Today in the attic of his home on the placid shores of the Lac de Joux, Daniel Roth quietly toils away on the crowning achievement of a career spanning five decades. A two-minute-rotating tourbillon – a subset of the complication with an unhurried pace, a beauty and intricacy that seem felicitous in exemplifying his ethos as an independent watchmaker. Hunched over a workbench with his head buried in the work of his hands, the image is a stock portrayal, a cliché even, but one that took a long trek through trials and triumphs to reach.
Now 76 years old, Roth, like many of his peers, started out as an employee of a mainstream watch brand before he found his feet as an independent watchmaker. The difference, however, is that he did it twice over, dispelling the fantasy that the road is clean-cut for every great watchmaker. Alongside Franck Muller, Roger Dubuis and Philippe Dufour, Roth belonged to the generation of watchmakers who came of age during the Quartz crisis. The precursory role he played in sustaining the craft of watchmaking would parallel the labours of those who maintained the commercial viability of the mechanical watch years later. Particularly, he was directly responsible for the rebirth of one of horology’s greatest names – Breguet – and by extension, established the archetype of the complicated dress watch. Over the course of 14 years at the brand, he created an artistic vocabulary that united modern Breguet wristwatches with the monumental work of history’s finest watchmaker. And evidently in what follows, the path he established for Breguet was also one that would guide him all his life.
While Roth was born in Nice, on the French Riviera in 1946, his family is of Swiss origins. Both his grandfather and great grandfather were watchmakers in Neuchâtel before his grandfather traded the snowy slopes of the Jura for the silky sands of the Mediterranean coast, moving the family to the south of France. Against this unlikely backdrop, he opened a watch repair shop where Roth spent most of his early childhood and served as an apprentice. After completing a three-year watchmaking course in Nice, Roth made his way back to Switzerland in 1967 and settled in the splendid isolation of the Vallée de Joux, the cradle of Swiss watchmaking.
He worked briefly for Jaeger-LeCoultre in Le Sentier, then a supplier of especially flat movements before landing a prized position at Audemars Piguet where he spent seven years. During his time there, he stood out for his mechanical aptitude despite his young age and for being the only watchmaker who didn’t come from Le Brassus, the brand’s historic home. But the defining period of Roth’s career began just as mechanical watchmaking came under the executioner’s blade.
The Renaissance of Watchmaking’s Grandest Name
Back then, Breguet was no more than the faintest shadow of its legendary founder – a moribund company with a small boutique in Paris producing around a hundred watches a year. It was owned by George Brown, the grandson of an English watchmaker who had acquired the business from the last living descendent of Abraham-Louis Breguet, Louis-François-Clement after the latter had found much success in the field of electronics and telegraph instruments. After a century under the stewardship of the Brown family, George sold the business to Chaumet in 1970.
Though the Chaumet brothers Pierre and Jacques ultimately buried their eponymous family business deep in debt, they were nevertheless immensely successful in reviving the storied house of Breguet. Upon acquiring the grand name, they put François Bodet, a Chaumet executive, in charge of restoring Breguet to its former glory. With his sights set on producing the finest watches right from the outset, Bodet subsequently plucked the young Roth from Audemars Piguet in 1975 and hired a prototypist Louis-Maurice Caillet. Together, they relocated Breguet’s operating headquarters from Paris to the Vallée de Joux.
As the Quartz Revolution was picking up steam, the duo was turning the key in the opposite direction with Roth knee-deep in studying Abraham-Louis Breguet’s artistic style, techniques and inventions. Beyond devising ingenious advances that would revolutionize all aspects of watchmaking from the self-winding mechanism to the pare-chute shock absorbers for balance pivots, Abraham-Louis also introduced a refined, delicate if not minimalist design language – maintained in even his most complicated watches – that broke away from the baroque exuberance of the 18th century.
Over the next 14 years, Roth would master and reproduce Breguet’s aesthetic language within the delicate confines of a wristwatch, setting the course for the brand. Beyond that, Roth and Caillet were also responsible for the purchase and production of watch parts. The dials were engine-turned using a manual lathe. The coin-edge cases were created using the traditional method of cold rolling, then finished by hand. The distinctive pomme évidée hands, now simply known as “Breguet hands” were flamed blued, while the metallic chapter ring and indications were often delineated in circular graining, offering a contrast of textures while enhancing legibility. Collectively, these elements formed the bedrock of what we now consider as the archetypal Breguet design. Roth relied on movement suppliers Frederic Piguet and Lemania, and even developed calibres for the latter.
