Daniel Roth

« Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect). » Mark Twain

To evoke Daniel Roth's watchmaking is to suggest the work of Breguet.
To discuss Jean Daniel Nicolas' watches is to trace Daniel Roth's history.

Daniel Roth by the sea, with the courtesy of A Collected Man

A pioneer in the path of independence, his journey did not turn out as fruitful as his contemporaries Philippe Dufour or François-Paul Journe; because today, his name no longer belongs to him. Daniel Roth was acquired in the 2000s by Bulgari, then bought by LVMH. Now his name is associated with Louis Vuitton. The timepieces produced have lost their essence to meet new economic models. The company still enjoys the aura of the watchmaker, even if its soul has definitively left the watch cases.

At the age of 55 when he sold his company, Daniel Roth was forced to completely rethink his financial plan. He created a brand new company, Jean Daniel Nicolas, a family-sized enterprise. Comprising his wife, a watchmaker, his son, an apprentice watchmaker, and himself (as indicated by the three first names in the company name), their approach is now artisanal. With a production of 2 to 3 pieces per year, manufactured in the workshop, all movements are designed around a tourbillon.
A way for Daniel Roth to pay tribute to his master watchmaker, the father of this complication, Abraham Louis Breguet.

Let's revisit his history, his extraordinary connection with Breguet's work from which his independence and his finest pieces derive. Let's not forget to mention his importance in the history of Manufacture Breguet, which he managed to revive and modernize.

Today, true collectors seek his early pieces, from his time at Breguet and the first 7 years of his independence, when he was at the helm of his own company. Let's study and compare his works.

Born in the south of France, Daniel Roth grew up surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and watchmaking. His father and grandfather, who had left Neuchâtel before his birth, opened a workshop in Nice. Watching his grandfather at work, he naturally chose to study watchmaking in his hometown. Guided by his ambition, he continued his apprenticeship in the greatest manufactures of the Sentier, including Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet.

After spending 7 years in Brassus, he seized the opportunity of his life by applying to the announcement of the Chaumet brothers, who had just acquired the Breguet house. At that time, the Master's name had been forgotten. The brothers wanted to restore its former glory, so they chose Daniel Roth to undertake this ambitious task.

To live up to his goal, the watchmaker immersed himself for a year in the studies, work, and research of the master.

Let's recall some significant dates associated with his most important inventions/creations:

- 1780, the "perpetual" pocket watch, with a system of oscillating mass or "The watch that winds itself"
- 1795, invention of the Breguet spiral, a small spring that ensures the oscillations of the balance wheel
- 1796, the subscription watch, based on the economic model of paying a quarter of the price when ordering by the customer
- 1801, invention of the Tourbillon, born from the observation that Earth's gravity is the enemy of movement regularity, the complication offers greater precision to watches
- 1810, creation of the world's first known wristwatch, Breguet Watch No. 2639, commissioned by the Queen of Naples
- 1812, stylistic innovation with the off-centering of dials

Historical extra flat pair cased gold half quarter repeating pocket watch with equation of time power reserve indication calendar and moon phase based on chronometer principles, N°4691 Sold on 13 October 1831 to Lord Henry Seymour Conway, with the courtesy of Sotheby’s

Breguet paid special attention to both the substance and the form of his pieces, pushing his reflection on the observation that one depends on the other. This conclusion is eminently present in Daniel Roth's work.

From the time at Breguet
In order to breathe new life into the company, in 1976 Daniel Roth relocated the manufacture from Paris to the Vallée de Joux, the epicenter of watchmaking. Supported by the Chaumet brothers in his role as artistic and technical director, he set out to modernize iconic pieces of the master while keeping their essence, through artisanal techniques used in the 18th century, such as guilloché dials, which also perpetuated its aesthetic and made it recognizable.

Quick aside: the guilloché dial, which beyond its aesthetic aspect, had seduced Breguet for its functional characteristics: anti-reflective, more resistant to scratches and the ravages of time, and also allowing to compartmentalize different reading zones.

The movements are crafted by manufactures Frederic Piguet and mostly by Lemania with whom Daniel Roth would collaborate almost exclusively and develop several calibers.

Among the iconic pieces produced, references 3130 and 3330 which derive from pocket watches Breguet No. 5 and Breguet No. 4579. The fragmentation of sub-dials is observed through the different styles of guilloché on reference 3130, reinforcing its pictorial aspect. This one is composed of a secondary dial for the date, power reserve, and moon phase, as well as an outer ring for the minutes.

Breguet reference 3130, with the courtesy of Orologi di Classe

The dial of reference 3330 is much more poetic with symmetrical openings on either side of the dial, one for the date, the other for the days of the week, resembling two small levitating clouds, as well as an opening at noon for the moon phase. 

An atypical layout for a watch. It's a lyrical interpretation of space-time, which modern watches often tend to deviate from.

Breguet reference 3330, with the courtesy of Orologi di Classe

Both watches feature a small cabochon on the crown, and blued steel hands, which have become recognizable aesthetic characteristics at Breguet.

Other complications have been brought up to date and have become must-haves such as the chronograph 3237, the perpetual calendar reference 3050, the Tourbillon reference 3350. With the help of François Bodet, CEO of Breguet, they introduced new models and new complications to their collection.

