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Review: The Pinnacle of Watchmaking – The Philippe Dufour Simplicity

by Frank Chuo on January 7, 2019

Philippe Dufour Simplicity

Within the Vallée de Joux, lies the village of Le Solliat. And in that village, a workshop, from whence the man known as “the living legend” handcrafts the finest wristwatches in the world. That man is none other than Philippe Dufour.

Dufour first became an independent watchmaker in 1978. He started off restoring antique watches, but in 1989, he began working on the Grande Sonnerie, a watch that eventually proved to be the launchpad for his meteoric rise to success. The Duality followed in 1996 – a simpler, chronometry-focused timepiece.

Philippe Dufour, photographed here in his atelier in Le Solliat back in January 2011.

In 2000, Dufour presented his simplest timepiece yet, aptly named ‘Simplicity’. It was also his most accessible timepiece in terms of pricing and volume. Not surprising, then, that demand was through the roof. The Simplicity is now discontinued and just over 200 pieces have been made. Of the total, 120 were sold to the Japanese market; the Japanese appreciated the fact that the watches could be traced back to their maker, a person with whom they can interact and meet.

We have previously touched on the Simplicity in various articles, but have never done a formal review of the watch. It’s already 2019, but as the saying goes: “better late than never”. Indeed, it is never too late to deliberate on what is still one of the finest timepieces ever made, and a crown jewel that many SIHH 2019 novelties will aspire to be.

The Case, Dial, and Hands

It is worth noting that there are multiple variations to the Simplicity. The one in review today, an early Simplicity (N: 07), has a rose gold case measuring 37 mm in diameter. This is in contrast to the very first Simplicity ever made: a functioning prototype in white gold, measuring just 34 mm across. While a case size of 34 mm would typically be for ladies’ timepieces today, it was in fact the classical size for men’s watches not too long ago. It was the dimension originally intended for the Simplicity, but high demand for a slightly larger case led Dufour to designing a 37 mm variant. Of course, Dufour being Dufour, it wasn’t just about placing the same movement in a larger case. The master watchmaker had to expand the movement so that it fits without a movement ring. The case is entirely polished for a classy look and fitted with elegant long lugs, as well as a rounded bezel.

Nothing out of the ordinary about the case. Crafted in pink gold with a classic 37 mm diameter, entirely polished, and fitted with long lugs.

The visage of the Simplicity is dignified and immaculate. Easily mistaken for enamel, the dial is in actuality treated with white lacquer. Lacquer, instead of the more coveted enamel, because it is more durable and adds negligible height to the case. The end result is a luscious, pristine dial that accentuates the black print on it. Dufour uses long Roman numerals for the hours, and Arabic numerals for the tens of seconds; the minute and seconds scales are railroad-style. Apart from his name printed beneath the 12th hour marker, and the expected ‘SWISS MADE’ inscription, there is also the name ‘METALEM’ under the sub-dial. Metalem, as it turns out, was the dial manufacturer (the dial was not in-house). Dufour lets Metalem print its name almost as an act of defiance against the systemic industry practice of obfuscating their suppliers.

Indicating the time are two flame-blued Breguet hands for the hours and minutes, and a leaf hand for the seconds, also flame-blued.

The sunken seconds sub-dial confers to the dial, as a whole, a three dimensional quality.

The case and dial design of the Simplicity is, well, simple enough, but every element is executed to perfection. The way the dial and hands shimmer in the light is otherworldly, and the way the black print conducts itself on the foreground is ethereal. With a case size that would please both traditionalists and modernists, it wears with fantastic proportion on the wrist. In short, the Simplicity is a paragon of dress watches.

The Movement

The excitement around the Simplicity ramps up to a climax as the case is turned over, revealing the movement in its full splendor. It goes without saying, but the movement of the Simplicity was designed by Dufour himself. Dufour taught himself AutoCAD to aid in the design process and to be able to prepare drawings for CNC operators to prepare parts. Dufour depended on an external CNC house to make components like movement plates and wheels. Even the grandmaster himself understands that there are some things that machines objectively do better than human hands. Nevertheless, the movement is entirely finished by Dufour and by hand. When it comes to high finishing, the skillful hands of an artisan remains superior to the cold touch of a machine.

The movement of the Simplicity as seen through the sapphire crystal case back.

The movement scores absolute top marks in design, aesthetics and finishing, becoming the Simplicity’s claim to fame. Of note is the interior angling; impossible to execute by machine, interior angling is one of the most difficult and time-consuming decorative technique there is. Rarely do interior (and exterior) angles come as sharp as found in the Simplicity. The above average width of the polished chamfered edges is pleasing to behold and offers amazing contrast to the Geneva striping on the surface.

