There are days like today when writing a story or two becomes difficult. The winds shift, it gets blustery and then comes the rain. Fortunately, it's not a climate change driven deluge but your average monsoon pitter patter. But unfortunately, the stories have to be written or in a month or two, the nice people who control the electricity, water and heaven forbid, the broadband tell me to pay up or else! With that in mind, as a writer I ask myself if what I'm writing will be of suitable quality. Will it be my form of art or just an attempt to keep the bill collectors away?
I'm sure everyone goes through these micro patches of sloth. On the other hand, I'm quite convinced that Michel Parmigiani, the man behind Parmigiani Fleurier had less of them than the rest of us. If you're new to watches, Parmigiani makes those watches that first make you wonder if it is a watch at all. The brand is a poster child for the high art of watchmaking, mainly due to Mr. Parmigiani earlier vocation as watch restorer. So as I sat in the Private Room at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur being bathed in cultured amber lighting, awaiting the arrival of the founder, my thoughts were very much about how you go from full time watch restorer to brand founder?
And Parmigiani makes three
As he walked in, the gravitas of the man is not so much evident as it is felt. In fact, you could immediately see him bent over a workbench teasing some gear or escapement into place. Such is the appearance; this was the watchmaker and restorer supreme! As we settled in for the session (and by we, I had the excellent company of Keegan from Robb Report Malaysia) what surprised me was that Michel Parmigiani only spoke French. Call me nostalgic but there's a certain authenticity in someone who prefers to speak their own language than muddle along in a foreign tongue.
We began with my earlier pondering about starting his own brand. "There was no moment, I always knew that I would like my own brand but I had to be patient. The timing had to be correct." We are all going to ignore the available puns of a watchmaker waiting for the correct time to come along! This was serious business with his Maison winning two GPHG awards this year. You can read about the Toric Chronor Anniversaire and Tonda Hemispheric Retrograde in-depth in our Catalog.
Making a Parmigiani
If you've seen the Bugatti inspired watches or the other more extreme pieces from his maison, have you ever wondered where the inspiration comes from?
"There are two inspirations, the first is the technical. From the years of working in restoration. Not only what I've done but also what others have done before me, that knowledge is passed down. Then there is the other source which is nature, architecture. These sparks the emotion. Shapes, harmony. These are my sources of inspiration. So on one hand, it's the technicity from my work in restoration and on the other, it is nature and architecture for the designs and shape."
Then of course you have the naming conventions of the various collection - Tonda, Toric. I have to admit though, once he laid it out, I was kicking myself for not seeing the almost obvious! "Toric comes from the base of the Greek temple columns, as in Doric columns. Then there is the Tonda which comes from the Italian word for 'round'. This shape was famous during the days of Michelangelo and Rafael where they painted murals that were round." So Toric is Doric and Tonda is essentially rotunda. Shrewd!
A family business
One of the things that most stand out about Swiss watchmaking from the human perspective is how entire families over generations are involved. And for Mr Parmigiani it is no different. "my eldest daughter is in charge of special projects at the brand. She is a watchmaker and she is already actively involved in the company. I think it’s important that there is a representative of the family at the company. And happily, my youngest daughter has expressed an interest in coming to watchmaking. She is in fashion currently." He also mentions his wife who was instrumental in the early years, giving him support. And that of course leads to talk about how he is not even contemplating retirement.
And for a man who started out in 1975 in watch restoration, and has been like an invisible hand in watchmaking, that is great news. He helped Karl-Friedrich Scheufele set up the L.U.C and in his workshop, names like Voutilainen, Sarpaneva learned their trade. Denis Flageollet went on to found his own company De Bethune.
On top of that, the maison also produce parts for huge brands with Richard Mille being open about this relationship!
42 years as a watchmaker, 21 years as a brand owner and still so much magic left in his hands.