The significance of Christie’s watch auction on May 12, titled The Art of F.P. Journe, might be lost on people who are new to watch collecting. But such is the historic importance of the event to me that I wanted to take the time to put my thoughts together leading up to it. Historic it is, because it is the first thematic auction focused on the work of a single living watchmaker. François-Paul Journe is today at the very height of his creative powers, as evinced by the extraordinary FFC (“Francis Ford Coppola”), a mind-blowing wristwatch featuring an anatomically accurate mechanical hand that tells the time powered by a constant force mechanism. Journe’s canon of work is, without a doubt, the single greatest contribution to the story of watchmaking by any one individual in more than 200 years.
How does this auction beautifully illustrate the story of Journe’s journey as a watchmaker? I’ll put it like this. The world has been waiting for two centuries for another watchmaking giant to walk the earth, an individual that would continue the story of the legends of the 18th century, like Breguet, Berthoud, Janvier, Harrison and Lépine; a man that would reconnect the values of the golden age and its ceaseless pursuit of advancing timekeeping accuracy with the modern era. And through doing so, he would define an all-new horological language that could be considered the most significant independent voice of our time, making the once almost lost art of mechanical timekeeping more relevant than ever. That man is François-Paul Journe.
To be alive during Journe’s era can be likened to being given the opportunity to bear witness to the greatness of Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali in their prime, or to watch the incandescent performative ritual of Jackson Pollock engaged in action painting, or to listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan transform his 1963 Fender Stratocaster into the omnipotent voice of the cosmos. The Art of F.P. Journe by Christie’s proudly declares his place as the single greatest watchmaker of our time. Says Remi Guillemin, head of Christie’s watch department in Europe, “We were motivated and inspired to undertake this auction, the first of its kind for a living watchmaker, because we feel that Journe’s contribution to the story of watchmaking has a significance that is utterly unique. Furthermore, at Christie’s, we wish to help build the culture of watch appreciation and enrich the understanding of independent watchmaking. This auction is our first major initiative in this focus, but there will be more!”
Unrivaled Contribution to Horology: Auction Lots of the Greatest Significance
Journe’s palmary achievements are the stuff of legend: the first wristwatch tourbillon with remontoir d’egalité; the first wristwatch tourbillon with a dead seconds mechanism driven by a constant force device; the first wristwatch successfully implementing the phenomenon of resonance; an extraordinary chronometric automatic caliber able to integrate a vast variety of complications, including a chronograph in a mere one millimeter height of spare space; the world’s first grande et petite sonnerie incorporating safety systems making it immune to bad owners and using an all-new pair of flat gongs mounted beneath the dial; the world’s thinnest minute repeater wristwatch (at the time) using the same pair banana shaped gong; a chronograph with a 1/100th of a second hand capable of decoupling from the pinion driving it the moment the chronograph brake is activated; a chronometer featuring a constant force mechanism and the EBHP escapement inspired by Breguet’s natural escapement; the Astronomic, a watch displaying sidereal hours and minutes next to civil time, indicating sunrise and sunset, equation of time and driven by an annual calendar and a hidden tourbillon.
These are but a few examples. The list is seemingly endless and each act alone should by right engrave Journe’s name forever into the canon of watchmaking’s greatest achievements. Taken together, they form a tapestry of horological riches the likes of which the world had not seen for over 200 years. Perhaps most important is that every one of François-Paul Journe’s achievements, including his game-changing quartz watch, the Élégante, or even his wildly expressionistic outlier, the Vagabondage, has advanced the story of watchmaking in a real way. Meaning that it has enhanced the performance, accuracy, reliability, beauty and emotional resonance of contemporary watchmaking, following in the tradition of the 18th century’s greatest masters such as Harrison, Lépine, Janvier and Breguet.
Amongst the many extraordinary timepieces offered for sale at The Art of F.P. Journe, there are certain watches that can rightly be considered true horological treasures. Here are three of my favorite lots from the auction.
Lot 39 (2039): F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain “Souscription,” No. 2/20, Circa 1999
This has to be the most hotly anticipated lot in an auction replete with incredible timepieces. Why? Because this was one of the 20 watches Journe used to launch his brand. One of Journe’s earliest breakthroughs, and to this day one of his most important achievements, was to become the first watchmaker to place a remontoir d’egalité in a tourbillon wristwatch.
