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Manual Dexterity

  • Jonathon Keats

Having learned the craft of watchmaking at exactly the same time quartz technology was making his new skills obsolete, Dominique Loiseau probably had little notion his career would carry him in the exact opposite direction of the watch industry at the time. Just a few years later, his work restoring masterpieces by Pierre Jaquet-Droz and Abraham-Louis Breguet had inspired an idea. "I decided to make a watch with my own hands," he says, "and I decided that it should be the first grand complication pocket watch, the most complicated pocket watch of the time." When it was complete in 1984, a collector bought the Renaissance, as he called it, for 450,000 Swiss francs. "The reaction in the media was astonishment," he recalls, "but not in the way that you’d think. They said my watch was the last firework in mechanical watchmaking: not a renaissance but the end."

The media could not have been more mistaken. If anything, quartz has been the handmaiden of a renaissance in mechanical watchmaking over the past few decades. But while traditionally designed movements once again occupy a position of prestige, most of them are made in ways the past masters would hardly recognize. Mass production methods, including almost universal use of computer-controlled CNC machines, offer many manufacturing advantages, but have lessened the culture of quality for which watchmaking was once known.

A few independent watchmakers—including Dominique Loiseau—have each in their own way taken the quartz crisis as a personal challenge, exploring the potential of mechanical accuracy, expanding the gamut of complication, and questioning the values of mass production.

Bespeaking a true renaissance, none of these watchmakers is anachronistic. On the contrary, many of them see handcraftsmanship as a path to innovation. Loiseau may be the most puritanical in his definition of handmade, relying entirely on traditional tools such as the hacksaw and drill, and banishing CNC machines from his atelier. He compares these hand tools to the modest utensils of artists. "While using identical traditional brushes and canvas, Velázquez and Picasso produced entirely different masterpieces," he argues. "Hand tools remain the most creative and simple way to create unique objects in full freedom. Machining presents certain constraints dictated by the machine’s own limitations."

The only computers in Loiseau’s atelier are those run by his daughter to generate CAD files, which he says "help to control the volumes but are only a support to the human brain." Watchmaking for him is primarily a mental game, which he compares to chess. He has even dubbed the first wristwatch produced under his own brand the 1f4, after a famous chess opening, explaining that "you must be strategic to place the 891 components of the complicated movement into a volume specified by the aesthetic of the whole watch." And to be able to produce the wristwatch—at a rate of two pieces per year—you must be able to match acumen with virtuosity, as he and three fellow craftsmen do, with special attention to finishes that enhance the natural beauty of their raw materials.

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