10 February 2022

A walk amongst the greats – factors behind Journe’s rise in fine watchmaking

by Mike Ortolano

In the fine watchmaking industry, things move slow. The world’s most prestigious brands are well-established, with some dating back centuries. So the idea of a new brand at the highest echelons of the industry seems … improbable? Yet here we are, as F.P Journe continues its ascent to the pinnacle of the fine watchmaking industry only 25 years after its inception. Where Abraham-Louis Breguet died in 1823, Francois-Paul Journe, the watchmaker behind the eponymous brand, continues to walk among us today.

What started as an ultra-talented watchmaker on the fringes of the industry has grown into a global brand. How did F.P. Journe gained so much prominence in such a short period of time? What were the largest contributing factors to the brand’s success? Today, we’re going to dive into F.P. Journe, the brand’s backstory, and what’s driving its increasingly mainstream success amongst watch collectors and enthusiasts over the last decade.

A brief background on F.P. Journe

Francois-Paul Journe’s connection to watchmaking was a family affair. The watchmaker’s uncle ran an antique restoration business in Marseilles, France. At the end of his teenage years, circa late 1970s, Journe began an internship at his uncle’s workshop and gained instant exposure to some of the horology’s most exquisite historical timepieces. Ultra-complicated clocks and pocket watches, tourbillons, movement architectures, finishing of all varieties provided a rich education for a young watchmaker and heavily influenced his own style of watchmaking for decades to come.

A young FP Journe at his Paris workshop, 1987 | F.P. Journe via Christie's

Fast forward to the late 1990s, Journe has spent the last 20 years dedicated to creating exceptional unique timepieces and fulfilling commissioned work projects – these included the whole gambit of clocks, pocket watches, and wristwatches. After more than a decade working behind the scenes in fine watchmaking, the watchmaker decides to create his own dial-signed timepieces and establish his own “independent” manufacturer, F.P. Journe. Launched in 1999 with the Tourbillon Souverain, the first ever tourbillon wristwatch with an integrated remontoire, things escalated quickly from there. In the following decade between 2000 and 2010, F.P. Journe experienced a fervor of creative excellence in watchmaking. From the Chronometre à Resonance in 2000, the first watch to use resonance to influence timekeeping precision and accuracy, to the Sonnerie Souveraine in 2006, it seemed as if every new F.P. Journe release was even more amazing than the last.

The first of FP Journe's Souscription Tourbillion watches | Phillips

What’s behind the rise of Journe?

It goes without saying that the ingenuity of the watchmaker’s creations is a massive factor in the success of F.P. Journe as a brand. The market, especially knowledgeable collectors and “purists,” know quality when they see it. But great products alone are never enough to determine success in business. After all, there are plenty of examples of extremely talented and innovative watchmakers who never found their footing, either lost to history or cherished by too few. So above and beyond the exquisite products, what factors helped F.P. Journe became one of the titans of fine watchmaking today? Here are some factors (non-exhaustive, naturally) which have acted as “tailwinds” and have aided in the rise of this legendary watchmaker.

The aesthetics meet the needs of a more mainstream market

Amongst independent watchmakers of Francois-Paul’s generation, there is a general tendency to lean toward more avant-garde designs. Independent brands and watchmakers such as MB&F, Urwerk, and Vianney Halter create watches that are more akin to time-telling robots than anything historical watchmakers would envision as a “watch.” For these brands, collectors are true superfans of the ultra-modern aesthetic, but these watches remain relatively niche and polarizing for most collectors. Love it or hate it, there’s often little in between.

Journe sits on an entirely different plane from the ultra-modern independents. Inspired by the classic clocks, pocket watches, and wristwatches in his uncle’s workshop, Journe’s signature aesthetic is much closer to the historical tradition of watchmaking. In other words, Journe’s aesthetic fits the expectations of a much wider audience of watch collectors and consumers. While the ultra-modern independents have grown in popularity (and I believe will continue to do so), Journe’s classical aesthetic plugged neatly into an already-existing demand for traditional timepieces. In the early days, he didn’t have to carve out as much of a raison d’etre as the ultra-modern indies had to.

Mainstream brands have not risen to meet demand

It will come as no surprise to many reading this article, many major mainstream brands are simply not keeping up with the demand for their products. Waitlists are indefinitely long for hot products, authorized dealer relationships determine who gets what, and bundle buying is increasingly standard business practice. While F.P. Journe has the same issues today – waitlists are also insanely long for desired timepieces – it wasn’t always this way. As a matter of fact, one of the major reasons why the brand (and other independents) have flourished is because they were fulfilling orders for customers without 5-7 year wait times. It wasn’t until maybe 2018-2019 when the market for independents began to pop.

Auction results have been huge

While a classic aesthetic and the ability to fulfill orders played roles in F.P. Journe’s rise, there is no greater factor than recent auction results. In the watch world, auctions are the ultimate gauge of a brand’s value (for better or worse). Brands like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet often perform very well at auction, and in turn, are considered luxury watch brands at the top of the industry’s hierarchy. Generally, independent brands never scored major auction results – there were many independent timepieces sold at reasonable prices for a decade. Things have changed though, and amongst independent brands, F.P. Journe has benefited the most from a slew of explosive auction results over the last few years. These massive hammer prices at auction include the Francis Ford Coppola Blue sold at Only Watch for CHF 4.5m, a platinum and pink gold case Chronomètre à Résonance Souscription for CHF 3.9m, and the Tourbillon Souverain à Remontoir d'Egalité Souscription that sold at CHF 3.5m.

Phillips' Geneva Watch Auction XVI, where the Souscription Chronomètre à Résonance and Tourbillon Souverain à Remontoir d'Egalité sold | WorldTempus US

There are many more auction results where hammer prices are 5-10 times above retail prices, north of US$500k, while we’ve even seen an original box from Journe’s first orders sell for CHF 100,000. So what does this have to do with the brand’s rise? Well, a lot.

The Souscription box that sold for CHF 100,000 | Phillips

These results drive a tidal wave of PR for the brand and elevate general awareness of the brand as a “winner.” Amongst collector circles, auction results create a level of buzz that celebrity endorsements or traditional marketing will never replicate. Money talks louder than words, for better or worse, and creates a virtuous cycle – these results register on the radar of the world’s biggest collectors and institutions, and they in turn are drawn to the table to bid on future auction lots. Ultimately, these results have laid the foundation for thinking about Journe as a brand that fetches hammer prices comparable to Patek Philippe and fellow legendary independent watchmaker Philippe Dufour. For those in the know, the auctions set the tone for everything.

Without doubt, these three factors played a large role behind the scenes in F.P. Journe’s ascent to the highest echelons of watchmaking. Of course, there are some notable omissions due to a lack of insider knowledge. Namely, what role did great retail partners play throughout the evolution and growth of the brand? My guess is, they played a significant role. There’s also some missing details on the level of individual markets. Japan, where F.P. Journe opened its first ever boutique, played a massive role in the success of the brand and continues to do so today. There are certainly market-specific reasons for their success there, ones that may differ from the three factors covered above.

Overall, observant readers will recognize that these three factors don’t appear to be changing in the near future. F.P. Journe’s momentum will likely carry well into the future, especially as more rare, early Journe timepieces surface at auctions in the coming 5-10 years. From the most exquisite complicated watches to the brand’s time-only Chronometre Bleu, it seems like there’s nothing the brand can do to upset its continued rise.

Deemed the “watch community’s favorite thinkboi” by Tony at Rescapement, Mike is a watch collector and writer behind The Open Caseback