Back in 1992, Philippe Dufour had yet to make a name for himself, despite his groundbreaking innovations for heritage watch maisons such as Audemars Piguet and Jaeger LeCoultre. Dufour's Grande Sonnerie minute-repeater wristwatch - a world's first which took him 36 months to finish - didn't get any orders after its Baselworld debut until he came across an Asian dealer who offered to show the piece in Singapore.
"First thing I did was to find a map. I mean, where is Singapore?" Dufour recalls the day that changed everything. Before he could fully digest the details, Dufour had hopped on the next flight to Singapore. His masterpiece, which he had planned to store in a Swiss bank vault in Europe, was immediately sold in Singapore with three additional orders.
Fast forward to today, Asia has become the market leader for Swiss luxury watch exports and Dufour, now one of the most celebrated master independent watchmakers of our time, makes regular trips to the once strange land to meet some of his most important collectors.
His Simplicity watch collection - arguably the most desirable timepiece by Dufour - also has a close connection to Asian collectors, especially in Japan. Out of the 200 pieces ever made, 120 were sold via Shellman - an institutional watch boutique in Tokyo founded by Yoshi Isogai.
"Asian collectors are more knowledgeable now. The evolution has been remarkable," Dufour says. "It's good news for us [independent watchmakers]. We do what we do out of love and passion. Today, we are getting more recognition for that."
While the Asian market might have opened doors for Dufour, it was Vallee de Joux that nurtured his knowhow and skills.
Growing up in a family of watchmakers including his father and grandfather, the interest in mechanics came naturally for Dufour. After graduating from Ecole d'Horlogerie de la Vallee de Joux, Dufour began his career with Jaeger-LeCoultre. His next venture with General Watch & Co took him to the Caribbean. He returned to his roots in 1974. After short stints at Gerald Genta and Audemars Piguet, he decided to go solo in 1978. Dufour spent the first few years of his independent career on restoring pocket watches for auction houses.
"Some of the best pocket watches were made from 1850s to 1920s, very technical watches - minute repeaters from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, for example," Dufour says. "After working on those pieces, I wanted to make watches like those again. So I began working on the side."
The result was the Grande et Petite Sonnerie open-faced pocket watch. Only five pieces were made. One was auctioned at Sotheby's in 2012, fetching the considerable sum of HK$1.34 million. Dufour, however, wasn't able to take full credit of the important piece as it was made for Audemars Piguet and retailed by Asprey.
"Back then, nobody knew me. People congratulated my work and encouraged me to carry on but no one offered to buy it so I took it to Audemars Piguet," Dufour says. "It took me five years to deliver the entire order and by the time I was done, I decided I would only make watches bearing my own name."
In 1992, Dufour finally claimed the spotlight by launching the Grande et Petite Sonnerie minute repeater wristwatch at Baselworld.
"I spent two and a half years on the watch," Dufour says. "I took all the pieces out from the pocket watch and worked out the balanced ratio for the wristwatch."
During the time, Dufour worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, even at Christmas. He also learned computer modelling software to help.
"Windows wasn't there yet. I was literally designing using MSDOS operating system," Dufour adds. "Looking back, I admit I was a bit crazy. I was obsessed with the piece. I didn't make any money for those two years."
One of the Grande et Petite Sonnerie wristwatches was auctioned at Sotheby's for HK$4.82 million four years ago, well above the estimate of HK$2.2-3.2 million. The piece is now hotly sought after by avid collectors.
"I was pretty upset after the show because despite all the interest, I didn't sell anything until I showed in Singapore," he says.
Now still working most of the time as a one-man band, Dufour admits that he had failed at building a team.
"I preferred to work alone rather than having someone always whining about the difficulties. That would just make me nervous," he says. "I don't think the younger generation is ready to fight for [perfection]. They lose motivation very fast."
The master watchmaker has always dedicated his efforts to passing on his know-how. Independent watchmakers such as Kari Voutilainen and Romain Gauthier are close with Dufour.
In 2011, Dufour joined Greubel Forsey to launch the Garde Temps-Naissance d'une Montre project which aims to preserve historical techniques and skills of traditional watchmaking.
The project enlisted Michel Boulanger, a young teacher at Paris Watchmaking School, to create a high-quality timepiece entirely by hand, without the use of computer-controlled machines. The first prototype, featuring a hand-wound tourbillon with three hands, was unveiled in 2015 and is scheduled to be auctioned in May at Christie's Hong Kong.
"I was convinced that mechanical watches would never die," Dufour says. "Everything is done the way it should be. I take no shortcuts, no cheap parts."
Dufour's most revered Simplicity is probably the best example to demonstrate his approach. Following his complicated creations - the Grande Sonnerie and Duality featuring twin-escapements - Dufour began working on a simplistic piece, and also a piece he wants for himself.
"As soon as I started, I realised that [making] a simple yet well-balanced watch would not be easy at all," he says. Dufour has worn the Simplicity No.000 every day for the past 16 years.
The production for Simplicity ended in late 2012 but requests kept coming. Dufour says he gets at least three emails a week asking for more Simplicity watches.
Although he has little intention of resuming production right now, prospects could be bright for the future now that he has begun grooming a veteran watchmaker friend who recently retired from Audemars Piguet.
1967 Joins Jaeger-LeCoultre
1974 Returns to Switzerland from working with General Watch & Co in the Caribbean
1978 Starts working as an independent watchmaker
1980s Creates first movement - Grande Sonnerie - for pocket watches
1992 Presents the Grande Sonnerie wristwatch
1993 Travels to Singapore for trunk show
1996 Launches Duality Double Escapement
2000 Launches Simplicity
2012 Delivers the last Simplicity and ceases production
2014 Wins Hommage au Talent Award from Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie