If you type “unicorn wine” into your friendly neighbourhood search engine, you might be surprised to learn that the top results are not bottles decorated by a mythical horned creature but in fact wines of such incredible scarcity and renown that they are elevated to mythical status. Of course, wine being a slowly expiring asset, as each bottle is uncorked the rarity and price increases – as indeed does the myth surrounding the wine.

Why am I talking about wine and unicorns? Well, as news broke that four Philippe Dufour masterpieces would be coming up for auction in November, it struck me that perhaps this moment was worthy of its own place in mythology.

Presented by Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo at Geneva Watch Auction XIV, this marks the first time in auction history that all four Dufour watch models will be offered by one auction house during a single season, let alone a single sale.

If you’re not an avid follower of haute horlogerie or independent watchmakers, you’re forgiven if this news alone doesn’t make you weak at the knees. But, seriously, this is a big deal. This isn’t yet another uniquely marked Rolex or a vintage Patek Philippe ready to bait the mega collectors into parting with millions (not that these watches aren’t exhilarating in their own way), these four watches come from the hands of perhaps the greatest living watchmaker – the “horological equivalent of Michelangelo,” as Phillips explain.

This marks the first time in auction history that all four Dufour watch models will be offered by one auction house at the same sale

In fact, here’s the full statement from Aurel Bacs, senior consultant at Bacs & Russo, and Alexandre Ghotbi, Phillips’ head of watches for Continental Europe and Middle East. As you’ll quickly realise, they’re… rather excited about the upcoming auction: “To us and a huge community around the world, Philippe Dufour is the horological equivalent of Michelangelo, the importance of his work cannot be overstated.

“This “set” of four Philippe Dufour timepieces has been an epiphanous moment for us. Offering his four creations - the Grande & Petite Sonnerie pocket watch, Grande & Petite Sonnerie wristwatch, Duality and Simplicity - is truly humbling and mind boggling.

“Dufour is a living icon and his creations are as coveted as oeuvres by the greatest artists of our time. How awe-striking that we are offering the very first Grande & Petite Sonnerie wristwatch ever made! We are honored to have been entrusted with this collection from an owner who had the vision and passion to patiently assemble a collection like no other. Dufour’s lifetime output is smaller than paintings by masters such as Modigliani and Mannet and for any Dufour connoisseur, this collection represents the Grand Slam of Dufour collecting.”

Good marketing or two watch nerds geeking out hard on the grand fromage of the horological world? I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter, not least because it was recently announced Dufour would be taking an indefinite break from personally creating his watches, instead leaving it to his undoubtedly highly capable team to carry on his life’s work.

The Watchmaker

In a way, Dufour the man rather purports his own myth: a 73-year-old pipe-smoking figure working in a small workshop in the Swiss mountains, and lovingly crafting his creations by hand. Basically, Santa Claus without the elves.

But Dufour is more than that. He is the keeper of the keys to the lost art of traditional watchmaking. Heavily inspired by the golden age of watchmaking in the Vallée de Joux, from 1850 to 1920, Dufour’s creations challenge us to remember our history in an era where the watch world continues to drive forward in search of innovation and change.

The son and grandson of watchmakers, young Philippe Dufour worked for manufacturers like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet, as well as restoring antique and vintage timepieces for auction houses, before he became an independent watchmaker in the late 1970s.

Dufour is the keeper of the keys to the lost art of traditional watchmaking

By then the Quartz crisis and sports watch trends had exponentially changed the face of the horological world. While Dufour didn’t set out to buck the trend per se, his work restoring watches of antiquity led him to believe there was a place in the market for watches that breathed fresh life into traditional watch practices. It was a hunch that would ultimately prove correct.

In its superb profile on Philippe Dufour, and highly recommended further reading on the subject, A Collected Man neatly sums up the allure behind the master watchmaker’s work: “Upon first handling one of his watches, a collector might be forgiven for being a little confused as to the aura that surrounds them. They are, in almost every respect, understated and short of eye-catching details. However, that is their very point. The few watches created by Dufour do not seek to distinguish themselves through innovation, but rather by providing an exceptionally classic aesthetic, combined with what can only be described as the finest movement finishing found in any contemporary watch.”

In the span of more than 30 years since he created his eponymous brand, Dufour has created just four models under his name. You want to know why the Phillips auction is special? This might be the one and only time each of them will go under the hammer at once.

