A L’Emeraude …pays a visit to Romain Gauthier
A l’Emeraude is one of only three retailers in Europe to represent Romain Gauthier, who welcomed us to his manufacture in the Joux Valley.
The Lausanne flagship store has been entrusted with hosting mono-brand spaces by Patek Philippe and Rolex, alongside the other major brands displayed in the windows. But it has no intention of resting on its laurels. For managing director Derek Cremers, helping its clients to discover the exceptional savoir-faire of the smaller watchmaking artisans who are an integral part of the magic of haute horlogerie is part and parcel of A l’Emeraude’s mission. He regularly invites selected clients to visit the workshops and discover the soul of these niche brands, which might produce only a few dozen or a couple of hundred watches per year. The creators behind these often eponymous brands are only too happy to oblige, since they often don’t have the resources to give their extraordinary talents the promotion they deserve. They have built up a privileged relationship with A l’Emeraude, one of the very few European retailers authorised to sell watches by de Bethune, F.P. Journe, Voutilainen and Romain Gauthier. The boutique’s location in the heart of the Olympic city places it less than one hour’s drive from these authentic but discreet addresses. One fine day in May, your correspondent relaxed in the passenger seat and allowed himself be driven through the beautiful winding roads lined with rocks and pine trees, leading up to Le Sentier.
Good friends Romain Gauthier and Derek Cremers (A L’Emeraude) meet up every month. © WorldTempus / Brice Lechevalier
History begins quietly
Not everyone has the privilege of penetrating the inner sanctum of an artisan. Clients who are interested in this kind of experience will often have already visited the big brand manufactures; many of them already have a fine collection of luxury watches, and are looking to discover a new dimension of haute horlogerie. Artisans have no secrets; their approach is direct and human. They are driven by their passion, often as much as by the pursuit of perfection. They are also very open to creating unique pieces according to their clients’ wishes. Very often, having been drawn into the fascinating universe of one artisan, clients will be keen to repeat the experience, and further explore this beguiling secret world. The desire to teach and to share knowledge that are the hallmarks of an exceptional watchmaker are also fundamental values that infuse the work of A L’Emeraude.
Romain Gauthier's manufacture © Romain Gauthier
Behind the wheel, Derek Cremers is keen to talk about the visit that awaits his VIP clients. Romain Gauthier’s watchmaking career did not begin in the typical way. He was born in the Joux Valley and completed his schooling there, before leaving to study for an MBA. He trained as an engineer, not a watchmaker, and in 2005 he created the company that bears his name. Its mission was twofold: to produce haute horlogerie components of the highest possible quality for a handful of brands, with the aid of high-performance industrial equipment, and to design his own watches in very small production runs, alone. For this latter aim, he benefited from the advice of his friend Philippe Dufour, considered a living legend of watchmaking in the collectors’ community. Romain Gauthier’s vision and the relevance of his work opened doors for him: Chanel became a shareholder of his company in 2011, enabling him to open his manufacture in 2014, while giving him full operational autonomy. In 2013 the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève recognised his Logical One. Today, Romain Gauthier employs 27 people in his 800 m2 manufacturing facility. They produce 65 watches a year based on three (and a half) calibres, which are sold through 13 retailers around the world. A l’Emeraude is one of the most important of these.
Logical One, white gold, white enamel dial. Romain Gauthier made his name with the Logical One, which won an award at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Out of respect for collectors, he is prepared to bring an end to series production, but he will continue to produce special pieces. The Logical Two is due to be released in 2022. © Romain Gauthier
A manufacture where precision is measured to the micron
Romain Gauthier provides a comprehensive running commentary on each stage of the visit, taking the time to explain in detail every aspect of his choice of manufacturing tools. In this 500 m2 area, watch brands rely on him for precision, reliability, advice, and even his vision of how certain components should be designed or produced. “Watchmaking and production are two different worlds, but you can’t have one without the other. Manual work has its limits, and the way things are made has changed. Only the watchmaker’s bench has remained virtually the same, but even back in the day, watchmakers would use small lathes and hand-cranked machines. These days, we use the capabilities of machines to carry out operations that are extremely complex, very delicate, repetitive or with a high added value. Micro-components such as pallet stems and guide tubes are practically invisible to the naked eye – they are measured in 10ths of a millimetre. We make hundreds of thousands of them each year. Mastery of micromechanics gives watchmaking a meaning. Rolex is a case in point. Where technical procedures are controlled in an ultra-professional manner, it makes the products extremely reliable and robust,” notes Romain Gauthier, surrounded by his machines, which represent an investment of several million francs. He points out that the cost of the machines can vary as much as tenfold for performing the same task, although not to the same standard.
