François-Paul Journe on winning over the watch purists
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Watches news every morning.
Step into the salon and manufacture of FP Journe, in a 19th-century building where Geneva’s old town meets the modern city, and it is immediately clear how far the watchmaker stands apart from its independent peers.
Founded in 1999, the brand hails from the same era-defining decade as today’s other indie watchmaking stars, such as Richard Mille, Urwerk, De Bethune and MB&F — brands that are synonymous with disruptive horological concepts and futuristic, avant-garde design.
But, rather than propel you into the future, FP Journe is more likely to thrust you centuries into the past. Visitors to the three-storey manufacture are met by a 168-year-old astronomical clock by the French maker CL Detouche and the complete library of the distinguished horological expert and historian Jean-Claude Sabrier, all overlooked by elaborate ceiling frescoes that reproduce the first sky charts of 16th-century astronomer Petrus Apianus, who mapped time via the stars.
FP Journe watches do the same: its award-winning complications notably revolutionise antiquarian watchmaking concepts, with most set in signature, classic round cases with traditional styling — think blue steel hands and guilloche accents. Dials come etched with FP Journe’s Latin tagline, “Invenit et Fecit” (Invented and Made).
“I don’t do this on purpose,” says founder François-Paul Journe, 66, who first cut his teeth in 1977 at his uncle’s antique watch restoration workshop in Paris. By age 21, the Marseille-born Journe had started his first tourbillon pocket watch. “I was born in a museum, immersed in the history of watchmaking. I’m just presenting my vision without being conscious about it. It’s not a strategy,” he says.
Journe rarely gives interviews and has a reputation for being elusive and intimidating. Celebrated as an inventor, he once said that “watchmaking, even the one I make, is a fossil science, because we no longer need it”. In his salon, he sits beside a 1.7m-tall resonance regulator from the 1780s by Antide Janvier.
Journe is the only person in the manufacture allowed to handle the piece, which partly inspired his popular Chronomètre à Résonance watch — the name taken from a natural physical phenomenon, first discovered in 1665, where two pendulums placed together will naturally synchronise. Journe recreated the concept in a wristwatch — the first to do so.
“We’re playing with completely useless concepts from the 18th and 19th centuries, but which make people dream,” he says. Journe admits that art will always trump the commercial. “If we are talking about watchmaking art, we are the first; but if we talk about turnover, we are the last,” he says, with a smile.
However, while rooted in antiquarian horology, FP Journe is increasingly catching the eye of young collectors, aged 25 to 30.
Its first London boutique opens next month, in Mayfair, hot on the heels of a new flagship that opened in New York last month, in SoHo.
And, today, Christie’s Geneva is hosting a FP Journe live sale — the first ever dedicated to a single independent watchmaker. With just 39 lots, the auction is expected to achieve SFr7.8mn-SFr13.9mn ($8.8mn-$15.6mn) — a conservative estimate if past auction results are any indication.
In November 2021, Phillips auctioned several ultra-rare FP Journe watches, including a 1999 Tourbillon Souverain and 2000 Chronomètre à Résonance, both which were among Journe’s first-ever models, limited to just 20 pieces each and sold under a subscription model when the brand was first starting out. They fetched SFr3.5mn and SFr3.9mn, respectively. An original Tourbillon retailed in 1999 for SFr27,500.
Limited series are part of FP Journe’s offering, and there are long waiting lists for all models. The brand only makes around 1,000 mechanical watches a year. Other independent watchmakers, such as Patek Philippe and Richard Mille, produce 70,000 and 5,300, respectively. All the watches are assembled by 25 watchmakers and seven artisans who finish every component — one part can take between five and 45 minutes to mirror-polish, depending on the model.
Remi Guillemin, head of watches for Christie’s Europe, says FP Journe “redefines what rarity is”, noting that, where big brands will make 100 limited pieces of a model, FP Journe may make only 10. “It’s very different from watch manufacturers where the same watch comes out for 10 years, with four different dial colours,” he notes.
In an age of slick marketing campaigns and commercial agendas, Journe’s genuine and singular commitment to his craft resonates with collectors, especially the watch purists who have been crucial to the brand’s continued independence.
“Journe was fortunate to have had this extremely loyal, diehard base of watch nerds,” says Michael Tay, group managing director of Asia-Pacific-based retailer The Hour Glass. “The nerds were the ones that had believed in him from the beginning and understood what he was trying to accomplish.”
And the brand loyalty runs deep. The Journe Society is a members-only group of FP Journe enthusiasts that grew from an informal band of passionate collectors in New York in 2016. Today, there are about 100 members worldwide and it is a close-knit community that enjoys travelling and socialising together, bonding over their love of FP Journe watches.
“Most of our members joined before the recent luxury watch craze, attracted to the brand’s traditions, design and technology, rather than flashy marketing or celebrity endorsements,” says Journe Society president Brad Schwartz.
Although the society is independent of the brand, Journe is appreciative of its support. Several years ago, he created a special edition watch for the society, with each piece engraved with a member’s name on the case back.
Being close to his clients, Journe is aware of how limited production is driving not only speculation for his watches, but also frustration. For the sake of quality, production will not be increased, he insists, though he hopes to streamline distribution by reducing independent retailers and focusing on boutiques, such as New York and London.
The latter venue will echo the identity of the New York flagship, which notably features a library, bar, kitchen, wine cellar and lounges — with all furniture chosen by Journe — and is designed as a space where collectors can convene. “The main idea is to propose entertainment, since we’re not able to provide clients with enough watches for the demand,” he says.
“His watches have an incredible aesthetic sensibility that allows you to fall madly in love with their aesthetics and conception,” says Tay.
“It’s going to take a couple of generations more before we see somebody quite like Journe.”