Grail Watch 10: Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down 'Series Gaga'
Ludovic Ballouard’s first creation for Grail Watch, incorporating artwork by his young son, is a symbol of all the love and blessings the watchmaker has received in his life. Available in a souscription-only limited edition of eight pieces, four with Breguet numerals and four with Chinese characters, priced at CHF 108,000 each, excluding taxes. WORDS BY WEI KOH, FOUNDER OF REVOLUTION, THE RAKE & GRAIL WATCH
You might think that the term “gaga” here, which in French is slang for “crazy,” refers to the way colors are scrawled in a wild, seemingly abandoned way on the markers of this platinum case, aventurine dial Ballouard Upside Down watch. But you would be mistaken. “Gaga” in this context is short for Gabriel, Ballouard’s son, who designed the watch you are looking at. The meaning behind this first partnership between the independent watchmaking journeyman and his son goes much deeper than that.
Looking at the dial, you might be charmed by the lovely aventurine, and then intrigued by the seemingly primal and vivid application of prime colors on all the hour marker disks and the small seconds indicator. You might ask, is this some kind of Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat-like artistic scrawl? But this watch is something more than a visually appealing act of design.
The hand coloring featured on the dial was created by his son Gabriel when he was three years old and represents what Ballouard hopes is the very first of many collaborations between father and son. But it is the story of Gabriel’s birth and how it inspired the creation of this timepiece that is so poignant and that provides an understanding to Ballouard’s attitude to life.
To love again
If you’ve watched the 2022 film Making Time, executive produced by Ian Skellern and Hind Seddiqi, you’ll know that the first half of Ballouard’s life, while at times carefree, was largely overshadowed by the worst tragedy that can befall a human being. That was the loss of his wife Eveline to cancer.
He recalls, “One of the last things my wife Eveline said to me before she passed, was that she wished that I would meet someone else and that I would have a child with her. At the time, I didn’t believe her. I would have never thought it possible.”
He threw himself fully into his new brand. But after the day was done, after he cleared his bench, washed his hands and turned off the lights, his world was touched by a pervasive sense of melancholy. To pass the time, he would go to Parc Bertrand in Champel. The metronomic regularity of his almost daily visits to the park offered distraction, if not solace. Then, one day, Ludovic met Flavia.
Says Ludovic, “In my mind, I had convinced myself that I would never meet anyone again, and so I just wasn’t receptive to that. But somehow with Flavia, our conversation was so natural. We soon became friends.” As the couple was not young, they didn’t want to waste their time. “We went back to visit his family in December and I remember waking up on January 1, and thinking to myself, ‘This is it. This will be my life’,” says Flavia. By the end of the month, everything changed again when she found out she was pregnant.
Says Flavia, “At first, I was cautious. I was older and I knew that there could be complications. Also, I had so many friends that had so much trouble getting pregnant, it just didn’t seem likely. So I didn’t tell anyone at first. I needed to see an obstetrician-gynecologist. But because I had moved to Switzerland from the United States, I didn’t have a doctor. A friend recommended one. But I was a bit frustrated. It was the end of January and the first appointment we could get was on March 13.”
It was at this moment that a series of coincidences started to appear. The date fell on the anniversary of Eveline’s passing. On the day of the appointment, as they turned into the street, Ballouard realized that it was the street where he used to bring his wife for her chemotherapy. When they continued to the clinic, Ballouard couldn’t believe it — the oncologist that had treated his wife had the clinic just across the hall. “The coincidence was too much to believe. We walked into the clinic shaking,” he says.
Flavia’s doubts considering her age were dispelled when her doctor reported that her pregnancy was 100-percent healthy, and their baby boy was absolutely normal in every way. She recalls, “I told Ludovic that the Universe was giving us an incredible gift. This was our child. This was Gabriel.”
Sometimes, people might say that Gabriel came to us later in life. It’s true we are a bit older as parents. But, to us, he came at the perfect time,” says Ballouard. “For me, I was really questioning what I was working so hard for to establish my brand, if in the end my name and the work and sacrifice I committed to its creation dies when I do. But when Gabriel was born, it all suddenly made sense. I cannot tell you how much it made sense. He and Flavia made my life complete. My life is so beautiful. It is hard for me to even describe it … I think that I am proof that everyone goes through hardship. Everyone suffers. But if you make yourself receptive to the beauty this world has to offer, then the Universe will reward you, as it did with Flavia and myself with Gabriel.”
A first collaboration between father and son
After hearing this story, I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed with emotion. Before I knew it, I said, “Flavia and Ludovic, would you consider asking Gabriel to design the dial of our watch?”
A week later, I remember opening my phone to a message from Ludovic. It was an image of an outline of his dial, which had been colored in by Gabriel. Instinctively, he had used the colors to create a stunning visual effect. It was child-like, yes, of course. Yet somehow it was expressive of the same wonderful freedom of naïve expression that painters often search for in their adulthood. Ballouard had already taken the liberty to transpose the etching and crayon marks using contact printing onto an aventurine dial. The result was, to my mind, spectacular.