To establish a foothold amongst its Swiss rivals, Roth introduced complications within Breguet’s aesthetic paradigm right out of the gate, beginning with one of the most sophisticated of all high complications, the perpetual calendar, which at the time was a rarity outside of houses such Patek Phillippe and Audemars Piguet. As watchmaking firms were thinning away in the hallowed valley, Roth launched a slim perpetual calendar wristwatch – the ref. 3050 – based on a pocket watch he had built earlier. It featured a guilloche dial with circular graining on its silvered chapter ring and calendar counters and housed the Frederic Piguet 71, a slim self-winding calibre with an off-centred rotor.
Alongside it he introduced the Breguet ref. 3237, a two-register chronograph equipped with the Lemania 2320, the same movement that would go on to power watches such as the Roger Dubuis Homage Chronograph and from which the Patek Philippe ref. 5070 was developed. It is a testament to Roth’s incisive sleight of hand that these watches were instantly recognizable as carrying the genetic fingerprint of Breguet’s artistic elegance while not being a direct reproduction of a specific watch. Most notably, he paid homage to Breguet’s most famous and important invention in 1988 by introducing the first tourbillon wristwatch ever produced under the Breguet name – the ref. 3350. Back then, there was only one other tourbillon watch that was produced in series, which was the Audemars Piguet ultra-thin ref. 25643 automatic tourbillon unveiled in 1986. It had a distinctive, rounded oblong case with an aperture at 11 o’clock revealing a very small tourbillon cage. However, with a one-minute tourbillon fully exposed through an aperture on the dial at six o’clock against a beautifully engraved base plate, it was Roth’s ref. 3350 that cemented the ultimate layout of the complication. The movement, in turn, was developed by Roth for Lemania in the years prior.
Beyond high complications, Roth created the ref. 3130 which had an asymmetric but attractively balanced dial, modelled on Breguet’s pocket watch no. 5 with a power reserve indicator. He also introduced the exquisite triple calendar ref. 3330, otherwise known as the “cinesino”, and distilled Breguet’s unique language in the time-only ref. 3210.
In 1987, however, the company went through a change of hands as the Chaumet brothers met their cataclysmic downfall, spiralling into bankruptcy with a crushing debt of $300m. They were forced to sell Breguet to Investcorp, a Bahrain-based private equity firm that once owned Tiffany & Co., Gucci and Vacheron Constantin. Daniel Roth left a year later to start his eponymous brand.
The Birth of Daniel Roth
With the backing of Siber Hegner, a Zurich-based international distribution and marketing group, Roth kickstarted his namesake brand in 1988, earlier than many of his peers, just as a new wind was starting to blow through a quartz-stupefied world. He set about creating watches of a heartier, more spirited style, characterized by unconventional layouts, an unusual double-ellipse case while infusing the unmistakable design codes he had pioneered at Breguet. His oeuvre of complications also grew more nuanced, sophisticated and complex, which would resonate with the post-quartz appetite for exceptional mechanics and artistry while being distinctive and unusual. In fact, he was the star of the decade.
Inescapably, Roth’s watches reflected his time at Breguet. He incorporated hand-made engine-turned dials, blued hands, cases in precious metal and a high degree of hand finishing on his movements. However, he created a completely new case shape that was round and rectangular at the same time with a stepped, rounded bezel that contrasted against straight, angular lugs. In fact, his work is all the more impressive when viewed in its essence – he adapted Abraham-Louis’ work for the wrist at Breguet and subsequently had to conceive an interpretation of his own efforts for his eponymous brand. The dual pursuit of continuity and creative progression created a productive tension that would manifest itself most patently in the Double Face Tourbillon ref. 187, with which he debuted.
