21 August, 2023

GRAIL WATCH 10: Ludovic ballouard et fils upside down "Series gaga"

Ballouard’s first creation for Grail Watch, incorporating artwork by his young son, is a symbol of all the love and blessings he has received in his life.


You might think 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.

Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down "Series Gaga"

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 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.

Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down "Series Gaga"

The hand coloring on the dial was created by his son Gabriel when he was three years old and represents what Ballouard hopes is the 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 I find so poignant and that provides an understanding to Ballouard’s attitude to life. Indeed, the story of this watch and the story of Gabriel are so inextricably intertwined that I feel compelled to tell his story even before delving into the details of the timepiece. If this seems an unconventional way to launch a watch, please bear with me. I think you will find this story worth reading.

Gabriel hard at work, coloring in an outline of his father’s dial

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. Though Ludovic and Eveline battled courageously and relentlessly against the onslaught of the disease, eventually, Ballouard’s wife succumbed.

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.” And so after her passing, Ballouard resigned himself to be, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, “God’s Lonely Man.”

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, a neighborhood in Geneva city. The metronomic regularity of his almost daily visits to the park offered distraction, if not solace. Then, one day, Ludovic met Flavia.

She recalls, “I had just moved to Geneva and was working for a Mediterranean shipping firm. I had a group of colleagues and friends and, after work, we would often go to Parc Bertrand. One day, I met Ludovic who was acquainted with someone in the group. I found him fascinating from the first moment, someone so easy to talk to.”

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.”

Grail Watch 10: Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down 'Series Gaga' with Chinese characters

A Gift from the Universe

Flavia shares how their relationship began. “We were always together, we would go to the cinema or to meals and kept each other company. Then, one day, he mentioned that he was going to visit an art gallery with someone, a woman. I was surprised to realize that I felt very jealous. And it was then that I understood I was in love with Ludo. Soon afterward, I told him. He looked at me and said, ‘OK, then you need to come with me to Brittany [France] to meet my family.’”

She laughs and adds, “He said that considering that we were not young anymore, we shouldn’t waste our time. We went back to his home in December. I remember waking up on January 1, and thinking to myself, ‘This is it. This will be my life. Then, by the end of the month, everything changed again! I found out I was pregnant. I told Ludo and he was so overjoyed.”

Ludo recalls with a laugh, “I couldn’t believe it. It was wonderful.” 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. Says Ballouard, “When she told me this date, I stopped in my tracks. I said to her, ‘But this is the exact date that Eveline passed away.’”

Ballouard, Flavia and baby Gabriel

Flavia elaborates, “We got the name of the doctor. We entered the name of the clinic into the GPS of our car and we started driving. When we turned onto the road, Ludovic stopped the car. He said, ‘This is the street where I used to bring my wife for her chemotherapy.’ Then we continued to the clinic. Ludovic couldn’t believe it — as we climbed up the stairs, we realized that the oncologist who had treated his wife had his clinic just across the hall facing the clinic of our obstetrician-gynecologist. The coincidence was too much to believe. We walked into the clinic shaking.”

Flavia’s doubts regarding her age were dispelled when the doctor reported that her pregnancy was 100-percent healthy, and their baby boy was absolutely normal in every way. She recalls, “We walked out of the clinic and looked at each other. I told Ludovic that the Universe was giving us an incredible gift — that was our child, Gabriel.”

Ludovic Ballouard and Gabriel

Says Ballouard, “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. For me, I was really questioning why I was working so hard 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. 

Ludovic, Gabriel and Flavia

"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. I was staring at the glass of wine in my hand as the late afternoon sunlight streamed into their living room like in a Terrence Malick movie. On Ludovic’s lap was their one-eyed, three-pawed dog named Tosca, who seemed to be contentedly listening along with me. Before I knew it, I said, “Flavia and Ludovic, would you consider asking Gabriel to design the dial of our watch?”

Both of them paused for a moment and looked at each other. Then Ballouard said with a grin, “Why not? If we like the design, it would be nice to put Ballouard et fils [and son] on the dial.”

Close up shot of dial

A week later, I opened 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, Gabriel 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. Close to a decade later, he realized that if he wanted to pursue his horological dreams, it was now or never.

Ludovic Ballouard Upside Down Heures en Rose featuring pink marquetry and mother-of‑pearl

He first landed at Franck Muller. Ballouard recalls, “I like the style of watches. My first job was in the aftersales department. To test me, they gave me eight chronograph movements to overhaul. At first, I struggled to remember everything I learned in school, and it took two days for the first movement. But then I finished the next seven in a very short time as the memories came back quickly.”

He stayed three years and is rumored to have had 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 found himself at François-Paul Journe’s atelier in rue de la Synagogue, Geneva.

Upside Down Lapis Lazuli

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. This means when that watch comes back, it goes to the person that made it. This sense of ownership over a creation is 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 who 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.”

Upside Down Meteorite

During these meetings, collectors would frequently take Ballouard out to dinner and ask him about the watch he would make if given the opportunity. He explains, “I wanted to create a watch that reminds 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 charming Ballouard caliber B01

The complications uses 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 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.

Up close with one of the most original complications in high watch making

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.

The primal and vivid application of prime colors on the hour marker disks and the small seconds indicator

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.”

The dial proudly bears the phrase, “et Fils”, a nod to the father and son collaboration

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 it continuously asks is instead, "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.”

At 41mm in diameter and 11mm in height, it is very well balanced with nicely curved lugs

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.

Due to Ludovic Ballouard's extremely small annual production of less than 20 watches, Grail Watch 10: Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down "Series Gaga" is available as a souscription-only limited edition.

 It is priced at CHF 108,000, excluding taxes; 50 percent of the total price will be taken as deposit upon order and watches will be delivered over the course of a year. It is available for order on GrailWatch.com on 24 August 2023, 10am EST / 4pm CET / 10pm SGT.For enquiries, email shop@grailwatch.com


Grail Watch 10: Ludovic Ballouard et Fils Upside Down "Series Gaga"
Movement: Manual winding caliber B01; 40-hour power reserve
Functions: Jumping hours, minutes
Case: 41mm; platinum; water resistant to 30m
Dial: Aventurine; Breguet or Chinese numerals on jumping hour disks
Strap: Handstitched alligator leather; platinum B-shaped pin buckle
Price: CHF 108,000, excluding taxes; fifty percent to be paid upon order
Availability: Subscription only; limited edition of 12 numbered pieces (4 with Chinese characters; 4 with Breguet numerals; 4 with Eastern Arabic numerals)

Wei Koh

In 2005, Wei founded Revolution magazine and revolutionized the watch media, which has never been quite the same again. He has since developed Revolution into a multi-media, omni-channel platform with international editions around the world. He is also the creator of The Rake, a magazine of sartorial elegance and craftsmanship for the modern-day gentleman. Journalist at heart and entrepreneur in spirit, his latest venture is Grail Watch, dedicated to the creation of meaningful limited edition watches.

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