Manual Dexterity

<< Back to Watch Collector, January 2013
  • Jonathon Keats

While already strategizing his next timepiece—a sports model designed for yachting—Loiseau acknowledges that handcraft is too labor-intensive for most watches. Recently hired as a consultant for Girard-Perregaux, he is prototyping a new grand complication in his atelier (completely by hand, of course), which will be the crown jewel in a series to be produced by G-P, he says, "in a more semi-industrial way."

Girard-Perregaux is not the first large company to recognize the creative potential of handcraftsmanship. Back in 2006, the Richemont group acquired Minerva, a 148-year-old manufacture in the Swiss town of Villeret, which the luxury conglomerate rebranded as Montblanc Villeret 1858. At the time, Montblanc was known for commercial-scale production of fashion watches, while Minerva was esteemed for making chronographs by hand, completely in-house, under the direction of master watchmaker Dimitri Cabbidu. "Certainly the decision of Richemont to devote our business to Montblanc troubled me," Cabbidu recalls, admitting that it took some time for him to perceive the merger as an opportunity rather than a threat. "The advantage of being with Montblanc is to receive financial support that allows us to continue our activity in the same spirit as the past."

As was the case for Loiseau, Cabbidu’s past was very much informed by the quartz crisis. "At first I looked at quartz admiringly," he says. "My school piece was a quartz watch, which helped me to better understand quartz, but at the same time I felt unable to control anything. I was dependent on the electronics, and afraid that horlogerie would be lost." One workshop that employed him after his training only reinforced his sense of foreboding. Though they handcrafted traditional mechanical movements, "the men were all almost at the age of retirement." After a stint at Gerald Genta in the ’90s, hand-making complications atop movements from other manufacturers—"we accepted what the supplier offered us"—he finally attained the self-sufficiency he craved when he was hired by Minerva in 2001.

Unlike old men, old equipment need never retire, and inside the Villeret manufacture Cabbidu found antique machines that could still be relied on to stamp out bridges or to coil springs with Minerva’s signature quality. Next to these he installed new spark erosion and CNC machines, affording him the flexibility to produce parts never before conceived. Together with traditional hand tools, these machines give Cabbidu "autonomy over technology and aesthetics," he says. "For instance, our mastery of the spiral allowed us to test and find practical solutions to the theory underlying our Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique," in which two nested hairsprings counterbalance one another.

Keeping everything in-house also allows his 40 craftsmen each to make watches from start to finish, at a rate of approximately one watch a month, ensuring the highest quality. "Asking a watchmaker to create a timepiece in its entirety will involve him in his craft more fully and enhance his work," says Cabbidu. Such attentiveness is demanded by design. "The process of handwork is already imagined during development, with complexities that need hand-finishing to meet the technical and aesthetic criteria. If we take the Grand Chronographe Régulateur, for example, the power reserve system and bridges hidden under the dial are hand-finished to the same standards as the visible parts."

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