How Franck Muller transformed modern watchmaking

By Simon De Burton

6 minute read

In preparation for writing this I pulled-out a copy of a long-defunct magazine called International Wristwatch.

It dates from 1997 and on page 23 is a portrait photograph of a 39-year-old man with a sensible haircut, sitting at a desk, dressed in a carefully ironed shirt teamed with a polka-dot tie. The conservative look is completed by the presence of a gold watch on his right wrist.

It’s an image that could almost have been used to represent the generic Swiss businessman: reserved, studious, diligent and upstanding. Except it’s clear that almost every aspect of the pose is forced, from the hair to the clothes to the position of the thoughtfully clasped hands. Because this was a young-ish Franck Muller, a person often described as the ‘enfant terrible’ of the watch world – and someone who clearly wasn’t born to wear a tie.

There’s much talk today of brilliant independent makers – F.P. Journe, Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen and the like – all of whom undoubtedly produce remarkable watches that any enthusiast would love to own. But Muller preceded them all, bursting onto the scene with a decidedly avant-garde way of doing things at a time when the words ‘watches’ and ‘exciting’ seldom occupied the same sentence.

The early days of Franck Muller 

Tourbillon Jumping Hours 1986 Worldpremiere Courtesy Of Franckmuller
Top: Franck Muller. Above: Franck Muller Tourbillon jump-hour wristwatch, 1986; photography courtesy of Franck Muller

The early days of Franck Muller 

Muller first started buying broken timepieces from flea markets in 1970. He would take them home, strip them, fix them, put them back together and sell them on for a profit. He was 12.

As soon as he was old enough (15), Muller enrolled at Geneva’s prestigious Ecole d’Horlogerie, won all the prizes, graduated and then modified a Rolex with a perpetual calendar complication that he had designed himself. It was so impressive that the celebrated brand subsequently commissioned him to restore 80 pieces in its own museum.

Auction houses and private collectors came knocking with requests for him to revive ultra-rare pieces with arcane mechanisms that had baffled the minds of others. Muller became the man who could bring them back to life, hailed as one of the world’s top restorers. 

Alongside these endeavours, he found time to design and make a wristwatch featuring a jump-hour tourbillon regulator, which he unveiled at the 1986 Basel show. It caused a sensation, not least because not many people knew what a tourbillon was, and fewer still had seen one in a wristwatch. 

Aged just 28, it was this watch that brought Muller wider recognition and the financial backing to set up his own lakeside atelier in the quiet Geneva suburb of Genthod, in 1991. Here, Franck Muller, the man, swiftly became Franck Muller, the brand.

The rise of Franck Muller, the brand

3inside Fm Courtesy Of Franckmuller
Photography courtesy of Franck Muller

The rise of Franck Muller, the brand

Now able to give free rein to his imagination, Muller entered a phase of frantic creativity, setting the world of traditional watchmaking on an unstoppable collision course with his own take on horological pop-art.

The result was a raft of landmark models. Some took the ‘form’ case shapes of old, enlarged them and filled them with interesting, usually useful, complications. Others majored on the playful, with eye-poppingly colourful dials and wacky mechanisms. Within five years, the site was producing more than 5,000 watches annually.

It’s a hackneyed term, but many models could only be described as ‘instant classics’, both due to their finish and functionality as well as their elegant aesthetic. There was the brilliant Master Banker that displayed three time zones simultaneously, each individually adjusted by a single crown; the Double Faced Chronograph with split-seconds, hours and minutes on one dial and pulsimetric, tachymetric and telemetric scales on the reverse; the Cintree Curvex Magnum, with its curved case and dial and exquisite, hand-wound chronograph movement.

And then there was the mad stuff. The mind-boggling, multi-coloured Crazy Hours, with its jumbled numbers and an hour hand that flicked back and forth around the dial, knowing where to go because Muller had made a suitably crazy movement to drive it. 

He was also at the vanguard of the wrist-dragging behemoth watch, with models such as the 46mm Conquistador King, setting the bar ever higher for rivals in the field of haute horlogerie. 

Back in 1992, the self-styled ‘Master of Complications’ crammed 15 functions into a wristwatch, more than had ever been seen, and proceeded to create a new record virtually every year for the following decade.

Franck Muller's famous following

4franck Muller Elton John Tytp4w Alamy
Customised Franck Muller watch from Elton John's personal archive; photography by Alamy

Franck Muller's famous following

More by accident than design, the timing of Muller’s emergence onto the watch scene was impeccable. His new way of doing things, his pursuit of excellence and his high prices coincided perfectly with a seismic shift that thrust luxury watch ownership into the limelight. As the original celebrity watchmaker, Muller more or less had the stage to himself.

He was once described as ‘the Picasso of watches’ by early adopter Elton John, behind whom queued a firmament of famous patrons, ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham to Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Floyd Mayweather (to name but a very few).

The single atelier in sleepy Genthod expanded into what’s now called ‘Watchland’ – vast, modern, light-filled buildings set across a large, valuable estate. And then things changed. In 2003, there was speculation about a falling out between Muller and the brand’s CEO Vartan Sirmakes, followed by an announcement that Sirmakes would be taking the reins of the company.

While Franck Muller the brand survives and thrives without its namesake, his legacy is huge. Consider, for example, that when Muller set-up his atelier, Richard Mille was almost a decade from being founded, Roger Dubuis was still working for Patek Philippe and Hublot’s signature Big Bang wouldn’t materialise for another 14 years.

It was a wild ride, Franck – and you sure left your mark.

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