You get to talk to all sorts of fascinating people at SIHH, where the great and the good of the watch industry converge briefly for a bout of horological indulgence. I had the good fortune to sit down with Alexandre Peraldi, Baume & Mercier’s Design Director (yes, the one in the skirt), and quiz him on his work, his inspiration and whether or not Baume & Mercier will ever be a manufacture brand again. Relaxed, charming and repeatedly apologetic about his English (not entirely without reason), he was refreshingly candid about all sorts of things, not least how Baume & Mercier’s affordable luxury mantra affects his approach to design.
Robin Swithinbank: Perhaps we should start by talking about the Clifton, which is the centerpiece of your new collection again this year. Tell me why you based its design on a model from the 1950s.
Alexandre Peraldi: In the 1950s, Baume & Mercier had a very creative collection. As a design team, we aim to take 50 per cent of our inspiration from our past and 50 per cent from the world around us. Over the years, that has meant architecture, cars, fashion, sculpture, painting and so on. When it comes to looking at the past, we have over 1,000 pieces dating back to the mid-19th century in our historic collection at our headquarters in Les Brenets. We spend at least two days a year with the collection to get the taste of the brand, which is so difficult to explain using just words.
If you had to though, which words would you use to describe the ‘taste’ of the brand?
Elegance. Classic, but not too classic. And never extravagant. We’re comfortable with risk, and we want to be creative, but we never push it too far – we try to remain understated.
And how does that manifest itself in, say, this year’s Clifton Chronograph?
Again, when we designed the Clifton Chronograph we took a piece from the 1950s. We loved the dial of the original because it was easy to read and at the same time very modern. We thought it was a very intelligent design, particularly the case, which was beveled on both the top and underside, which made it look thinner. We took the basic aesthetic of this watch and tried to improve it, staying close to the piece from the past, but adding in a number of details that make it contemporary.
Like increasing the case size?
Well, yes, it’s bigger, but the main reason for that is the size of the movement. I actually think we’ll bring out smaller watches soon. As a brand, we’ve been designing watches with case sizes between 40mm and 43mm for more than 10 years. My feeling is that watch cases will become smaller again. I can see 39mm for men, 36mm even. Not all men have large wrists, and wearing some of these oversized watches is difficult – a lot of men would prefer a return to the smaller case sizes of yesterday.
What makes you so sure?
Last year, we produced a 39mm Clifton. We expected it to be a success in Asia, but not in Europe, but it was. And even then, some of the feedback we had was that it was too big.
The Clifton Flying Tourbillon is 45.5mm, though, which is huge for a classic watch – why is it so big?
We had to make it that big because the tourbillon is a big movement. I’ll admit, we were hesitant initially, because one of the key facets of designing a watch is that it’s comfortable on the wrist. But we did it, and I’m very happy with the result.
I’m interested to know why you chose to launch it first at Watches & Wonders in September last year. Why was this?
We hesitated over whether to launch it first at Watches & Wonders or SIHH. In the end, we decided on Watches & Wonders, because we need the piece in China – it’s a simple way to show the Chinese watch buyer that we’re a watchmaking brand.
I’m also interested to know how you think the Clifton Flying Tourbillon fits into the Baume & Mercier collection when it’s four times more expensive than anything else in the collection. What’s the thinking here?
To an extent, this watch is about communication – don’t forget it’s limited to 30 pieces, so it’s a completely different proposition to the Clifton Automatic. But it’s also a tribute to our past, to demonstrate our history and to show people that we’ve been making watches for a long, long time – we’re the seventh oldest brand in the business. For two or three years we’ve been trying to communicate that we’re an old brand, particularly in Asia because it’s a new market for us, and this watch will really help get that message across.
But it still contradicts your ‘affordable luxury’ mantra, doesn’t it?
No, because this is an ‘affordable’ tourbillon, which might seem strange, but it’s more accessible than most tourbillons made by other brands.
One of the effects of the story surrounding the watch is that it recalls a time when Baume & Mercier made its own movements – do you think the brand will ever regain its manufacture status?
It’s not planned. We are the affordable brand in the Richemont family, and even when we try and work with some of the other brands in that family, it pushes the cost of our watches much higher, which we don’t want, which is why we work with partners outside the group. So for now, no.
Changing tack, how influenced are your designs by the technical aspects of watchmaking?
It can be difficult for a designer and a technical guy to communicate – one wants one thing, and the other says it’s not possible, and vice versa. So you have to find compromise. Usually, that means you have to work on improving the aesthetic as far as you can, once the technical concerns have been taken into account. But it’s funny, because often that process makes the design better, and the price, too. The process works for us and I think it’s good to continue like that.
Is that why the Clifton Chronograph has a tri-compax dial layout, rather than bi-compax, like the original you were talking about just now?
Yes, the price was a big factor. We’d thought about that previously when we launched the Capeland with a bi-compax dial, which is more expensive. With the Clifton Chronograph, we wanted to keep the price down. Sometimes we have to make choices based on the price, and when it comes to movements, that’s almost always the case. The new Clifton Chronograph is a beautiful design – and the fact we managed to do it at such a low price makes it even more of an achievement.
One final thought – it wouldn’t be right not to ask you what’s coming next for Baume & Mercier.
We have a number of projects in the pipeline at the moment, one of which we’ll announce in June this year. I can’t tell you too much about it now, but what I can say is that it will be a new ladies’ model, which we’ve been working on for four years.
Sounds interesting – I hope it’s mechanical. Many thanks for your time.