The visual dynamism of the complication, its complexity and storied past had made the tourbillon the perfect posterchild of the mechanical renaissance, and mastering it became somewhat of a rite of passage for every watchmaker, from Franck Muller to Francois Paul Journe. Being intimately familiar with the work of the inventor of the tourbillon and having established the guidepost for Breguet’s future, it was only natural that the complication held a special significance to Roth, and one he continues to build upon today, albeit under a different name. While the Double Face Tourbillon C187 features many of Breguet’s hallmarks such as a sharply executed Clous de Paris pattern, blued hands, an offset dial framed by a metallic, circular-grained chapter ring and a one-minute tourbillon at six o’clock, mounted on the tourbillon cage is an unusual triple-armed seconds hand, where three blued steel hands of varying lengths sweep over three different seconds scales as the tourbillon rotates. The reverse side of the watch further displays a power reserve indicator and a calendar sub-dial below. And powering the watch was the same Lemania tourbillon movement developed by Roth himself back then at Breguet but reworked and finished to an even higher degree with a rounded, black polished tourbillon bridge. It’s worth noting that all ebauches had to be modified with a base plate shaped to accommodate his unique case form.
Soon, Roth caught the attention of John Asprey who was managing his family’s legendary luxury emporium in London. An early proponent of independent watchmaking, Asprey commissioned 24 tourbillon watches from Roth in the early 1990s, a grand gesture that had helped Roth get his brand off the ground. They were all in yellow gold bearing the Asprey name on the dial. Interestingly, Roth’s tourbillons were also the only ones on the market that were tested and certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), a badge of validation that is highly uncommon in independent watchmaking even today, reflecting Roth’s commitment towards the pursuit of precision amidst his creative and artistic endeavours.
Not long afterward, Roth went on to develop three kinds of chronographs beginning with the ref. C147. It housed the Lemania 2320, which apart from being one of the finest chronograph movements available at this time, was an obvious choice for Roth, who had worked with it during his time at Breguet. The two-register chronograph was one of his best-selling models and was executed in a variety of configurations and case metals. Around the same time, Roth also produced a split-second chronograph in a limited run using a small batch of new-old-stock Venus 179 movements. Later, he created a monopusher chronograph equipped with a Lemania 2220 movement, which is immediately distinguished by the sweeping motion of its minute hand as opposed to semi-instantaneous action found in most chronographs. Only 52 pieces of it were produced across two metals.
Naturally, Roth’s collection would also expand to include time-only models – three, in fact, each unusual in their own way. The first was the C107 which was powered by the automatic Frederic Piguet 71, the same, quirky, ultra-thin movement with an offset rotor Roth used during his stint at Breguet. This was followed by a hand-wound model, the C167 where he incorporated the Frederic Piguet 21, a legendary ultra-thin movement that dates back to the dawn of wristwatches. It measured a mere 1.73mm in height versus the cal. 71’s 2.4mm thickness, allowing the case to be significantly slimmer. But the model that demonstrates how Roth sought his own creative bent is the C127, a time-only model with a retrograde hour. The watch was first debuted at Baselworld in 1991 and was subsequently released 1993. Featuring an unusual jumping hour hand that swept across a fan-shaped dial, the watch was inspired by a pocket watch created by George Daniels, the foremost expert on Breguet who restored most of his surviving watches and published the tome, The Art of Breguet. By way of a retrograde mechanism, the hour hand never obstructs the small seconds sub-dial positioned beneath. As the hour hand advances from five to six o’clock, it jumps backwards in one seamless leap to the far left position. This model marked a return to Lemania, as Roth modified a hand-wound 27LN calibre to incorporate a retrograde module.
Next Roth revisited his first complication at Breguet – the perpetual calendar – with the ambition of creating the world’s first instantaneous perpetual calendar. At that time, Philippe Dufour had just made his debut with the world’s first grande and petite sonnerie wristwatch. Being a short distance apart from each other in Le Sentier, the pair worked together on what would become the C117. While Roth had presented a prototype of a perpetual calendar at Baselworld in 1991, it featured two apertures with the day and month indicated on discs. The inertia of two discs would prove challenging to overcome, draining power as all calendar indications had to advance simultaneously and instantly at midnight. Hence, the pair eventually replaced the apertures with sub-dials, using the Lemania cal. 8810 as base. In 1993, both perpetual calendars – semi-instantaneous and instantaneous – were released. Both were based on the self-winding Lemania 8810 – itself a former Longines movement – but in the mid 90s, the brand began using the ultra-thin self-winding Girard-Perregaux cal. 3000, which was modified to incorporate a gold rotor with a platinum weight on its periphery.
