La Biennale Paris has a history that stretches back more than a half-century. During this time the famed international art and antiques fair never hosted a watch brand … until this year. Specialist watchmakers, DeWitt and F. P. Journe, were chosen to exhibit beneath the vaulted glass ceiling of the Grand Palais for the event held September 11 – 17.
Both companies are known for producing a small number of high-end hand-crafted timepieces with nearly all of the components built in house, including the movements and dials—very rare in the watch world.
DeWitt is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Jerome and Viviane de Witt. He handles the watchmaking side and she handles the business end. The brand is located in Geneva where they produce about 3,000 pieces per year.
In its gold-mirrored exhibition space the company displayed several pieces that showcase both high complications and avant-garde flair of the watch company founded in 2003. The top item on display was the WX – 1 Concept Watch that looks more like a car engine than a timepiece. It is not a new piece. In fact it’s approaching its 10-year anniversary. However, its price tag, which can run more than a half-million dollars, still makes the timepiece available, even though it is limited to 28 pieces.
The unusually shaped movement has a 21-day power reserve. It supports a double retrograde hour and minute visualization and a chronograph. A beautiful, high-performance tourbillon appears from a porthole alongside another porthole that shows the winding system. It is large at 49mm but is light because titanium is the main material for the case. Even though it isn’t new, it remains a symbol of the high watchmaking ability of the company and why it was displayed in the center of the DeWitt exhibition space.
More recent watches on display include “The Out Of Time Sparkling,” distinctive because of the miniature gold flakes that sparkle on the blue lacquered dial and the two subdials that are grand complications. The first is a dead-beat seconds hand at 4 o’clock that serves as a regulator and a seconds indicator. The second at 8 o’clock is described by DeWitt as a “free seconds hand,” a patented invention by the watch manufacturer. It measure time through a series of white dots that appear like lights that spin inside the subdial each second.
The Academia Skeleton has a well-balanced dial that features a bi-directional seconds hand at 7 o’clock. It sweeps across lower part of a curved dual-scale for 30 seconds, then jumps to the uppers scale and sweeps in reverse for another 30 seconds.
François-Paul Journe is one of the most celebrated watchmakers in Switzerland. His watchmaking brand, F.P. Journe, produces fewer than 1,000 pieces per year. He employs fewer than 25 watchmakers and each one works on an individual piece.
Journe calls watch production of more than 1,000 pieces “industrial horology,” saying in French through a translator that “above this quantity it is increasingly difficult to produce exceptional pieces.”
He produces traditional haute horologerie pieces with masterful hand-made movements, complications, cases and dials in well-balanced classic designs. The majority of movements are made in either 18k rose gold, platinum or 5N red gold. The exceptions are the striking mechanisms for minute repeaters and sonneries, which are made in steel because the sound resonates better.
“The most expensive watches have the least expensive metals,” he said.
His tasteful exhibition space showcased all his collections in a similar manner. Among the watches on display was another one of Journe’s celebrated complications, the Chronomètre à Résonance, which uses two independent watch movements coupled by a common balance staff and by their resonance. The dual movements work with chronometer precision.
One more piece that caught my eye was the chronomètre Souverain, a seemingly simple watch compared to many of Journe’s mechanical marvels. However, a closer look reveals a great deal of subtle details. Several of the details are standard with F.P. Journe watches, including blued hands, guilloche finish, railroad track outboard and a sunken seconds subdial with its own railroad track, located at 4 o’clock. The power reserve is located at 9 o’clock and a double-digit date indicator at 12 o’clock.
La Biennale Paris is going through a transitional phase and the watch exhibitors were part of this transition. Whether they maintain or increase the presence of haute horologerie remains to be seen. From my vantage point, these watchmakers were warmly received and should continue to be part of the event.