What is the significance of this? It finally enabled the tourbillon to have a raison d’être in a wristwatch. The tourbillon mechanism, which adds an entire cage assembly to the oscillator, is incredibly heavy. As such, when power reserve diminishes, the weight of the cage actually accentuates the reduction in torque, creating subpar accuracy, which is anathema to a device created to enhance chronometric performance. As Journe describes it, “Putting a tourbillon in a wristwatch is like placing a backpack of rocks on a boy’s back before climbing the stairs.” But by using a remontoir d’egalité, Journe brilliantly removed the torque powering the tourbillon from the direct influence of the mainspring. Instead, it is rearmed by its own power source once every second. The remontoir, which would become synonymous with Journe and his work, is an incredible device. In fact, it allowed John Harrison to create his fabled H4, the world’s first marine chronometer, a watch so accurate it could enable sailors to tell their longitude at sea.
Lot 39 (2039) is an incredible Tourbillon Souverain that tells the story of Journe’s first act of horological brilliance by integrating a constant force device with a tourbillon. Amusingly, the inspiration for this came from a famous watch collector named Dr. Eugen Gschwind, who was engaged in a duel of watchmaking one-upmanship with the legendary Dr. George Daniels. Says Journe, “He asked me to integrate a remontoir into a tourbillon pocket watch. Honestly, I was totally blank, then one day, I saw a clock in the French National Museum which gave me the idea of how to do this.” Famously, this pocket watch would have a plate covering Journe’s name, so that for many years, Daniels didn’t know it was Journe who had created it.
A few years later, after successfully creating a “Sympathique” clock for the London luxury retailer John Asprey, based on a historical Breguet timepiece, Journe pitched the idea of a tourbillon wristwatch with remontoir d’egalité to the brand, but it didn’t bite. Undeterred, Journe made three prototypes in platinum with gold movements including his very first numbered 11/91 (1991) still in his personal collection today, and showed them at the 1991 Basel fair. Yet the response to the watch was demoralizing and lukewarm. Gunter Blumlein, CEO of IWC at the time was the only one who expressed interest in purchasing 125 pieces for the company’s 125th anniversary but the plan fell through due to economical reasons.
Says passionate Journe collector Osama Sendi, aka “The Journe Guy” on Instagram, “The world was not ready yet to fully understand the incredible achievement represented by the watch.” Legendary retailer Mike Tay of The Hour Glass explains, “In 1991, we were just two years after Patek Philippe had announced the return of high watchmaking with the Caliber 89. Independent watchmaking was still considered something very niche and quirky. It was not surprising that the public couldn’t yet grasp the grandeur of Journe’s watchmaking. That, of course, would change in the years to come.”
A few years later, Journe would be at lunch with his friend Camille Berthet. He had plenty of work for other brands, but he still dreamed of launching his own. He explained that he lacked the initial capital to fund the creation of an atelier, and she came up with the solution in a flash of inspiration. She suggested that he followed his hero Abraham-Louis Breguet’s Souscription model where he would ask clients to pay upfront for a watch in exchange for a more attractive price. While asking 27,500 Swiss francs for his first 20 tourbillons would mean he would not make money on these watches, the amount he raised in advance would allow him to establish his brand. Immediately, Journe reached out to friends and collectors. A fifty percent deposit was paid for each watch in 1998, with the watches due to be delivered in 1999. These first 20 watches were responsible for the creation of the F.P. Journe brand.
The Tourbillon Souverain “Souscription” No. 2/20, like the other 19 Souscription watches, forged the geometric blueprint of Journe’s design philosophy. Says Remi Guillemin of Christie’s, “What is fascinating about François-Paul is that he always starts with the design of his dial first, and then creates the movement to fit the aesthetic. The Tourbillon Souverain is a masterpiece of symmetry, a code established here that we would see echo throughout so many of his other watches, such as the Chronomètre à Résonance. The dial and tourbillon each occupy a full half of the dial.”
Adds Osama Sendi, “I’ve always thought this [Journe’s dial design] is brilliant because you can discreetly just check the time under your shirt and only reveal the tourbillon when you want to.” He continues, “In 1999, when people first laid eyes upon the design aesthetic of F.P.Journe, with exposed screws on the dial, it was a departure and a risk. It looked unusual, but over the years it has become a concrete part of their DNA. A collector can spot an F.P.Journe from across the room because of this iconic DNA.”
Says Guillemin, “These 20 Souscription tourbillons are to me amongst some of the most historically significant timepieces of all time, in that they truly represent the birth of Journe as an independent watchmaker. In addition, it appears that these first 20 watches are largely crafted by his hand with wonderful handmade details.”
