Laurent Ferrier: The Perfectionist Watch Brand (And The Le Mans Racer Behind It)

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Laurent Ferrier: The Perfectionist Watch Brand (And The Le Mans Racer Behind It)

Words by Mr Chris Hall

18 January 2021

Laurent Ferrier, Square Micro-Rotor. Photograph by Mr Cyril Biselx, courtesy of Laurent Ferrier

In the space of 13 years, Laurent Ferrier has built up a reputation as one of the world’s very best independent watchmakers. That’s an easy sentence to write, but what does it really mean?

Since the turn of the millennium, Switzerland – not to mention Germany, Japan, Britain and several others – has seen an explosion of new watchmaking brands; low-volume producers focused on making extremely high-quality watches, all with a significant dependence on traditional handcraft (although often merged with modern technology). Ranging from companies making a few thousand watches a year – see H Moser & Cie – to a mere few individual watches, such as Roger W Smith or Philippe Dufour, they represent a watchmaking renaissance that has provided collectors with an enormous variety of alternatives to the big luxury brands.

Typically, such brands position themselves somewhere on a spectrum from ultra-modern (Richard Mille, HYT, Urwerk) to ultra-traditional, and Laurent Ferrier is one of the most traditional, echoing an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of classic Patek Philippe in particular and mid-century watchmaking design traits in general.

That isn’t a great surprise when you learn that Mr Laurent Ferrier spent some 40 years working at Patek Philippe, ascending to the rank of technical and product director before he was convinced not to retire but instead start his own watch brand by lifelong friend Mr François Sérvanin, who remains involved in the business today. Here’s where the story deviates slightly from Swiss stereotypes, and we come to one of the reasons I personally love the brand. Messrs Ferrier and Sérvanin bonded not over watchmaking, but motorsport, and in their youth were talented amateur racing drivers – at a time when amateurs could go wheel to wheel with the world’s best.

Juggling his early years at Patek Philippe with weekends racing across Europe in single-seat racecars, the high point of Mr Ferrier’s racing career saw him, Mr Sérvanin and a third friend, Mr François Trisconi finish third at the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours in a Porsche 935T. That’s the 24 Hours of Le Mans; one step above Mr Ferrier’s team on the podium was a certain Mr Paul Newman.

To meet him today – and to scrutinise his watches – you would never know he had dabbled with this high-octane lifestyle. The decision was taken right at the launch of his brand not to be a “driving watch” brand. Instead, you see a reflection of the intense dedication, perfectionism and patience that (behind the glamour and adrenaline) made him such a talent behind the wheel. In other words, very classically-inspired watchmaking.

Over the past decade, Laurent Ferrier has found its groove and worked within it, only recently expanding its design to encompass a few different case styles. The majority of watches are cased in the Galet-shape case (galet is French for “pebble”), recognisable for its flowing, smooth surfaces. To that has been added the Galet Square and École ranges, but common to all shapes are some of the most beautifully finished movements you will ever see.

True to his Patek Philippe roots, Mr Ferrier prefers to hide tourbillons beneath the dial, and his other creations – which include minute repeaters, regulators and annual calendars – also hide behind deceptively minimalist dial designs. But flip them over and you’ll be met by the full gamut of finishing techniques, executed impeccably.

I once attempted to mirror-polish and bevel a bridge from Laurent Ferrier, under the watchful eye of the brand’s CEO, with the time-honoured methods of diamond-paste polishing paper, gentian wood and incredibly fine hand-eye coordination. Let’s just say my efforts fell somewhat short and it wasn’t the fault of the wood or the polishing paper… While it may not be saying much that I, a ham-fisted and impatient journalist, couldn’t attain in an afternoon what it takes the technicians responsible years to master, it brought home the point that these really are superb watches and I’m enormously proud to now have Laurent Ferrier on MR PORTER.

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