Jean-Marie Schaller, Louis Moinet
Angus Davies interviews Jean-Marie Schaller, Louis Moinet
Angus Davies talks to Jean-Marie Schaller, Louis Moinet and discusses the world’s first chronograph, the ‘Compteur de Tierces’. Schaller, the CEO and Creative Director of the brand, reveals a desire to respect the legacy of Mr Louis Moinet while embracing modernity with breathtaking watch designs imbued with high levels of Swiss craftsmanship.
Mr Louis Moinet invented the chronograph in 1816, a fact independently validated by Guinness World Records. This innovative pocket watch was named the ‘Compteur de Tierces’. The frequency of its movement was 216,000 VpH, an ultra fast cadence that few brands have been able to match even in this modern world of CNC machines and LIGA technology. The benefit of the movement’s high frequency is it allows the user to measure intervals down to 1/60th of a second. This remarkable example of ingenious watchmaking is very much part of today’s Louis Moinet brand.
However, to focus solely on the ‘Compteur de Tierces’, as remarkable as it is, would be to overlook the many attributes of this Swiss company and the many reasons it is special.
The eponymous brand, Louis Moinet is based in Saint-Blaise, a picture-perfect municipality, positioned 5km from Neuchâtel. It is here that beautiful horological creations are brought to life. As a small, independent brand, Louis Moinet does not pander to focus groups but bravely embraces new ideas and breathtaking aesthetics. Furthermore, as a function of its size, owning a Louis Moinet watch confers a notable degree of exclusivity, notwithstanding each model is a limited edition or unique piece.
At the epicentre of the Louis Moinet company is Jean-Marie Schaller, the CEO and Creative Director of the Swiss luxury brand. The charismatic Schaller is obsessed with space, conceiving watches that reference planets or feature dials formed of meteorite.
Recently, I was provided with the opportunity to interview Jean-Marie Schaller, discuss his brand in more detail and learn more about this fascinating individual.
Interview with Jean-Marie Schaller, Louis Moinet (JMS) by Angus Davies (AD)
AD: What makes Louis Moinet special?
JMS: Known for being an exceptional horologist – as well as having extraordinary clients such as Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I and Thomas Jefferson to name a few – Louis Moinet was the inventor of the chronograph. He was one of the greatest watchmakers ever – his inventiveness, passion and willingness to pass on his wisdom mean his contribution to horology is immeasurable.
Furthermore, Louis Moinet is considered one of the very few inventors of a major technology. Not only did he invent the chronograph, he also wrote Traite d’Horlogerie – the most important book on watches from the 19th century. His heritage is unique!
Today, we do not create a watch for a marketing reason. I have a love for watchmaking and this is all that counts. We do not have a business plan, everything is in my mind. It is the heart which rules my decisions. We are a small independent brand with a big name to manage. We have small means, we work without any banks, we make our living from our sales. In this context we are true creators. It is our mission to surprise the public, like entertainers. We always need to find something that will put a smile on their faces, that seduces them. This is the mission of the creator-watchmaker.
AD: Prior to owning Louis Moinet did you work for any other watch companies? What is your professional background?
JMS: Before working in the watch industry, I did two federal diplomas in advertising (1983) and marketing (1985). Then I joined the watch industry. First, I started to work for the trading company Siber Hegner from 1986 to 1993, in which I was project manager for a number of brands in the sector, including Perrelet. In 1991, I also launched Daniel Roth who was completely unknown at that time. In 1994, when the Perrelet brand was being relaunched, I became its CEO. After a short period as a marketing and management consultant (1999-2000), I joined Lacoste Watches as marketing director. And in 2003, I founded Les Ateliers Louis Moinet.
AD: After acquiring Louis Moinet, when did you learn about the existence of the Compteur de Tierces, the world’s first chronograph? How did you acquire this watch?
JMS: When we found this piece, we didn’t know it was the first chronograph. I had read this short book about him, but I didn’t understand everything, so I just took notes. I had noted that 200 years ago, he had made an escapement that vibrated 216,000 times per hour and there was something about a timekeeper indicating 1/60th of a second, but I didn’t know what it was at the time.
The watch came up for auction at Christie’s in 2012 and it was estimated at CHF 3,000 – 3,500. It was submitted to the auction at the very last minute so not everyone knew about it. That morning I woke with a start, it was as if someone had whispered in my ear the number 50,000 – it wasn’t like a dream at all. I didn’t know what it meant, but thought this had to be my upper limit. The auction was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Geneva and I remember sitting next to Jean-Claude Biver and many other important watch industry personalities. It was an important auction, two Breguet watches sold for several million Swiss Francs. Then the Louis Moinet came up and someone started bidding against me. The price got driven up to 50,000 and just as I was preparing to let the sale go, the other bidder stopped and the watch was mine for exactly 50,000. Sometimes I feel that Louis Moinet is alive and with me.
AD: Several of your watches feature unusual materials such as fossilised dinosaur bone and meteorites. Where did the idea come from for using these materials?
JMS: The source is my good friend, Luc Labenne, who is the worldwide authority on meteorites. I also work with a museum to guarantee the authenticity of the materials chosen. The idea is to combine art with the concept of time and space. Sometimes, technology comes first, sometimes the material. There is no rule. I had a beautiful piece of fossilised palm tree, for nearly two years, before I found the right opportunity to use it. The sale of each watch contributed to the preservation of the eldest rainforest in the world through the Pulau Banding Foundation, in Malaysia. The watch was also awarded “Best of Best” from Red Dot Design.
