Brand History: Philippe Dufour

In this new series we will dive deep into the history and traditions of different watch brands, from big names like Patek Philippe to independent watchmakers, which is where we start today.

To kick off the Brand History series I thought we would start in a part of the watchmaking world where we haven’t yet ventured here on the Amateur Horologist; independent watchmaking.  The godfather of independent watchmaking today, and a man who many consider the greatest watchmaker alive today, is Philippe Dufour.  After gaining experience at a number of high end watch brands Dufour founded his eponymous brand in 1978, right in the middle of the quartz crisis.  Today a Dufour watch is considered the pinnacle of horological art.  His total production over 37 years has been less than 500 watches and each one is a perfect example of high end watch finishing and production at its finest.

The Man

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Any independent watch brand begins and ends with the watchmaker who was brave and brash enough to break away from the safety and security of an established brand and start selling watches with their own name plastered on the dial.  Reading interviews with Philippe Dufour there are certain things that jump off the page about his personality that have clearly driven him to success.  The first and most important is his immense respect for the history and artistry of watchmaking.  Dufour is an exceedingly humble seeming man (at least on the surface). He recognizes he is a part of the long story of watchmaking that began well before him and will continue on after him.  He is famous for having said there is nothing new in watchmaking, watchmakers only evolve on what the legends before them did.  He is also very happy working within his niche.  He recognizes that his watches cater to a special taste and he is more than satisfied with that.  The danger in independent watchmaking is a desire to grow beyond your capabilities and lose the character that makes independent watchmaking special.  Dufour could have opened an atelier with 100 watchmakers producing his watches, but chose to stay in his small shop in La Sentier, 15 minutes from his childhood home, because that is all he wanted.

Dufour’s reputation is also built upon his pursuit of perfection, perhaps unmatched in the watch-finishing world.  He cares more about his movements then his profits and frankly than his customers (hence the long waiting times).  He is known for working alone and has yet to find an apprentice the way George Daniels chose Roger Smith.  He says its because today’s watchmakers don’t showcase the passion for perfection that he needs when creating his watches. His passion is what ultimately drives him to create such perfectly finished timepieces.

Finally Dufour not only respects history but also modern developments in watchmaking.  Few realize he was among the first watchmakers to use CAD software to design parts for his watches.  He is able today to manufacture more than 90% of the parts for his watches in house because he has embraced technological developments that give him more independence rather than reliance on others.

The Watches

Gives that the entire Philippe Dufour line consists of only 3 watches it seems appropriate to give each a bit of time in the spotlight.  All three demonstrate exceptional finishing, revolutionary watch design, and what most would call the perfect execution of their purpose as watches.

Simplicity

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The Simplicity is Dufour’s “entry level” piece (if its possible to call any Dufour watch entry level).  It is a time only hand wound watch where the entire focus is on perfect movement hand finishing. Each dial is unique and customizeable to the buyer’s specifications, but if we are being honest the watch is not really about the dial side.  Flipping it over you see the dictionary definition of high end Swiss movement finishing. Dufour’s mastery of anglage and Geneva striping is unparalleled.  The famous “devil’s horns” that Dufour polishes by hand to a mirror finish are unlike anything offered in watches from even the greatest brands.  Dufour used this watch to show what a time-only watch could be and he succeeded.

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The back of the Dufour Simplicity, simply perfect

Duality

Dufour not only masters the art of watchmaking, but also looks to innovate with watches like the Duality.  Finished to the same unmatched degree, the Duality is the first wristwatch in history to include two escapements, using a differential to equalize the timing differences between the two and creating a more accurate time only watch.  The technological feat combined with the degree of finishing is incredible, but to me the best part of the Duality is the subtlety with with Dufour has executed this technological achievement.  On the dial side the Duality looks nearly identical to the Simplicity.  The only tell-tale difference is the off-center small seconds dial. Only someone very familiar with watches would know a Dufour watch was special, and only a watch lover familiar with Dufour’s work would even have a chance of knowing how special the movement under the Duality’s dial really is.

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Grande et Petite Sonnerie

Finally there is Dufour’s magnum opus, the first ever wristwatch with grande and petite sonnerie (we will discuss sonnerie watches in a future It’s complicated post).  For some unknown reason this watch was not popular when Dufour developed it.  As a result less than 10 were ever made and Dufour has said he will never make another.  Composed of over 400 parts all finished by Dufour’s hand to incredible standards this watch is the pinnacle of complication and the pinnacle of finishing.  To many this is as good as watchmaking gets and may ever get.

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What’s next?

Its an excellent question.  Dufour has stopped making the Simplicity (although he still makes the occasional special order for special customers).  Dufour’s most recent project has been working with Robert Gruebel and Stephen Forsey to pass on their collective watchmaking knowledge to a young watchmakers named Michael Boulanger as part of the Naissance de un montre project.  Boulanger finished the first timepiece for this project late last year and, finances permitting, there will be 9 more watches in the series

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The first watch in the Naissance de un Montre series

That said, its unclear what will happen to the Dufour brand going forward, and I would guess that Philippe is just fine with that.  Dufour is not in this for the money or for his legacy (although I think he is starting to embrace his legacy with projects like Naissance de un Montre) he wants to make exceptional watches on his own terms.  That is what makes him so independent.  If he wants to close up shop tomorrow that is his decision, if he wants to start work on a new sonnerie watch he could do that just as easily.  Dufour as a man is Dufour as a brand and we are just lucky he has made as many watches as he has to date.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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