Julien Miribel, the head watchmaker for Montblanc, discusses a life in horology.When I was younger I had a choice: I either become a watchmaker or I become a watchmaker. Living in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, famous for its watchmaking and home to some of the world's best-known brands, you're pretty much born into the industry. My mum worked in watchmaking, as do almost all of my friends. When we go out on Fridays sometimes we have to stop ourselves spending the whole evening discussing problems we've had with various watches or components. If you don't work on the movement, you work on the case, or on the strap, or the dial. It's not uncommon to see everybody in my town walking around in white lab coats - it's the sign of the watchmaker.
I started in the industry when I was 15 and was first taught how to train my brain and my hand. I originally learnt to work on the regular watch movements you can find in most brands, which come from the Swatch group. In 2001 I moved to Minerva, one of the only manufacturers left in Villeret, and now oversee all the prototypes in the Institut Minerva. My job is to build the first watch, with the collaboration of the technical parts, with the designers and, of course, the boss. I made the prototypes of all the new chronograph watches and the Grand Tourbillon Heures Mystérieuses from the new collection.
It's much more difficult now to become a manufacturer and produce the whole watch yourself. Most brands simply buy a movement that is already finished and add their own case and dials. And they often try to produce as many as possible. When I was at school, I needed money for the holidays so I worked for different companies, and sometimes they would want me to produce 18 or 19 in one day. That's why it's very different working here at Minerva. And since Montblanc came on board in 2007, nothing about our tradition has changed. It bought the products and the philosophy. It's the same team, the same family.
We only produce 250 pieces per year. It's not because we only want to do 250 pieces, it's just that we simply haven't got the time to make any more. There are only 45 of us in the factory and everything is done by hand; it's a totally different type of production to most others. Ninety-five per cent of the watch components are made in the same building in Villeret, which is between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Basel. Even the balance wheel, the most difficult piece to construct, is put together there. Many brands just go to the Swatch group, buy it from them and build their watch around it. That's the reason why I'm proud to work for this company for so many years and why I don't think I'll ever find another place like this.
Often you'll work for one week, sometimes much longer, on just one watch and it almost pains you to see it go at the end. It's like your girlfriend. One of my colleagues was so proud of his job that whenever he finished each watch, he'd put it in a little steel box and give it the name of a woman, such as Isabella. The people who work here are like artists. There's so much passion involved. When people who have bought our watches come to visit the factory, we're so happy to see it because it's almost like a child returning home. Looking at the model, we can tell who exactly made the watch, and you can't find this in many other places. Even when you talk about the very high-end watchmaker, if they're making over 1,000 watches a year, there's no way you can give each the same level of attention. To produce that many you have to go into much more industrialisation and it takes away the personal touch of the watchmaker to the watch.
At Institut Minerva, it's really a pleasure for me to work with these kinds of movements. In other companies, where my friends work, they say it can be very boring, especially if you're making lots of movements in one day. Everybody just sits there listening to music. Sometimes it's like mass production; you just make one part and pass it on. It's very sad, and that's probably why they don't do tours. But if you want to produce watches in larger quantities at a different price level, it's the only way. I never listen to music when at work. I'm never bored.