging it.
SJX : You began restoring vintages watches and then you got your start as a movement maker thanks to Rolf Schnyder of Ulysse-Nardin. Can you tell us more about that?
CC : When I finished watch school I started a workshop doing repairs. I also bought old pocket watches at auction and restored them to the original condition, making them easier to sell to the collector. But my passion was always to make [my own] pieces. [One of the first watches] I made was a skeleton, because I wanted watches with not only good movements but also a nice aesthetic.
After that I made a quarter repeater with jacquemart (automatons) [which I] presented at Basel; I was one of the first [independent watchmakers there], along with Andersen, Calabrese, Journe, Muller and Daniels. Mr Schnyder came to see this piece and he asked if I could make a minute repeater with San Marco jacquemart; I said “Why not?”
SJX : What year was this?
CC : This was in 1986. And then I started my contract with UN in ’86 or ’87 to make the [repeater]. It took two and a half years to make this calibre. And then I started my company in ’89 and we sold movements to other companies.
We were the first to use a computer to make a complicated watch, using AutoCAD. The other brands thought I was crazy. I was very young, 25 years old, and the other watchmakers thought I was crazy because the minute repeater is such so complex. In Switzerland only watchmakers [who were] 40 or 50 years old would repair minute repeaters.
“The tourbillon is… a very nice complication, but for me it’s not very technical.”
SJX : You began making movements for other brands, but now you sell complications under the Christophe Claret brand? Do you plan to make your own brand a major part of the business? (Claret began making watches under its own brand in 2009 with the DualTow.)
CC : We make 46 different calibres and sell to 16 brands. And maybe [in the future] we will have 3, 4 or 5 calibres [unique to my own brand].
We make 120 movements [a year]; with 46 different calibres that is a very small number per calibre. With my brand it’s maybe 10% [of the business]. But I always want to work with other companies for innovation and creativity.
The DualTow Night Eagle on Mr Claret's wrist
SJX : Do you think that with your own brand you are competing with you own customers?
CC : The market is more difficult now, for me and for them, [as compared to before the recession].
But [my customers] must understand there must be balance; the order book has to be balanced after the reduction in orders [due to the economic downturn]. [In 2010] we were [down] 25% on [customer brand orders]. Two years ago we had 125 people, now we have 100. My customers know this, they understand.
SJX : One of your main products is minute repeater calibres. What in your opinion makes it so challenging, compared to say the tourbillon, such that so few companies make repeaters?
CC : The tourbillon is the most simple [movement] of my production. It is a very nice complication, but for me it’s not very technical. This is why many people like to make [tourbillon watches] – to make money.
But for the minute repeater, other people tried to do it but bit off more than they could chew. It takes a very good watchmaker to assemble a minute repeater, the precision [required to] assemble the hour and minute [strikes] is very high.
SJX : Very often the brands that make minute repeaters don’t end up with watches that sound very good. They are too soft or the chimes are not pleasant. Or the sound is not consistent. What are the principles behind consistently good minute repeaters?
CC : The know-how [to make good repeaters] is very rare. You must understand it is not enough to have a good movement with a strong hammer and good gong. You must have a good transmission of sound through the case; you need a good case [construction] for good transmission of sound outside the case.
Sometimes with my customer brands, [even though] I tell them it’s very important you must respect these principles, [they disagree]. Sometimes we cannot arrive at an agreement because the designer of the customer brand has ideas that are incompatible with good quality sound. That is why sound is sometimes inconsistent.
This is not a problem when I make the repeater myself. I work [with the designer] to have good design but also a strong sound. But in my opinion the design should not overtake the [technical aspect]. Technique must take precedence over design.
“The worst [case for a repeater] is platinum. White gold and pink gold is better. Steel and titanium are even better.”
SJX : So do you think the case or gong is more important in a good repeater?
CC : It’s all of them [working together]. To make a good gong, even in a rectangular shape (as found in the DualTow), [it is like] a Japanese swordsmith who forges a blade and knows how to align the Martensite crystals in the right way. You must have the expertise.
[Even then] it is not easy, for example when I make 100 gongs, 30 are thrown away. So if you don’t have the good technology to make the gong, [regardless of the the case], the sound is not good.
To make a good minute repeater is expensive. Sometimes we start with the case, we listen and it’s no good, we go back to the CNC machine to make the case again.
SJX : You make the repeater and Westminster carillon movements yourself?
CC : Yes. We make many different calibres with sonnerie. The Westminster is most difficult because it’s four gongs with different lengths and the adjustment has to be very precise.
The Girard-Perregaux Opera Three
SJX : What material do you think is the best for a repeater case?
CC : The worst I think is platinum. White gold and pink gold is better. Steel and titanium are even better.
SJX : Earlier on you mentioned tourbillons being less technical complications – do you think too many tourbillons have been made, making it common and devalued?
CC : Of course. It has been bad for the market. There are many companies doing tourbillons – many, many companies. Some are good, but some are bad. Some can make 100 tourbillons a month – that’s crazy. I make 10 tourbillon a year for each calibre.
It is not actually a problem with the complication itself, but some companies push, push, push [low quality] tourbillons with other small complications. I don’t understand [how it came to this].
“if you make a good tourbillon with nice finishing and performance, it will still sell.”
SJX : Do you think the tourbillon will ever regain its prestige as a high complication?
CC : The tourbillon is a good escapement for movements [with good chronometric performance]. Many movements I make have tourbillon; it is a good escapement but usually we have other complications added.
