F.P. Journe. Master’s First Steps in Trade

The story of François-Paul Journe’s life and first steps in watchmaking. The first watches and early successes of F.P. Journe.

A young François-Paul Journe at his workbench in 1987, Paris
A young François-Paul Journe at his workbench in 1987, Paris

François-Paul Journe. Young Years

François-Paul Journe is arguably the finest watchmaker of our day. He belongs to a small circle of connoisseurs and followers of the 18th century watchmaking traditions. These traditions have incredible creative potential, which is implemented with the help of modern technologies. Journe’s watch is a syncretism of classical style and his own peculiar vision. All this is embodied in impeccable design using ingenious mechanical know-how.

The future genius did not to regulate mechanisms or develop calibers from the very beginning. He was a rather rebellious, problematic child. How did the little troublemaker turn into one of the most respected watchmakers in the world?

1957 was rich in important events. Foundation of the European Economic Community, launching the first artificial satellites into orbit. Finally, Omega launches three iconic Seamaster, Speedmaster and Railmaster models. The icing on the cake of these significant events was the birth of François-Paul Journe in the bustling port of Marseille. He was neither a hereditary watchmaker in the nth generation, nor a child prodigy with a passion for physics or engineering. Journe left school at the age of 14, and his desperate mother sent him to Paris for a while under the care of his uncle.

Obstinate Watchmaker

Luckily, Uncle Michel turned out to be a master clock repairer and restorer. He was one of the few specialists of this kind left in Europe. Specialists with the knowledge and skills necessary to work with the most complex and exquisite movements created by the legendary Breguet and Janvier. Michel Journe was trusted even by Baron Rothschild, whose rare antique watches of the finest workmanship he serviced.

Uncle Journe was an incredibly enthusiastic person with an irresistible passion for his work. Either this passion turned out to be contagious, or the young Francois-Paul showed quickwittedness, helping his relative. Be that as it may, the mother was persuaded to send her son to study watchmaking at a higher technical school. Although the young man turned out to be a capable student, his obstinacy and willfulness did not dwindle. After two years of study, François-Paul was expelled and advised that with such temperament he should find a job in another field. Naturally, Journe did not follow the advice. He moved to Paris, where Uncle Michel opened a new workshop on Rue Verneuil, next to the Musée d’Orsay. Here he could apply the acquired knowledge in practice and, finally, finish his studies at the Paris Watch School.

Uncle’s Apprentice

Pocket watch designed by George Daniels for Sir Cecil Clutton
Pocket watch designed by George Daniels for Sir Cecil Clutton

After graduating in 1976, François-Paul became a full-time employee of Michel Journe’s workshop. No longer as a student, but as a full-fledged specialist, designed to meet the high reputation of his uncle and the requirements of clients. One of them was Sir Cecil Clutton, an astute collector of luxury items and author of excellent books on watchmaking. Often Sir Clutton could be seen with two pocket watches at once. One was an 1823 Breguet and the other was a George Daniels watch made personally for Clutton in 1969.

Both were high quality tourbillons. They made an indelible impression on the young Journe. The tourbillon was a rather unusual complication for the time, which few watchmakers encountered at the time. Another notable experience that influenced François-Paul’s later work was his acquaintance with the phenomenon of resonance. In 1982, he had the opportunity to restore Breguet No. 3177, which was then in the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Paris. This event marked the beginning of a long-term search for the application of this phenomenon in modern watches.

A young François-Paul Journe with his uncle Michel in his studio in Paris in 1979
A young François-Paul Journe with his uncle Michel in his studio in Paris in 1979

Journe gained some experience and became adept at restoring 18th-century masterpieces. He began to realize that the creation of his own watches appealed to him more than the restoration of antique clocks. François-Paul was fascinated by the tourbillon, but did not have the funds to purchase such a watch. The young watchmaker decided to create one for himself. The first step towards the realization of the plan was the purchase of the book The Art of Breguet by George Daniels. Using it as a guide and listening to the advice of his uncle, Journe began to assemble his first creation.

It was a long and difficult process. Journe could not fully concentrate on the project, because he had to complete tasks at his uncle’s workshop. In addition, he began to take on personal orders. As a result, the creation of the first tourbillon by F.P. Journe took almost five years.

The First Creation of François-Paul Journe

Journe's first attempt at creating a tourbillon pocket watch from scratch
Journe’s first attempt at creating a tourbillon pocket watch from scratch

And yet, by January 1983, when Journe was only 25, he assembled his first watch. It was an impressive achievement to create a working movement from scratch, equipping it with a tourbillon. At a time when watchmaking schools taught watch restoration, rather than development or design, it was akin to a feat. With this watch, Journe was able to attract the attention of collectors and connoisseurs who could jump-start his career.