Daniel Roth's feat was to succeed in miniaturizing pocket movements into wristwatches while keeping exactly the same proportions. Thanks to this change in scale, Daniel Roth paved the way for independents of his generation.

From the time of his independence

Let's now look at the iconic pieces of Daniel Roth created under his own name. 

His independence began in 1988, after the bankruptcy of the Chaumet brothers and 13 years of collaboration. His work remains inspired by Breguet's work, from which he cannot escape. In his own way, he wants to impose his style and thinks of a double ellipse case. This is the beginning of a shape that will make history.

Unlike Journe and Breguet, Daniel Roth did not use the subscription model to benefit from advances in funds for the launch of his brand. He would rather appeal to what could now be called an investor. William Asprey, based in London, is known to be one of the first eponymous retailers to present independents and put his name on the pieces marketed. Daniel Roth did not escape. Asprey commissioned him to make 24 Tourbillon wristwatches and put his name on the front dial, Roth's name would appear on the back.

Example of a Tourbillon ordered by Asprey, with the courtesy of A Collected Man 

The first Tourbillons under the unique name of Daniel Roth, reference C187, would keep the same design: sapphire glass on the front and back, dial on both sides. Date and power reserve on the back, Tourbillon on the front. The front dial sports a particular design with a very slender bridge, and the usual outer seconds ring is here segmented in the shape of a fan, above the tourbillon, with three differently sized hands attached to its cage.

An early Tourbillon by Daniel Roth, with the courtesy of A Collected Man

Clear similarities can be observed between this model and Breguet Tourbillon ref. 3350 in terms of dial architecture; notably this originality in the indication of seconds; and of the movement; which Daniel Roth had already developed at Lemania.

But these similarities do not stop there, they are also studied on other models such as the chronograph Daniel Roth reference C147, whose movement was designed from the Lemania 2320 caliber blank which had already served as a blank for Breguet's manual Chronograph ref. 3237, or when the production of his first automatic movement the reference 107, which therefore forced him to turn away from Lemania to the manual caliber for Frederic Piguet and its caliber 71 - the thinnest caliber produced for the time - and that Roth already used at Breguet. This last piece could be interpreted as a little nod to the "perpetual" watch designed by Breguet in 1780.

Quick aside: 

Some pieces among the references mentioned above stand out for their singularity, such as for chronograph C147, another chronograph reference was produced in very small quantities but from the Venus 179 caliber, a split-second chronograph. These pieces spark debate because the movements were anachronistic for the time and would be found but never used pieces. A certain Jean-Pierre Jacquet would have used this find to make other models from true and false parts. Fraud was discovered, and the man was arrested for theft and counterfeiting. 

Another example, about twenty pieces of the Tourbillon C187 were produced in steel for the Italian distributor Roberto Carlotti. Forward-thinking, Italians already preferred to wear steel pieces because of their ease of wear and versatility. These pieces are extremely sought after by collectors.

Other emblematic pieces created during these years are also cherished by enthusiasts, to name only the retrograde ref. 127, inspired by Georges Daniels, or the semi-instantaneous perpetual calendar ref. 177 developed with Philippe Dufour whose objective was to make an instantaneous leap of the midnight complications.

During this period, Daniel Roth's production averaged 500 pieces per year. Yet in 1994, Daniel Roth sold part of his company's shares to an external investor, the Hour Glass. This step marks a big change. No longer holding the majority of the shares, the quality of the models and their original spirit deteriorate in favor of a new low-cost commercial strategy.

Nevertheless, a model introduced in 1999 stands out. It is an anniversary model designed for the 10 years of the brand: the C317 Papillon. Limited to 250 pieces, the reference designed by Daniel Roth himself is in line with his original philosophy, namely a reflection on reading time and the pictorial arrangement of the dial.

Daniel Roth C317, Papillon with the courtesy of Orologi Di Classe

In 2000, the company was sold in its entirety to Bulgari.

Other than its double ellipse shape, a Daniel Roth piece produced between 1988 and 1994 is immediately recognizable by its aesthetic thanks to the use of :
- manual guilloché technique
- numbered pieces
- straight lugs
- Roman numerals engraved by burin on the dials

These characteristics imbued with Breguet's aesthetics meet the aesthetic search for the ideal. With this philosophy, he continues the research initiated by his master, in order to appropriate them.

Through not only the pictorial composition and the reading of the dials, the change in scale of the complications (at the time of the transition from pocket watch to wristwatch) but also by a completely new case shape, he succeeded in the crazy challenge of establishing himself as a brand, whose double ellipse has become a hallmark.

On the financial side, we note that Daniel Roth's hybrid model between industrialization and craftsmanship has reached its limits. By delegating the blanks of the movements to manufactures, he ensured a large quantity production, which he finished by hand to ensure high-end quality. However, this model worked when he was under the cover of the Chaumet brothers, but was not sufficient when he became independent.

Philippe Dufour, for example, followed the path of 100% craftsmanship and made it his trademark. It is towards this path that Daniel Roth turned with his new company Jean Daniel Nicolas.

This is without reminding us that beyond watchmaking art, behind each independent there is also an entrepreneur and that it is not given to everyone to know how to manage and make his company profitable.