George Mayer is director of sales and watch buying at WatchBox, the company that has played a significant role in educating the world about F.P. Journe. He says, “These watches are similar to the first-generation Tourbillon Souverains made from 1999 to 2003. But at the same time, they are totally different in that they are all essentially handmade by the master. Buying this watch, No. 2/20, is like buying one of the first Stradivarius violins fully made by Antonio Stradivari himself.” As with the first series of Tourbillon Souverains that followed it, this extraordinary timepiece features a brass, rhodium treated movement.
Lot 38 (2038): F.P. Journe Chronomètre à Résonance, “Pre-Souscription,” Circa 2000
Of F.P. Journe’s now numerous contributions to watchmaking history, his successful creation of the world’s first wristwatch integrating the phenomenon of resonance is perhaps his most enthralling — firstly, because of the sheer imagination needed to fully understand this principle and see its potential in a watch worn on the wrist. Secondly, unlike many of Journe’s other inventions, success first eluded him and, as such, his Chronomètre à Résonance is also a demonstration of his extraordinary persistence. Resonance was first identified by the legendary Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who noticed that clocks with two pendulums would always swing in precisely the opposite manner within 30 minutes no matter their starting point. But it was Journe’s spiritual predecessor Abraham-Louis Breguet that first made resonance a feature in his timepieces to improve their accuracy. These pendulums moved in opposite directions or were “out of phase.” And it was Journe’s hero Antide Janvier who created the first resonance clocks with pendulums swinging “in phase” or together. One of these clocks is prominently featured in the F.P. Journe manufacture today. Said Journe in an interview with horological website A Collected Man, “In a watch, never mind which, there is energy which dissipates. When you listen to a watch, the tic-tac of the balance is dissipating energy. In a resonance chronometer, there are two balance wheels which are placed sufficiently close to one another, and the dissipated energy of each is caught by the other, leading to a unique type of frequency regulation.”
Journe’s first attempt to successfully integrate resonance into a pocket watch happened in 1983 for a commission by collector Raymond Vogel. That project ultimately fell through, but Journe never stopped working on it. Perhaps one of the key innovations was the fact that one of the balance bridges of the Chronomètre à Résonance’s movement could be pivoted to bring it into perfect proximity with the second balance wheel. But at the same time, the phenomenon is also related to the transmission of energy of the balances with the tic-tac through the shared mainplate. Indeed, the Chronomètre à Résonance is one of the most fascinating modern innovations ever created because of the complex physics underlying its successful implementation. If you want to learn more about how this functions, please watch my interview with François-Paul Journe here. In 2000, Journe introduced his extraordinary Chronomètre à Résonance, first as a Souscription watch, then with a first edition watch from 1999 to 2003.
There are five different series of Chronomètre à Résonance watches to date — the first series with brass movements, the second series with rose gold movements, and the third series, introduced at the model’s 10th anniversary, that replaced the traditional dial on the left of the watch with a digital orbital indicator. The fourth series, which only lasted for one year, reintroduced the traditional dial on the left but now in 24-hour format rather than 12-hour. The fifth series, created for the 20th anniversary of the model, features two remontoir d’egalités for each of the two balance wheels.
What is extraordinary about the present timepiece, Lot 38 (2038) of The Art of F.P. Journe auction, is that it is a “Pre-Souscription” model. While Journe officially launched the Chronomètre à Résonance in 2000 with the souscription series, it does not represent the first pieces produced even though they were numbered 1 to 20 as Journe had set aside these initial numbers for future orders. There were indeed a number of watches created prior to the souscription series and are colloquially referred to by collectors as “pre-production” and “pre-souscription”. The “pre-production” watches are suffixed 99R, as their cases were ordered in 1999 prior to watch’s presentation in 2000 and are numbered in the 20’s while the “pre-souscription” bears the suffix 00R with a serial number that continues from where the pre-production pieces left off.
Osama further explains, “While the first twenty serials of the Chronomètre à Résonance, dubbed souscription numbers were reserved as a right of first refusal to existing owners of the souscription Tourbillon Souverain, production of the model began with #21. This first and earlier production of watches are today referred to as “Pre-Souscription” among the collector community, as they were produced before the 20 souscription serials. They have a significant praise from collectors for their distinguishably early features seen on the case and dials such as the shallow hand-engraved case markings and shiny hand-polished dials.
This example bears the case number 040/00R, with the suffix 00R indicating that it was produced in 2000 and its serial number 40 would make it the 20th Chronomètre à Résonance watch made.
