Guides Watches

How Philippe Dufour Became the Quintessential Independent Watchmaker

Philippe Dufour Watchmaker

Philippe Dufour is a legend, and I’m not just talking about his watchmaking ability. I’m also talking about the fact that if you go to his website the first picture you see is one of him smoking a pipe pulled straight from an Arthur Conan Doyle short story while riding an electric mountain bike. In fact, pipes are as much a passion for Dufour as watches and he’s rarely pictured without one, even when operating the delicate machines in his workshop. If he ever agrees to be our Man of Influence in a future issue, we’ll have to ask him about it.

However, pipe collection to one side, the reason you should know about Dufour is that he’s arguably the pre-eminent watchmaker of our time. He is single-handedly responsible for developing and championing some of the most prestigious complications in wristwatches that have since become the crowning jewel in many haute horological collections. Namely, the Grande Sonnerie Minute Repeater and double balance wheel movement.

Philippe Dufour Grande Sonnerie Minute Repeater

Philippe Dufour Grande Sonnerie Minute Repeater, image credit: Sotheby’s

Getting to his current celebrated position was anything but an easy road though. At school he had a reputation for being smart and good with his hands but struggled with maths, which ruled out many of the higher academic paths he was considering. Instead, he turned towards a practical career in watchmaking where his precision and dexterity helped him through years of training.

There followed several years working for Jaeger-LeCoultre, Gérald Genta and Audemars Piguet earning valuable experience across the globe. However, he began to chafe under the oversight of large companies and executives who he considered to be out of touch with the art of watchmaking. He began using his spare time to develop new movements based on his favourite heritage designs from the time.

Philippe Dufour Collection Phillips

From left to right: Philippe Dufour Grande et Petite Sonnerie Number 1 pocket watch, Grande et Petite Sonnerie Number 1, Duality Number 8 and Simplicity (37mm) Number 57, image credit: Phillips

The first fruit of this experimentation was a brand-new Grande Sonnerie pocket watch movement. An octagon-obsessed giant of the luxury industry ordered five of the calibres to be fitted in their watches. Each movement took 2,000 hours to produce completely by hand, one per year. According to Dufour, once he passed the movements to the client, in short order two of them were broken. Furious that two years of his life were disregarded in such fashion, he resolved never to work with an external watchmaker again and to embrace the independent life.

Philippe Dufour

Philippe Dufour wearing his Simplicity Number 1 wristwatch

Now, he had to rely solely on his own skills to make a living. He was still fascinated by the idea of a Grande Sonnerie, but how could he push the complication further than he already had? The answer was to create the world’s first wristwatch version. After two-and-a-half years of development he presented his creation, simply called the Grande Sonnerie, at Basel in 1992. The rest is independent watchmaking history. Until Dufour decided to make it again, of course.

Philippe Dufour Duality Phillips

Philippe Dufour Duality (sold for $915,000 at Phillips’ New York Auction 2017), image credit: Phillips

The watchmaker’s next idea was inspired by an old watchmaking catalogue from the 1930s that depicted a pocket watch with a double balance wheel. The idea of boosting precision and accuracy was all the rage in the 1990s, tourbillons were flooding the market much to Dufour’s dismay since tourbillons are effectively useless in wristwatches (that’s a whole other story, elsewhere in these pages in fact). A double balance wheel wristwatch on the other hand, with its twin regulators, might actually provide the benefits a tourbillion is supposed to. And so the Philippe Dufour Duality was born in 1996.

Philippe Dufour Simplicity Phillips

Philippe Dufour Simplicity Number 57 (sold for CHF 756,000 at Phillips’ Geneva November Auction 2021), image credit: Phillips

After producing haute horological complications for decades in extremely limited quantities, Dufour wanted a change of pace. The Japanese market was one that interested him – nothing at all, of course, to do with the Philippe Dufour fan club in Tokyo. Japan was the natural home for Dufour’s watches thanks to shared ideals of handcraftsmanship and treasuring your possessions. In keeping with this ethos, he created the Simplicity, a three-hand watch that put perfect finishing first.

In 2013, Dufour’s reputation as a legend was cemented when he won the Special Jury Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG), a jury he now serves on himself. However, by his own admission, his greatest pride is seeing his watches sell for CHF 4m+ at auction, thumbing his nose at all the brands who disvalued his work in years past. But hey, if anyone can get away with taking shots at the watch industry, it’s the independent, inimitable and legendary Philippe Dufour. Light up a pipe sir, you’ve earned it.

More details at Philippe Dufour.

About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter?