Fed up with ‘making pearls for swine’, FP Journe struck out on his own. Today his extraordinary, original timepieces can fetch more than £1 million. What makes the Geneva-based watchmaker tick?
In the 17th and 18th centuries, watchmakers might inscribe their surname and the Latin word fecit – ‘made by’ – on the movement of a fine timepiece. And for certain geniuses like John Arnold or Thomas Earnshaw, watches that included novel innovations of their own devising would see the inscription extended to invenit et fecit: ‘invented and made by’.
It was presumably with an eye on history – and his place within it – that in 1999 the French watchmaker François-Paul Journe appropriated invenit et fecit as a dial slogan for his own, newly launched wristwatches. It’s hardly as if he was retiring about his ability to create masterpieces.
Journe made his name in the 1980s by recreating the miraculous ‘sympathique’ invention (a pendulum clock that could mechanically set and regulate a connected pocket watch) of the 18th-century master Abraham-Louis Breguet, and spent several years developing complex watches for marquee brands such as Cartier and Piaget.
Asked in 1999 why he was now striking out on his own, he gave an immortal reply: ‘Because I’m fed up with making pearls for swine.’
He announced his FP Journe brand to the world with two watches of dizzying ambition: first, a sumptuous tourbillon at a time when almost no one could produce a tourbillon wristwatch; next, a watch that drew on the science of resonance – a bewildering oscillatory magic in which two independently vibrating balance wheels mysteriously synchronise – in the cause of chronometric accuracy and sheer horological swag.
He was able to make these thanks to an idea he borrowed from Breguet: clients were invited to join a ‘souscription’ (subscription) scheme, in which down payments enabled Journe to make a run of watches, with the balance then paid on completion. Subscriptions were snapped up, and FP Journe has remained the darling of top-end collectors ever since.
His watches exhibit the kinds of intellectual rigour, gorgeous aesthetics and clear handcraft that are catnip to the horological hardcore, as is their rarity: only around 800 are produced by hand each year.
In 2019 he invenit et fecit one of the most astounding timepieces I’ve ever seen, an astronomically-themed super-watch containing 18 mechanical functions and indications.
The Astronomic Souveraine, as it’s known, is a snip at £700,000, but one suspects that there’s plenty that 64-year-old Journe has yet to invent.
‘I create a piece because I want it, I dream it,’ he told the New York Times recently. ‘I make it like it was a new child.’
While the adoration of aficionados is one thing, the company has recently crossed a more unexpected frontier. Quite suddenly, it has broken through to the wider audiences enjoyed by much bigger marques, rocketing into true blue-chip investment territory. FP Journe is now an asset class.
This is unicorn-rare: while certain brands enjoy huge demand for particular watches, watchmaking’s two biggest names have long been its only true bankers.
‘Journe has joined Patek Philippe and Rolex in terms of demand far outstripping supply across the whole of the offering,’ says Charlie Pragnell, managing director of Pragnell jewellers, the Stratford-upon-Avon-based business that is FP Journe’s sole UK dealer. ‘It’s a brand of passion – there’s a magic to it that is very delicate and unusual.’
Accordingly, waiting lists for new watches, as with Patek and Rolex, are suddenly stretching into multiple years. The hardest model to get hold of is in fact the cheapest, a tantalum-cased beauty known as the Chronomètre Bleu, priced at around £20,000.
Had you put yourself on a list a couple of years ago, you might now own one. But looking ahead… well, good luck. On the secondary market, the few examples available are currently sailing past the £50,000 mark.
Auction results are even more eyepopping. Last summer Phillips auctioneers brought to market two of the original ‘souscription’ models mentioned earlier – one each of the resonance watch and the tourbillon.
Unbelievably, the Chronomètre à Résonance went for just over a million Swiss francs (£790,000), while the Tourbillon Souverain hammered at no less than 1.4 million francs (£1.1 million).
Five years ago, it’s unlikely either would have made six figures, let alone seven. In the tranquil waters of the watch market, where little really changes other than the ever-inflating worth of Patek and Rolex, this is quite astonishing stuff.
So what changed? Certainly, relentless championing by prominent collectors on social media and elsewhere has widened awareness. But Silas Walton, founder of the specialist online sales platform A Collected Man, believes that it’s more a case of destiny and market forces falling into sweet alignment.
With watches from the two biggest names becoming ever more unobtainable, other major players – particularly conglomerate-owned brands beset with growth targets and management-by-spreadsheet – have singularly failed to step up. Journe now stands in the vanguard of a significant turn towards the independent sector, a trend that unites both serious collectors, deep-pocketed enthusiasts and speculators.
‘He’s occupying the ground surrendered by mainstream brands – out of boredom, people turn to something more esoteric and diverse,’ Walton says. ‘But equally there’s a very clear preference for quality, and that leads you to Journe. It was very clearly undervalued for so long.’
What’s remarkable is how fast this has changed. Last year FP Journe went from 5 per cent of A Collected Man’s business to 40 per cent. One auctioneer told me prices have risen as much as 200 per cent in a year.
It won’t continue at the same rate, but nor do the experts think it’s a bubble – Journe is simply too canny an operator to bow to the hype, and it isn’t really of his making.
And anyway, the watches simply are that good.
In 2018, eyebrows were nevertheless raised when he sold a 20 per cent stake in his business to Chanel. However, the luxury giant reportedly has no operational involvement, and according to a Journe spokesperson, the investment ‘was a security… to make sure that, the day he would not be there anymore, the work of his lifetime would not be jeopardised, through a company that understands what producing exceptional pieces within a limited production means’.
In other words, for a watchmaker so concerned with history, Journe’s attention has finally turned to posterity. It seems his position there is assured.