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Meet the Watch Maestro

With his sophisticated wristwatches, Franck Muller has perfected the art of creating new wrinkles in time

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Talk about hitting the ground running. Franck Muller began designing timepieces in Switzerland in 1991, but one year later he unveiled the most complicated wristwatch in the world, taking his place among the great watchmakers working today. On a recent visit to the Tourneau store in New York City,  the “Master of Complications” shared with DuJour how he got started, what keeps him pushing himself, and what he does when he’s not dreaming up new complexities.

How did you get interested in designing watches?

When I was very young—I would say 10 years old—I started to collect antiques, especially technical antiques like vintage cameras, radios, televisions, old scientific instruments. It was through this that I met a lot of people specializing in these different technical old things. At 15, which is the age when you have to choose what you want to do, I only had one idea: I have to work for myself. A lot of older people—because at 15, the 30- and 40-year-olds look old—thought it was silly because I had no experience in watch making. I was very good with my hands. The surprise when I started school was that I was very talented in what I was doing, so I thought, Let’s continue this.  

When quartz technology emerged in the ‘70s, the older watch brands seemed hesitant to come up with something new. It must have been very challenging for you to be starting out then.

When I started at the school of watchmaking, nobody wanted to go there: 18,000 people had just been put onto the streets with no job and every big brand was bankrupt. In fact, at that time you could buy watches by the kilo, not by the piece, since they were worth almost nothing. It was very bad times but also a good opportunity to learn.

When did you decide to start your own company?

At the time, I was restoring the most important pocket watch collection in the world. To do this, you have to be very talented in order to make them in the same style and remake the function of the watch. After two or three years of working for collectors and museums, I thought, Why don’t I do this myself? But people kept telling me I was crazy because I didn’t have a name. I said, ‘Yes, but the old, great watch companies didn’t have a name when they started. They made their name because they did something different.’

Weren’t you scared by these warnings?

Yes, of course. It wasn’t easy when you dedicate a whole year to making a watch and don’t know if it will work. Everybody kept saying that it would not work and that I was crazy, but you have to believe in yourself. 

You’re called the “master of complications” for creating elaborate, completely original timepieces. What is it about creating such intricate objects that excites you?

When I started to set records, I had to keep challenging myself but when you’re number one every year, you have to continue being number one. You cannot sleep through your records. I started making watches with more and more complications, because the Holy Grail for a watchmaker is to make the most complicated watch in the world. I made the most complicated one in 1992, and then another brand challenged me in ’96 so I remade the most complicated watch in ’97. After that, no one challenged me.

For many of your customers, purchasing one of your watches is an exciting and special experience. It’s not a casual purchase but one that they’ve dreamed about for a while. What is the equivalent of buying a Franck Muller for you?

I love cars—I’ve designed for Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lincoln Continental and Volvo. I love architecture as well. And I love art—I’m a big collector. Art of any period, from gothic to modern, inspires me a lot in my designs. I collect a lot of marble and bronze pieces and paintings. My life and mind have changed a little bit now, though. I have a five-year-old daughter. I spend a lot of my time thinking about her, watching the way she is growing and seeing how joyful she is. I’m older now, and my family is the most important thing to me. 

Can you give us any hints about what you’re working now?

No, you’ll have to come in again and look at the new collection!