Angus Davies interviews Michel Parmigiani who founded Parmigiani Fleurier in 1996 with the backing of the Sandoz Family Foundation. 


An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Parmigiani Fleurier was formed in 1996 with the backing of the Sandoz Family Foundation. The brand’s nomenclature reveals the home of this much respected exemplar of haute horology. Fleurier is located in the district of Val-De-Travers within the canton of Neuchâtel.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Tonda 1950


In its short history it has created unique timepieces harnessing exceptional craftsmanship. The range of models is diverse, embracing traditional styled timepieces, such as the handsome Tonda 1950, to the modern, avantgarde Bugatti Super Sport.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Bugatti Super Sport

A key strength of Parmigiani Fleurier is vertical integration with virtually all components made in-house.

A total of five additional factories, which form part of the Les Manufactures Horlogères de la Fondation (MHF), another company owned by Sandoz Family Foundation, make everything from screws and pinions, to movements, dials and cases. The expertise within these centres of excellence are highly prized by the watchmaking industry at large. Indeed, they make components for many famous names from the world of haute horology.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Elwin in Moutier – component manufacturing

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Les Artisans Boîtiers, La Chaux-de-Fonds – cases

Quadrance et Habillage, La Chaux-de-Fonds – dials

Michel Parmigiani is also known for his prowess at restoring clocks, automatons and watches. Several examples of his sympathetic restoration can be found around the globe. Moreover, he has imparted some of his vast skill and knowledge to a small team based in Fleurier who continue this virtuous work, helping to preserve history for future generations to enjoy.

I have previously met Michel Parmigiani at social events, however, it was a genuine privilege to be granted an interview recently at SIHH 2013.

The interview

AD: I have been to your various factories in Moutier, Alle, Fleurier and La Chaux-de-Fonds. They are spread around geographically. Why?

MP: It would have been much easier to have all the different production centres under one roof. But, as you may know, in Switzerland, there are different regions which are dedicated to certain activities. We have decided to have centres of excellence and keep the knowledge where people have the knowledge. In the Jura, this is where people are very capable of producing small components.

People do not want to travel long distances to work. It could negatively affect their work if they have to travel far to come to work.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

AD: That is interesting. Do you think as a businessman or a watchmaker? You clearly demonstrate with that comment, you have empathy with your staff.

MP: I like business, but first of all I am watchmaker.

AD: I visited your factories a few weeks ago and was genuinely shocked at how much work you do for other famous names from the world of haute horology. Clearly you have to respect confidentiality and in several cases we cannot name individual brands. However, does it not frustrate you when you hear members of the public talk of certain brands as the pinnacle of your watchmaking, when you know that you have been party to that product behind the scenes?

MP: Yes, we work with others. Richard Mille makes no secret of our contribution to their products.

But, I am not frustrated because I have confidence in my products which is important to me. Also, I am glad that others are coming to us for our expertise. Moreover, companies like Atokalpa have full order books. That pleases me.

AD: One area I viewed in Fleurier was your Haute Horlogerie Department where unique pieces are created. I saw some of the Tecnica timepieces and to be honest, “I was blown away”.


There are some incredibly talented watchmakers working in this department. How do you retain them? They must be very valuable people.

 

Why do they stay at Parmigiani and not move?

MP: I liken this to the atom, where the nucleus is very strong and it attracts electrons to orbit around it. Whilst I am able to make Parmigiani an interesting place to work, I hope to be able to attract staff to our company and this will encourage them to stay.

In the Haute Horlogerie Department, staff are working on a timepiece from the beginning to the end. This is very rewarding work for a watchmaker.

Many staff have confidence in me and can see I am behind the company. If people like the job, they like me, they have confidence in the future, then they will stay. They can see I am here, I am behind new products and active in the company.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

AD: In London, we recently had SalonQP. Afterwards, I went for dinner with several watchmakers including Kari Voutilainen and Stepan Sarpaneva, who both worked for you.

MP: In the beginning I started with six watchmakers. They have all gone onto be great, independent watchmakers.

The first one, Denis Flageollet went on to form De Bethune. Then there was Kari Voutilainen, Stepan Sarpaneva, Raúl Pagès, Michel Vienot …

AD: When I went to the Restoration Department at Fleurier, I met a fantastic gentleman, Francis Rossignol, who works for you. He was a fascinating chap, showing me incredible clocks which he had worked upon. He showed me several pieces from the collection belonging to the Sandoz Family Foundation.

Would there ever be a possibility that he may visit some of your Boutiques, for example Mount Street, London and demonstrate some of these incredible pieces?

MP: Yes, this may be possible. We have done something similar in China in the past.

We have something interesting planned for the Kremlin Museum.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Francis Rossignol in the Restorations Department

AD: At Mount Street, there is a fabulous area downstairs, where there are several complicated timepieces. Do you think we may see something unusual, presented by a gifted watchmaker, where a small number of collectors can share the emotional appeal of some of the finest Parmigiani timepieces, for example a piece unique?

MP: Yes, because we are a vertically integrated company, with experience of custom made watches. We have the flexibility to facilitate this and it is something we would be able to consider for the future.

AD: With regards to the new Boutique in London. Mount Street is a quintessential English street. It is perfectly suited to the persona of Parmigiani Fleurier. The street is very elegant.

 

The Boutique brings a little piece of Switzerland to the most English of streets.

In England we have a great history of watchmaking with illustrious names such as Harrison, Tompion, Arnold, Graham for example. Are there any English watchmakers you admire?

MP: I particularly admire the work of Harrison. He is someone I greatly admire.

AD: I was recently asked about my thoughts about silicon being used in watchmaking, for publication in a Swiss watch magazine. What is your opinion of the material?

MP: We have done some tests with the material out of curiosity. It is not affected by magnetism and not subject to corrosion.

Technically, it is very interesting.

However, we cannot execute the parts how we would like to. There is no opportunity to finish components and add value. It is unlikely we would actually use silicon in our timepieces.

We have already decided, we do not want to progress with silicon at Parmigiani Fleurier.

AD: You are vertically integrated. I know you make screws, dials, pinions, cases etc,. What do you not make?

MP: We do not make the rubies or the sapphire crystals. We currently buy the alloy for the mainsprings as raw material, albeit we make the actual mainsprings ourselves. The straps we obtain from Hermès. Everything else is made within the group.

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Conclusion

Michel Parmigiani appears to be a modest man. I admire the way he preserves the history of watchmaking with the talented artisans he employs, restoring old clocks and valuable automata. Conversely, he conceives new modern timepieces to delight new audiences.

The depth of knowledge and competence permeates all areas of the group. The degree of vertical integration will ensure a bright future for Parmigiani Fleurier, reassuring many admirers of the brand, myself included.

Michel clearly inspires those who work for him. He provides the glue that binds all the talented individuals together in an assemblage of artisans, creating high-end horology, few can better.

Two horological gems released at SIHH 2013

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Pershing Tourbillon Abyss

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

An interview with Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier

Toric Quaestor Labyrinthe


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