Lot 8 (2008): F.P. Journe Triptyque Vagabondage, No. 47/69, Circa 2006, 2010 and 2017
While much of François-Paul Journe’s focus has been the advancement of chronometric performance represented by watches such as the Tourbillon Souverain, the Chronomètre à Résonance and the Chronomètre Optimum, there is also a wonderfully artistic side to Journe. This is perfectly encapsulated by a series of three tonneau shaped watches with kinetically dynamic and emotionally evocative methods of representing time. The case of the Vagabondage series is actually tortoise or tortue shaped. Says Journe, “That’s because the first watch was meant to be a Cartier Tortue for their CPCP [Collection Privée Cartier Paris] project in 1995. However, when the time came, they rejected the watch. Almost a decade afterwards, my friend Osvaldo Patrizzi asked me to create a special watch to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his auction house, Antiquorum, in 2004. The problem was I had only six months to create this timepiece. So I opened my drawer and took out the prototype of what would become the Vagabondage.” The timepieces in question were a remarkable integration between movement and time indication, which preceded even seminal works of horological avant-gardism like Ulysse Nardin’s Freak. In the center of the dial was the balance wheel, the beating heart of the watch. Around it was a wandering hour display that the model took its name from. Says Remi Guillemin, “Time travels almost at its own will, like a vagabond.” Three pieces of the watch — one each in red, white and yellow gold — were made for the auction. But the response was so overwhelming that, in 2005, Journe took the decision to create an additional 69 pieces in platinum, and another 10 more pieces in platinum set with baguette diamonds.
Vagabondage II was released in 2010 and featured a stunning luminous display for jumping hours and minutes. At the time of its launch, it was one of only three wristwatches ever created with a jumping minutes display, and one of only two besides the Lange Zeitwerk to be put into production. (The Harry Winston Opus 3 would not see the light of day for some time yet.) But perhaps the most technically brilliant of the Vagabondage series was the Vagabondage III, which was introduced in 2017 and featured jumping hours, minutes and, yes, incredibly enough, seconds. In 2022, just to drive collectors even crazier, Journe released a 68-piece limited edition of an updated rose gold Vagabondage I. To drive his fans into an even greater frenzy, Journe announced that preference for this new watch would be given to collectors with the rose gold Vagabondage II and III watches, so as to complete their matching set.
The present Triptych offered at Christie’s The Art of F.P. Journe are the limited editions in platinum. Says Remi Guillemin, “This Triptyque represents the incredible opportunity to own a matching set of these incredible timepieces, which represent the relentless inventiveness of Journe in terms of time-telling expression. He is often considered to be a technical genius which, of course, he is. But watches like the Vagabondage and, recently, the FCC demonstrate an extraordinary artistic dimension to him.”
Watches, the Ultimate Collectible Assets
This auction comes at a time of immense significance to me. At a moment when collector culture is at a crossroads and perhaps suffering a kind of cognitive existential crisis, I’ve seen the rise and fall of digital art forms like NFTs. While I am not a cynic by nature, the crypto crash, the implosion of crypto exchanges like FTX, the rise and fall of NFTS such as those offered by Bored Ape Yacht Club, and the tangled web of hype that surrounded them before their values came crashing down from the stratosphere and plummeted to almost nothing, smacks of nothing less than the digital era’s version of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
To me, for something to be truly collectible, it has to represent the expenditure or investment of human capital, the knowledge that an incredibly skilled human being has put part of his or her finite energy on earth into the creation of something so extraordinary as to make us believe in the divine.
Cifonelli bespoke suits are not willed into being; they are handstitched by tailors so deft with needle and thread as to make the angels weep. The body of an Aston Martin DB4 Zagato is hand beaten from aluminum and molded into existence by craftsmen of incomparable skill. A Cohiba Behike uses only the precious medio tiempo leaves found at the very top of the tobacco plant, then is rolled with such care as to always possess a draw that is as effortless as breathing. A Dario Pegoretti bicycle frame is built by one person. Yes, I am a champion of the realm of the tangible and all the beauty it possesses, its capacity to make men weep — as many do at the sight of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, still ensconced in Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari — or revel in wonder as we do at the cupola of Hagia Sophia. No asinine eight-bit depiction of a punk with spiked hair has ever evoked such emotions. I hope the painful lessons of blockchain-backed idiocy, of the attempt to decouple the generation of wealth from the creation of real value, has given way to a renewed era of rationalism. And I believe this rationalism will give rise to the recognition of watches as the ultimate collectible art form.
