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Two Days With Parmigiani Fleurier (And Some Thoughts On What 'In-House' Really Means) By Nicholas Manousos

When we talk about fine watchmaking, the words "in-house?and "manufacture?invariably come up. We use them to describe how vertically integrated a company is ?in other words how much of a fake watch is actually made by the company whose name is on the dial, rather than purchased from outside suppliers. Many a fake watch guy will say that, everything else being equal, the more in-house the better. When thinking about high degrees of vertical integration in the fake watch industry, the two brands at the very top of the ladder are Replica Rolex and Seiko. However, arguably just one rung down on that ladder is Parmigiani Fleurier. HODINKEE took a trip to the beautiful town of Fleurier in Switzerland's Val-de-Travers to learn more.

Fleurier, Val-de-Travers


Parmigiani Fleurier's namesake, Michel Parmigiani, is a world-renowned horological restoration specialist. He got his start in restoration work during the quartz crisis of the 1970s, when the future of mechanical watchmaking was looking very bleak. Parmigiani focused on tradition while the rest of the industry was looking elsewhere, making a name for himself in the small world of antiquarian horological restoration. It was through his restoration work that he met the Sandoz family, who own one of the most important collections of pocket replica watches and automatons in the world - the Collection Edouard Marcel Sandoz.

Michel Parmigiani outside a school he attended in Fleurier

Michel Parmigiani became the caretaker for the Sandoz collection, but that was just the start. The Sandoz Family Foundation and Parmigiani soon agreed to found a new watchmaking company that would be rooted in traditional restoration techniques, while also looking to the future of mechanical watchmaking. That company is Parmigiani Fleurier which was founded in 1996, and almost immediately the process of vertical integration started. Today, the Sandoz Family Foundation owns not only Parmigiani Fleurier, but also Manufactures Horlogères de La Foundation which is comprised of five specialized manufactures of fake watch parts:

Vaucher - movements Atokalpa - balance wheels and hairsprings Elwin - micro parts like pinions and screws Les Artisans Boitiers - cases Quadrance et Habillage - dials

To split hairs, Parmigiani Fleurier itself does not own the five manufactures, the Sandoz Family Foundation does via Manufactures Horlogères de La Foundation. But the Sandoz Family Foundation also owns Parmigiani Fleurier, making them all sister companies. Ergo, the statement that Parmigiani is arguably just one rung down the verticalization ladder from Replica Rolex and Seiko. (To further split hairs, 25% of Vaucher was acquired by Hermès back in 2006.)

Movement of the Fleur D'Orient table clock, 1996

With this high degree of vertical integration, it is easier to describe what is outsourced rather than what is made in-house. With a Parmigiani Fleurier watch, the only parts not made by Parmigiani Fleurier or its sister companies are the mainspring, rubies, sapphire crystals, bracelet, and strap (Parmigiani Fleurier straps are made by Hermès.)

Restoration Workshop

We started our visit with a tour of the restoration workshop at Parmigiani Fleurier, with Michel Parmigiani himself. Setting foot in this workshop was like going back in time. It was incredible to see so many historically significant timepieces and automata restored to perfect working condition.

The original pantograph fake watch from the early 1800s

Inside dust-cover of the original pantograph watch

Movement of the original pantograph watch

Parmigiani Fleurier Ovale Pantographe

Significant inspiration is drawn from the restoration workshop in developing new timepieces for Parmigiani Fleurier. A prime example of this is the Ovale Pantographe, an oval shaped fake watch featuring telescopic hands that expand and contract to trace the oval shaped case as time passes. Parmigiani showed us the original Vardon and Stedman pocket fake watch from the early 1800s that inspired the modern Ovale Pantographe. It turns out that the inspiration was much more than just aesthetic. The antique pocket fake watch was disassembled and analyzed to learn from the original mechanism.

Perrin Frères pocket fake watch with wandering hours

Perrin Frères pocket fake watch movement, notice the serpent gongs

Parmigiani Fleurier Toric Capitole

The theme of inspiration from restoration continued with a gorgeous repeating wandering hour pocket fake watch with spotted serpent gongs by Perrin Frères. In a modern interpretation, Parmigiani Fleurier introduced the Toric Capitole. And yes, the minute repeater gongs in the Toric Capitole are spotted serpents, just like the original Perrin Frères.