It really did not take long for the future winner of multiple awards to get an order from a wealthy client. In 1984 he was working on a pocket watch in which he tried to apply resonance. François-Paul Journe himself explains this phenomenon as follows: “In a watch, no matter what, there is energy that dissipates. When you listen to the clock, the ticking of the balance dissipates energy. In a resonant chronometer, there are two balance wheels that are close enough together that the dissipated energy of each is captured by the other, resulting in a unique frequency adjustment.”

F.P. Journe’s First Watchmaking Workshop

Unfortunately, the watch did not work as well as the master wanted. After all, it was only his second work, and he was trying to create a complication that had not been used in pocket watches for almost two hundred years. Journe himself admitted: “I didn’t succeed because I didn’t have enough experience to achieve such a result. However, I knew that one day I would try again.”

All that remains of the first attempt to create a clock with resonance; now they are in the drawer of his workshop
All that remains of the first attempt to create a clock with resonance; now they are in the drawer of his workshop

In 1985, he ventured to open his own workshop. Having earned some recognition and having a good reputation, Journe began to test and develop his talent. Over the next five years, he took on unique commissions. Like a pocket watch with a fusee and a chain, and a five-second remontoire, or a planetary pocket watch.

One of the most important projects he undertook during this period was the Sympathique table clock series for the London jewelry store Asprey. Another classic Breguet model, which the Frenchman tried not only to recreate, but also to improve. While Breguet’s ingenious original could wind and adjust pocket watches “connected” to it, it itself needed daily winding. Thanks to Journe’s design, one winding powered the watch for eight days.

The First F.P. Journe Wristwatch

Until that moment, all the creations of François-Paul were either placed on tables or worn in a pocket. He did not produce anything that could be worn on the wrist. This did not prevent the young watchmaker from suggesting a wristwatch tourbillon project to Breguet. And although the brand rejected the offer, Journe still produced three prototypes of such watch. Dial of the first of them has the number 11/91, which indicated the year of production, 1991. He ended up keeping them for himself after they were received without much enthusiasm at the Baselworld exhibition, where they were displayed at the stand of the Academy of Independent Watchmakers.

The first F.P.Journe watch
The first F.P.Journe watch

The desire for recognition of the skill and value of his creations increasingly encouraged Journe to work for himself. Even when famous brands and big companies commissioned him to work, his efforts did not receive due respect. According to Pierre Halimi, CEO of the brand in North America: “Francois-Paul was angry because he struggled to get his watches accepted by famous brands. He designed and manufactured them, gave them away. Then the brand and its marketing department took control. He had no leverage.”

Even more frustrating for Journe, Halimi says, was the reluctance of major brands to give credit to the craftsmen they worked with: “Brands hid the identity of the artist, wanting to make it look like it was their own effort.” The exception was the company Harry Winston for which Journe worked on the model of the Opus series.

The tourbillon was also his first wrist watch, but this time it was also equipped with a remontoire. It was the first wrist watch with a constant force mechanism. Invented by John Harrison for the H2 marine chronometer and then improved by Journe, it became a signature component of future F.P. Journe watches. This tourbillon with a gold movement and a remontoir in a platinum case had a large window to reveal the tourbillon itself, and a slightly smaller one to view the work of the remontoire.

F.P. Journe Brand Vision

The cabinotier displayed the hours and minutes on a smaller sub-dial on the right side of the case. This was done so that the owner could check the time unnoticed by an interlocutor. Slightly push the watch out from under the cuff not to seem rude. The visual separation of the time display from the tourbillon, as Journe intended, was also meant to emphasize the importance of timekeeping. Measuring time is as important as showing it.

One day in 1994, when he went out to have lunch with a couple of friends, it dawned on the artisan. The hostess of the restaurant who greeted them exclaimed: “What kind of watch is this? It is great!” It was the same tourbillon with a remontoire. At that moment, the idea to establish his own brand was finally formed in Journe’s head.

Gaining courage, the watchmaker took up the practical aspects of starting production. First, he didn’t have enough space. The workshop in Paris was good for prototyping, but too small for series production. Fortunately, in the center of Geneva, on the Rue du Marché, a workshop was just put up for sale. It was a perfect fit and was almost within budget. An indomitable inventor with countless projects, Journe was always full of ideas for new creations. Now he had a space for their implementation. The only thing missing was funding.

Journe’s Souscription Tourbillon

Souscription Tourbillon
Souscription Tourbillon

While dining one day with his friend, he shared his problems with him. He wanted to start his own watch line. The money he earned from working at Cartier was not enough for this. The idea proposed by the friend formed the basis of the newly created brand. This scheme is known as “subscription” and its essence is simple. A group of familiar customers pay for watches that have not yet been created. In exchange for trust, they will receive a discount on the retail price of the watch. This allowed Journe to raise enough money to produce more watches and sell them at full price.

