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Wednesday, January 04, 2006 

Girard-Perregaux

Girard-Perregaux watchesEngineering and architecture define the style of Girard-Perregaux, a highly respected yet relatively low-profile manufacturer in the upper echelons of watchmaking known as Haute Horlogerie This venerable company, with associations dating to the famous Geneva horologist Jean François Bautte in the late 18th century, has had its ups and downs since watchmaker Constant Girard married watchmaking heiress Marie Perregaux and established a factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1856.

The company’s most remarkable product was first launched in 1867 and remains an integral player in Girard-Perregaux’s creations. The Tourbillon with three gold Bridges is a stunning rendition of supreme watchmaking technique that exemplifies horology’s highest ideals. Girard-Perregaux survived the quartz shock, largely because it had a reputation for realizing far-sighted ideas, like producing 2,000 wristwatches for the Kaiser’s navy in 1880, and creating the first balance to chop the second into tenths. In 1969 it out-paced Switzerland’s Beta project in the race to develop the first popular quartz movement by establishing the now standard frequency for quartz oscillators—32.768Hz. Despite the esteem with which it had been regarded, Girard-Perregaux was at low ebb when it was acquired in 1992 by a minority shareholder, Italian architect Dr. Luigi “Gino” Macaluso. Almost immediately, Macaluso embarked upon a huge and costly luxury—the design, construction, production engineering, and series manufacture of the brand’s own automatic watch movements. To the rest of the watch industry, it made about as much economic sense as an airline building its own planes. But to Macaluso, Girard-Perregaux could only be credible as a complete manufacturer. His gamble has paid off. Girard-Perregaux was a $12-million company when Macaluso acquired the brand; today annual sales exceed $100 million on a production of some 20,000 watches. The majority of the brand’s production line is equipped with the company’s own movements.

Girard-Perregaux’s 3000 series automatic caliber is in its second generation (serving a range of models from simple watches to split-seconds chronographs) and now the brand is producing the 1900 series—a new, bigger caliber. Only a handful of watch brands can claim the status of “Manufacture” and Girard-Perregaux is the smallest and most recherché of this horological elite. Macaluso’s office is a shrine to the obsessions that have driven the company for the past decade—Ferrari engines and the architecture of Le Corbusier (1887-1965), La Chaux-de-Fonds’s most celebrated son. Perfect half-scale models of Ferrari’s celebrated V-12s, including the legendary 250 3-liter, line the walls. His office is in the eaves of the company’s 1948 factory building, sharing the privileged domain of the “gods.” This is where Girard-Perregaux’s elite watchmakers are housed, each of whom will spend the best part of a year building and adjusting a single three-bridge tourbillon comprising horology’s most fascinating complications. Despite its small size, Girard-Perregaux strives to make the widest variety of models available to enthusiasts. A watch is a very personal object and the brand does not wish to impose a single design identity, even with the company’s best selling model. The Vintage 1945 rectangular watch, based on a 1940s style, meets the current vogue for a period look. Likewise inspired by a former model—a 1970s dress watch—the Classique Elégance collection meets the needs of business travel with time-zone indicators, alarms and chronographs.

Among the most spectacular Girard-Perregaux watches are the models dedicated to the Scuderia Ferrari, especially the three-button split-seconds chronograph foudroyante. A red hand (driven by an additional escapement) flies around a one-second dial and stops on the nearest eighth of a second. In styling his watches, Macaluso seeks to achieve the restrained and studied elegance of Le Corbusier’s machine aesthetic. “You don’t wear a Girard-Perregaux to show off,” he says. “It’s more a state of mind than a status symbol.” Macaluso has restored one of La Chaux-de-Fonds’s finest buildings—the 1918 Villa Marguerite—into a Girard-Perregaux museum to showcase two centuries of original watchmaking.

Today, Girard-Perregaux is secure in its position as a cultural symbol of a town that produces the world’s most precise electronic and micro-mechanical components for watches, aerospace and medical instruments.

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