Interview: Roger Dubuis
To put your name on a company takes a certain type of person, one with unshakable conviction and confidence in their abilities - traits that Roger Dubuis has in spades. Having now taken a back seat from running his eponymous Swiss watch brand, the President for Life tells Esquire that he still has plenty to offer.
What is your role now in Roger Dubuis?
The first role is acting as a consultant in terms of development and special projects. So on special projects such as Millésime [the Hommage Millésime pocket watch, one-of-a-kind piece, based on the restoration of a vintage pocket watch movement], I will coach our watchmakers. The second one, which is most important, is to be the soul of the maison. Every year I travel around the world, meeting our special clients and the press, motivating them and giving them the spirit of the brand.
Although your timepieces are modern in aesthetic, at their heart they celebrate a traditional horology
You are definitely right. And Velvet is a very good example because the aesthetic is very modern. And in the art you have something traditional, and to horology, these pieces are one of the best that we have been doing for the past few years. And the way that we have been working on the different dials, for example, the Blossom, with all the enamel flowers, in terms of aesthetic, it is the most complicated to do. This was a real choice to create something different but inside keep the tradition with a normal mechanical movement.
Do you start with the design or the technical innovation?
When I was a watchmaker, everything was first coming from a technical design, and then I would put a case around it. That was what we did with Excalibur. But with Velvet it was the opposite. We started with the design then we implemented the movement inside.
Is that a response to market conditions?
When I started Roger Dubuis, and for a long period of time, it was driven by masculine design. But with the 20th anniversary last year, it seemed fair to dedicate one year to the female designs because most of our collectors now are women and we needed to have a female line. It wasn’t so much being influenced by some market or other but more about it being something that already exists. So it was a natural progression to arrive at this point.
Do you have a favourite material to work with?
Enamel, because it is an artform that disappeared 30 years ago. And when I started Roger Dubuis, it was something very important to re-establish enamel into our collections. And it’s incredible to see the evolution of this material, even up to this year with Blossom, where you have a use that is completely crazy, with sculpted, translucent flowers. It’s pure art.
Looking back, what part of the job did you enjoy the most?
For sure it was working on complications. It became somehow normal to work on miniature pieces and perpetual calendars. That was the best part of the job.
The one I loved the most, and which definitely scared everyone, is the perpetual calendar because it is very hard to master and very complicated. I worked a lot on that one. It’s all about feelings when you work on them. You have to get these feelings into your hands in order to regulate it properly. You have to be passionate and patient. It’s very hard to control time in general.
Your CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué told us once that 'Roger Dubuis is not here to please everyone'. Do you agree with that statement?
Roger Dubuis, the brand, cannot please everyone, but as a person, I wish everyone would love me!
Do you think that in general, your customer is more educated when it comes to timepieces?
When I started there was no education whatsoever and people would buy a watch without knowing what they were wearing. Especially in Asia 20 years ago. But now when you meet them they have an amazing level of knowledge and have been making efforts to educate themselves. So now when you are talking about movements and pure mechanics, whether you talking in Asia or the U.S., everyone has the same mind.
What are the biggest changes that you have seen since you started the company in 1995?
In terms of Roger Dubuis, the product has evolved, for sure. But the most important thing is the technology and the equipment that allows us to create amazing incredible mechanisms that weren’t possible 20 years ago.
“I dream that my work will continue in the future, but in the right way, with the right principles”
Technology: a good thing or necessary evil?
It’s definitely a natural evolution, because even if you take the old watchmakers as an example, they were using machines which at that time were modern in their own way. So what we are using now will be old one day. The good news is that we’ve never been able to create a machine to think for us in terms of creativity. As long as we have this then we are safe!
Does the modern aesthetic and technicality of Roger Dubuis appeal more to older or younger clients?
Both can find something interesting. To be very honest, the price positioning is very high so it’s not very easy for the younger market to access this.
Although you are introducing some stainless steel entry-level watches?
It’s going to modify the clientele but even still the prices are a little bit high if you think about it. The client will have to decide if they really want a Roger Dubuis watch.
What watch are you wearing today?
It’s the Tribute to Mr. Roger Dubuis. This is an Homage case, which was my first design and a Genevan-shape, which was very important when I first started the design.
Does it fill you with an enormous sense of pride when you see many of your watches carrying the Poinçon de Genève, the Geneva Seal?
I am very proud to see where we are now. The past is feeding the present and will have an impact on the future because you respect tradition and give it to the next generation.
What inspires you?
At my age it’s complicated to have inspiration still, because I am not creating as before, but I do have one wish. I dream that my profession and work will continue in the future, but in the right way, with the right principles. And that this philosophy of quality, respect, tradition, art will remain in the future.
Tell me about the first watch you made?
I was 15 when I started on that watch and finished it aged 19. It was the watch given to me when I started watchmaking school and we would learn by building and creating this watch. It would follow me throughout the full years of school.
Do you still have it?
Yes. It was on the booth [at Baselworld] two years ago. Now it’s with a watchmaker who is doing a restoration project. And it’s got the Geneva seal, the seal of the school and Roger Dubuis written on the case. It is a very good memory.
This interview was originally published in the Big Watch Book SS16. You can buy a copy here.