There was a man determined to withstand the shockwaves emanating from the quartz revolution during the 1970s. Nonetheless, it was no easy task to ensure the survival of the delicate craft of creating mechanical watches during this tumultuous period in watchmaking. Not even for Michel Parmigiani, who founded his atelier during the maelstrom of the revolution. However, his forte in classic restoration not only confirmed his passion for haute horology but also became the goldmine of knowledge for his future creations.
"Having seen so many intricate antique watches has given me faith that watchmaking [was not a craft that would die out because of the quartz revolution]," says Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier. "Back then, however, no banker, no investor, no one would trust me, but my wife." Fast-forward 40 years and Parmigiani has impressed more than just his wife - mechanical watchmaking is here to stay.
The maestro has successfully restored pieces such as the Francois Ducommun Planetary clock and Breguet's Pendule Sympathique clock. Apart from pieces restored from the brand's affiliated Maurice Yves Sandoz collection, Parmigiani's masterpieces are preserved at institutions such as Milan's Castello Sforzesco, Geneva's Patek Philippe Museum and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Like Parmigiani, who credits classic restoration as the basis of his brand, fine watchmakers and high jewellers love flaunting their rich history of antique pieces, either in the spectacular form of retrospective exhibitions or reinterpretations of classic pieces in current collections.
Cartier's recent "Style and History" exhibition at Paris' Grand Palais, for example, was a sold-out showcase. Hundreds of high-jewellery pieces, clocks and watches, design sketches and drawings from the brand's own archive, and on loan from museums and private collectors, were on display.
The jeweller actively acquires vintage pieces for its archive and clients through a department called Cartier Tradition. Valuable pieces are restored by the same team in the same atelier where collections are developed. For its antique timepieces, especially, three experienced craftsmen are dedicated to restoration work.
Luxury maisons, such as Cartier, Audemars Piguet, Van Cleef & Arpels (VCA) and more, assign top craftsmen, historians and experts to set up archives, sifting through their rich history in haute horology or haute joaillerie. Restoration services are available whenever an antique piece is acquired or a family heirloom is brought in by collectors.
While plenty of such restorations are requested by clients, antique pieces are also restored to their former glory to raise their resale value. Valuable antique watches and high jewellery, fetching promising results at auctions and private sales, has also made classic restoration more popular.
Michael Young, a Hong Kong-based watch collector and the owner of Classic Watch Repair, has witnessed increased interest in antique watches over the past few years.
"More connoisseurs are interested in classic watches nowadays. They are knowledgeable and they know their watches," says Young, whose company in Tsim Sha Tsui restores and customises classic timepieces.
Nevertheless, the majority of restoration projects are requests from private collectors.
"A lot of clients ask us to restore a piece of jewellery into its original form. Sometimes they ask us to transform a piece into something else," says Pierre Rainero, Cartier's image and heritage director.
Owners of the Stomacher brooch, originally worn with a corset in the beginning of the 20th century, often turn to Cartier to transform the brooch into a more wearable piece.
To restore antique jewellery, the Cartier team sifts through archive sketches and photos for the jewellery's most original form. They go to great lengths to find gemstones of the same provenance as the original ones for authenticity.
For a service that's often confused with after-sale services, veterans say the craft of restoration is much more than just repairing.
"For us, restoration is about preserving and rekindling the original spirit and story behind our heritage creations," says Nicolas Luchsinger, Van Cleef & Arpels international retail director. "Restoration of [antique] creations helps us consolidate the ties we nurture with our past and history."
The craft of restoration consists of many more layers than just to fix the object, be its cultural and historical significances or sentimental attachments.
"No one [would want to] throw away a high-end watch. It is one of the only highly technical objects produced today that last for centuries. [Maintaining and passing down] restoration skills is the only way we can make these pieces last," says Sebastian Vivas, heritage and museum director of Audemars Piguet.
To give antique pieces a new lease of life, restorers have to reproduce antique parts and sometimes even tools.
