Time is money =?UNKNOWN?Q?=28or?= why the world is queueing up to bu

Time is money (or why the world is queueing up to buy a £36,000 watch)

They adorn the wrists of pop stars and presidents, a footballer risked his
life for one and Silvio Berlusconi gives them away as gifts. Rose George reveals
what makes Franck Muller timepieces tick

19 February 2005

It happened, as the best dramas do, in a men’s toilet. Precisely,
near the urinals of Funky Buddah, a Mayfair nightclub frequented by
celebrities and footballers, and where, in the early hours of 30 June
last year, minder Godfrey Kessie threatened Dwight Yorke and asked
for his watch. Not just any watch. A Conquistador King, as seen on
David Beckham’s wrist, complete with diamond-encrusted face, triaxial
tourbillon and carefully crafted complications and movements. And a
£36,000 price tag.

Yorke gave Kessie the watch, he told Southwark Crown Court in London
this week, then something got the better of him. Despite Kessie’s
greater bulk and height, and going against all personal safety rules,
he tackled the minder, despite being concerned for his life. He got
the watch back. Kessie, 25, from Wood Green in north London, is in
custody awaiting sentence after pleading guilty to robbery.

The question is, why did Yorke bother? The price tag is a couple of
kicks around the pitch, in footballer-salary terms. The Conquistador
had diamonds, but Yorke probably has a dozen more that do, too. He
risked his life because he was not just saving a watch. He was saving
a Franck Muller.

“Please don’t call it a watch,” says a Franck Muller watchmaker in
Switzerland, when I ask him about the watches he makes. “Please call
it a work of art.” These works of art, then, made by the Swiss watch
firm Franck Muller, wrap the wrists of David and Victoria Beckham. Sir
Elton John collects them; the entire Arsenal squad wears them. Colleen
McLoughlin bought a £15,000 one for Wayne Rooney, perhaps to make up
for the engagement ring flung at the squirrels. The Italian Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in a non-patriotic moment, gave one
worth £9,800 to President George Bush. And in an unusual display
of international unity, even the Russian President Vladimir Putin
has been spotted with a Franck Muller on his wrist. Politicians and
paparazzi fodder alike are prey to the exploding Art Deco numerals,
the mixed-up numbers of the Crazy Hours, the colours and stitching,
the sapphire-blue glass and diamonds.

That is just the bling. But beyond the glitter lies the story of
a revolution. The rise of Franck Muller, in the slow and slowly
maturing world of Swiss watch-making, has been spectacular. Most of
the venerable watchmaker houses – Patek Philippe, Jaeger-Le Coultre,
Zenith – have existed for decades, or centuries. Muller started his
company only 13 years ago, with five employees. He produced 12 watches
in his first year. Today, Franck Muller’s Watchland, an estate based
around a chateau and two additional buildings, is housed in the sweet
Swiss village of Genthod.

The setting is serene enough – Lake Geneva to one side, Mont Blanc
to the other – but it hides a busy business, including a team of 60
watchmakers, 12 jewellers and a fair amount of diamonds. Franck Muller
employs 550 people worldwide. The company produced 47,000 watches last
year, and 20 new models. Next month, to celebrate the 10th anniversary
of Muller’s famed Casablanca watch, the London celebrity jeweller
Theo Fennell will launch his latest Franck Muller collaboration,
the limited-edition, pale-green Nile. The most expensive Niles –
white gold with white diamond-set case, automatic movements – will
sell for £24,950, and the top numbers of the limited editions have
already been reserved by celebrities, even before the previews.

Fashion-driven covetousness aside, that is still not bad going for a
company that does not spend much on publicity or marketing (there are
no glossy pages in the right magazines; there is not even a dedicated
website). It is not bad, either, for a watch-maker who did not intend
to be one. Franck Muller – he’s a real man (unlike Patek Philippe),
with heavy eyebrows and plentiful hair – was born in 1958 and grew
up in Geneva. He did not know what he wanted to be, until, hanging
out at a local flea market, a watch expert noticed his interest in
timepieces. He suggested Franck went to Geneva’s watchmaking school,
L’École d’horlogerie, because there were not enough people to repair
antique watches, and it could be a good career. Franck took his
advice and found he was good at it. He had the manual dexterity
required to work with tiny, interlocking mechanisms. He had the
patience. By 1990 or so, he had backing, in the shape of Armenian
investors and his Armenian-Turkish-Swiss partner, Vartan Sirmakes.
Unlike most watchmakers working with the venerable Swiss houses,
conservative by nature and design, he also had flair.

“People don’t remember now,” says celebrity jeweller Theo Fennell,
who introduced Sir Elton and other big clients to Franck Muller. “But
14 years ago, the watch world was really boring. There were no big
watches, apart from divers’ watches. Everything was soulless and
really plain, a rehash of what had gone before. Franck Muller watches
were elegant, with a retro look. I immediately loved them. They
were different.”

