Recently, Media Director and Watch Specialist at Govberg, Tim Mosso sat down with president of F.P. Journe (North America), Pierre Halimi, to discuss the brand’s history, the watch industry, and looking ahead.
TIM MOSSO (TM): Today, we’re welcoming a veteran of independent horology and a friend of the house; Pierre Halimi, President of Montres Journe for the Americas. Pierre, welcome.
PIERRE HALIMI (PH): Thank you Tim.
TM: Today, the company is about 18 years old, but your relationship with François-Paul goes back decades. How did you progress from that first meeting to the present day?
PH: Well, when I met François-Paul in 1987 I went to my first Basel fair, and I was a retailer in Palm Beach at that time. I was a good student of business, so I decided that I was going to start to try to learn more about the industry. I started circling further, and further away from the center until I met a few guys that were weird. They had weird displays and weird attitude, and I was mesmerized by one watch. I was looking at it, looking at it, and then this short guy that came to me and said, “Pierre… Sir, can I help you with anything?” He didn’t know my name then. I said, “Yeah, but I’m sorry to ask you, but why are you copying Corum?” Then he said all the bad language, excuse my French, but MF, and all this, and “It’s not true.” I did the watch for Corum.
I said, “I’m sorry. Corum told me that they did this watch.” That was the Golden Bridge, and that was Vincent Calabrese. All of a sudden, the whole thing, the whole curtain fell apart, and I said, “Well there’s a whole other side.” I was still naïve at that time. I thought that everybody was making their own watches. I was young, I was not from a genealogy of watchmakers or jewelers. I started hanging out with these guys, and when someone introduced me to a few people, they asked, “Why don’t you come to the dinner?” These guys were part of what we call the AHCI, which is the French acronym for “Independent Horological Creators Academy.” I went to the dinner, and across from me was Philippe Dufour.
For those that know Philippe, he’s among the greatest watchmakers living – then you had Franck Muller, too. I start talking to these guys, and they had passion. They were ready to redo the whole world, they weren’t looking at bottom lines, they weren’t looking at anything but, “let’s make the best watches; let’s be creative. Unfortunately, especially at that time, there was very little acknowledgement of the work these masters did behind the scenes for corporate clients. François-Paul was one of the first that really complained about this. Large companies and executives in the watch industry were sucking the talent from these creators without recognizing the talent. A guy like this – Calabrese – only became an “ambassador” for Corum and its – or his – Golden Bridge two years ago.
TM: Openly? Only two years ago?
PH: I mean this is just unbelievable. It’s interesting also to see that the first joint venture that François-Paul did was with Harry Winston for the Opus One. But the Opus One, and I salute Harry Winston about this, they salute the talent. Max Büsser, then of Harry Winston, said, “hey, we don’t know how to do this, but this is François-Paul that did this,” and so on and so forth. All the guys behind that series had a chance to become known – especially the ones from the early Opus-series watches. It gave a chance to the small guy to emerge. To be independent then was extremely difficult.
To be independent today is also very difficult, but for different reasons. When I started going every year to Paris, and François-Paul actually was next to my parents’ apartment, so we would hang out, and the guy would redo the whole world every time, and I was part of the adventure. That’s created this bond between François-Paul and me, and 30 years after meeting, we are partners, and we still argue, because we’re French. It’s part of the nature. But always, always trying to do what François-Paul always wanted to do, which is to make the best watches ever. That’s his goal in life, and I’m here to assist him.
TM: You have been around since the inception of the company and a long time prior to that. How did the idea start with François-Paul? Did he come to you one day and say, “I’m going to do this, put my name on the dial; we’re going forward with the new brand, a new company, and it’s going to be about my vision.” Did it gradually coalesce into an idea? Or did it strike like lightning?
PH: François-Paul is not … He needs time to nurture and digest his ideas. But I know that we have in our little conference room in Geneva a paper napkin with drawings on it. And I don’t know if he did this with me or with somebody else, but he used to do this – sketch on a moment’s notice – quite a lot. If you look at the drawings then, and I think it was 1994, all but one of those watches became production models. We can talk about the one that hasn’t been done… later. All the other ones have been done. It was already in the making. Now, the problem when you create a new brand, you need a little bit of money – a lot, actually. It’s not that easy.