Ballouard the watchmaker
Now let’s talk about Ludovic Ballouard, the watchmaker. From a young age, he was fascinated by mechanical devices, disassembling and, often unsuccessfully — he recalls humorously — reassembling household objects. Recognizing his aptitude, his parents sent him to watchmaking school. But when he graduated, he wasn’t ready to leave his idyllic family home in Brittany. With no work there to be found in watchmaking, he transformed himself into a specialist in aviation instruments. Model airplanes have always been a passion for him, and the transition was not difficult. But after close to a decade, he realized that if he ever wanted to pursue his horological dreams, it was now or never.
He first landed at Franck Muller, stayed three years and is rumored to have a major role in the creation of the “Crazy Hours.” He saw Franck Muller grow from a star in independent watchmaking to a juggernaut industrial powerhouse, and decided to look for a smaller, more personal company. He then found himself at François-Paul Journe’s atelier in rue de la Synagogue, Geneva.
Ballouard states, “I loved François-Paul’s philosophy that a single watchmaker should oversee every aspect of a watch from its function to its finishing and, on top of that, be responsible for that watch in perpetuity. Meaning when that watch comes back, it goes to the person that made it. This sense of ownership over a creation was wonderful.”
Journe soon spotted Ballouard’s talent and handpicked him to be the only person, besides himself, to work on his most complicated watch, the Sonnerie Souveraine, his revolutionary grande et petite sonnerie. Says Ballouard, “François-Paul gave me an incredible gift, the gift of friendships with some of the most incredible collectors in the world. It was only me or François-Paul that were allowed to present the Sonnerie Souveraine, so I ended up traveling the world and meeting these wonderful people who had ordered the watch. You could tell it was so meaningful for them to meet the person who made their watch from beginning to end.”
During these meetings, collectors would frequently take Ballouard out to dinner and ask what watch he would like to make if given the opportunity. He explains, “I wanted to create a watch that reminded us to treasure the time we are in. The Zen Buddhists believe our lives are often out of balance, because we spend too much time reliving the past or worrying about the future rather than existing in the present.” With that in mind, Ballouard dreamed of a watch where the rest of the numbers were inverted and therefore meaningless, with only the current hour marker turned the right side up. He says with a smile, “That was the beginning of Upside Down.”
Ludovic Ballouard Upside Down
Look at the back of the Upside Down watch and the stunning movement, and you’ll see one of the most original conceptions in high watchmaking.
The complications use 12 individual hour markers fixed to mobile disks and attached to Maltese crosses. A snail attached to a minute wheel is in contact with a large finger similar to that used to read the time in a minute repeater. Once an hour, the finger drops off the top of the snail and releases a large driving ring to rotate 30 degrees. The ring is otherwise blocked from moving until this moment. This ring, in turn, is programed to turn the Maltese crosses in sequences. The micro-mechanical dance of this totally unique mechanism is wonderfully charming and utterly without comparison, which is also a way to describe its creator.
On the dial side, each time a Maltese cross turns 180 degrees, a new hour flips right side up while the previous one goes back upside down. Visually, you can identify which hour is right side up, thanks to a dot on the hour disk, which is otherwise hidden under the watch’s rehaut when upside down.
Ballouard released the Upside Down watch in 2010 and has stayed faithful to the watch’s original design iconography, playing with different dial materials. Most notably, there was the launch of an Osmium model last year. From a perspective of size, at 41mm in diameter and 11mm in height, it is very well balanced and wears a touch smaller than these figures would suggest, thanks to nicely curved lugs.
The new “Series Gaga” represents the most radical deviation thus far over the 13 years of the model’s existence, and for a very compelling reason, as it represents the first partnership between Gabriel (now four going on five) and Ludovic.
When I asked Flavia if she had any lasting message to the watch community about our project, she says smiling at her husband and her son, “Only that life is truly beautiful and that we are blessed. I hope everyone finds the same happiness.”
Ballouard adds, “We’d like to think that this watch, this Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down ‘Series Gaga’ is a symbol of our happiness and our gratitude for what we’ve been given. I think it is the most beautiful watch I’ve ever made because it is my first collaboration with our son, who is a gift from the Universe to Flavia and to me.”
His statement brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books, titled Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield, about the 300 Spartans that marched to Thermopylae to defend Greece against the Persian Army of two million soldiers. Throughout the book, which details the martial prowess of the Spartan army, you understand all men feel fear. But the question that is continuously asked is, “What is the opposite of fear? Is it courage, loyalty, strength?” The question is finally answered by Dienekes who says, “The opposite of fear is love.”
I believe that Ballouard’s life is a testament to this, and that his watch made with his son Gabriel, whom he considers a gift from the Universe, is a symbol of the power of love to resurrect, to heal, and to set all things right.
Grail Watch 10: Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down 'Series Gaga'
Limited edition of 8 pieces (4 with Breguet numerals; 4 with Chinese numerals) delivered over a year
- Material: Platinum
- Diameter: 41mm
- Thickness: 11mm
- Water-resistant to 30m
Dial and hands
- Aventurine dial hand-painted by Gabriel Ballouard at three years old
- Breguet numerals or Chinese numerals on jumping hour disks
- Minute hand
- Manual winding caliber B01; 40-hour power reserve
- Jumping hours, minutes and small seconds
Strap and buckle
- Hand-stitched alligator leather; platinum B-shaped pin buckle
MSRP: CHF 108'000 excluding taxes; fifty percent to be paid upon order
For more information, please visit grailwatch.com