It's not much of a secret that Switzerland is the capital of the watchmaking world, a title they've held onto for many, many centuries now. As fables go, it loosely began as a winter pastime for agricultural families speckled throughout Switzerland's isolating mountain terrain. The frozen months between September and April were so brutally unproductive farming-wise that the idle hands of Swiss farmers had little else to do than to get really, really good at working tiny pieces of precious metals into precise timekeeping machines—presumably so they could track exactly how long it would be till they could go outside again.
Born out of a deep respect for the preservation and restoration of the world's earliest timepieces, Parmigiani Fleurier is a modern manufacturer founded in 1996 that operates what many in the industry consider to be near the very top of quality production. I had the fortune of visiting their headquarters in Fleurier, a sleepy town in the sleepier Canton of Neuchâtel, nestled in the region of Val-de-Travers. It's not often that manufacturers of this quality open their doors to the public, so it's with great pleasure that I'm able to walk you through their home below.
Every Parmigiani watch begins its life here, at the Manufacture's headquarters in Fleurier. It's a stunning traditional Swiss, gated estate that houses corporate, design, and restoration—the three main pillars that keep the company moving forward.
Inside you'll find priceless timepieces like this one, a box clock that has an articulated mechanical bird, complete with tiny bellows that actually allow it to whistle a song.
That bird is just the tip of the iceberg. At any given moment, the horological restorers at the Fleurier HQ are liable to be working on some of the world's most valuable timepieces—we're talking millions upon millions. If you've ever seen a piece like this one in a museum, chances are it's been worked on at some point by Michel Parmigiani and his team of geniuses.
This one plays double duty as a perfume bottle. Just a casual mechanical gilded 7-figure perfume bottle from the 18th century. No big deal.
The detail is just staggering!
Now imagine working on something like that with your girlfriend's eyebrow tweezers. Yeah, stressful.
Looking beyond the historical preservation you'll find something on the entire opposite end of the spectrum: bleeding edge 3D renderings. This is where the watches that fill Parmigiani's boutiques are designed and tweaked, each and every one built "in-house," meaning the design and manufacture of every piece occurs under one "roof" so to speak.
On the screen above is the Bugatti Supersport, a $285,000 driving watch built in collaboration with the legendary automaker. The dial of the watch is positioned so as to be visible without moving the wrist while gripping the wheel of your Veyron. Yep.
Once the high-level designs are finished and executed it's off to Vaucher, the official in-house manufacture of Parmigiani's movements. Vaucher is widely recognized as one of the finest movement manufactures in Switzerland, and the way it's structured allows them to manufacture movements for other manufacturers between production runs for Parmigiani.
It's a hermetically sealed environment—everyone in white lab coats, very quiet, very Swiss.
For the Bugatti Grand Sport timepiece, the final movement is extremely unusual—a prism-shaped movement designed to fit snugly inside the aerodynamic teardrop shape of the watch.
While the finishing touches of the movement are being applied, artisans are also working on the more aesthetic parts at Quadrance & Habillage that will cover the tiny engines like the one in the previous photo. Above, they're affixing delicate details to the watch face of what appears to be a Tonda Hemisphere's model. Weirdly, one of the easiest and most uniform ways to apply treatments to the watch faces is by using an extremely soft rubber similar to silicone.
The above blank faces for the Metrographe are ready for heat treatment.
At every point of the manufacture, there's an almost comical amount of quality control. Seriously, these people are quadruple-checking each other's work.
Then it's off to the case manufacture, Les Artisans Boîtiers, where the actual housing that holds the guts of the watch are crafted. Here they operate incredibly precise lathes in carefully sealed environments. When they're shaping 16 ounces of gold into an 8-ounce case, you can be damn sure they capture all of the excess gold to be reused.
Once the rough cases are cut, they're off to yet another master craftsman who'll spend several hours per case getting them into their final polished state, ready to be assembled into a full watch.
Where does that leave us? Just a few more steps: connecting the watches to an exclusive line of Hermès leather straps, putting a final bit of polish on them, and shipping them off to boutiques around the world.
Watches like this Tonda that we saw at SIHH, employing a ludicrously delicate slice of treated meteorite as its dial.
Or the stunning Bugatti Super Sport, the final product of the process above.
Care to learn a bit more about the Parmigiani family? They've released a tremendous documentary about the people behind the brand—it's almost feature length, but it's remarkably engaging.