MEYRIN, Switzerland — A new horological adventure is slowly taking shape in La Fabrique du Temps, Louis Vuitton’s three-story watch factory on the outskirts of Geneva: the resurrection of the independent brand Daniel Roth.
On center stage for this move, initiated by Jean Arnault, the director of watches at Louis Vuitton, are Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini. The two watchmakers founded the workshop in 2007 and sold it to Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, in 2011.
“The challenge is to respect the creations of Daniel Roth, but not to stay still. We have to do something more to go forward; we have to write our story too,” Mr. Navas said in a joint interview at the site.
“With new skills we can now make a 100 percent new movement,” Mr. Barbasini added. “This is not to say that we are better than him, but we have more technical means, so now we can do more and better.”
Their first Daniel Roth watch, set for delivery in early 2024, will be the Souscription Tourbillon, an update of the first watch Daniel Roth released in 1989. It features a complex double ellipse case (like a square with rounded corners and rounded edges). The case houses a hand-guilloché clous-de-Paris, or hobnail-pattern, dial with a tourbillon (an addition to the escapement to increase accuracy) at six o’clock.
The 20 pieces in polished gold, each with a pretax price of 140,000 francs, or $155,000, sold out in a matter of weeks, according to Mr. Navas.
But who is Daniel Roth? Now 77, he worked for Breguet in the 1970s, creating the brand’s first tourbillon wristwatch. In 1988, he decided to start his own brand, becoming a rare independent, making Swiss watches under his own name.
For his first watch, released in 1989, he invented the double ellipse case. His first order was a 25-piece commission of the double-faced, hand-wound and hand-decorated tourbillon Ref. 2187/C187 for the London retailer William Asprey. Mr. Roth would go on to produce 10 different models under his own name, including chronographs, a perpetual calendar, a minute-repeater and an ultrathin time-only automatic.
In 1994, the brand was sold to the Singapore retailer The Hour Glass, which in turn sold it to Bulgari. Mr. Roth left the brand in 2000 to explore other collaborations. And in 2011, when LVMH bought Bulgari, the Daniel Roth brand joined the luxury giant’s portfolio.
In the Fabrique du Temps workshop recently, Mr. Navas and Mr. Barbasini cleared a watchmaking bench and, using pencil drawings and a white 3-D plastic model, showed a visitor how the design of the case has developed. In the background, 20 watchmakers sat silently hunched over movements and components. Beyond, a breathtaking view overlooked the misty Jura mountains.
Here, a select few watchmakers work with Mr. Navas and Mr. Barbasini on the Daniel Roth collection, which LVMH plans to expand to a few hundred timepieces per year. It will be thinner than Mr. Roth’s original (9.2 millimeters instead of 11) and the lugs, which secure the straps to the watch case, are curved rather than straight.
“Now it is more smooth on the wrist, more ergonomic,” Mr. Navas said.
“The Daniel Roth case is very difficult,” Mr. Barbasini said.
“You have to weld the lugs onto the case where you have three different circles, and it is very difficult not to see the weld. It is a nightmare!” he exclaimed, laughing and shaking his head.
A smiling Mr. Navas concurred: “It is an enormous difficulty, but we like this kind of challenge.”
In another design detail the seconds indicator is divided into three arched sections, one atop the other, and the seconds are read via three hands of different lengths; the hands are directly connected to the tourbillon itself, which makes a full revolution in one minute.
The technology inside the Souscription Tourbillon is new. Mr. Roth used round ébauches (base movements) that he adapted and meticulously decorated. But the new DR001 movement is made from scratch and follows the shape of the case.
“Today we have computers; we have CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machines. So, we are capable of the best accuracy, precision and finishing,” Mr. Navas said. To make the watch more precise, he said, they use a smaller and faster balance wheel than what Mr. Roth used.
“We try to be in the middle of accuracy and tradition,” Mr. Barbasini said. “Of course, it must be the most accurate, but it must also be nice to look at.”
Another technical component is the click — the spring-loaded, polished steel crossbar that makes a noise when you wind a watch. It is essential: Without it, the mainspring would explosively release all its energy at once. “When you wind the watch, you must hear it,” Mr. Navas said, adding that they use a click similar to that found in old pocket watches.
“When you have to wind the watch every two days, you have a connection between man and machine, and this click sound is part of the emotion and experience that we can give to the client,” he said.
Sound matters, but so does what you cannot see, Mr. Barbasini said: “We also decorate the invisible parts. Why? It is also important because it is not only about what you see. The quality must be 100 percent, so, it is in the spirit to finish all the parts. If you don’t, you cheat. And Michel and I don’t cheat.”
In its new life, Daniel Roth is presented as an independent brand. But can it be independent if it is part of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury group?
“Our approach is the same as Daniel Roth’s,” Mr. Navas said. “We work the same way we did when we were independent. Yes, we have the chance to have the group behind us, but I think it is good to not be too comfortable.”
Taina Tukiainen, a professor of innovation, sustainability and corporate entrepreneurship at Vaasa University in Finland, is an international expert on what is sometimes also referred to as intrapreneurship — when entrepreneurial behavior is encouraged within a company or a conglomerate.
“LVMH’s corporate strategy builds on a global portfolio of creative, talented, different brands that strengthens the capabilities of the company,” she wrote in an email. “Even though, according to the LVMH company structure and strategy, Daniel Roth is not a fully independent company, I believe the brand is truly independent for the target customers.”
But what of Mr. Roth?
He is still making watches under the label Jean Daniel Nicolas (a mash-up of his name, his wife’s and his son’s) in a small atelier in Vallée de Joux. On a recent phone call, he said he was “very happy, very proud and at peace” about LVMH reviving his original brand. “It was a great sadness for me to see this brand that bore my name left inactive and lifeless. To be noticed by this prestigious name is a great honor,” he added in a later email.
Mr. Roth has been to the factory several times to see the progress, and Mr. Navas and Mr. Barbasini have visited his workshop. “My role is only honorary,” Mr. Roth said, “and Navas and Barbasini are great watchmakers. I am very flattered to participate with them, and I consider them as true friends.”
Mr. Roth also expressed relief. “I was very anxious that the Daniel Roth brand would fall into the wrong hands and drag my name through the mud as it did. Now I feel like it’s heaven after hell. It’s a resurrection.”