Revolution remembers the life of visionary horologer Roger Dubuis, with excerpts of an interview between him and Revolution’s Editor-in-Chief, Jola Chudy
On October 14, one of the great visionary watchmakers of modern times passed away. Roger Dubuis was 79 when he died, and during his lifetime he exemplified a modest, passionate commitment to his craft as a watchmaker. He was not a man who deliberately sought out the limelight, but fame found him nonetheless thanks to the meteoric rise of the watch brand that made him a household name.
Softly spoken in interviews, he always talked reverently of the watch industry that was his life’s work and was especially eager, in his later years, to transmit this respect to the new generation of watchmakers, many of whom would have been attracted to the craft thanks to Dubuis’ own reinterpretation of traditional horology.
“I am keen to pass on the love of watchmaking craft,” he told Jola Chudy in 2016. “Anyone who practices this profession without love and passion will never be satisfied. I have always been keen on transmitting this passion for watchmaking, indeed since the beginning of Roger Dubuis, I have always hired young watchmakers.”
His death was announced to the public through the Instagram account, with a brief message stating: “His renowned expertise in Haute Horlogerie, his disruptive vision, his human values will remain close to our heart. We are all committed to keeping his unique spirit within our brand. Roger’s passing is a grievous loss for all of us and the entire watch community. Our sympathies are with his family and close relatives.”
Dubuis’ early career followed a respectable yet predictable path. A childhood fascination for the bell mechanism of his village church had led him to study watchmaking, and after graduating he worked, during the 1950s, for brands including Longines, where he worked in repairs and then at Patek Philippe where he developed and built new complications, building a formidable foundation of knowledge and practical skill. He eventually left and went on to establish a modest workshop specialising in antique clocks and vintage watches repair. During this time he worked on movement design for various manufactures and it was during this time that Dubuis began slowly working on his own complication, drawing on his extensive experience of historical watches to sketch out, design and reinterpret the traditions of watchmaking in a contemporary way.
He met his eventual business partner, the flamboyant entrepreneur Carlos Dias, in the early 1990s. Roger Dubuis as a brand was officially established in 1995 and swiftly became known for cutting-edge movement design that married tradition with innovation. Unencumbered by heritage, it was able to define its own aesthetic and technical style, taking established horology as its foundation but always seeking to break new ground. Dubuis’ considerable watch expertise (he was already in his 50s as this new life chapter unfurled) coupled with his partner’s showmanship proved to be a formidable match and the brand’s ascent was rapid – too rapid in many ways.
The first watches produced by the brand were called Hommage (a name Dias says was in tribute to Dubuis, while the watchmaker said it was in homage to the watchmakers of the past) and Sympathie (named, according to Dias, in honour of the friendships that surrounded him during a get-together where he sketched the design on a napkin).
“With these two models we started to be successful, especially in Asia. We always had this mix of technical achievement and aesthetics. We have always been at the avant-garde,” he recalled. “As soon we launched Roger Dubuis, we positioned the brand in haute horlogerie. We have never been anything else. The first reason behind this was the Poinçon de Geneve. Our in-house calibres have all been certified with the Poinçon de Genève and we are the only ones with 100 per cent of our watches certified by the Geneva Seal.”
Dubuis had always been adamant that from the outset, watches should seek to attain the Poinçon de Genève seal of quality, but problems plagued the early years of the brand, from issues with reliability, to after-sales. This was not the vision of the quiet watchmaker. “When you create a product you must do a good product, that’s why I insisted we follow the spirit of the Poincon de Genève with the priority on the quality of the mechanics. It has always been essential…” he told Jola Chudy.
In 2005, Roger Dubuis retired from the brand he had co-founded and in 2008 the company was acquired by Richemont Group, having fallen into debt thanks to expansion that collided with the 2008 economic crash.
“My contemporaries are passionate, very technically-driven, but we have our own vision of watchmaking … we need to move forward while keeping the love for our work and for watchmaking.” Mr Dubuis told me when we met at the end of 2016, perhaps an allusion to the disparity between his own vision of watchmaking and the showy, ultra-extrovert style that had evolved at the company. Under Richemont, the brand was restructured and Dubuis returned to it as a willing ‘natural ambassador’ in 2011, in order to share his wealth of experience and to share the DNA and roots of the brand he founded with the next generation of watchmakers working under its umbrella.
It was a particularly emotional time for him, to return to the firm that he had founded so many years previously, and he spoke warmly of this new chapter in his life.
“I am both happy and moved to be back at the heart of the firm I gave everything to, from my passion, to my name and to support the revival of this remarkable house,” he said at the time. Watchmaking for Roger Dubuis remained a lifelong passion far beyond any definition of commercial success. His name and legacy will remain a part of the contemporary landscape of the watch industry, which was never his aim. Ultimately, he was happiest when simply sharing his love of watchmaking and inspiring it in others, and remained a committed ambassador of the craft to which he dedicated his life. “Watches are not just a materialistic product. We deliver an emotion and I believe that this is true of watchmaking in general; we need to keep moving forwards while keeping the love for our work and for watchmaking.”