Dominique Renaud, Revolutionary Watchmaker

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Dominique Renaud, Revolutionary Watchmaker

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RENENS, Switzerland — Revolutionary is a word often used with abandon. A color combination on the runway. A new hairstyle. A different way of steaming fish.

But a watchmaker who invents a movement, changing the way a watch has run for the past 300-plus years? Well, the word revolutionary just might be accurate.

Dominique Renaud, formerly half of the renowned complications team Renaud et Papi, is back in business. After leaving watchmaking for more than a decade, he has returned to Switzerland and set up his own laboratory.

And this year he introduced a watch movement. “It is a new escapement unlike anything that exists now,” he explained as he sat in his office in an industrial park outside Lausanne, Switzerland. The balance system, he continued, vibrates rather than oscillates, all but eliminating friction and thereby increasing efficiency, precision and power reserve. “It is not some new material, but a new rethinking that might shock other watchmakers,” Mr. Renaud said.

Movements hadn’t changed since 1789, said Luiggino Torrigiani, Mr. Renaud’s business partner, adding, “Dominique is opening up new horizons.”

The movement is showcased in a watch called the DR01 Twelve First: DR is Mr. Renaud’s initials; 01, he said, “for the first watch I’ve created on my own”; and Twelve First because the watch is first in a 12-piece limited edition. It looks like a spaceship on the wrist, a clear cylinder exposing the movement. “We created a new heart for the watch, and we wanted to show it,” Mr. Torrigiani said.

Mr. Renaud’s sketches of the resonator mechanism he is working on for mechanical watches.

Niels Ackermann for The New York Times

The watches will be made only on commission, and each one will cost one million Swiss francs ($1.01 million). He has sold one, which is being made for 2017 delivery, and he says he is closing three more sales. The price may seem high, but collectors “are buying a piece of watchmaking history,” Mr. Torrigiani said. Also, each one will be customized, so it can come in porcelain or platinum or titanium or gold, in any color, and engraved, if the owner wishes.

This isn’t the first time Mr. Renaud, 57, has made a splash. When he was 27, he and Giulio Papi, a 21-year-old colleague, left their jobs working on the bench at Audemars Piguet to establish a company to invent complications. “People said we were crazy,” Mr. Renaud said. People were wrong.

Mr. Papi said, “Technically speaking, Dominique is a seasoned troubleshooter, and while he is developing a mechanism he is thinking about a new one still better. Dominique knows how to use his hands, and he makes things with a high level of quality.”

Renaud et Papi’s first big invention, for I.W.C., was the Grand Complication modular minute repeater — modular because it could be added to existing watches. Business started rolling in. For Jaeger LeCoultre, they developed the Reverso’s micro-repetition minute; for A. Lange & Söhne, the Fusee Tourbillon. Soon they were making complications for Franck Muller, Harry Winston, Parmigiani Fleurier, Richard Mille, Chanel, Hublot, Girard-Perregaux and Ulysses Nardin, as well as creating for their former employer, Audemars Piguet, the smallest minute repeater caliber and the first Grande Sonnerie Carillon.

In 1992, the men sold half of the business to Audemars Piguet but continued to run it. But after a few years, Mr. Renaud decided that he had had enough. “I needed to take a break,” he said. “I wanted to see my two daughters grow up.” So in 2000, he sold the rest of his interest in the business, now known as APRP, and moved to the south of France, outside Montpellier. He built a house, sold it and built another — but, he said, “I was always thinking of watches.”

After 13 years away from watchmaking, Mr. Renaud was ready to return. Dominique Renaud SA is based in Renens, employs four workers and was established “as a lab for new ideas,” Mr. Torrigiani said. “Every second day, Dominque comes in with a new idea.”

“It is in my blood,” Mr. Renaud noted. “I come from a long family of watchmakers in the Vallée de Joux.” His grandfather was a watchmaker, and “I am a child of Vacheron Constantin,” he said. “My parents met there.” On a shelf in his office is a movement that his mother, born a LeCoultre, worked on in 1959.

The watchmaker’s rendering of the new DR01 Twelve First.

Over the years Mr. Renaud has mentored some of today’s finest watchmakers: Peter Speake-Marin, Andreas Strehler, Bart and Tim Grönefeld, and both Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, now the team of Greubel Forsey. He became particularly close to Mr. Greubel, who, when Mr. Renaud announced he was leaving Switzerland, promised the keys to his house when Mr. Renaud was ready to return. And he did hand them over, in a gesture documented in a personal video Mr. Renaud played for a visitor with visible pride and affection.

“Dominique is one of the very last watchmaker/inventors out there,” Mr. Greubel said in an email. “He combines all main watchmaking professions, such as constructor, micromechanic, designer, decoration, beveling and assembly, which is rare in watchmaking today.”

“Furthermore,” he continued, “Dominique has the exceptional ability to imagine, and then invent, new ways in the field of watchmaking.” And what was his mentor’s most valuable lesson? “Not to set myself limits in my inventive reflections.”

Mr. Renaud has always been a risk taker. He has done a three-month sail with two fellow watchmakers and spends his free time climbing the Jura mountains, which are outside his office window. And, he acknowledged, producing a line of million-franc watches is a risk.

“Just like with Renaud et Papi, people say it’s not going to work,” he said, “It’s impossible.”

Grégory Gardinetti, the history expert at the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, has a somewhat different approach. “The DR01 is a very innovative timekeeper,” he said. “The real inventions are those that continue in time. The others are quickly forgotten. Only the future will tell us if we are dealing here with a development that will revolutionize the watch industry.”

It is, truly, a question of time.

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