They were also a salvation. By the 1980s, the Swiss mechanical watch
industry was in serious trouble. Cheap, easy to produce and more
accurate than the most complicated of mechanical mechanisms, the quartz
watch was destroying the Swiss mechanical watch industry. Watch houses
were reducing production. Muller began making watches at exactly the
right time. The climate began to change when in 1989, a Patek Philippe
Calibre 89, containing 1,728 parts and 33 functions, was sold at
auction for $3.7m (£1.9m). Vintage and unmodern was back, along with
as many complications as possible. A complication, in watch terms, is
one of three categories of mechanisms that add to the basic mechanism.

It can be additional hands with a timing function (second hands that
jump back, for example), or minute repeaters, or the astonishing
intricacy of a perpetual calendar, a device that fully rotates only
once every four years, and can calculate months with 28, 30 or 31
days, entirely mechanically. A “grand complication” encompasses all
three categories. Franck Muller, starting small in Geneva, found he
could do grand, and more.

In 1986, he produced his first watch. It had a tourbillon, a mechanism
patented in 1801 that was designed, via complicated balances and
springs, to correct inaccuracy caused by gravity. So tricky was the
tourbillon, only a few hundred had been made since the original patent,
but Muller mastered it. To the tourbillon, he added “jumping hours”,
where the hand jumps to the next hour after 60 seconds, and separate
dials for hour and minute hands. He pioneered his signature “exploding
numbers”, oversized, Art Deco numerals that are now copied worldwide.

They were not new; there had been other watch designs with similar
numerals, and other watch cases that were curved, like his. But the
combination became the Franck Muller signature, as did “Master of
Complications”, which he began to engrave on every watch case. This
was high self-praise indeed. It is a measure of his talent that in
the esoteric and fanatic world of watch-lovers, hardly anyone disputes
that he deserves it.

A watchmaker in Muller’s own Watchland certainly does not disagree. He
does not want to be named, he says, for reasons that are not clear,
but he is a watchmaker with 35 years’ experience, including nine
years at Franck Muller, and he does not show signs of wanting to
work anywhere else. He talks about how one tourbillon design requires
576 pieces in its movements. He points to the Master Banker, a watch
with several time zones, and says only the Franck Muller has hour and
minute hands on all the dials. “We make all our movements in-house,”
he says proudly, because for a watchmaker, this is important.

Most watchmakers buy the movements – the wheels and balances, the
mechanics that make the watch work – from outside firms, and modify
them in-house. Muller claims not to. As proof of how good he is,
Franck Muller Technowatch SPA has won 40 patents in 13 years.

But behind the complications of the watch, there was also proper
marketing talent. What sets Franck Muller apart, his anonymous
watchmaker says, “is that we are so dynamic. I’ve worked in watch
houses where it takes months for a decision to be made, because there’s
such a hierarchy. Here, we can get a prototype produced in a year,
from initial decision to the production.”

Nadine Broden, Muller’s marketing manager, says; “If customers or
agents make a suggestion about a trend or desire in the market, we
can respond much more quickly than other companies. We don’t waste
a long time on market research.”

They know, for instance, that south Asians love the pastel colours
of the Crazy Hours, and Arabs prefer diamonds. High-end business men
and bankers like the complications and the chronographs.

Everyone likes the prices. Not because they are cheap, but because
they’re not. Rich men – of which there were many, in those boom
days, and of which there are still enough – have a limited choice
of accessories. As portable status symbols, a watch worth several
hundred thousand dollars, encrusted or just complicated, became
unbeatable. Muller seized the zeitgeist and controlled it perfectly.

Muller is a young man, for a watchmaker, and his team, on average,
are in their thirties. This explains the risk-taking dynamism –
the exclusive Swiss watchmaker is not above making a £70,000 watch
in Crystal Palace colours for Palace owner Simon Jordan – and also
the odd tendency to cheesiness. Last year’s Color Dreams, all pastel
colours and crazy numbers, Nadine Broden says, “was designed to inject
some joie de vivre into the gloom of the post 9/11, war-in-Iraq world”.

But if it is just the flashiness that sells, the Muller delight
will not last. “There are other watches that are as complicated,”
says a London watch expert, who prefers to remain anonymous. “There
are better, more interesting ones for the same price. He’s a very
good watchmaker, and he was very clever to realise there was room for
more excitement in the industry. But if you ask me, Franck Muller is
a busted flush.”

The company has certainly had problems, with Muller and partner Vartan
Sirmakes feuding, and resolving the dispute only late last year. The
dispute was bitter – with Muller saying publicly that Sirmakes had
been employing illegal Armenians – and last year the company was
nearly split up. But for now, things in the serene surroundings of
the castle in Genthod are back to normal.

Theo Fennell, for one, is not worried. “I really don’t think it’s
just a fad. There are enough models that each can be a limited
edition. You’re not likely to see the same watch on someone else’s
wrist, unless you bought it for them. Franck Muller watches are
beautifully made and produced.” If they’re on showbiz wrists, he says:
“It’s not because they’re a gimmick. It’s because they can afford to
buy the best.”


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