• Front picture: portrait of François Perregaux (©Piquilloud-Gardet Collection)

François Perregaux (1834-1877)

Kanto | Yokohama City

Follow the incredible journey of the first Swiss watchmaker in Japan, which starts before the two countries even signed their first treaty!

The birth of a pioneer

Portrait of François Perregaux (©Girard-Perregaux Archives)

In February 1864, Swiss emissaries and representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate signed a Friendship and Trade Treaty. This bilateral agreement would be the basis for the special relationship between Japan and Switzerland, and would enable the first Swiss watch exports to Archipelago. Though not exactly the first… At the time of the long-awaited signature, a watch merchant from Switzerland had already been in business for several years on the Japanese archipelago: François Perregaux.

Le Locle, circa 1860 - engraving by F. Burkhard (©Girard-Perregaux Archives)

Perregaux was born on June 25, 1834, from a family of watchmakers living in the small city of Le Locle, in northwestern Switzerland. When he and his two brothers took over their father’s business following his death in 1847, their home region was already well known for watchmaking. However, the organization of the sector was quite different then: the production was scattered, non-industrialized, and thus did not provide merchants with enough financial power to explore the new markets that were essential for their survival. Against all odds, the Perregaux brothers would soon emerge as some of Switzerland’s most international watchmakers.

From the West to the East

Business card of the firm H. Perregaux & Co., New York (©Girard-Perregaux Archives)

Following a six-year business stay in New York, François returned to Switzerland in Spring of 1859. Since his departure, his home region had been through a lot of change: a railway had been built between Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds to facilitate industrialization, his brothers had merged into Girard-Perregaux with another powerful watchmaker, and the Watchmaking Union (“Union Horlogère”, thereinafter WU) had been created to promote the interests of Swiss watchmaking, particularly abroad, with the creation of export offices.

François Perregaux and Hanzo, his friend and assistant (©Girard-Perregaux Archives)

Shortly after his resettlement, 24-years old Perregaux was entrusted with an important economic mission by the WU: setting up export offices in Asia with the help of Prussia-born writer and diplomat Rudolf Lindau (1829-1910). The Swiss businessman thus left Le Locle for the Far East on April 20, 1859, for Singapore, while Lindau sailed directly to Japan and tried (and failed) to obtain a diplomatic treaty. One year later, however, having been asked to replace his Prussian colleague, Perregaux headed to Yokohama, where he was allowed to disembark in December 1860 thanks to the consular protection of France. Indeed, he was at the time one of the first Swiss people to ever set foot on the Japanese archipelago.

Surviving and thriving

Advertisement, F. Perregaux agent for Girard-Perregaux ("The Japan Gazette, Hong List and Directory", January 1, 1877)

For François Perregaux, business in Japan proved difficult from the very start, and not only from a cultural and linguistic point of view. On the one hand, Japan’s varying time measurement system was completely different from Europe’s. On the other hand, musical items, watches, clocks, fancy items, or jewelry were not yet mass consumption goods: they were too expensive for most of the population, and rather seen as curiosities –until their appeal and price eventually decreased due to mass imports. Under these conditions, the Asian office of the WU was liquidated in July 1863, followed by the WU itself two years later.

Portrait of François Perregaux (©Piquilloud-Gardet Collection)

Map of Yokohama, circa 1866. Perregaux occupied lots 136 and 138 - circled here in black (©Archives fédérales suisses, Berne, E 6 / volume 36, file 169)

Released from his obligations towards the WU, Perregaux decided to stay in Japan. He eventually founded “F. Perregaux & Co” in 1865, focusing on horology, jewelry, imports (from the Girard-Perregaux company), repairs and setting. His office was located in Yokohama’s Homura-dori (currently Chinatown), where no more than 250 foreign merchants (including 8 from Switzerland) carried out their activities at the time. Even through earthquakes and robberies, he was determined to succeed, this time.

Double-sided Lepine watch, signed « Girard-Perregaux Chaux-de-Fonds » (~1877), imported to Japan by François Perregaux (©Girard-Perregaux Museum)

Lepine watches, signed « Girard-Perregaux » (~1875), imported to Japan by François Perregaux (©Girard-Perregaux Museum)

Owing to the previous year’s Treaty of Friendship and Trade, Perregaux was able to extend his activity in the Kanto region. The accelerated development of industry in Japan and the construction of a railway network, topped by the official adoption of the Western time measurement system on January 1, 1873, made watches much convenient and affordable. Soon, a majority of the population would own one, and those owning a Girard-Perregaux would be fascinated by the visible mechanisms displayed by their models. Consequently, the number of Swiss imports grew progressively, with Perregaux adapting them to local taste. In parallel, he also served as “Acting Chancellor of the Swiss Consulate” in 1868 and 1869, and owned a carbonated drinks factory.

Advert for sparkling drinks factory (L’Echo du Japon, April 29, 1875)

Exits the man, enters the legacy

Sadly, his ascension was cut short. On December 18, 1877, 43-year-old François Perregaux died of an apoplectic attack. He was buried at the Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama, where his sepulture still stands to this day. The news of his passing shocked the city where he had made many friends among his foreign and local customers. Although no information currently exists related to his private life, he is believed to be resting next to his daughter Eliza.

François Perregaux’s tomb in the Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama (©Girard-Perregaux Archives)

One and a half century later, the perseveration of François Perregaux has beard its fruits: thanks to the Sowind watchmaking group, Girard-Perregaux watches are nowadays available everywhere in Japan! Moreover, as a way to honor his memory, the François Perregaux Award (an exclusive timepiece) was set up in 2014 to pay tribute to individuals who embody a similar pioneering spirit. Did 24-year-old Perregaux ever envisioned that his upcoming journey to Japan would someday generate such a legacy?

December 18, 2015: Virtuoso pianist Hiromi Uehara won the 2nd edition of the François Perregaux Award, and was presented with the her prize by Girard-Perregaux CEO Antonio Calce (©Girard-Perregaux Archives)

Source: GIRARD-PERREGAUX (2009), ”François Perregaux, Pioneer of Swiss Watchmaking in Japan”, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Girard-Perregaux, 65 pages.