Parmigiani Fleurier doesn’t simply make watches: it salvages them. Welcome to the treasures of Parmigiani’s restoration programme Parmigiani Fleurier doesn’t simply make watches: it salvages them. Welcome to the treasures of Parmigiani’s restoration programme…

Look behind their glorious wristwatches, and you’ll find that the majority of watchmakers who emerged with new, and often eponymous brands after 1985, started out in restoration. Why is simple: quartz had decimated the mechanical watch industry in Switzerland, yet here was a generation of skilled watchmakers who needed work.

From watch maisons with their own museums to collectors of priceless pieces, the work was plentiful. Better yet, it instilled in these young artisans detailed, hands-on knowledge of the depth and breadth of the development of watches, clocks and clockwork-powered automata over the centuries. The list runs to the dozens, while surpassing all others is that of Michel Parmigiani. His story has been told many times, but – in Hollywood’s ‘high concept’ shorthand – the plot goes like this: Super-talented watchmaker restores rare clocks. Impresses the owners of one of the world’s finest collections of rare timepieces, who hire his firm to restore their treasures. Client turns into Renaissance-style patron and supports Parmigiani in the creation of his own brand. The result is a line of watches ranked among the finest money can buy.

Exactly 20 years later, you can take the restorer out of the workshop, but you can’t take the workshop out of the restorer. While Parmigiani probably has his hands full creating new models for Parmigiani Fleurier, he has continued to oversee one of the most important, go-to studios for reviving historical timepieces and automata. And it works both ways, because the historical pieces that pass through the workshops, either for the parent collection belonging to the Maurice Yves Sandoz Collection, or those for private clients, have inspired wristwatches and clocks that wear the Parmigiani Fleurier name.

Not all fans of the brand, nor of vintage clocks and watches in general, have access to such collections, so Parmigiani Fleurier decided to treat enthusiasts to a glimpse of the restoration studio’s output. Insured to a value that would make a broker’s heart palpitate, a few of the individual pieces (though actually priceless due to their rarity) would command seven-figure bids were they ever to appear in the sales rooms. Standing in their presence, these objects take one’s breath away, while increasing one’s admiration for the watchmakers of the past.

Parmigiani Fleurier chose the tranquil setting of Whatley Manor Hotel and Spa in the Cotswolds as the showcase. The connection? The family that owns the manor is also the family that first recognised the young Parmigiani’s talent. Whatley Manor is now a beautifully-restored estate with 23 individually-decorated rooms, a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux collection and a retreat from the aggravation of modern life. It just may be the most sumptuous setting yet for exhibiting such precious objects, outside of a purpose-built museum. Visitors were treated to displays of a number of timepieces and automata, the latter – though insanely valuable – demonstrated by Michel Parmigiani himself. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as these are now rarely operated. Most of us will only ever see them performing in videos. The selection included:

POCKET WATCH WITH MUSIC TIGHTROPE WALKER

A little drama that was once used to entertain guests in the parlour before the advent of electricity, this gold pocket watch was created by Perrin Frères in Neuchâtel in the early 19th century and was restored by Parmigiani Fleurier in 2009. On demand, 31 blades within the movement play a melody as three automatons are activated: a tightrope walker and two musicians, their movements linked to the musical mechanism through cams that synchronise each action with the tempo.

DOUBLE-BARREL PISTOL WITH SONGBIRD

A design based on a cavalry pistol, this automaton possibly dates from 1815, created by Frères Rochat and restored in 2016 by Parmigiani. Pull the trigger and a hummingbird emerges. This tiny creature performs a pirouette, opens its beak, turns its head and flaps its tail and wings while singing and ultimately returning to its hiding place.

PEACOCK AUTOMATON IN GOLD

One of the ‘younger’ pieces on display, this exquisite, solid-gold peacock was created in Carl Fabergé’s workshop in the early part of the 20th century. Press a screw on the peacock’s chest and it advances with coordinated leg movements, while also turning its head.

The Peacock Egg with nest ‘case’ and the Peacock Automaton in Gold, with the Double-Barrel Pistol with Songbird

Caption for Image 5: These lucky spectators were able to view the enchanting collection at the Cotswold’s Whatley Manor Hotel & Spa

THE PEACOCK EGG

Created together with its sister piece, the Peacock automaton, this fully-coloured sibling has slightly fewer feathers but a more complex neck construction. Restored by Parmigiani Fleurier in 2010, its fame among collectors is enhanced by the sublime ‘nest’, a case in the form of an egg made of transparent rock crystal. Lastly, there were three items which evolved into wristwatches. The Parmigiani Fleurier magic is evinced by the way Michel Parmigiani miniaturised and modernised the technology from centuries-old pocket watches.

POCKET WATCH WITH DUAL TIME ZONE

Dating from around 1870, this early traveller’s timepiece shows two time zones thanks to the presence of two completely independent movements housed in a single case. Parmigiani was inspired by this model to create the Tonda Hémisphères wristwatch, launched in 2007, which features two separate displays that can be adjusted independently of each other.

OVAL WATCH WITH RETRACTILE HANDS

Created by London-based Verdon & Stedman at the beginning of the 19th century, this oval watch was fitted with retractable hands to allow them to adjust to the dial’s elongated form. Upon restoring it, the captivating pantograph hands drove Michel Parmigiani to downsize and recreate the complication for 2014’s Ovale Pantographe.

POCKET WATCH WITH SECTOR DISPLAY

With an arched window to show the time, this 19th century pocket watch by Perrin Frères allows the rest of the case to be used for decorative purposes while steering the eye to the time display. Discovering its secrets while restoring it two centuries later, the team at Parmigiani Fleurier adapted its sector time display in 2011 for a wristwatch called the Toric Capitole, aided by a system of rotating satellites. To enhance its desirability even further, the Toric Capitole also features a minute repeater with cathedral chime.

Michel Parmigiani has never wavered in his love of and respect for the history of watchmaking. To the delight of those who know him, Parmigiani’s eyes light up and he breaks into smiles when he handles and operates the very pieces he rescued and restored to their original state. Like a proud father, he has shared these with us, but – possibly more gratifyingly – he has enabled some of us to acquire wrist-borne interpretations of what are the essence of ‘complications’. I’d most definitely call that “keeping the faith.”

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