I knew it was coming, and then if you want to know the inside story just to show how small we are, and we were minuscule the way we were. In 1999, François-Paul talks to me, and asked, “Are you ready to help me out in the United States?” At that time, it was only in the United States. I said, “ François-Paul, I’m the only one presenting you. You’re the one making the watches. Are you ready?” He said, “I’m ready.” “Okay, so what’s your plan?” “Can you open retailers? The good ones?” I said “Sure. But why five?” “Because I have five watches.” Not five SKUs, not five models, whatever. He had … I expect one, two, three, four, five watches – units for sale, and that was the beginning of the “distribution,” if you want the big word for it in the United States. More followed, obviously, for a little bit bigger operation, but not that much bigger.
TM: No, not that much bigger at all, and in fact for a couple of years now you’ve done something that’s rather extraordinary in the watch space, especially in the modern day. You’ve actually said that you have more or less a cap on the number of watches being made. Somewhere around 900 annual units is where you found that equilibrium. How did you decide on that number, and what does it mean that you’re only ever going to have 900? How do you expand a brand, grow a brand, and develop a brand when you know there’s a limit to how many watches you can ship?
PH: I think it’s a misconception. We didn’t come up with a number and say, “Oh 900 is the limit.” The way François-Paul designed the company …maybe I’m a little bit at length on this because it’s really important to understand. We’re very different from the rest of the industry, and I worked with a lot of people in the industry. First, François-Paul’s goal is not to make money. That’s not what drives him. He admits that money is extremely important. When he accepts a client’s money, he’s already planning a re-investment in the brand. It’s extremely important. Not to buy personal castles or supercars, but to fuel the dream; the actual essence of the company is to make the best watches ever. That’s what drives François-Paul. That changed the whole “business model.” In order to do this, unlike other watch companies – I’m not saying this one way is right, and one way is wrong – but the way we are is that we have our watch makers assembling from A to Z.
Most companies, and especially if you want to grow, you would have to do what we call separation of labor. Team, you’re going to do that bridge, and you’re going to be the foremost expert in the world on that bridge. But that’s not the thing you’re going to do for the next X amount of years. I would do another part, and somebody would assemble, and everything. It’s like an assembly line. François-Paul being a watchmaker, and remember that F.P. Journe is the only company – more than a cottage but less than a giant – where the watchmaker is the president, is the founder, and is the lead watchmaker. There’s not another one like this. Everything is built around his vision. When you do this, then you have a certain amount of man hours. If we only create Chronomètre Souverain, which is one of our least complicated watches – not that simple, but least complicated – maybe we can make 1,500 watches a year.
If we make only the Grande Sonnerie, and if people in our actual years were able to do this right now there’s only two besides François-Paul that can actually work on them, but let’s imagine all of them would be able to, maybe we make 30 examples a year. It’s basically the balance between 30 and 1,500. Maybe it’s 32, maybe 1,600, but to give you a ballpark, and our total production just happens to be what it is at the end of the year because of people requesting more of this or that watch sometimes. Last year we produced 744 mechanical watches. That’s not counting the Grande Sonnerie – it’s like a handful, and it’s just another department. But on mechanical watches we produce 744. We don’t know yet what 2017 will be. For me, I think it’s going to be lower than 2016.
PH: It’s not because we didn’t perform whatever, but we had to do the Vagabondage III. It’s a brand-new movement, and whenever you do a new movement you have this learning curve that takes a long, long time, so your production output goes down, and then we’re preparing for the new thing … There’s a novelty for 2018, and that takes a long time also. But that’s the beauty of not having constraints with partners, or with the bank, or somebody who tells you, “I need a 10-percent return on my money.” It changes the whole paradigm. He does whatever he wants. François-Paul is the first one to say, “Guys, I’m doing the watches that I, François-Paul, like. I’m super lucky that I have collectors who like what I do. But even if they would not like what I do, I will still do this because that’s the only thing I know what to do. Don’t ask me to do things that I don’t know what do.”
You don’t ask a sculptor to do a landscape painting. If it’s not in his calling, he’s not going to do it. Marketing companies will do this. Not François-Paul. It changes the whole thing. At Babson College, there was a collector, a professor of marketing who did a case study on this, and he was telling his kids, “Listen guys, you’re probably all here because you want to make money. Fine. There’s nothing wrong with this. But you can have another vision of your life, and you’re going to hear about this case study, and then you decide.”
This guy is doing what he loves, and what he loves is not money related. To this day, François-Paul does not own an apartment, he does not own a car, he owns nothing. Every penny stays in the company, that’s how we’ve been able to grow it. If you look further, how is it possible that a company that makes 744 all the way to 900 watches a year, how can we afford to have our own dial maker, our own case maker, our own machinery to do all the components in house, or 95 percent. We don’t do the crystals, we don’t do the hands. Obviously, the rest we do. Also, have boutiques to represent him worldwide. How is that possible? In order to have this vertical integration, you will have to go to something so much bigger like Richemont Group and Swatch Group, but we’ve been able to do this on our own without a bank, without anyone. And the price of independence is steep, but that’s François-Paul.
TM: It comes down to the reinvestment. Like you said, there’s not a cent to spare. Every cent that you have goes into the dial maker, the case maker, building facilities, bringing in specialized personnel. It sounds like the development of Montres Journe is threefold. The development of new watches that are … that provide fulfillment to François-Paul himself. Development of new watches, the development of the company as an institution, and not just in terms of a brand, but you prevented the piecemeal sale of la bibliothèque de Jean-Claude Sabrier. You prevented that from being broken up. I know François-Paul spoke to me about his ambition to sometime in the future create a master school for master watchmakers within the grounds of the company.
It becomes almost like an institution of learning that gives back to watchmaking. Finally, there’s building the brand in the eyes of the collector. That’s the next topic I want to discuss with you because you have a brand that is effectively 18 years old, and we’ve already seen the development of something approaching a vintage collector market for watches that aren’t even two decades old. What does it mean that there’s now a sort of sense of “vintage” F.P. Journe? The early watches bringing special interest? The low volume brass movements, the original 38 millimeter cases, the generation-one Tourbillon Remontoir of course. Generation one Resonance and Tourbillon watches. What does that mean, and what does it say about the brand that this exists so soon?
PH: So soon? It’s 18 years! I mean it’s 18 years of hard labor, especially on François-Paul’s shoulders. But François-Paul always, always, always respected the collectors. Then from the beginning, when we stopped the brass movement, therefore we didn’t make another one after. Not one. When we stopped the … what we call the “yellow dials,” that was the dial that we advertised… and all of a sudden because François-Paul didn’t like the look of it, he stopped. But that’s it. It says no more. I’m sure people know that it’s easy to do limited edition – and then do another like it. We do a limited run and stop forever. For François-Paul, gimmicks of variation don’t even exist. When he says it’s new, it’s not like the case is new, or the packaging is new, or the band is new, it’s the thing, the whole thing is new. But when we talk to collectors, and we say, “Well, this is who we are,” and we don’t put a lot of money into marketing.
We put the money where it belongs in the watches, and our goal is to do this to make the best watches ever, and we respect the collector, meaning we do not reintroduce a look alike right after. Example, Vagabondage I. François-Paul made 69 movements, plus number double zero for the company, so he produced 70. Never used the movement again. Ever. Which company is going to develop a movement to do 70 pieces? Financially, it is stupid. In financial terms; if you’re a banker, and say, “François-Paul, that’s stupid. Why are you doing it?” “Because I want to.” That’s the beauty when being independent and being your own boss, and being the watchmaker you can decide yourself what you want to do. I have other examples if you want.
TM: Of course.
PH: The Grande Sonnerie. The Grande Sonnerie we started … I mean we started coming out with a prototype in 2005. We started showing it in 2006. We’re talking like 10 years … 8 years actually of hard work, and 10 patents on this, and on average we can make let’s say between 3 and 4 a year. It’s only three-and-a-half, or seven every two years. That’s it, the cruising speed. At that time when we introduced it was 650,000 Swiss francs. You do the math even at four, you’re talking about 2.6 million Swiss francs at retail. François-Paul asked our Franck, who was the best watch maker at that time and still probably is. François-Paul said, “Franck, can you help me out and help build these Grande Sonneries?”
First, Franck had dark hair at the beginning. He finished with white hair! That was so much work, and so much thinking he turned white in a year-and-a-half. But this guy was able to do 40 tourbillons a year, and that time it was about 100,000 Swiss francs. It’s 4 million upward on one side, 2.6 on the other one. Now, as financier you say, “Let’s go with the 4 million.” François-Paul went with the 2.6. Why? Because he wants to.
TM: Well, thank you so much Pierre for being here …
PH: Thank you