Interior and exterior angles galore.

The stripes on the bridges and plates are akin to ‘billowing clouds’ or ‘rolling seas’. The circular graining is done in a way that results in voluptuous arcs that are also particularly uniform. And because the stripes do overlap each other a little (no harsh border), a softer aesthetic is achieved. Combine these qualities together and you get your ‘billowing clouds’ and ‘rolling seas’.

The quality of the Geneva waves on the surface is transcendent, with curvaceous arcs and soft borders between stripes.

18K gold plates are engraved with the series number (N:07 in this example), and with Dufour’s name, respectively. The plates are secured with flame-blued screws and together, they add a pop of colour to the otherwise grey expanse of plates and bridges.

The click is black polished. Even more spectacularly, the teeth of the ratchet wheel are beveled and polished.

Other elements that help place the Simplicity as one of the most awe-inspiring movements ever made include the mirror-polished steel cap for the escape wheel, hairspring stud cover, and click; the hand-bent Breguet overcoil; and the double assembly method to ensure that the final finish isn’t marred by the assembly and adjustment process, and is thus nothing short of spectacular.

The Competitive Landscape

As the Simplicity is already discontinued, one can only be obtained if and when it shows up in an auction. Due to the collectibility of the Simplicity, prices can potentially go upwards of USD200,000 – one example was indeed sold for quarter of a million dollars. An obscene sum, no doubt, but such is the desirability of the Simplicity. The last known retail price of the watch was CHF89,000, though earlier examples costed even less. While not as shocking as its auction valuation, it was still a lot of money for a time-only watch. Were the retail and auction prices justifiable though? Most would argue that they were, because of the amount of value added to the watch by Dufour as a watchmaker and as an artisan. It is difficult to find a timepiece of similar standing to the Simplicity in today’s industrial age. Nevertheless, these timepieces of exception do exist.

The Simplicity is one of the most collectible timepieces of our time.

One fine example comes from the Far East, in the form of the Seiko Credor Eichi II, which retails at ¥4,300,000 or around SGD54,670. The watch comes with an in-house porcelain dial that is hand-painted by artisans at Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio; it is said that the process is so technical that only one dial can be completed each day.

Only up close, can irregularities be seen on the hand-painted indices – a tell tale sign of the involvement of artisanal hands.

The Calibre 7R14 that powers the watch also boasts superlative finishing that was inspired by Dufour himself. The polished chamfers on the edges of the plates delightfully wide, even more so than the Simplicity. The gap between plates is also uniform throughout. Instead of striping, Seiko has opted for straight graining to finish the top surface of the plates. While not quite as appealing as Geneva waves, it does allow other elements of the movement, such as the blued screws and jewels, to shine. Interesting to note, that there are no interior angles to be found on the Calibre 7R14, although there are plenty of exterior angles.

The Calibre 7R14 as seen through the sapphire crystal case back.

The next contender is perhaps the only watch able to truly stand shoulder to shoulder with the Simplicity in terms of finissage and decoration: the Akrivia Chronomètre Contemporain. Priced at CHF58,000 for the platinum version, and CHF55,000 for the red gold version, the Chronomètre Contemporain would appear to be a fantastic alternative to the Simplicity. While the Simplicity has a lacquered dial, and the Credor Eichi II, a porcelain dial, the Chronomètre Contemporain is equipped with a grand feu enamel dial. The dial is signed with Rexhepi’s name and is the first watch in Akrivia’s new Rexhep Rexhepi collection.

Clients can request that their watch be certified by the Besançon Observatory, at an additional cost. The watch will be delivered with the “Bulletin de marche de chronométrie” after thorough testing of the completed watch for 16 consecutive days.

To understand the adulation directed at the Chronomètre Contemporain is to peer through its case back: the Calibre RR-01. The movement has a remarkable 100 hours of power reserve just off of one barrel and also has a zero-reset function. Balance is name of the game for the Calibre RR-01, because it is designed to be blatantly symmetrical, which is by no means an easy feat to achieve technically. The movement is also designed to be quite open, giving an unprecedented view of the wheels and the perlage underneath. Rexhepi does not skimp out with rounded angles; at every opportunity, there is either an exterior or interior angle, some of which are painfully sharp. There’s also the centre wheel bridge, which is gorgeously rounded and polished, and definitely not something commonly seen.

The Calibre RR-01 as seen through the sapphire crystal case back

Final Thoughts

Philippe Dufour is one of horology’s living greats, and through the Simplicity, it is easy to see why. The watch remains the purest and highest expression of Swiss watchmaking there is in this day and age.

A priceless wrist shot with the maker himself. On the wrist of Philippe Dufour is the white gold, 34 mm variant of the Simplicity with guilloche dial.
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