An Interview with Cesar Jean-Mairet of Jean-Mairet & Gillman

An Insight into Cesar Jean-Mairet
The Man Behind Jean-Mairet & Gillman

by Su JiaXian
© June 2006


Jean-Mairet & Gillman (JMG) is a young firm that few know much about. Despite that, Cesar Jean-Mairet, the elegantly dressed founder of JMG, does have a compelling story to tell. Descended from the Bovet family on his mother’s side, Jean-Mairet is not a watchmaker. In his mildly accented but fluent English, he spoke about his true profession, “I am a mechanical engineer… I worked with gas turbines, power plants, very huge machines, in North Africa and Saudi Arabia.” But still he does note that engineering is very much a part of watchmaking, which is in essence, micromechanics. His passion for horology began at a very young age, “I was a watch lover since I was 15 years old; I have drawings and designs of watches dated from ‘78, ’75.” Although professional designers do polish up the designs, all of the watches in the JMG collection are designed by Jean-Mairet himself; he is the driving force behind the unique aesthetics of the brand.

After his stint as an engineer, Jean-Mairet returned to school and completed an MBA in finance. He then embarked on a career in Swiss banking, explaining his quiet, cultivated persona. “In 2000 I decided to open my own company in money management, and the watches. So I put both together, I still have the two companies. I’m still wearing two hats, but the one who takes the majority of my time is the watches.” His finance firm is concerned with “portfolio management for individuals”, in other words wealth management.

Jean-Mairet began JMG as a hobby rather than as a business. “I wanted to make a few watches for my relatives and friends,” he continued, “then people pushed me to go forward. They asked why don’t you sell? They said the watches were nice and asked for one.” As a result, JMG exhibited at Basel in 2002 and begin formally began selling its watches to the public.

Starting a watch company, even one that outsources its production, is no mean feat. “I went to several [movement specialists]… Renaud et Papi, but they were too expensive for what I wanted to do. In the beginning I could not afford to buy 25 tourbillons.” Finally he went to La Joux-Perret, then known as Jaquet. La Joux-Perret is a movement specialist that manufactures for a large number of brands, including Montblanc, The British Masters and Franck Muller. One widely used La Joux-Perret movement is a Valjoux 7750 modified to feature a traditional column wheel instead of cam. JMG choose this movement after evaluating other chronograph calibres, including the Piguet 1185, and the La Joux-Perret Valjoux emerged the most reliable.

“We design and develop the product, and then we outsource. At the beginning we assemble the pieces ourselves, just to know that there is no problem, that everything works perfectly.” After the prototyping stage, manufacture of all the components is contracted out. Many will not admit it, but most watch brands, and practically all the small, newly founded ones, operate much like JMG. “A family company like ours is too small to go this step forward [of in-house manufacture]… but we will need much larger volume.” He elaborates, “You know a manufacture of dials, goes from twenty to eighty people, just to make dials. You want to make everything in-house, it’s impossible. Patek doesn’t do it, Rolex doesn’t do it.” Jean-Mairet provides the examples of screws in the movement, “There’s only one factory in Switzerland that makes all the screws for everybody. And it’s independent from the Swatch Group!” In fact, Jean-Mairet goes as far as to say that many established brands in the industry “don’t’ manufacture anything”, some entirely depend on F. Piguet movements, just like JMG.

Collectors often debate the definition of ‘in-house’, but what is important in Jean-Mairet’s opinion is in-house development and product design, a view that is also often expressed by Rolf W. Schnyder of Ulysse-Nardin. Jean-Mairet notes, “The important thing in my opinion is the movement, assembling the movement, testing the movement and assembling the watch… You have to buy components from outside, otherwise you need so many machines [do it in-house]. Then you assemble the movement, check the movement and then you assemble the watch. That’s the point I want to reach - all the technical aspects and reliability of the movement done in-house.”

Jean-Mairet went on to explain the process of obtaining movements from manufactures like F. Piguet. These manufacturers present watch companies with catalogues of available movements, some of which are exclusive to certain brands like Blancpain. Sometimes JMG chooses an existing movement from the catalogue, at other times it designs a complications module and adds it to a base movement. Although JMG mostly uses Frederic Piguet movements, with a notable exception being the Claret tourbillon, the company is developing a new, exclusive movement. It will be highly decorated and feature a petite complication, Jean-Mairet hopes a prototype will be ready by end 2006.

