At Le Ferme in Le Brassus, the real work is done by hand.
By Laurent Martinez
As a passionate watch collector, enthusiast and dealer, nothing could have pleased me more than to spend a day in horology heaven. It started back in July, when Anne Philip, customer care manager at Blancpain, invited me to visit the company’s facilities in Le Brassus and Le Sentier. These villages are located in the Vallée de Joux, renowned for being the heart of Swiss watchmaking.
My journey began when I left Nyon on the northern shores of Lake Geneva (known locally as Lac Léman) to head to Le Brassus, where I passed buildings emblazoned with names like “Patek Philippe” and “Audemars Piguet” dotting the landscape of the picturesque Swiss village. When I reached my destination, the Blancpain Grand Complication workshops affectionately known as “La Ferme,” the morning breeze was fresh and the sounds of the river and cowbells permeated the air.
But before I share my experience of the Blancpain Grand Complication factory visit, I would like to go over some important brand history, which is marked by a handful of major dates.
Blancpain was founded in 1735 by Jehan Jacques Blancpain in the village of Villeret in the Jura Bernois region of Switzerland. At 284 years old, Blancpain is the oldest watchmaking brand in the world. In 1926, Frédéric-Emile Blancpain partnered with British watchmaker John Harwood to market the world’s first automatic wristwatches.
With Jean-Jacques Fiechter at the helm of the company working with Captain Robert Maloubier of the French military’s combat diving corps, Blancpain introduced the Fifty Fathoms in 1953 as the world’s first modern diving watch—beating Rolex’s introduction of the Submariner by a few months.
In 1982, Jacques Piguet (of the Frédéric Piguet movement making company) and Jean-Claude Biver (one of the watch industry’s most prominent figures) bought Blancpain and the company set out to revive mechanical watches from the aftermath of the Quartz Crisis.
In 1992, Blancpain joined the Swatch Group, where it remains today. In 2010, Blancpain took over Frédéric Piguet outright, emphasizing the brand’s focus on manufacturing in-house movements, in addition to research and development into technical innovations.
Blancpain’s history is peppered with major milestones such as the first automatic women’s wristwatch, the first modern diving watch, the thinnest automatic chronograph, the first automatic split-seconds chronograph, the most complication series-production automatic wristwatch, the first perpetual calendar tourbillon with an eight-day power reserve, and the first wristwatch fitted with a traditional Chinese calendar.
Visiting La Ferme is similar to touring a private horology museum with plenty of impressive, historically significant timepieces on display. My visit began with a presentation of the brand, complete with a short movie dedicated to Blancpain’s history, followed by a tour of four major departments: Atelier Decoration, Atelier Assemblage, Atelier Métiers d’Art, and Atelier Vintage.
The Decoration workshop is where Blancpain movements are painstakingly decorated before the watchmaker can assemble the watch. Blancpain makes all the necessary tools in-house and some tools follow traditional methods such as using polishing sticks made from the local yellow gentian plant.
Decorating movements is detailed work. For example, to mirror polish or black polish a movement component, a Blancpain artisan places an abrasive paste called diamantine onto the surface and rubs it against a zinc block in a precise circular motion to achieve a shiny finish. This can take up to four hours of work before the finishing is deemed perfect.
Another famous watch movement decoration technique is called “Côtes de Genève,” characterized by perfectly proportional stripes on bridges and oscillating weights made using a small grinding wheel. To attain this level of Geneva stripes finishing calls for great dexterity and know-how. Other intricate decoration techniques that require an experienced hand to carefully manipulate machines and tools include anglage (chamfering) and stippling.
Atelier Assemblage is also home to the repetition minute, tourbillon, and carrousel workshops. A minute repeater is a complication in a mechanical watch that chimes the time on demand by activating a pusher or a slide piece. Minute repeaters chime three different sounds: the hours, the quarter-hours, and the minutes. Each watchmaker receives a watch kit of finished and decorated parts that can comprise anywhere from 350 to 500 pieces depending on the model reference. All subsequent steps like set-up, assembly, and regulation, are done by the same watchmaker at the same bench, which can take up to five weeks of work.
