If you are a child of the 80s, like me, you surely will remember the one-hit wonder “Big in Japan” from Alphaville. Okay, not a musical cornerstone of any kind, but surely present in the minds and I apologise if you cannot get this catchy tune out of your mind now. But “Big in Japan” can be linked to Girard-Perregaux in an interesting way going into the 19th Century and the adventures of François Perregaux. But before that, we take a look at the challenges that were to overcome in those years.
Maybe an allegory will help. Imagine you have just invented the automobile and as you are convinced that this invention will bring universal progress all over the world, you head out to Japan just to find that the Japanese have a very different way of travelling than the rest of the world. Instead of roads and horse coaches, Japanese use an ancient cable car system. In essence your invention of an automobile is completely useless in that environment, you either convince the Japanese to adopt and build a road system or go back home and give up. Well, this is only a hypothetical analogy of course, however…
That’s how François Perregaux must have felt when he embarked in Yokohama in 1860 expecting that everywhere in the world, the day is divided into equal time slots, be it hours and minutes. Suddenly having a conventional watch that measures hours per day was not very useful or possible to sell in Japan. Unless of course, you eventually convince the Japanese to abandon their traditional time measurements and adopt the Western system.
However, let’s try to understand first how the Japanese measured time to better appreciate the challenges. Basically, Japanese civil time was measured in 6 equal periods from dusk to dawn. As Japan is not exactly at the equator, you will quickly realise that over the course of the year, the time between dusk and dawn changes and so the length of the 6 measured period. The whole concept of Swiss watch making to provide a consistent and precise measurement seems obsolete.
Of course, the underlying mechanics are not so different, the Japanese just needed to adjust their clocks frequently, typically this was done every 2 weeks, but there surely was no accuracy or something like a true universal time. Try to run a train schedule with that system!
When François Perregaux reached Japan in 1860 it must have been a strange world. My very first venture out to Asia was in 1996, even that time I felt like landing on a different planet and with a still very closed society. Back in the 19th century it must have been extreme. Only true pioneering spirit can make you endeavour such an adventure. As already explained, selling Western watches in Japan was not a promising business so François Perregaux needed to diversify his business.
Besides his initial intentions of a watch importing business, he teamed up with the Dutch entrepreneur Edouard Schnell for importing and distributing other goods and later also founded a factory for carbonated drinks. In addition, François Perregaux held a number of diplomatic and trade organisation positions.
In 1873, Japan then adopted the Western time system. At that time, Constant Girard-Perregaux, the brother-in-law of François Perregaux started to get recognised as a talented watch maker working at various escapements and tourbillons and developed the signature Tourbillon under three golden bridges. At the same time in Japan, the new Western time system sparked an interested for watches. In particular, the Japanese were fascinated by the mechanical movements and rich decorations. As a result, François Perregaux was able to import more and more watches into Japan.
Unfortunately, the new times were short lived for François Perregaux as he passed away on 18th Dec 1877. However, the name “Perregaux” associated with fine watch making was established in Japan from very early on and till today, Japan is a key market for Girard-Perregaux.
Source: François Perregaux – Pioneer of Swiss Watchmaking in Japan, 2009, Girard-Perregaux