Estimated annual production for JMG in 2006 will be about 700 pieces, a surprisingly small number. In fact, production last year was even smaller, and the firm was unable to fulfil many orders. JMG has approximately 30 points of sale worldwide, although it plans to expand as much as its limited output will allow. Jean-Mairet elaborated, “We don’t have a worldwide presence, we started last year in the United States with four retailers, and in Japan… We start this fall in India.” The firm already has a strong presence in South-East Asia and the Mid-East, with Singapore being one of the first markets it entered. JMG was initially retailed by Yafriro, but is now represented exclusively by Cortina Watch.

Markets in Asia and the Middle East hold the most promise, according to Jean-Mairet, “The markets have the capacity to absorb new things, new brands; they appreciate the products.” It comes somewhat as a surprise when Jean-Mairet reveals, “Europe is the last market we are going to penetrate. We started already with negotiations [in Germany, France and Spain]…. The European market is in a crisis for many years already. The retailers, they don’t sell so they give out consignments [sic]… It’s difficult. We are a small team so don’t want to waste energy when we know from the beginning they are not going to work very easily.” The company aims to strengthen in existing markets, “Now I am travelling very often to the Far East, to Japan… consolidate the brand there. I cannot be in all the places at the same time.” He concludes, “Branding is very, very, very difficult and expensive. To make a watch is already difficult, to sell the watch is another thing!”

Jean-Mairet is confident about his brand’s future, but he has no plans to expand JMG into a big brand in the mould of Franck Muller and Roger Dubuis. “I want to keep a small, family business oriented [company]. We increase our premises and staff according to volume and market share… We will have our own factory sooner or later, but everything is step by step.” He adds, “I think with twenty [technical] people you have a very good operation.”

Many enthusiasts have noticed the proliferation of new watch brands in the last decade or so, some are built on tenuous history, others are styled as one-man-shows. What sets JMG apart from the rest? “Each brand has its own personality. What I’ve noticed in the last ten years is that most of the new brands are based on one design,” he continues, “We don’t have one design. We have three designs, three product lines; we have eleven different movements. We want to make it different, we want a strong personality, we want to cover everybody’s expectations.” The sports watches cater to a young person, maybe someone at the beach. “The square is more for the connoisseur, more for somebody who is a little bit extravagant, somebody with a strong personality, an architect, a designer, somebody a little bit different from the others.” Might that be too ambitious, spreading the company too thin and losing the brand identity? “Take other brands, take Girard-Perregaux, they have a sport line, the ladies’ line. Take AP, they have a round watch, a Royal Oak.” Jean-Mairet then raises the example of F.P. Journe. He praises the attractive designs, but notes they are all based on the same look, adding that few people will buy multiple Journe watches since they look so similar.

Most of the JMG collection is designed for men, although the female buyers are fond of the square watches despite the large size, because of the comfort provided by the curved case back. In addition, Jean-Mairet says that the Sport models have also proven popular with ladies. He mentions retailers frequently ask him for more watches for female consumers, “Everybody is asking me, when are you going to do something for ladies? I answer when are the ladies going to do something for me?” He goes on to say, “To develop something for ladies… why not? But it is a challenge because you have so many brands. The ladies world is too competitive. You have Rolex, Blancpain… Very few wear Blancpain, but a lot wear Rolex.” Ladies’ watches may be uncomplicated, but the market for them certainly isn’t. Jean-Mairet admits, “Ladies’ mentality and that of fifteen year olds I still don’t understand. In my opinion, for a lady the watch is an accessory, like the handbag, like the jewellery… They are not so technical. She is going to wear a watch because she needs to know the time, more or less, since they are always late.”


The Continentes is large at 43 x 43 mm, but it is entirely suitable for ladies. Shown above on wrist of the lovely Ms Daphne Foo from Cortina Watch

Jean-Mairet’s favourite watch is the Hora Mundi. “It was a watch that was designed in one hour and ten minutes, the time for the flight from Barcelona to Madrid.” “I was talking to Svend Andersen, and he wanted to sell me his module 24 hours,” explained Jean-Mairet, but he hesitated because it would cost many thousands of francs. Then inspiration struck, “I was in the plane, and I realised I have a movement [referring to Clement Gillman GMT alarm] that already has a 24 hour disc, so I have to open the dial!” Thus the Hora Mundi was born.


