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Independent Watchmaking – In Conversation with A One-Of-A-Kind Watchmaker, Vianney Halter

independent-watchmaking-–-in-conversation-with-a-one-of-a-kind-watchmaker,-vianney-halter

Stepping into Vianney Halter’s workshop in Sainte-Croix is an unforgettable experience. Inside, a wonderful mix of old watchmaking machines are humming alongside aeroplane parts, monumental clocks, books, drawings, engines and raw materials. It is exactly the workshop you have dreamed about, and yet everything is a surprise.

A Vianney Halter Classic, with a salmon dial, a watch that perfectly displays Vianney’s unique approach to design – image by A Collected Man

Xavier Markl, MONOCHROME – How did a Parisian kid end up crafting triple-axis tourbillons in Sainte-Croix? 

Vianney Halter – Indeed, it was unlikely. I was born in Paris in 1963. Sometimes doors open in life. As far as I remember, I have always been fascinated by everything mechanical. Once, someone asked my mother when ‘this’ all started, and she could not answer. It has always been there. And I was so serious about it that when I was about ten, I got a tower clock which put everything in motion. At school, I was a dunce; I was not interested in what I was being taught. At 14, I was living in the Paris suburbs in Mantes-la-Jolie, and I had to learn some form of manual labour. I went to watchmaking school and graduated at 17. That was really interesting to me, and I performed very well. I immediately got a job offer. For a year, I worked in Paris restoring clocks. Then I worked in a shop that dealt mostly with vintage clocks for over two years. Working on highly complex timepieces was a rewarding and educating experience. My talent for crafting complicated watches is no doubt indebted to that period.

One day I figured out there was no future for me in Paris. In 1989, I decided I had to leave the city. This was when François-Paul Journe invited me to work with him in Sainte-Croix. I liked the place, the environment, and most importantly, the job. This was a whole new world, but I could see no difficulties there.

So that was the beginning of your THA period?

At THA (Techniques Horlogères Appliquées), there was F.P. Journe, Denis Flageollet, Dominique Mouret, Pascal Courteault… This group was founded to create new, modern, different things. There, I worked like crazy on the Breguet Sympathique clock. This was super sophisticated with a wristwatch and a 15 -kilo clock fitted with a bi-metallic balance wheel and a gold cylindrical hairspring. I had to make a detent escapement… that was hard work. Once, I worked for 72 hours non-stop! But I was in an environment where I could focus 100% on watchmaking, not like in Paris. There I had an exciting life; going out to the Bains Douches, to the New Morning, to jazz clubs, to the Gibus… it was extraordinary. But the atmosphere changed. I had to escape from that. François-Paul drove me out to Sainte-Croix for a weekend, and I realized this was a completely different world.

The 1998 Vianney Halter Antiqua Perpetual Calendar – Image by Christie’s

But after three years, I had had enough with THA. The work was truly interesting, but I had had enough with the relationships. Thankfully, Dominique Mouret had introduced me to François Junod. François became my best friend. We worked together, and I ended up setting up a small workshop at his place. Between 1992 and 1993, I started to work for Frank Muller, who was producing highly complex watches. I was able to create these complex watches, mostly unique pieces. As I got more and more clients, for instance, Audemars Piguet, Mauboussin, Jaquet Droz and others, I created Janvier SA in 1994. I had a lot of work, but in 1996, the work slowed down because of a financial crisis in Asia. I had to postpone deliveries and realized I could not present any personal work. For contractual reasons, I could not show my developments and creations. That’s how I ended up creating the Antiqua that was born out of necessity. It was a way of displaying my ability to imagine and craft movements, cases, hands… This allowed me to get more work and more clients for my watches. It was mostly unique pieces, with no serial production… that was old-style traditional watchmaking.

Then came the Goldfeil project with the AHCI (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants), the Classic to offer something a bit more affordable and Max Busser with the Opus 3 (2003).

The Harry Winston Opus 3 made with Vianney Halter, with portholes displaying the hours (blue), minutes (black) with 5 second-countdown and date (red).

The Harry Winston Opus project was really interesting. The challenge was to create a watch for someone else that would reflect your own personality and creativity. This is why the Opus 3 ended up being so powerful. It is a hybrid.

I continued developing projects for prominent brands. I created the Cabestan watch that was originally a product developed to be sold under my name but that I ended up selling to a third party brand. I had a pretty large and skilled team. I felt I could pay tribute to the people who inspired me, specifically Antide Janvier, with the Janvier N°1 in 2007. That was a peak for me. I manufactured a few of these. In between all this, I kept on working on concepts like resonance and other creative projects.

Below, the Janvier N°1 Moon and Sun, an annual calendar watch with lunar calendar, moon phase, running equation of time:

Following the subprime financial crisis, I had to refocus on what was important to me. Since then, this focus has been my priority. We are five or six people in the workshop. That’s enough for me. I don’t want to manage people, manage a company, or travel several months a year to sell watches. I want to spend time at the workbench, follow my desire to create new things and promote my work. When I was managing 30 people, I had forgotten what my job was about. I was no longer working at the bench; all I ever wanted was to be a watchmaker.

How are you working today?

I do almost everything in-house, in the traditional way. I get a few parts engine-turned or machined outside. But prototypes are entirely made here. For instance, for the Deep Space Tourbillon Resonance, the 42 steel bridges of the tourbillon cages have all be entirely crafted here. The same goes for the cases. I manufacture cases myself. If I have a series of a few cases to make, I can eventually get these pre-machined by a supplier. But the finishing is done here. In the end, we produce very few watches: about ten watches per year.

The 2020 Deep Space Tourbillon Resonance. An evolution of the 2013 Deep Space triple-axis central tourbillon, it is regulated by twin balance wheels pinned to the same holder to enhance resonance.

You probably know most of your clients?

Indeed. For instance, this is the case for the Deep Space Tourbillon Resonance. There are few clients for such watches. They are connoisseurs. I have a few loyal clients. Even if they have not seen the watch physically, this is a piece that they want to own. This is lucky because travelling is so difficult these days.

For more information, please visit www.vianney-halter.com.

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