There will always be collectors who want the best, just like those who like the best cars. So I feel if you make a good tourbillon with nice finishing and performance, it will still sell.
SJX : What do you think will be the next big thing in complications? Like the tourbillon was in the last five years.
CC : The tourbillon is interesting because it is something you can look at. The tourbillon moves, there is animation [and] movement. That is why many collectors like it.
I don’t know but there will be many different interests in different complications [because the market is growing more diverse].
The watch market is influenced by many places, like the press, the retailer and also the internet. Now many collectors go to the internet to understand the watch. They learn much more quickly than before. They now know what is good and what is bad.
In the future brands with bad movements will encounter difficulty, compared to the brands using good movements. Collectors will know the difference between brands making 68 movements [like for the DualTow] and those making 5000 or 10,000 a month. It is just not the same.
Harry Winston Opus 4
SJX : From what you are saying, it is also more difficult to sell a watch to collectors, since they know much more.
CC : It will be much more difficult to sell a watch where the price is not justified by the quality or complication. [In recent years] many brands were doing poor quality watches, something I hope will not happen in the future.
SJX : Do you think such products, those with price not justified by quality, has left collectors with a lasting, poor impression of the industry?
CC : Of course! But the ones who will suffer the consequences of such behaviour will be the culprits themselves.
SJX : You have worked with so many movements in your career. Which was the most interesting project?
CC : I have made 64 calibres in 20 years. I work with the same passion for all calibres so all of them are important to me. Each has special emotion, history behind the movement. It is not easy to say which is better. It is like asking me to pick my favourite child from all my children.
SJX : Well then what is a movement that you really want to do but have not yet done so, or cannot do so?
CC : Now I am working on a new calibre, a grande sonnerie. I hope to finish this watch [in 2011]. We often say in watchmaking: everything has already been done, yet everything is yet to be done. Nothing is impossible; for me the limit is only the price.
Sometimes I use a very expensive machine, but the progress and technology [it gives us] is important, as we can make a better movement. For example, we used to have CNC machine that took 25 minutes to cut a piece, now we can do it in 25 seconds. It is faster, but it is also better for the quality because you don’t have to spend time filing [away the burrs]. Better quality, better precision and faster.
“We are the first to work with silicium together with Ulysse-Nardin for example. And we are also the first customer of Mimotec.”
SJX : But now that technology is so much better, it is easier for many brands to make their own movements. Do you think technology has devalued some of the concepts in watchmaking?
CC : No. It is not enough to buy the machine, you need many good workers, you need the savoir faire to make the machine run properly. For example, I have a CNC machine which does laser flash cut. Some companies have the know-how to work such a machine, like Rolex which uses the same machine as me. But Greubel-Forsey bought the same machine, and they sold it one year later.
It is a very expensive investment to buy such machines. Many brands don’t want to invest in these anyway. For example, Comadur (a subsidiary of the Swatch Group) worked with us for a long time to make a piece in sapphire. You need a special machine, a Dutch machine, using ultrasonic vibration [to cut the sapphire]. But they didn’t want to invest in the machine so I bought the machine myself.
[You must invest] otherwise you have no progress. They always want to use the old machine, making it by hand. I cannot; I always want to have progress, precision.
Sometimes it is more expensive to use a machine, instead of making it by hand. Because you have to pay for the machine and when you produce in small volumes, you cannot [amortise it over a large output]. Every year all our profits go to buy new machines.
[For instance] now we make all pieces of the case for my brand. So you ask why?
Some customer brands have problems with cases. Movements are all right, even though movements are more complicated than the case. Many times [in the past] I finished the movement but cannot deliver the movement to the customer. That is why I took the decision to invest [in the equipment to] make a case. It is very different making a case compared to a movement, but we learnt the skills.
SJX : You use a lot of high-tech machines, but your movements are quite traditional. Do you intend to use high-tech machines in the movements like silicon, ceramics?
CC : I always want to make traditional finishing, but you can do traditional finishing on modern steel, like on the [DualTow] Night Eagle. I am [often] the first to use new materials, but people don’t know because the movements are delivered to different brands and the brands talk about this, not me. We are the first to work with silicium together with Ulysse-Nardin for example. And we are also the first customer of Mimotec (a company specialising in making micro-parts including in silicon).
But we always choose the better material. So [for example] I don’t like carbon fibre because it has little fibres. Personally I prefer titanium [when I need a light material]. Maybe carbon fibre a good choice for some brands, but not for me.
Sometimes we work with laboratories outside also. For example I had the idea of freezing the belts [for the DualTow] and then engraving, [and then] filling it with elastic SuperLuminova. That didn’t exist before, no elastic SuperLuminova. It is very hard to do because SuperLuminova is made of strontium crystals with a hardener inside. Even for the rubber [belts of the DualTow] we worked for one and a half years. We tested it [to the equivalent] of 60 years [of aging].
The Dual Tow Night Eagle
SJX : So do you generally work on these R&D projects on your own, or are they do at customers’ request?
CC : Both. For the customer brands, 90% is me proposing a new calibre or project to them. [The rest is] them asking me for something new. I know my customer brands, I know the different tradition, history of each brand, so I can propose ideas to them.
For my own brand, I want to make a collection with classic pieces, and another with crazy pieces. But both will have similar finishing. Both are different but just as strong. Now I am working on five projects for my own [Christophe Claret] brand.
SJX : Thank you for the insightful replies!
This message has been edited by AnthonyTsai on 2011-01-08 16:52:45 This message has been edited by MTF on 2011-01-10 18:44:45