AD: Each Louis Moinet timepiece is imbued with incredible style. What is the source of this style? For example, do you employ a well-known independent designer?
JMS: We have one foot in the past, one foot in the future. Heritage means roots. It is a starting point from which we build today’s story. In my opinion, heritage is essential. Fifty years ago, a watch was a technical product needed to tell the time. Fifteen years ago, a watch had become more of a status symbol. Today, a watch is a cultural object. A watch is not a product; it is the testimony of a unique know-how that has been acquired, developed and enriched generation after generation.
From the very first day, all of Louis Moinet’s timepieces are either exclusive limited editions or unique pieces. Uniqueness, creative horology, art and design, and exclusivity are at the heart of Louis Moinet creation.
To produce our exclusive watches, it is important to work with the best partners that share our values. Therefore, we do not work with only one designer but with a few independent designers who can each bring their new creative ideas.
AD: As we discussed earlier, Louis Moinet is synonymous with the chronograph. Do you envisage offering new chronographs in the future such as fully integrated column-wheel models and, in particular, a rattrapante?
JMS: As Louis Moinet is the inventor of the chronograph, we envisage offering new chronographs to our clients. We believe we should always be true to Louis Moinet and to ourselves. We are more artists than marketeers. We want to perpetuate watch culture by inventing new watches that have both the ‘wow’ effect and the Louis Moinet DNA. Basically, we are looking for new emotions to share with our friends and clients.
AD: The Memoris is one of my favourite Louis Moinet watches. Could the Memoris be adapted to incorporate additional complications?
JMS: Yes of course, it is possible for the Memoris to incorporate additional complications.
AD: Louis Moinet seems inextricably linked to space. Earlier this year you released the Spacewalker and Skylink, both celebrating Alexey Leonov’s walk in space. Does this fascination with space come from you?
JMS: The fascination with space comes from Louis Moinet. Louis Moinet was an astronomer and had invented his chronograph to measure the passage of the stars across the sky, so the connection to the stars makes sense. All the materials we use have to be genuine. The first one we sold was to the Sultan of Oman. He didn’t know anything about Louis Moinet so his team asked me to go to the notary and make a declaration of honour to authenticate that the piece was really from the moon. I only buy from my friend Luc Labenne, who is the authority on meteorites.
AD: Eye-catching colours and sublime textures have become a characteristic of several Louis Moinet watches, including the Sundance and Skydance models. The dial finishes employed bestow your ladies’ models with a wonderful artistic quality. Does this artistic flair come from you? And, if so, are there any other areas where you express your artistic capability?
JMS: The artistic flair comes from the heritage of Louis Moinet and from me. Louis Moinet was a very interesting person because he was a gifted artist and a good technician. He was also very modest and focussed on improving the art which he produced.
A thing that has always motivated me was to create a work of art from a blank sheet of paper. A watch embraces both technical and design elements, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to incorporate both.
I also express my artistic capability in painting. I like to paint because it allows me to be extremely creative. Even though I have had no formal training, I enjoy learning by myself because there are no boundaries or limits: I can do whatever I want. When you have a watch, you have to make a lot of compromises, but in painting you can do anything. I have become more creative when inventing watches thanks to these new experiences.
AD: What are your future plans for Louis Moinet?
JMS: History is the foundation from which we innovate. Practically all of our watches feature unique technology and very special features. Memoris is the first ever chronograph in which all chronograph parts are built on the top of the watch; Tempograph is the only 20-second retrograde watch; Space Mystery the only satellite tourbillon; and we have more innovations to come.
Micro-technology is the daughter of heritage. The work of our fathers has enabled us to miniaturise more and more, opening the door to new possibilities. Our upcoming projects all have the same remit: to revisit traditional watchmaking in a creative way. You can expect a few surprises in both the technical and design aspects of watchmaking.
I have always had a soft spot for Jean-Marie Schaller, Louis Moinet. He is softly spoked, an exemplar of gentlemanly behaviour and is fascinating to talk to. However, he exhibits two other notable qualities, an exactitude in everything he does and an eye for design. Indeed, from the first time I met the sartorially elegant Schaller I became aware of his boundless style.
It is these useful traits which influence the Louis Moinet watches of today. They do not follow convention or ‘play it safe’, they embrace ‘blue sky thinking’ and incredible ingenuity. This design approach is courageous and illustrates a true entrepreneurial spirit, a fact Schaller reveals when he says ‘It is the heart which rules my decisions’.
The rewards for conceiving designs in this way can be seen with the distinctive aesthetics of each model bearing the Louis Moinet name. Indeed, no one could ever accuse Schaller of plagiarism, his creations are the product of original thoughts.
Today’s Louis Moinet embrace the new while respecting the past. It is clear when talking to Jean-Marie Schaller, Louis Moinet that he is mindful of Mr Louis Moinet’s legacy and ensures that it is respected at all times.
Each year, I look forward to visiting the Swiss company’s exhibition stand at Baselworld and viewing the fruit of Schaller’s imagination and passion. In fact, ‘passion’ is a word which readily comes to the fore when describing Schaller, a man who has a love of space, a fondness for art and a unwavering desire to surprise.