Raúl Pagès Details His Next Watch Projects

Photo of author

By Margaretd. Regina

“In the beginning it was not the goal to be independent, to create a brand,” the independent watchmaker Raúl Pagès said in his two-room hillside atelier in the Swiss hamlet Les Brenets, overlooking the Jura Mountains. “It was just to design a movement, to create something from scratch.”

It is here, in a house that what was once a factory making synthetic rubies, that Mr. Pagès — the first recipient of the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creatives — produces about four handmade watches per year.

At the moment, he is focusing on the production of the Régulateur à détente RP1, the wristwatch that earned him the award. But the 40-year-old Mr. Pagès, who started his brand in 2012, also makes automatons — the kind of mechanically moving figures that were all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“I felt that it was strange that nobody was making automatons today, so as my first creation I did not want to make a watch, I wanted to make a full automaton, but contemporary,” he said before using a key to wind the Tortoise — a grapefruit-size automaton that he finished in 2013.

For a minute, its diamond-clawed legs made a whirring sound as they crawled about a foot along a watchmaker’s bench. “Yes,” Mr. Pagès said, looking at a visitor. “That is always the reaction from collectors and other people — always smiling, always big eyes.”

Mr. Pagès is well acquainted with antique automatons and clocks. After seven years in watchmaking school — four years to be a watchmaker, followed by two years in restoration and one year in design — he landed a job at Parmigiani Fleurier to restore antique clocks, pocket watches and automatons from the Maurice-Yves Sandoz collection.

“That’s how I discovered the great works of Breguet, Jaquet-Droz, James Pellaton, Urban Jürgensen,” he said. “We also restored and renovated pieces for the Patek museum and private collectors. When you work on such masterpieces you learn a lot.”

He also recalled a particularly nerve-racking task when he worked on a Fabergé egg in the Sandoz collection: “I was thinking ‘I cannot make a mistake, or history will remember me.’” he said, laughing.

But working on such masterpieces was not enough for him.

“When you restore you have to respect the origin, but you can’t really create anything,” he said. Thus, at night, after his shift at Parmigiani, he started developing the Tortoise movement. “And when I had the finished Tortoise conception in my computer, I left Parmigiani and put in all my savings and gave myself one year to work on it.”

In the end it took him two years to develop, design and make the 352 components of the Tortoise, and to build it (with artisans helping him for the external parts, engraving, enameling and gemsetting). But the unique piece, priced at 350,000 Swiss francs (about $396,000), never sold. “I was new, very young and naïve when it came to the commercial side,” Mr. Pagès said.

Roman Winiger, a watchmaker and restorer who worked with Mr. Pagès at Parmigiani Fleurier in 2006 and 2007, said by phone from La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, that the Tortoise experience might have persuaded others to give up. “But Raúl remained at it,” he said. “It takes sweat and time to get where he is. The secret is in the effort.”

Mr. Pagès was able to pay his bills thanks to restoring pocket watches as a freelancer by day. By night he designed and developed his first wristwatch, the Art Deco-inspired Soberly Onyx, released in 2016. Its movement is based on vintage ébauche (meaning unpolished and undecorated) movements from the 1950s and 1960s, but several parts, including bridges and balance, he made from scratch using traditional machines like lathes and drills. He went on to hand-polish and decorate each part.

This is still his modus operandi: Only a tiny portion of the parts are outsourced to local suppliers with modern machines, he said, adding that he always finishes them himself.

He also kept working on what he called his “ultimate goal” — to create his own movement for the RP1.

Presented in January 2022, the RP1 has a movement with a detent escapement, often used in 18th- and 19th-century marine chronometer clocks and pocket watches. It delivers extreme accuracy thanks to the power of the mainspring being released in equal bursts.

“I love this kind of escapement,” Mr. Pagès said. “I find it so beautiful to see it in motion. Detent was used by Urban Jürgensen, Christophe Claret and Kari Voutilainen, but apart from them nobody thought of putting it in a wristwatch. I wanted to prove it is OK.”

The problem is that the detent is a large lever sensitive to shocks, and if it moves too much, it blocks the whole mechanism. To solve this, Mr. Pagès said he “added an additional beak on the detent, which is blocked by a cam fixed under the balance wheel. This built-in block makes it more shock resistant.

“I would not advise to play golf with it. But for normal use it is OK.”

Mid-explanation, Mr. Pagès’s friend and sounding-board, Sébastien Chaulmontet, arrived on one of his near-weekly visits. A lawyer, he is also the head of innovation at the industrial movement maker Sellita. “It is really crazy to make a detent escapement for a wristwatch,” Mr. Chaulmontet said. “I always tell Raúl it is good that we met after the RP1 was developed, because I would have done everything possible to make him not to do it.”

“What really makes Raúl stand out is that he has the full scope: He is a watchmaker, a restorer, an engineer, and he is also a designer.” Mr. Chaulmontet added. “It is obviously crazy when you can play almost all instruments of the orchestra. It gives you a liberty and an understanding different than when you have to hire a few musicians to make it happen. That is why his watches are so different and so personal.”

Mr. Pagès stopped taking orders for the RP1 in early 2023, when he had 20: Its construction is so complex that he can only produce four per year. (Now with an employee the total production in 2024 is estimated to be eight.) “The demand was huge, but I did not want to have a waiting list for 10 years and make just one watch for the rest of my career,” he said.

The regulator-styled dial — with an hour hand at 12, a central minute hand and sky-blue small seconds subdial at six — is Bauhaus-influenced, Mr. Pagès said. “For me the dial is really important,” he said. “It is a clean design with different depths and finishes on the dial, and the blue on the small seconds subdial is inspired by Le Corbusier’s color scheme.”

There are also visible but “very discreet” screws on the dial that “add something very technical,” he said.

“I like concrete simplicity and function. There should also be beauty in the details, but not by adding things,” he said.

As winner of the Louis Vuitton prize, he received €150,000 (about $163,000) and a yearlong mentorship. “It can be help of any kind,” he said. “Technical, financial, marketing or communication.”

He is already at work on his next project, the RP2, which is in the prototype phase with delivery planned early next year.

This time-only watch will feature a dial of white agate (a semiprecious stone in the quartz family) and a less complex movement. “The idea is to have the RP2 as a standard collection,” he said, “and then make other, more complex, watches.”

Mr. Pagès also has a new type of automaton in the making, on which he shared few details, except to say it will not be an animal and it will be inside a wristwatch.

And what about the Tortoise? Would he sell it now?

“No, I want to keep it,” he said. “Because it is my first creation, my first baby. It is important to be able to show it to collectors and in exhibitions.

“It was not a commercial success, but I am convinced the Tortoise helped me to be where I am right now. So, there are no regrets — at all.”

Leave a Comment