Jean-Jacques Frey

President of Minerva Watch Company

Interviewer: Richard Paige

October, 1998

 Villeret, 10/7/1998

RP:  Richard Paige –
JF:  Jean-Jacques Frey

RP:  Minerva’s story began in 1858, can you give us some background information on how the company got started.

JF:  In 1902 Minerva moved in the buildings where the company is still active and started to produce movements, becoming then a true manufacture. Unfortunately very few records survived this moving in and we do not know much about the beginnings of the company, founded in 1858 by Charles-Yvan Robert (1840-1912) assisted by Hyppolite Robert. An old commercial letter shows that the company was named H. & C. Robert Watch Co. in Villeret. The company was then a so-called etablisseur, assembling movements produced by the Robert Co. in Fontainemelon, future FHF.

It is interesting to notice that the name of the goddess Minerva was firstly used only as a trade-mark, officially registered on 30.7.1887. The company name changed several times, becoming Fabrique Robert Freres on 4.2.1898 when the two sons succeeded their father, then Fabrique des Faverges, Robert Freres in 1902, Fabrique Minerva, Robert Freres SA in 1923 and eventually in 1929 Minerva SA.

RP:  During our lunch meeting recently, we discussed how Minerva survived the “Japanese Invasion” into the Swiss watch market in the early 1970’s. Can you tell our Timezone readers this interesting story?

JF:  What is very special with Minerva is indeed the continuous production of mechanical movements in the same building from 1902 to present days and specially through the 1970’s when the quartz watches almost destroyed the Swiss watchmaking industry – let’s remember that the number of Swiss companies fell from 1618 in 1970 to just 632 in 1984!

Minerva survived those days thanks to their mechanical Stopwatches. Produced since 1911 and until today, only in a first quality designed for professional requirements, sold under the Minerva brand – no private label – these stopwatches suffered much less of the cheap quartz competition. Typically a niche product.

The conservative and traditional frame of mind of Minerva’s management also played an important role in the conservation of the know-how of producing mechanical horology. Minerva was not tempted by the magic of the brand new quartz technology which would have probably ruined it, as this happened with the Heuer Co.

RP:  Minerva still makes mechanical stopwatches, will we ever see the day when the stopwatch production ends, and the company only produces wristwatches?

JF:  The present trend would let imagine so. But who knows about future?

RP:  I understand that your father was the engineering designer for many of the mid-century Minerva movements. Do you still use these same movements today?

JF:  My father Andre Frey designed several movements in the 1940’s, of which the no. 48 small seconds hand winding is used again for two years but he also improved existing movements like the stopwatch ones still in use. In the future we plan to re-introduce his movement no. 49 with centre seconds.

RP:  What was it like being the son of a famous watch creator? And did your dad influence your decision to go into the watch business, or was this something that you chose for yourself?

JF:  First of all, my father being a very modest gentleman, he would never sees himself as a famous watch creator! This man is indeed talented but his total lack of interest for power allows to work with him in a mature, sensible and most friendly relationship. It happened to be very easy to cooperate with him, the best partner one may hope for! No, Andre Frey did not try to put any pressure on me for my professional choice. It came naturally, in the good sense of the word Tradition.

RP:  The Pythagore movement was designed by your father, and is still part of your collection. What it is about this movement which makes it so exceptional?

JF:  The movement used in the watch model Pythagore is the 10 lines no. 48. The exceptional feature of the 48 is that the aesthetic considerations form a key element in the design of the movement. The bridges are positioned using mathematical proportions defined by the Golden Section (1.618…), the discovery of which is attributed to Pythagorus and which has been often used in architecture.

We have to remember that when Andre Frey designed this in 1943, nobody could admire the inside of his watch hidden in the case. The motivation to use the Golden Section was pure pleasure to create something with a <bit of soul>, I would say; no mundane commercial issue was involved. I believe the motivations behind any creation make the sense of things, their virtue. In that respect, the Pythagore watch with its movement 48 offers truly a cultural object, although minor of course, and these pieces of our environment with this cultural touch, with a virtue, are more and more precious in our modern world.

RP:  Minerva is making waves in the USA market these days. I know this is a strange analogy, but I remember the Beatles saying that even though they’re on top in England, they won’t feel they made it until they are big in the USA. Is it important to the company to be successful in the United States?

JF:  The USA being roughly the size of Europe, it is important to be successful there, of course. And specially because Minerva has a long tradition in that country, having started to be distributed in the 1930’s.

RP:  What is your production output in a year?

JF:  About 9,000 pcs, 1,000 of which being chronographs and watches.

RP:  What does Minerva have planned for the up and coming year? Any new models?

JF:  We do have some projects in mind but it is wiser to wait until novelties are achieved before mentioning them. We shall progress in the same spirit as when Minerva started again to produce wrist watches in the 1990’s. A spirit which keeps the character of the tradition of Minerva, its genuine goodwill. And, may be the most important, creating watches which give us joy and pleasure.

RP:  Is there any particular present day model that you are the proudest of?

JF:  The model of <my time> which gives me most pleasure is the small pocket watch named Apron, using the movement 48 and with a case designed following not only the Golden Section but also the Squaring of a Circle, probably unique in the history of watchmaking. What is special in that story is that I used the Golden Section for the case of the Apron not knowing that my father used also the Golden Section 45 years before ! This watch remains for me the most intellectually exciting piece of the recent Minerva production – the 500 pieces of this limited edition are sold out, but it took years !

In the current collection, Pythagore gets my vote, no doubt. It embodies the very essence of a watch.

RP:  Minerva is popular watch here on TimeZone, how do you think this happened?

JF:  TimeZone catches the interest of mainly true watch enthusiasts. Most of them must not be snobby hence the brand recognition syndrome does not apply; most of them love watches and love does not like fake.

Minerva certainly appeals to people with the above profile.

RP:  What is your opinion of how the watch industry will be impacted, if any, by the internet?

JF:  The internet will help the global transparency of the watch market. It allows the consumer to know brands which cannot afford expensive advertising campaigns; it allows the consumer to get various impartial informations to better make his/her mind.

The internet will play his role of open window on the world and also put in contact people who would otherwise never have met, thanks to Time Zone for example.

Nonetheless, being a medium amongst other mass media, I doubt the internet will have a dramatic impact on the watch industry. On the contrary and in a mid-term future, it may create changes in the watch distribution. Tomorrow, in a world more and more used to virtual reality, with spectacular improvements of the visualisation, one can imagine consumers no more needing to touch the actual watch and ordering directly to the national distributor.

RP:  What’s the future for the Swiss watch industry, and where does Minerva fit into this story?

JF:  You are interesting for what you are good at.

And the Swiss watch industry is really good at fine quality and mechanical tradition; this will be its future at mid-term – at long-term as said Keynes <we are all dead>, who knows…

The quartz watches killed a good part of the Swiss watch industry but also makes the present interest for mechanical watches a steady trend. Before every watch was mechanical and there is no beauty in something all too common. I am sure that a wristwatch with a crystal case back would have been seen as silly in the past, if not almost obscene!

But to continue to achieve fine traditional watchmaking, Switzerland will need highly qualified employees and suppliers in the future too and this may well be the biggest challenge for tomorrow.

And where does Minerva fit into this story? Well, right at the good place !