capturing hearts around the world, the geneva watchmaker chats to Richard Holt about his philosophy
Laurent Ferrier is not a man to shout about his achievements. Only when the subject of motor racing came up did he reveal that he competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours seven times, finishing third overall in 1979.
In his workshop, speed is the last thing that comes to mind. The boutique watchmaker employs a dozen people in the small town of Vernier, just outside Geneva, and everyone goes about their business in an atmosphere of Zen-like serenity. There are no machines to break the silence, just a few people engaged in the meticulous art of making watches.
“Our company philosophy is to take the time to do things as well as possible,” Ferrier says. “We don’t have somebody there with a stopwatch saying you are a quarter of an hour late.”
His eponymous watch company was founded in 2008, and the first watch to bear his name was produced, with a characteristic lack of hurry, two years later.
“I wanted to do something very classical,” he says. “When that first watch was finished watchmakers, collectors and bloggers looked at it and they were very impressed with the quality.”
He was encouraged to enter that watch, the Galet Classic Tourbillon, in the watchmaking ‘Oscars’, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
“I didn’t intend to put it forward because I didn’t think a classical watch like this would have a chance in the Grand Prix – but it was the collectors who told me that I must,” he says. “And we won the prize for best men’s watch. Winning such a big prize at the very beginning was very, very interesting.”
The son and grandson of watchmakers, Ferrier, now in his late sixties, spent 37 years working for Patek Philippe – his entire working life save for a three-year sabbatical racing Porsches on a full-time basis.
During his self-imposed exile, Patek missed his skills and asked him to come back to work. In a sign of his value to the company he was able to do so on one condition: “I said I would go back as long as I could have days off to race cars. Luckily they agreed.”
His watchmaking philosophy is “simplicity, precision and pure, uncluttered beauty,” he explains. “Normally the people who spend a lot of money on a sophisticated watch want you to see how complicated it is, so the tourbillon is visible from the front. But with our watches you can only see the tourbillon from the back.
“So if you have a friend who is a watch lover you can take it off and show him the movement. But if people don’t care, there’s no need to show what is behind the dial.”
And as well as having an understated clarity of design, Ferrier is also very keen to make his watches as wearable as possible.
“There are more complicated pieces out there, but I’ve tried to make something aesthetically perfect that works very well. I want them to work very well for years. Some grand complications are really just collection pieces that people wear once a year. I want to make lovely watches that people want to have on their wrists all the time.”
One thing that is perhaps surprising, given his love of cars, is how far the watches are from the kind of chunky metal you associate with motor sport.
“We don’t have an image as a sporting brand, and there is no intention to create that identity. But there is a very strong natural link between a love of cars and a love of watches. Almost everyone who collects old Porsches also collects old Rolexes and Pateks. And all watchmakers love motor racing.”
He only produces about 100 watches per year, with a starting price close to £30,000. Does he see the brand expanding, perhaps being bought by one of the big luxury groups that control so much of the watch market?
“Never say never, but the aim is to continue doing what we are doing. If one of the big companies bought us, they would say, ‘Keep this, get rid of that’. That’s not how I want it.”
His son Christian, also an expert watchmaker, has now joined the company after working for Roger Dubuis. So is the company going to become Laurent Ferrier and son?
“It already is that, in all but name.”
Having spent much of his working life with one of the industry’s giants, Laurent Ferrier is now taking measured steps towards making his own name one that nobody in watchmaking will forget. As for talking himself up, he doesn’t have to – the watches speak for themselves.
Available in the UK exclusively at William & Son, www.williamandson.com