The Trailblazer: In Conversation with Franck Muller
The self-proclaimed “master of complications” might no longer spend time on the workbench, but his vision continues as he gives us a glimpse into the world of Franck Muller
The meteoric rise of Franck Muller is legendary within the circles of horology. He was a star student at l’École d’Horlogerie de Genève and, upon graduation, was tasked to restore the watches at the Patek Philippe Museum—a job he did so well that a number of brands came knocking at his door with job opportunities.
Muller, however, had other lofty plans. He was inspired by the shape of Patek Philippe’s Gondolo case, and thus was born the Cintrée Curvex and the Franck Muller brand. The impact of this decision resonated throughout the industry—this was the early 1980s, when the Swiss watchmaking industry was still reeling from the effects of the quartz crisis. He came in like a whirlwind and proved that there was still a very healthy appetite for mechanical watches. Many credit the man for the revival of haute horlogerie, and it wouldn’t be an understatement.
For many years, Franck Muller (the brand) consistently outdid itself with mechanical marvels, from the super complex Aeternitas Mega 4 that boasted 36 complications, to the smallest tourbillon, the largest tourbillon… you get the drift. Asked about his favorite complication to date, he always says that it is the Crazy Hours. He introduced the fun (but complicated) concept, where the hour hand jumps to the next numeral randomly ordered around the dial, more than 10 years ago, and it would become an absolute game changer in an industry that is often construed as staid.
Following a public dispute with his partner and co-founder Vartan Sirmakes, Muller had left the brand for a while but is now back with a bang. Since then, we’ve seen a shift in the company ethos. What has emerged is a brand that has become larger than the watchmaker himself—from an esteemed horologer to a purveyor of luxury. Franck Muller has become both a respected brand in collector circles (a hard-to-please bunch) and simultaneously a must-have in the wardrobes of Birkin-toting fashionistas—a challenging line to straddle.
Today, Muller is thoroughly enjoying the fruits of his labor. Last year, the brand launched its first Franck Muller-branded yacht with the Italian Sea Group. “The yacht is a more lifestyle-friendly approach,” says Muller. “I have been yachting for many years now during the summer, and we have a lot of customers that like yachting. One of them suggested this project.”
In a similar vein, Franck Muller saw the opening of two fine-dining restaurants at its maison in Hong Kong, the result of its partnership with Sincere Fine Watches. There is no long-term plan to become a lifestyle brand, and Muller dismisses the claim. He simply states that the restaurants are a way to host friends and customers of the brand. After all, the best way to an Asian’s heart is through his stomach, right?
Nonetheless, Franck Muller remains bound to its watchmaking roots, and its latest launches are testament. Muller himself is still involved in the watchmaking process. “I give ideas for the design, and I find the solutions for the technology inside. I am involved, maybe not as much as I used to be in the past. Now I have a lot more to do in different aspects, like interviews, and travel to open new stores; I have to share my time. But as the company grows, I have more assistance from the engineers and watchmakers.”
Does he miss sitting on the watchmaking bench, then? “No,” comes his reply. “Life has changed a little bit. I enjoy other aspects of life; I like the fun part. We have very good watchmakers that I have trained for 25 years, and they have the capacity to do the assembling and other production processes.”
In fact, the Franck Muller manufacture at Watchland is a wholly integrated production facility, where the company designs and produces movements, assembles watches and makes the dials. And it’s set to grow even bigger, as the brand is building two new buildings spanning 16,000sqm within the gorgeous property, which overlooks Lake Geneva and, if you’re lucky to be there on a sunny day, you might spot Mont Blanc.
“We are still number one,” muses Muller. “Like in Formula One, you have to be on the podium in the first place. It’s important to be the first and to keep up the pace. We are not sleeping.”
That much is evident with the newest family to join the ranks of the Cintrée Curvex, Master Banker, Long Island and more: the Vanguard. Launched in 2014, the collection has become a veritable showcase of the depth and breadth of the brand. With the Gravity, it demonstrates its technical know-how with an astounding, oversized carousel with an aluminium cage—it marks the first time that the king of tourbillons has worked on a carousel. The Black Cobra is a design marvel, as the metal has been engraved to resemble the scales of a snake.
There’s also the Vanguard Yachting, a personal favorite of Muller that commemorates the brand’s partnership with the Italian Sea Group. “This summer, when I was on my yacht, I was wearing the Vanguard Yachting—the only one produced at that time—and a lot of people told me they like it and would want to buy it. The response has been very good.”
And then there are the timepieces for the ladies. Franck Muller women’s watches constitute 55 per cent of the sales of the business. The Vanguard Lady, dressed in pink and white, is a saccharine addition to the collection—and one that will surely appeal to the many female fans of the brand.
“It’s strange,” says Muller. “Franck Muller, the Master of Complications, sells more watches to women than to men. One reason is that we started doing women’s collections 25 years ago, and we have a lot of models. We now have a strong positioning in the women’s market.”
What’s his secret to success with women then? “I love women. I understand women. I defend women. I think like a woman,” he replies with a smile.
This article was originally published in Revolution Issue 37.