At that time, no other brand offered such watches. There were few tourbillons on the market. Journe hoped that this alone would help attract serious collectors. Giving “subscribers” a 50% discount on the future retail price of the watch negated the potential profit that Journe could make, but covered the running costs. This allowed production to start. In addition, collectors actually became Journe’s ambassadors, demonstrating new watches to their acquaintances and raising the authority of the new brand.

The total cost of the “subscription” was CHF 27,500 excluding VAT. The deposit was paid in the middle of 1998, and the watch was supposed to be ready sometime in 1999. Early technical drawings for the 1998 Souscription Tourbillon were signed “T.I.M. Horlogerie S.A.” This company was founded by François-Paul Journe back in 1996 to develop exclusive calibers for various brands. So he created his own movements before launching the brand under own name.

An early design drawing of the Souscription Tourbillon dated May 1998 and a watch from the first collection based on this drawing

François-Paul Journe’s Handwriting

These first twenty Souscription Tourbillon watches at first glance are very similar to the serial Tourbillon Souverain, which Journe produced from 1999 to 2003. This design is now well known among collectors. Small dial showing time at three o’clock, power reserve at eleven o’clock and two apertures at 9 and 6. The Souscription is protected by a 38mm platinum case with a rhodium-plated brass movement. As with later models, the watches are numbered on the case back. But for these, the limited edition of the series is marked on the dial in the XX / 20 format.

These first models show the maximum quantity of handmade elements that can be placed on a modern watch. A whole series of contradictions and quirks, which later became easily recognizable features of Francois-Paul Journe’s handwriting. The shallow uneven engraving on the case back and small marks on the dial are clear signs of meticulous manual processing. These handmade features add to the appeal of these early pieces to many collectors.

The layout of the dial further enhances this artisan watch impression with exposed screws and contrasting surfaces. The origins of the gold dial, which Journe used on many of his other early wristwatches, go back to the first three prototypes he produced before creating the Souscription. They had additional dials screwed directly onto the base plate of the movement, which was made from 18K gold. This feature, which has become so popular with collectors, was initially seen as a temporary solution for the prototype.

Journe’s Success at Baselworld

Then in 1999 Journe intended to introduce his eponymous brand to the world at the Basel exhibition. Encouraged by his friends, François-Paul presented only an early version of his tourbillon at the booth of the Academy of Independent Watchmakers. This first public demonstration reminds us how different his vision was from the trends of the time. William Massena, former CEO of the Antiquorum auction, was there: “At that time, chronographs were in trend, especially after the release of Datograph. Big dials with open complications, big date windows like Lange’s Grande Date and retrograde ones from Roger Dubuis and Franck Muller.”

This was the heyday of the big watch. After the successful launch of Panerai, many brands have opted for large and eye-catching designs with easy-to-read dials. Journe’s 38mm watch, with only a quarter of the dial dedicated to showing the time, ran counter to the latest fashion trends.

This defiant challenge to trends and traditional attitudes prompted Massena to ask Journe the first question at the watchmaker’s first press conference: “Why did you decide to launch your own brand?” Massena admitted that he did not understand why the world needed another brand. Moreover, Opus 1 by Harry Winston with a Journe tourbillon inside was already released that year, which was met with surprise by the majority. In typical fashion, the watchmaker replied: “Because I’m tired of throwing pearls in front of pigs!”

Unique model Grande et Petite Sonnerie from the collection of the late Sultan of Oman
Unique model Grande et Petite Sonnerie from the collection of the late Sultan of Oman

Arrival of F.P. Journe

Interest in these early tourbillons from suppliers and retailers arose immediately. This gave Journe confidence that he would be able to come to Basel next year, only to present watches from his own stand, leaving the shadow of the Academy of Independent Watchmakers. He put on display three different models: Tourbillon Souverain, Chronomètre à Resonance and Grande et Petite Sonnerie. The last model was, in fact, a one-of-a-kind piece based on an unused movement that Journe designed for Piaget.

At Baselworld 2000, one of the first customers bought the Grande Sonnerie without hesitation, as well as the tourbillon and the resonance. As a result, these Grande Sonnerie ended up in the collection of the Sultan of Oman. In total, about a hundred tourbillons and the same number of Journe resonances were sold at that exhibition. François-Paul did not then have his own boutiques, so all trade was carried out through retailers. The company has established cooperation with dozens of sellers around the world.

They also learned to form prices literally on the go. During the first two days of Baselworld, prices had to be raised three times – it turned out that retailers were too cheap. But even after that, the flow of those who wanted to buy an F.P. Journe watch did not dry up, because they were beautiful, non-trivial and still cheaper than Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet. These first two exhibitions were turning points in François-Paul Journe’s career. The dream of an independent brand has finally become a reality.

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