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It’s Complicated

Girard-Perregaux and Maîtres du Temps are revitalizing haute horlogerie with exquisite craftsmanship and an influx of youth

In the world of haute horlogerie—the corner of the luxury watch world where supercomplicated movements matter more than gold and diamonds—the artisans who create the mechanisms are reaching celebrity status. Just as avant garde chefs Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal became stars by rethinking accepted kitchen techniques to reinvent fine dining, watch manufacturers Girard-Perreguax and Maîtres du Temps are both promoting watchmakers and tinkering with the traditions of timepieces.

GP has always been a home for inventors—its iconic Tourbillon with three gold bridges is one of the most celebrated watch movements in horological history (right, Girard-Perreguax Tourbillon with three gold bridges). Yet a new buzz about the company began when former Gucci chairman Michele Sofisti took over as CEO last year. When he hired star watchmaker Dominique Loiseau to collaborate with GP, it sent a clear message to the industry that the brand was passionate about the future of haute horlogerie.

“There is sometimes a veil of mystery when one speaks of haute horlogerie,” says Sofisti. “It embraces a living history looking to the future, a rich culture and ethic, exquisite expertise.” For example, the introduction of GP’s limited-edition Bi-Axial Tourbillon Watch in September left fans gasping at the understated beauty of its gold bridges, aligned barrel, wheel train and exposed tourbillon. The fact that there are only 33 of these handmade gems in existence make the watch even more desirable.

Steven Holtzman also came from traditional watchmaking—his family owned the Gruen brand—and has a passionate commitment to innovation. Holtzman started Maîtres du Temps by assembling the equivalent of a watchmaking supergroup, approaching famed masters Christophe Claret, Roger Dubuis and Peter Speake-Marin and asking them to collaborate on what was to become Chapter One: a hyper-complicated mono pusher chronograph featuring a tourbillon retrograde GMT and two rolling bars indicating the day of the week and the moon phases, respectively (left, Maîtres du Temps Chapter Two in 18K white gold with black dial).

“With a mechanical watch, you interact with it,” says Holtzman. “You set it. You wind it it, you bring it to life.” On the other end of thatinteraction is the artisan. Holtzman wanted to draw watchmakers into the spotlight because they also make the heart of the watch beat. Working with other master watchmakers is a big draw for independent watchmakers such as Kari Voutilainen, Andreas Strehler and Christophe Claret, who collaborated with Maîtres du Temps on other mechanisms. “We worked with the best in the business,” says Holtzman, “and the watchmakers were able to improve each other’s game.”

As one of the few watch companies that manufactures its own movements, GP is also able to attract a watchmaker like Dominique Loiseau by giving him a playground where he could develop his own revolutionary watch movement, which will debut in 2013. This grand complication will include a grande sonnerie and integrated chronograph, among other surprises. According to Sofisti, elements of this complication will become the centerpiece for a whole family of movements. “Essentially,” he says, “it’s a radical approach to watchmaking, which traditionally has always begun with a simple movement into which watchmakers have added complications.”

Girard-Perregaux is nurturing the next generation of watchmakers by taking them on the road. The Young Watchmakers Tour features up-and-coming artisans demonstrating their chops outside of such iconic locations as Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. They have also visited New York and Beijing; Moscow, Tokyo and Australia are planned stops for 2013.

Sofisti says the tour is an industry first. “It seeks to break away from the current image many people have of the craft. It is not an antique art; it is young, revitalized and constantly evolving, much like the people behind it. We have deep respect for our heritage, but our duty is to renew and reinvent our art.” Adds Holtzman, “When you buy a watch like this, you want to know who created it and what makes it special.”

Photos (top to bottom): Courtesy of Girard-Perregaux; Courtesy Maîtres du Temps