Interview: F.P. Journe’s Master Watchmaker on Chinese Collectors’ Fondness for Haute Horlogerie

Regardless of price, the “haute horlogerie” level of watchmaking, akin to haute couture in fashion, is far above that of the priciest (even seven-figure bejewelled) mass-luxury or industrially made, hand-finished watches. Haute horlogerie timepieces represent the pinnacle of calibres (a.k.a. movements), complications and functions, finishing and materials—together making up a perfect balance of art and mechanical engineering.

Occupants of this pantheon are few: A. Lange & Söhne, Greubel Forsey, Roger Dubuis, Vacheron Constantin, expectedly Patek Philippe… and F.P. Journe, a Swiss maison that epitomizes connoisseurship and exclusivity—crafting true heirloom wristwatches. How exclusive? The house produces fewer than 1,000 mechanical timepieces a year—913 in 2016. (These numbers don’t include F.P. Journe’s quartz women’s Élégante collection.)

Master Watchmaker François-Paul Journe, who has won the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie award (the most prestigious and coveted accolade in the watchmaking world—think the Nobel Prize of watches) numerous times, founded his manufacture in 1999, when he released his first Tourbillon Souverain. The company’s mission statement—its operating axiom, at any rate—is Invenit et Fecit, Latin for “[He] invented it and made it.” That means the manufacture is vertically integrated, producing most everything in-house (obviously it doesn’t mine its own gold, platinum, and gemstones). Journe not only designs all-new calibres but engineers entirely new systems—the Frenchman is simply obsessed with constant exploration of the science of time. This explains why his heroes are Abraham-Louis Breguet and Antide Janvier, 18th-century titans of “the golden age of watchmaking.” (You could of course argue that we’re in a horological golden age once again.)

F.P. Journe Master Watchmaker François-Paul Journe. (Courtesy Photo)

F.P. Journe Master Watchmaker François-Paul Journe at work. (Courtesy Photo)

Two years ago, Journe launched the aforementioned Élégante, its first ladies’ collection (and to date its only quartz collection). In keeping with his exacting standards, Journe himself designed the handmade quartz movement, which is produced in collaboration with a partner in Switzerland; it is estimated to be the most expensive quartz movement ever produced.

This year, F.P. Journe’s Hong Kong boutique celebrated its 1oth anniversary with the release of a limited-edition (20 pieces) Centigraphe Souverain Anniversaire, a super-complicated manual-winding mechanical chronograph that can indicate elapsed times at three separate speeds, one recorded of each of the three subdials with red time scales.

With a significant focus on the China market, the brand is  Journe conducted this interview via e-mail.

Two of F.P. Journe’s 10 boutiques are in China—Beijing and Hong Kong. Do you have any plans for China expansion?

No, two boutiques are just the right amount for us. Hong Kong and Beijing each display the complete collection of F.P. Journe chronometers, with a professional staff of watch experts who have received training in Geneva. We are producing 900 precision chronometers per year and have no plans to open additional retailers.

The company also just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Hong Kong boutique with a limited-edition watch. As luxury retailers renegotiate rents or close Hong Kong stores due to the watch sales slowdown, what’s your plan for the Hong Kong market?

The surplus of production in industrial watchmaking is putting pressure on prices. Major brands are heavily discounting their watches, resulting in extremely unhappy clients who have watches which have lost half of their value. These brands are also unloading heavy stocks of watches on any market they can.

Thanks to our haute horlogerie authenticity and the limited number of watches we produce, F.P. Journe maintains its strength. We pride ourselves on our extensive craftsmanship. Our authentic creations are priced to their real value, and we do not promote any discount in our boutiques. Thus we are protecting our brand and our legitimacy, as well as the value of our clients’ watches. There is no change for us with our sales network in H.K. or anywhere else.

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The F.P. Journe boutique in Beijing. (Courtesy Photo)

Which timepiece models are the most popular with Chinese clients? Do different regional markets have significantly different preferences?

Not really for F.P. Journe. We’re not producing specific collections for specific countries. We are producing limited series, which are always linked with one of our boutiques’ anniversary, but as you can see with the Centigraphe Anniversary, it will be the timepiece that will celebrate each boutique’s tenth anniversary. Each series will feature the number in the limited series preceded by the name of the city where the boutique anniversary is being celebrated.

Can you name any of your notable Chinese clients? Or do you have any Chinese brand ambassadors?

We keep the names of our clients confidential, like a doctor or a lawyer would do. Also, we do not use any celebrities to promote our brand; our timepieces do that for themselves.

F.P. Journe has previously created China-related limited-edition timepieces, including one to celebrate Switzerland and China’s free-trade agreement and one to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and China. As many watch brands create special timepieces for Chinese New Year, will F.P. Journe do the same? 

We are not producing specific timepieces for Chinese New Year—as stated above, only related to an event linked with one of our boutiques’ opening or anniversary. Regarding the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and China, we were the horological patron of this commemoration, and this is why we produced two special timepieces for the occasion—one for men, the Octa Lune with blue dial featuring the France-China logo; and one for women, the new Élégante in platinum with a jade dial.

After launching the brand’s first women’s (and quartz) collection, what kind of interest are you seeing from women in China?

We’ve had a fantastic response from women all over the world, not from a specific country more than another. Men also expressed an interest for this revolutionary creation, and we produced the Élégante in 48mm. It will also please women who like their watch oversized.

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F.P. Journe’s Tourbillon Souverain made with jade. (Courtesy Photo)

You’ve used jade in your ladies’ watch celebrating the France-China 50th anniversary. How do you select the jade, and is demand for it high concerning Swiss watches in China?

The color of the jade is very important, but also the quality, as the extreme thinness of the jade plate makes it very delicate. The risk of breakage comes when cutting the jade at the required measurement to fit the dial. The demand for jade is obviously slightly higher in China than in other countries, but the subtle F.P. Journe jade dial has had a lot of success. We’re also producing a jade dial for our Tourbillon Souverain that is extremely elegant in a platinum case.

How do you approach your global pricing plan with regard to China?

Our prices are standardized all over the world, with the exception of each country’s specific tax.

We’ve been reading that Chinese luxury consumers are shifting from an obsession with mega–brand names toward smaller, more niche brands. As a watchmaker that produces only around 900 models a year, have you noticed this in China?

Many Chinese customers have learned the difference between industrial watchmaking and haute horlogerie watches. Professionals, like the staff of our boutiques, have contributed to communicating that knowledge, as have specialized watch journalists who have dedicated articles tohaute horlogerie and precious and authentic watch brands. Collectors are extremely knowledgeable, and it is difficult for them to face a sales associate at a retailer who does not know a brand. It is for this reason that they prefer to go to a brand’s boutique, where the staff is highly trained and can answer their questions. That’s why the high level of service provided by our boutiques is so important.

What are the best ways to reach an ultra-elite Chinese client base to educate them about the brand?

Genuine horological authenticity and impeccable service.

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