"The main difference between restoration and repairing is the absence of spare parts," Vivas says. "Our philosophy is to repair as much as possible the damaged components and bring back their original aesthetics and function."
Traditional tools used since the 19th century are still being used at the atelier of Audemars Piguet.
A similar philosophy is adopted at the house of Van Cleef & Arpels. "For replacements, we [look for] stones cut at the same time when the piece left our workshop originally so as to remain faithful to its authenticity," Luchsinger says.
The challenges and constraints in restoration are as complicated as for new creations if not more. Restorers tread on very thin ice technically.
"Every watch is different. Every problem demands its own solution, often inventive and always risky. When there are no spare parts, the risk of breaking or losing a microscopic component is part of the game," Vivas says. He says it can take up to a week to replace a broken pinion.
Although most of the know-how in watchmaking and stone-setting has been well preserved, there are limitations to restorations.
"There's little we can do with enamelling work, especially with pieces made in the early 20th century," Rainero says.
The time taken to restore a timepiece varies. It took the Audemars Piguet team 800 hours to restore a greatly damaged 19th-century double complication watch, while a Breguet clock took Parmigiani 2,000 hours to restore. For jewellery, restoration could take more than a year as it takes time to source stones. After restoration, a piece is well documented in a brand's archive for research and future purposes.
Audemars Piguet, for instance, has a production registry within the heritage department to identify and authenticate its products.
The custodian of Audemars Piguet's almost 140 years of watchmaking legacy includes a team of restoration craftsmen under the heritage department, which nestles in the original building where Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet founded their first workshop in 1875.
The team not only restores antique Audemars Piguet pieces but also pieces from other watchmakers of the Vallée de Joux, such as Louis Audemars, Ami LeCoultre and Nicole et Capt. "Our restoration workshop aims to [pass down] the traditional craft of watchmaking to the next generation. [Workshop craftsmen also provide] a detailed report on each piece they have repaired, including its history and the work that has been done on it," Vivas says.
Not all jewellers and watchmakers set aside a team of craftsmen dedicated to restoration. Many choose to mix talents on the restoration bench.
Parmigiani Fleurier, for example, has a team of seven craftsmen who are capable of restoring complicated antique timepieces, but only two of them work exclusively on restoration. The other five craftsmen also work on present collections. The situation at Cartier is similar. Restoration is done in the same atelier where present collections are produced.
"We are very demanding [when it comes to quality], so even antique pieces have to [fulfil our quality requirements]," Rainero says. "It's useful for our contemporary jewellers to see how antique pieces were made."
Examining historical pieces allows craftsmen to see what builds a brand and encourages new ideas for present and future creations.
"Restoration is extremely crucial as it defines the level of detail and the level of sophistication of today's timepieces," Parmigiani says. "It [provides] good training and inspires new ideas. Restoration has a direct inspirational effect." Vivas agrees: "Designers and engineers are in regular contact with the heritage department for inspiration."
Audemars Piguet's one-and-only high-jewellery watch launched at this year's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, for example, was inspired by a 1920s antique piece.
Despite the money and effort involved, the beauty of restoration is that it prolongs the lifespan of a timeless investment that can be passed down from generation to generation. "Restoration is a matter of passion. Without passion, it would be impossible to restore antique masterpieces," Vivas says.
"Although it is a fantastic privilege for a passionate watchmaker to work on antique masterpieces, it is also a great responsibility."
BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE
The Maharaja of Patiala’s Ceremonial necklace, made in 1928, was originally set with 2,930 diamonds weighing 1,000ct. It now features a recently restored collar made of diamonds, precious stones and synthetic rubies. The restoration and stone sourcing took the maison more than a year to complete.
Van Cleef & Arpels
The Art Deco bracelet, made in 1925, had missing and broken stones. Restorers sourced stones cut at the original sale time for authenticity. The platinum piece is now encrusted with round diamonds and oval-cut sapphires.
Parmigiani Restoration Workshop
The restoration of the exquisite La Cueillette des series pocket watch, part of Maurice Yves Sandoz collection, took Michel Parmigiani and his team about 350 hours to complete.