Having tackled the tourbillon, chronograph and perpetual calendar, Roth set out to add the final notch to his belt, launching a minute repeater, the C189 in 1995. It was equipped with the Lemania 389 and only three were produced, each in a different colour of gold, making it one of the rarest models.
The tides of fortune abruptly changed around this time as Roth hit a low ebb when his financier Siber Hegner had pulled the rug from under him. Fortuitously, help came in the form of Singapore-based retailer The Hour Glass, who purchased a majority stake in the Daniel Roth brand in 1994. New footing, however, proved to be short-lived, as a few years later the Asian Financial Crisis would hit, leading The Hour Glass to retreat into retailing, rather than manufacturing watches. The retail giant sold the Daniel Roth brand as well as its stablemate Gerald Genta to Bulgari in 2000, which led Roth to relinquish his remaining shares and bid adieu to the company that bore his name.
Thus, the last timepiece that was truly created by Roth himself was the Papillon, which was unveiled in 1998 to mark the brand’s tenth anniversary. Produced in limited edition of 250 pieces across three metals, the Papillon was named for its distinctive winged dial design and was his first watch to combine a jumping hour and retrograde minutes.
Under Jean Daniel Nicolas
Today, he makes watches under the name Jean Daniel Nicolas, a combination of the names of his son, Jean, his wife, Nicole, and his own. In 2003, he debuted an unusual two-minute tourbillon, which he executes in two different case shapes today – one circular and the other, violin-shaped. Roth realised that the idea of using the cage of a one-minute tourbillon to indicate the seconds across an arc was not possible as the dial could only accommodate a 180-degree scale. Previously, his solution in the Daniel Roth tourbillon was a three-armed seconds hand that would glide across three 120-degree scales, but this time, he had set his sights on a two-minute carriage, which will indicate the seconds on a 180-degree scale with a pair of hands.
A rather rare genre, slow tourbillons, unlike the default one-minute tourbillon, requires a different gear ratio which results in having gears installed in the tourbillon cage itself. In this case, the tourbillon rotates on a fixed third wheel designed with internal teeth while the fourth wheel is installed in the tourbillon cage and runs counter-clockwise to the rotation of the cage. This subtle rearrangement results in a more visually intricate tourbillon, which thanks to its languid pace, can be fully admired. Additionally, the balance beats at a leisurely 18,000 vibrations per hour, offering a slow moving spectacle.
Clearly, Roth’s time at Breguet has marked his life with a meaningful continuity that is evident in his watches, from the choice of complication to the design of the dial. There are echoes of the Breguet aesthetic, from the silvered guilloche dial to the flamed blued hands, but equally synonymous with the watchmaker is his knack for adding a subtle twist to the familiar framework, a play on expectations. The watch features many unusual details such a co-axial power reserve indicator on the offset dial indicated with an additional hand and a massive bat-shaped tourbillon bridge which frames a cut-out on the dial, revealing a hand-engraved JDN logo as well as serial number on the base plate.
The movement was designed from the ground up and finished to an exemplary standard, most manifestly in the distinctive tourbillon bridge. It is black polished on its top surface, bevelled, polished on its edges while the large flanks forming the bat’s wings are brushed. It contains six interior angles while the full-plate bridge on the back was designed to showcase numerous outward angles that demand careful hand finishing. Additionally, the bridge is made of German silver, a material that imparts a soft golden hue and makes the unusually wide, semi-circular Geneva stripes appear like luminous waves, quite unlike any other material. No doubt, a Jean Daniel Nicolas watch today provides the full compendium of Roth’s unrelenting talent in all aspects of watchmaking.
Meanwhile, the characters in his storied past, having stood on his shoulders, have also ended up in good hands. Lemania was purchased by Breguet in 1992. Subsequently, Swatch Group acquired Breguet and with it, Lemania, in 1999. Today, Breguet sits on top of the pyramid at The Swatch Group. At the same time, the Daniel Roth brand ended up in the custody of LVMH, as in 2011 the French luxury powerhouse purchased a majority stake in its Italian peer Bulgari. Bulgari’s acquisition of Daniel Roth in 2000 set the brand on a path to becoming the vertically integrated manufacture it is today, while the Daniel Roth name has sat fallow in curious resignation. But after two decades, its time has finally arrived.