The Watches

Philippe Dufour Grande & Petite Sonnerie Pocket Watch number 1 (Unique Piece)
Philippe Dufour Grande & Petite Sonnerie Pocket Watch number 1 (Unique Piece)

Dufour’s journey to watchmaking folklore was not without its hurdles. The first and most difficult, one could argue, was making a name for himself in the first place. To spread the word, in the early 1980s he reached out to one-time employer Audemars Piguet about a commission for a Grande Sonnerie pocket watch he had been working on. The brand agreed to order five movements.

A Grande Sonnerie is a timepiece that automatically chimes the hours on every hour and hours and quarters on every quarter, and when on petite sonnerie mode the watch will only chime the passing of the quarters. So difficult is the complication to create by hand, it took Dufour 2,000 hours to complete each movement; an arduous task for his first official commission.

On completion of the commission, Dufour was irked by the fact that the brand never acknowledged his work, which was made only worse when he was soon after asked to make significant repairs to two of the five pocket watches.

The story goes that someone transporting the watches made the baffling decision to remove one of the timepieces from the safety of its travel case and placed the watch in his jacket pocket. When he got out of the car, the gentleman managed to get his jacket stuck in the door and smashed the watch to pieces in the process.

Dufour was incensed and vowed never again to work for anyone other than himself. The result was his own Grand & Petite Sonnerie pocket watch in the late 1980s. The present example is number 1 and the only Dufour Grande & Petite pocket watch made that bears his name on the dial.

Grande & Petite Sonnerie Wristwatch number 1 in yellow gold

Estimate CHF 1million-2 million / US$1,090,000-2,180,000

Philippe Dufour Grande & Petite Sonnerie Wristwatch number 1 in yellow gold

Without the clout of a major brand, Dufour needed to find a new way to grow his reputation among the watchmaking elite. He realised that the Grand Sonnerie minute-repeater had never been miniaturised for the wrist, so from 1989 to 1992 he set out on the difficult task of transforming his sonnerie movement into one that would work as a wristwatch.

The result was the present Grande & Petite Sonnerie wristwatch number 1 – a genuine gamechanger, and the beginning of Dufour’s cult status. This version was produced in only five examples with white enamel dials, respectively 2 cased in white gold, one in yellow and one pink gold, as well as one in platinum.

Philippe Dufour Duality pink gold number 8
Philippe Dufour Duality pink gold number 8

Philippe Dufour learned his craft at the Ecole d’Horologerie in Le Sentier in the early 1960s. It was here where he was first exposed to the traditional watchmaking practices that would become the hallmark of his own timepieces. Like any young watchmaker beginning their journey in horology, Dufour had to create a school watch – a fully functioning timepiece he alone created, start to finish.

Inspired by his school days, Dufour created the Duality from a few school watch designs from the same Vallée de Joux school he attended. These pocket watches had a single gear train delivering power to two balance wheels through a differential. Once again, like with his sonnerie wristwatch, Dufour set out on the task of shrinking this complex mechanism to wristwatch size – a world first.

In 1996, Dufour introduced his iconic Duality. Featuring two independent balance wheels compensated with a central differential gear, the mechanism improves accuracy while also countering the effects of gravity.

The watchmaker had initially planned to produce 25 examples, however, only nine were made – including an example with movement number ‘00’ (sold at Phillips New York in 2017 for close to $1 million), making the present example bearing number 8 the last one made. It is one of three pink gold examples ever produced.

Philippe Dufour Simplicity (37mm) platinum number 57 – up for auction at Phillips Auction House
Philippe Dufour Simplicity (37mm) platinum number 57 – up for auction at Phillips Auction House

After having proven his undeniable talent and expertise in creating ultra-complicated mechanisms, Dufour set out in 2000 on the challenging task to create a simple three hand watch with a movement architecture designed to demonstrate hand finish and decoration that modern horology had not yet witnessed. The gentle flow of the bridges’ curves, the bold and alluring inward and outward angles, the hand-applied Geneva waves and red rubies all provide a seductive visual harmony.

The fact that the decoration and assembly are done by hand explains the fact that less than a dozen Simplicities left Dufour’s workshops in the Vallée de Joux per year. The present watch bearing movement number 57 is one of the earlier models that the master produced.

The full set of four Philippe Dufour watches will be offered in The Geneva Watch Auction: XIV in November 2021.