Component production © Romain Gauthier
But while he needs no convincing as to the relevance of ultra-modern high-performance industrial tools, he is also a firm believer in using human skills to guide his machines. “Where tolerances are measured in plus or minus two microns, for instance in the extreme functional areas of burnishing and profile-turning, experience with the machine and the tools is paramount. You have to have the skill to use them.” The technicians who delivered the machines could hardly believe that Romain Gauthier had no intention of using their standard operating software. His team would be writing their own code. “We have developed this savoir-faire, and brands now approach us, asking us to write custom code for their components, according to their own design and functionalities. It’s a long way from watchmaking, but because of it, watchmaking can be improved. This is especially the case when it comes to machining aeronautical grade titanium or aluminium (e.g. for components of fusée-and-chain or particular balance wheels), or delicate parts that require careful handling of the tension of the materials: the thinner they are, the more tension is released.” Extreme precision and rigour also demand that work on certain materials is executed in a stable environment with a constant temperature (+/- 1°C). “Otherwise, the microns leak away! Here, there’s no such thing as ‘close enough’.”
When a hole in a baseplate measures 4 microns, the machine has to be even more precise, regulated to the half-micron. The operator adjusts it with a finger, eye glued to the microscope, with extraordinary sensitivity, great experience, and probably a rare kind of intuition. Often, standard tooling is inadequate. Some instruments are sourced from the medical field. But Romain Gauthier’s technicians also design their own tools. Here, the symbiosis between man and machine is a religion.
Bridge of the Logical One © Romain Gauthier
100 hours of chamfering for a single watch?
Sometimes, a watch requires over 100 hours of chamfering, and that’s not at all unusual for Romain Gauthier. We’ve moved up to the floor above, where the administration and the part of the manufacture dedicated to his own watches is spread over 300 m2. Here, two watchmakers and four chamferers turn out a few dozen pieces each year. The polishing and chamfering is not done with a grinding wheel, although that would be quicker, but with a file, which relies on highly competent people. “As things stand, no machine can handle this kind of complex chamfering,” explains the boss. “Our chamferers can spend 30 hours on a bridge with a particularly complex design, and each watch takes on average a hundred hours, just for the chamfering. There’s no one else who goes to these kinds of lengths to decorate a watch. Each stage requires several kinds of files and buffs of different grades, and gentian wood for polishing.” In the end, each bridge is unique, and every chamferer has their own style. A collector who compares his own Logical One with another will be able to admire a different finish, when examined under a loupe. “This work is really hard. So much so that the Japanese magazine Chronos devoted 16 pages of manga to our angling techniques, and our workshop manager has been asked to conduct a week-long masterclass in Taiwan.” Romain Gauthier’s philosophy is based partly on the value chain, which is where the generous chamfering acquires its full meaning. Polished angles and snailing, glinting in the light, can also be found in ‘simple’ watches like the HMS. “Just because it’s a three-handed model, that doesn’t mean we should skimp on the finish. A watch is a small object to begin with, so let’s pay attention to the details!”
© Romain Gauthier
Grand feu enamelling now part of the family
Romain Gauthier is demanding at all stages of production. For his Logical One watches, he would work with only the very best enamellers. But the particular enameller whose technique suits him best can only create two dials for him each month. “Because of how things were, we had no choice. My wife has been painting on porcelain for 17 years. An enameller who is very well known in our industry agreed to train her in grand feu enamelling, while encouraging us in our technical approach to the craft. My perception of enamelling today is different from that of the last century. Here too I invested in equipment, including a roll mill to crush, analyse and filter the different components. It’s a first for this craft. The fragments are integral to the artistic dimension, and this type of investment is not at all common. We have also added several control stages, which is how we like to do things. Our vision is always based on quality, and the evolution of tradition. My ambition is to create enamel dials that are like lacquer, using a special technique. We bring a different creative approach.”
When he needs to focus on a design, Romain Gauthier works from his home office, where he is not constantly interrupted by other production concerns. That is where he designed the new calibre for a complicated piece to be launched in 2020, which will reflect all the talents of the manufacture. © Romain Gauthier
The A L'Emeraude watch and jewelry store has been on Place St. François in the centre of Lausanne since 1909 and is currently managed by the third generation of independent family owners, the...Find out more >
Romain Gauthier is a firm that has been built with care and patience. Using his knowhow learned over some 20 years in his native Joux Valley, and with his manufacture named after him, Romain...Find out more >