If the metric by which I judge art is a combination of ethereal skill coupled by extraordinary human investiture, then there is no category of art more stirring to me than watchmaking.
Horology is the magical realm, the nexus where art and micromechanical engineering meet to create something greater than the sum of these two parts. To me, watches are instilled with anima; as the Greeks would say, a sense of being alive. They are the most transportable art objects in the world and they require very little maintenance. Watches are the most intimate objects we can own as they enter into symbiosis with the wearer, becoming the witnesses to the passing of our lives and the guardians of our destinies. Watches are the most ethical objects as they only take the energy imparted to them by wearing or winding, and unlike the majority of objects, watches endure forever, passed from one generation to the next.
When it comes to the value of F.P. Journe’s watches, they have exhibited an extraordinary growth in popularity and a commensurate rise in secondary value. What is incredible about Journe’s watches, based on the auction results through the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, is that his brand has not been adversely affected by the large market correction. Quite the opposite, at a time when hype watches have tumbled in value, the value of Journe’s watches have continued rising to set records. Why is this so? Says Remi Guillemin, “It’s because they represent real watchmaking in its most authentic form. As such, these watches are generally not bought by speculators as ‘hype watches’ are, but by real collectors with education and taste.”
When asked why there are suddenly so many more real collectors that want Journe’s watches, George Mayer explains, “Look at it this way. If every serious Patek collector has also now become a Journe collector, there is an insurmountable delta where desire for his watches now massively exceeds the number of timepieces he is able to produce. The natural result to me is that they will only increase in value. Is that wrong or right? I’ll put it this way, to me every Journe watch represents an incredible work of art. In comparison to a Basquiat or a Warhol or any great painter, is the absolute cost of a Journe expensive? To me, there is still a lot of room to go.”
This feeding frenzy for Journe’s watches is not lost on the great watchmaker, though at the same time, he is nonplussed by it. He explains, “I recognize that today when you are allocated one of my watches, I am giving you the equivalent of a car in terms of what the secondary value margin might be. But I will still only allocate my watches to the same type of individual that has always supported me from the beginning, that is someone whose passion is so genuine that in the past he would have been happy losing 30 percent of the watch’s value rather than today where he gains 50 percent or more.” As far as the secondary value for his timepieces is concerned, you can see that Journe is cognizant of the appreciation but is seemingly unconcerned. That’s because as his friend Pierre Jacques, the CEO of De Bethune, points out, “François-Paul is an extraordinary man in that he is not at all motivated by money. He lives in a simple apartment in Geneva. He walks to his office every day to work at a normal desk. He comes home every day at noon to cook lunch for his mother. His love for horology is so inspiring, because it is purely about the pursuit of watchmaking perfection.”
Lest we forget, Journe has also been actively supporting young talent in their journey. Since 2015, he has organized the annual Young Talent Competition in partnership with The Hour Glass to seek out the next generation of watchmakers, where the winner is awarded with a diploma and a CHF 20,000 grant to purchase watchmaking tools.
François-Paul Journe once said to me, “If someone composes music, then he cannot ignore Mozart. He can’t ignore Beethoven. He can’t ignore the history of music. He continues in the tradition defined by those that came before him. But every once in a while, there will be a rare genius like Stravinsky that arrives and changes everything. But this doesn’t happen often. In watchmaking, we haven’t witnessed the birth of a Stravinsky for 200 years. The last one was Abraham-Louis Breguet.”
Yet, despite what Journe has said, what is clear to me, and to the most discerning collectors and journalists the world over, is that our era of contemporary horology has been defined by our own Stravinsky — a genius watchmaker, a man of profound brilliance and, though he often tries to hide it, of immeasurable compassion. And that is François-Paul Journe himself.
When I ask François-Paul to reflect on his achievements, he says with humility, “Watchmaking is like a long wall. What I have done is brought one or two stones to the wall, which is already not bad as there are many others who have never done even that.” But the truth is that it is not two stones that he has added, but an entire parapet, the foundation of which will serve to uplift an entire new generation of watchmakers. Because François-Paul Journe’s greatest achievement has been to ensure the long-term relevance and viability of true watchmaking for the foreseeable future. And so, you will understand that each of the watches offered in this sale initiated by the dynamic Remi Guillemin and Christie’s is not simply a timepiece but, to me, a part of the legacy of the greatest watchmaker of our time.
Christie’s live auction, the Art of F.P. Journe, takes place at 1:00 PM CEST on the 12th of May in Geneva.