“White Assemblage” requires the watchmaker to first build the watch over about three weeks, after which the watchmaker has to disassemble it, clean all the parts again, and reassemble it. A lot of the parts are custom made to mimic landscapes or erotic scenes.
A tourbillon is extremely difficult to put together. It requires exceptionally advanced skills and training. A tourbillon watch has the escapement and balance wheel mounted in a rotating cage to negate the effects of gravity when the timepiece (thus the escapement) is stuck in a certain position. By continuously rotating the entire balance wheel/escapement assembly at a slow rate (typically about one rotation per minute), the tourbillon averages out positional errors.
Blancpain also makes even more complex tourbillon variations such as the Villeret 12-Day One-Minute Flying Tourbillon watch and the Villeret Tourbillon Volant Heure Sautante Minute Retrograde with jumping hours and retrograde minutes. Blancpain even produces Tourbillon Carrousel models, which is similar to the traditional tourbillon except that a carrousel continually rotates the balance wheel and escapement to counteract the influence of gravity and it was created to circumvent the tourbillon patent held by Abraham-Louis Breguet.
It’s simply astonishing to witness a watchmaker putting these beautiful and complex high-complication movements together and that experience further accentuates my admiration and appreciation for a watchmaker’s skill, talent, and passion.
Atelier Métiers d’Art
As impressed as I was at the work being done in the decoration and assembly workshops, I have to admit that what I saw in the Métiers d’Art department blew me away. “Métiers d’Art “ translates loosely to “artistic workmanship” in English and can include traditional crafts like enameling, guilloché, engraving, gem setting, and so on, for dial decorations. Only a handful of top watch brands are equipped to embellish their timepieces with this type of craftsmanship. And the work being done by Blancpain artisans is simply unbelievable.
For instance, watching Blancpain’s award-winning Master Engraver, Marie-Laure Tarbouriech, engrave a dial through a microscope is a sight to behold. Or listening to the enamellers speak with such passion about their art form is inspiring.
Enameling work is extraordinarily meticulous, precise, and unforgiving. The Blancpain Métiers d’Art department also works with select Japanese artisanal techniques like creating Rokusho patina on Shakudo (mix of copper and gold) surfaces or crafting dials using Binchōtan, a charcoal made from Ubamegashi oak in Japan. Each person that works at Atelier Métiers d’Art has to make his or her own tools to achieve the highest level of work.
The last department visit of my tour of La Ferme was the Vintage department. Given that Blancpain is the oldest brand in the watch industry, having a dedicated vintage division makes sense.
There are currently three watchmakers in Blancpain’s vintage workshop, all of whom have undergone intense training about Blancpain’s history and brand values since the ultimate goal of restoring a vintage Blancpain watch is to keep the piece as original as possible. Each vintage piece sent in by clients are thoroughly inspected, serviced, and tested by the watchmakers and every piece is sent back with a certificate of origin.
The visit culminated with a look at the fascinating Blancpain 1735 Grande Complication watch. First introduced in 1991, the Blancpain 1735 was the world’s most complicated timepiece for many years, bringing together a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, moon phase display, split-seconds chronograph, and minute repeater all in one slim wristwatch comprised of around 740 parts. Limited to just thirty pieces, each Blancpain 1735 Grande Complication required one watchmaker to assemble it over the course of a year. This is what Blancpain is about: a tradition of horology where dedication to the art of crafting a grand complication demands absolute perfection.
After meeting all these fantastic professionals working at Blancpain, seeing marvelous timepieces, and learning so much about different watchmaking techniques, it was time for a nice lunch in the mountains where I could reflect upon my visit.
I was thoroughly impressed by how Blancpain cares about their employees; not only by the work environment the company maintains but also by the creative freedom it gives to everyone working there.
If I would describe Blancpain in one word, it would be “excellence.” The brand strives for excellence in designing watches, manufacturing in-house movements and tools, and training specialists and artisans. The end result is clearly illustrated by Blancpain’s catalog of fine timepieces, which are powered by mechanical movements hand-assembled by a single watchmaker.
I want to personally thank each and every person I met at La Ferme and for having shared their knowledge, experience, and most importantly, their pride and love for creating amazing timepieces every day that will be remembered for centuries to come. Blancpain is a house that respects and promotes grand Swiss watchmaking. Machines support production but the real work is done by hand.