Automata birdcage

Automata birdcage

Perfume container / pocket fake watch / music box

Perfume container / pocket fake watch / music box

Perfume container / pocket fake watch / music box

The restoration workshop was full of even more horological treasures. Hanging from the ceiling was an automaton birdcage, complete with waterfall and functioning clock on the bottom. Equally impressive was a perfume container that housed both a pocket fake watch and a music box. Two curious weight-driven clocks were on the benches; instead of a typical clock which has weights, the slow descent of which provides the power source for the clockwork, here the clock itself was the weight that descends over time. One descended down a vertical display, while the other rolled down an inclined display stand over the course of a week. While getting a tour of the restoration workshop from Michel Parmigiani, it became very clear how passionate he is about preserving these amazing machines, and also how these timepieces of the past are a constant source of inspiration for the company today.

Weight-driven clock

Gravity-driven clock

ADVERTISEMENT Vaucher Manufacture By Kiran Shekar

Just down the road from Parmigiani Fleurier headquarters is the impressive Vaucher Manufacture building. Vaucher is a movement manufacture, and other than the mainspring, or the parts made by Elwin (screws and pinions) or Atokalpa (escapement, balance wheel, and hairspring), they make everything else that goes into a movement, which is a lot - think mainplates, bridges, and wheels - as well as performing the movement finishing, and doing movement engineering and prototyping.

Vaucher Movement Manufacture

It is interesting to note that while all of Parmigiani Fleurier's mechanical fake watch movements are made by Vaucher, Vaucher does not work exclusively for Parmigiani Fleurier. Vaucher's production capacity exceeds the needs of Parmigiani Fleurier (which currently makes about 5000 replica watches per year), so they have many other clients in the watchmaking industry. Some of these relationships are public (Richard Mille, Peter Speake-Marin, and of course Hermés), while other clients are kept confidential.

CNC machines at Vaucher

Automatic jewel setting machine

Vintage stamping machine

Row upon row of CNC machines fill the ground floor. Automatic jewel setting machines were fascinating to see, this task, which is very tedious and extremely time consuming if done manually, was done to mainplate after mainplate with a high level of precision and speed. A separate room is dedicated to stamping operations; a mix of new and old stamping machines satisfy the need for automation during some steps, and manual fine-tuning during others.

Barrel torque testing device

Impact tester

The research and development department upstairs was both fun and frustrating at the same time. Understandably, a lot of projects in this department were very much top secret, and could not be photographed or even looked at. (Lots of black cloth over workbenches!) We did get to see their performance testing machines, including a device that measured barrel torque output, and an impact tester, but understandably, future projects are very much under wraps.

Haute Horlogerie

We ended our visit in the Haute Horlogerie department, watching the Parmigiani Fleurier master watchmakers as they disassembled a Type 370 movement. It was a great chance to really see and understand this fascinating movement. In 2004, Parmigiani Fleurier introduced the iconic Bugatti Type 370 watch. Named after the famous car manufacturer, the Bugatti Type 370 features a transversely mounted movement that resembles a car engine. The movement even uses bolts instead of threaded holes, to further the automotive motif. It really is an intriguing take on movement architecture; in order to make the movement visually appealing when looking at it from the side, the wheels are stacked upon each other with a series of plates. Of course, this makes working on the movement very challenging, even requiring custom tools.

Bugatti Type 370 movement

Bugatti Type 370 movement

Hopefully this virtual tour has given you a good sense of what Parmigiani Fleurier is all about. During our visit, one of the things that struck us the most is that everyone we met at Parmigiani Fleurier seems to have love and respect for their company. The feeling was that, even though their company might not be as well known as some others, they were doing things the right way and making a great product and that gave the employees a real sense of pride. One thing we hope is a bit clearer from our report, is what it actually takes to make a movement "in-house." To really make the vast majority of a watch, including the entire movement with its escapement, balance, and spring, requires an absolutely enormous investment in some very, very expensive and sophisticated machinery, not just for manufacturing but also for quality control. This is the (very good) reason that claims of in-house manufacturing status need to be evaluated critically, as well as claims of provenance of manufacture, and it's the reason quite honestly that relatively few fake watch brands can or should make the claim.

We are excited to see what is next for this innovative brand, and based on some hints we got during our trip, it looks like they will unveil some exciting new things at SIHH 2016. We're looking forward to sharing the work of Parmigiani Fleurier with you in January.

Parmigiani Fleurier Haute Horlogerie workshop

Balance cock, hairspring and balance wheel

Interesting spoke design

Part of the gear train

Disassembly in process

Type 370 movement, disassembled