The man who rewrote history

It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of Jean-Marie Schaller. A natural raconteur, Schaller is passionate about the watch brand that he has revived, a passion that drove him to an almost obsessive quest to rewrite a little matter in history. For many years it was generally accepted that the inventor of the chronograph was Nicolas Rieussec, whose famous invention was used to time horseracing in Paris during the 1800s.

Schaller (left) and Moinet (right) united through time. In the centre is Moinet’s famous Murat clock.

When Schaller first launched the Louis Moinet brand in 2008, there wasn’t a cohesive archive of Moinet’s life or his works. He was simply remembered as a skilled watchmaker who had made pieces for the French court and various European royalty. Schaller began unearthing, acquiring and investigating. “I was curious, I had read historical texts mentioning a ‘Compteur de Tierces’ – since the word ‘chronograph’ did not exist – and I looked for this piece for many, many years. Schaller finally tracked down what he thought was the likeliest suspect, when a Louis Moinet piece was presented at Christie’s. He came to the auction and bid on the movement in May, 2012.
The piece had lain untouched in the collection of a royal family from Europe, he tells me discreetly. Even after his winning bid of just over 60,000 Swiss Francs, he was still unsure as to what exactly he had acquired, but following careful restoration by a team of experts it became apparent that the piece was the legendary first chronograph – and one that predated Rieussec’s piece, daring from 1816 compared to Rieussec’s 1820. Moinet himself referred to it as a ‘compteur de tierces’ and according to his notes, had started work on
it the year before.

ANCIENT CHRONOGRAPH1Louis Moinet’s ‘Compteur de Tierces’ is the first chronograph.

“It is my honour to carry on the name of the man who invented the chronograph,” says Schaller. “Moinet’s motto was ‘The essential thing is never to depart from what is true’ and as one of the greatest watchmaker’s ever, to revive his spirit
is my mission.”

Balancing the tastes of sophisticated contemporary watch collectors with a respect for the past is a delicate balancing act, but one that Schaller has embraced with relish, although it has not been without its challenges. “It’s difficult to find men and women with the kind of skills needed to work at this level. As an independent brand producing watches in small quantities, our level of quality has to be absolute. All our watches are unique or small limited editions; Moinet made his watches for French royalty, for the King of England, for the Tsar of Russia; we like to think our customers today are
experiencing the same kind of exclusivity.”

Louis Moinet Space Mystery (left) and Louis Moinet Vertalis with red stromatolite.

Louis Moinet is about a niche watch brand as you can hope to find. Producing around 500 watches a year, each mechanical watch is hand-made, sometimes unique, or one of just a small number produced. To wear one is to be in possession of something truly rare that perhaps only a handful of other people in the world may own. As the brand’s current custodian, Schaller is adamant that the number of watches produced annually will always be secondary to the utmost expressions of craftsmanship, watchmaking and savoir faire – these must never come at the expense of increasing production.

Born in Switzerland in 1959, Schaller worked previously at Perrelet and Lacoste before becoming CEO and founder of Ateliers Louis Moinet in 2003. So, how does a man whose career is squarely in the modern age align his vision with that of a man working several hundred years ago. The answer, he says, lies in delving deep into the traditions of haute horlogerie. “A Louis Moinet watch is distinguished by its visual style and fi nishing. Guilloché dial with a Cotes du Jura patterns, unique ‘Gouttes de rosée’ hands and our unique cases set Louis Moinet watches apart,” he says. What is also clear is that his passion for history goes a lot further back than Moinet’s own lifetime.

Fossils, rare meteorite fragments and even pieces of the moon are amongst some of the geological artefacts from the ancient past gracing Louis Moinet watches today.

I wonder what the brand’s namesake would think of that, I ask Schaller. “Moinet was one of the greatest watchmakers; he was interested in science and arts, and I think our pieces refl ect this. It’s important to respect the DNA of Louis Moinet without being ‘dusty’ about it. At the same time, we need to apply the latest mechanical evolutions in watchmaking to push the brand, to have a modern expression.” He is adamant that he will only ever produce watches that are worthy of such illustrious roots. Amongst the intrinsically headlinegrabbing watches created by Schaller is the Space Mystery, a timepiece whose every part has been lavished with intricate hand fi nishing. It boasts an outsize tourbillon is located at 12 o’ clock with its cage ‘suspended’ 1.8mm above the dial. This satellite tourbillon rotates on its own axis and orbit – echoing the notion of the rare meteorite that contains non-terrestrial amino acids, an ancient and faraway hint of life outside our own planet. “The origin of the carbonaceous CM chondrite meteorite is a mystery.  The presence of non-terrestrial amino acids could indicate that it originated outside our solar system over 4.5 billion years ago,” says Schaller with a smile.

“That was an exceptional creative catalyst for us – and represented a huge responsibility, too. It’s not every day that you get a chance to display the origins of life in the Universe. What we have here is something that goes beyond watchmaking alone. It’s a universal message. Here, the subject is life itself; our very own origins. Space Mystery is much more than a journey; it’s a quest for meaning: where did we come from? Space Mystery contains a tiny glimpse of an answer to a question that transcends humankind.” His obsession with the stars is expressed in several incredible watches. The Sideralis, structured around two extraordinary tourbillons with cages measuring 14.9mm, is the largest assembly of two tourbillons every made. “Aside from our exacting chronometric standards, this approach adds a fascinating visual dimension to the watch; a touch of magic,” adds Schaller.