Stock photo of Hora Mundi

Another model close to his heart is the Sport model, “I like this combination of forms and shapes.” For most the Sport bears an uncanny resemblance to the Patek Philippe Nautilus or Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Jean-Mairet is unfazed, “Any watch remembers another one. I try not to be equal [sic] to the others. Each design I check after I’ve made it, to know if there’s something similar. I don’t want a copy. You can be influenced of course. If the trend of the market is to make titanium watches, don’t come up with steel. You have to follow certain trends of course.” In short, if the market demands a certain kind of watch, it is inevitable that similar designs will materialise, because there are only so many ways to create a sports watch, or whatever model is the hot favourite.


Jean-Mairet sports one watch on each wrist, the Sport and the Continentes

When Jean-Mairet is asked the difficult question of which watch from another company he admires or likes the most, he does not hesitate, “Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.” He explains, “It’s a watch so balanced, movement, case… [And] the idea of using ostrich leather for the strap, no one else does it. You have other watches that are nice, but the Reverso you have only one. The evolution of the watch from its very small, medium, large, extra large, it’s a very, very good watch.” Surprisingly, Jean-Mairet also singles out a firm that is very similar to his own, but which creates vastly different products. “Richard Mille, I like it as well… It was the first watch without a dial… I like this idea very much, but the watch itself is not my style.”


The watches on Jean-Mairet’s wrist, both of which he designed.

Jean-Mairet is a strong proponent of having clear dials, or in fact no dials at all, “We open the back to see the movement, but you have the watch like that [face up on the wrist], you don’t see the movement. So if you find a way that you can see the movement and can read the time, then it’s very nice.” That philosophy is evident in his Continentes with the centre of the dial open, exposing the mechanics of the retrograde timezones. The upcoming retrograde perpetual in the square case will feature similar aesthetics.


Continentes with skeleton dial on Jean-Mairet’s wrist. This model actually began as a prototype to demonstrate the mechanism of the retrograde timezone indicators, but the response to it was so good it was put into production.

Another facet of the JMG aesthetics is simplicity and legibility. “A watch has to remain a watch. It’s something to show you the time. The more you add things to the dial, the more you complicate things, the less you can read. I want my brand to have easy reading. The Hora Mundi is not so easy, but the square is.” “We highlight what we need to highlight, and the rest is very sober.”

Both of Jean-Mairet’s ventures, the finance firm and JMG, take up a large portion of his time. His wife works in both his companies, but when he can Jean-Mairet tries to spend time with his family, “We do everything together, [and] we are very close to each other.” Much of his time is spent coaching his teenage daughter in horse riding, for equestrian competitions.

His personal hobby, apart from watches, is design, “I design everything… furniture, handbags.” Jean-Mairet has yet to produce any of his designs, though most likely handbags will be next. For the pen collectors out there, Jean-Mairet has good news, “Writing materials is something I want to do… As we make watches for men, and we talk to men, the fountain pen is another article men like.” He explains, “Fountain pens can be made in limited editions. It is something technical and it will fit in the company. More and more we are seeing in new boutiques fountain pens and watches. Traditionally we have watches and jewellery, now we start seeing writing materials… The concept of writing materials is important.”


Jean-Mairet’s note book is filled with sketches

Finally, what does Jean-Mairet think of ThePuristS? “You give your opinions, you have a discipline in what you say. I like the idea.” He continues, “I don’t go everyday to the website, I have so many websites to see, mostly on the financial sites, but I like the articles [on ThePuristS]. It’s interesting and it’s quite unique. I haven’t found anything else. It’s a little bit like the academy [AHCI], but on the journalists’ side.”

One's initial impression of Cesar Jean-Mairet is that of a discreet Swiss banker. At the end of the hour long interview, Jean-Mairet's passions become evident, with his knowledge and obvious love for horology being especially impressive. One may not agree with everything he says, but his vision and daring in setting up Jean-Mairet & Gillman is admirable. Many on the ThePuristS.com forums love watches as much as he does, but few would dare to begin their own company. Jean-Mairet & Gillman may be an underdog in an industry dominated by 600-pound gorillas with 200-year long histories, but it certainly has more than a fighting chance.

- SJX

Interview was conducted on 28 June 2006 at the Private Room of Cortina Watch Espace in Millennia Walk, Singapore. Most photographs above show the interior of the Private Room.


AHCI and Independent Haute Horlogerie Forum | ThePuristS.com Home Page

Copyright June 2006 - Su JiaXian & ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved