Watches: The Journeyman

  • James D. Malcolmson

With clients scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin, Swiss private banker César Jean-Mairet was the archetypal frequent flier during the 1990s, when he logged as many as 185 days a year in the air. With so much idle time at his disposal, Jean-Mairet’s imagination often wandered from his business to his pleasure: watches. He would sketch designs for timepieces, and eventually he conceived an entire collection, all while sitting in business class. In 2000, Jean-Mairet’s pastime evolved into a watch company named Jean-Mairet & Gillman, although he has not completely given up his day job and still retains a number of financial clients.

“I’ve been doing designs on paper since the 1970s,” says Jean-Mairet, describing the genesis of his collection. “I was also a little frustrated by how much the major brands charged. So, as an experiment, I tried to build a watch using some of the major Swiss component suppliers.” But he could not stop at just one, and his trial evolved into a series of 10 pieces, which he completed in 1999. His friends’ and associates’ enthusiasm for his prototypes encouraged Jean-Mairet to launch a commercial venture. His first production timepiece—not surprisingly—was a watch with a second time zone for travelers.

Swiss watchmaking records show that Jean-Mairet’s paternal and maternal ancestors—with the names Jean-Mairet and Gillman—worked in the watch industry during the 18th and 19th centuries. The character of Jean-Mairet’s collection, however, is not based on any historic legacy. Instead, it is defined by his knack for design and his ability to manage his network of suppliers.

Although it is a small company with virtually no industrial base of its own, Jean-Mairet & Gillman rapidly has rolled out a broad array of models, some with surprisingly complicated movements. The Monopusher Chronograph is a massive square piece with script-style hour markers evoking 1930s chronograph designs. The well-regarded complicated movement specialist La Joux-Perret originally had conceived the movement for a reproduction of a period piece. Jean-Mairet’s fashionable sport collection, by contrast, combines bold colors and angles in models powered by Frederick Piguet movements. His most complicated pieces, including the triple retrograde perpetual calendar due out next year, contain mechanisms that are quite original and complex for a fledgling brand.

The engineering firm Agenhor develops the complication modules to meet Jean-Mairet & Gillman’s design specifications. After the mechanisms have been tested, Jean-Mairet & Gillman’s watchmakers in Vesenaz, Switzerland, adjust the prototypes and assemble the final pieces.

Of course, Jean-Mairet has learned some hard lessons from his reliance on the predictably unpredictable network of Swiss components suppliers. A delivery hiccup in 2000 brought production to a halt, delaying the arrival of his first models to retailers. Jean-Mairet also suspects that indiscreet suppliers, and maybe even industrial spies, have shared some of his latest designs with his competitors. Fortunately for the former hobbyist, these concerns have not dampened the enthusiasm that led him into the business. “We’ve had to make a lot of adjustments, with both our inventories and our suppliers,” he says. “But I still think this is an incredibly fascinating job.”

Jean-Mairet & Gillman
866.414.8463
www.jean-mairetgillman.com

Photo by UWE@FISCHER
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