I may not have qualified for a seat in Westminster Abbey for the coronation, but a couple of weeks ago I found myself at an event that was its equivalent in terms of horological heft.

In place of the soaring, vaulted nave of the medieval church, celebrants gathered under a large, transparent PVC marquee pitched in an idyllic mountain meadow on the fringes of the small village of Le Brassus, 3,000 feet up in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, the traditional heartland of Swiss watchmaking.

Unless you happen to be one of the 600 or so souls who call the place home or have a reasonably detailed knowledge of watchmaking (Audemars Piguet is headquartered here), you will not have heard of Le Brassus. The last really big thing to happen here was the tornado of 1891, although Wikipedia notes that in 1964 Le Brassus hosted the second European orienteering championships. To this list must now be added June 3, 2023, the 75th birthday of Philippe Dufour.

The Simplicity, with an aventurine dial, unveiled for the launch of the Philippe & Elisabeth Dufour Foundation.

This sprightly septuagenarian is the king of independent watchmakers, and a handful of TV crews joined around 150 guests for the celebration. Dufour, wreathed in pipe smoke, as usual, had swapped his customary white watchmaker’s lab coat for a flamingo-pink three-piece suit. During the evening he announced the launch of the Philippe & Elisabeth Dufour Foundation, unveiling a watch with an aventurine dial—a quartz-like stone with sparkly inclusions—that will be sold at auction at its inaugural benefit.

Everywhere one looked there was a celebrated independent watchmaker: Kari Voutilainen, Laurent Ferrier, the Grönefeld brothers, Maximilian Büsser, Ludovic Ballouard, and Hervé Schlüchter mingled with industry heavyweights including the all-powerful U.A.E. watch distributor Hamied Seddiqi, Georges Brodbeck (the “father of guillochage”); and Raymond Loretan and Carine Maillard, who run the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards, the Oscars of the industry.

The watches of Philippe Dufour are one of a kind—as is he.

Collectors came from as far as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States, with actor turned watch designer Aldis Hodge adding a touch of Hollywood sparkle. A fair chunk of the diplomatic corps had also made the pilgrimage into the mountains, including the ambassadors to Switzerland from Madagascar, Haiti, and Cameroon, birthplace of Dufour’s wife, Elisabeth, who organized the evening.

Like H.M. King Charles III, who also celebrates his 75th birthday this year, Dufour has spent much of his life waiting for recognition to come his way. A third-generation watchmaker from the Vallée, he began his career in 1967, two and half miles down the road, at Jaeger-LeCoultre, in the comparatively metropolitan Le Sentier (pop. 3,000).

But with mechanical watches in decline following the rise of cheap electronic timepieces, in the 1970s, he got a job restoring old, complicated pocket watches for a Geneva auction house. Over time he noticed that about 70 percent of the watches he was working on had been made in the Vallée de Joux, then finished and signed by big names in Geneva and around the world.

Aldis Hodge, Hollywood horologist.

After five years he decided he wanted to make the Vallée de Joux great again by creating a modern watch of the type and quality that he was restoring. From that came an order for five-minute-repeater pocket watches—watches that sound the time on demand like a chiming clock—from Audemars Piguet, each of which took a year to make. In 1989 he decided to make his own wristwatches. His Grande Sonnerie of 1992, which chimes the time every quarter of an hour, made his name. His Duality, with its twin escapement—two independent balance wheels which he based upon a piece he had discovered from the 1930s—cemented his reputation.

For many years he was just a man with a pipe, a passion, and workshop. Then, in 2020, he made auction headlines when a three-hand, time-only watch of his—the Simplicity—which had no added extras such as calendar, chiming mechanism, or chronograph, and which had until relatively recently sold for $55,000, fetched well over a million dollars at auction. The following year, secondary-market dealer Silas Walton of A Collected Man sold a Dufour Grande Sonnerie for $7,630,000.

Dufour wanted to make the Vallée de Joux great again.

A couple of weeks before Dufour’s birthday, independent watchmaking crossed another Rubicon when Christie’s Geneva staged what it had bruited about as “the first ever dedicated auction for a living independent watchmaker.” The watchmaker was François-Paul Journe, and the white-glove sale of 40 lots made $15,314,702.

Journe is another idol of indie horology. He founded his eponymous brand in 1999. He once described watchmaking as a “fossil science” and, uncompromisingly intellectual in his approach, created highbrow horology inspired by 18th-century watchmaking.

His brand is now partly owned by Chanel. He is also inspiring a new generation straight out of watchmaking school to become independent watchmakers; much in the way that children of earlier generations wanted to be railroad engineers, astronauts, or YouTube sensations.

The archetype of this new wave of millennial talent is Rexhep Rexhepi. The most exciting independent watchmaker of the young generation, the 40 or so timepieces made by his workshop in a year are among the most sought-after contemporary watches.

François-Paul Journe was a watchmaking prodigy who became a grand master.

He came to Geneva in 1998 at the age of 11, fleeing war in Kosovo, and was soon recognized as a prodigy. At 15 he was accepted as an apprentice at Patek Philippe, and then, after a few other jobs, including working for F.P. Journe, he opened his own workshop. In 2018 his achingly beautiful Chronomètre Contemporain carried off the men’s-watch prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

Now the model of a time-only watch, with a highly finished movement regulated to achieve optimal chronometric performance, has inspired a haute-horlogerie brat pack of baby-faced watchmakers. Cyril Brivet-Naudo, 32, Remy Cools, 26, and Theo Auffret, 28, are among the young men making a lot of impact with a vanishingly small number of watches.

One way of getting a start is to follow the subscription pattern used by Breguet in the 18th century (and François-Paul Journe in the early days): a watch is announced, advance orders are taken, and a partial payment is made up front—think of it as an analog version of Kickstarter. The difference is that in the social-media age, the subscription system functions more like a waiting list with paid places that fill up almost instantly. Simon Brette, who founded his brand in 2021, offered a friend of mine the opportunity to join the waiting list for a second series of his watches. They cost just over $100,000, with delivery promised in three years’ time.

Outside the tech sector, there can be few industries in which start-ups can charge blue-chip prices for unmade products. It is a fundamental change that Dufour ascribes to the rise of the Internet and social media. “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise,” as Milton put it in his poem “Lycidas,” and ours is, if nothing else, the age of easy renown. Thanks to a panoply of communications platforms, watchmakers at the beginning of their careers can enjoy the sort of recognition and global reach that took Dufour a lifetime of patient study and lonely hours in the workshop.

Whether this level of interest in new names in independent watchmaking—and the pricing it generates—is sustainable remains open to question, but at the moment the significance of the indie-watch movement, excuse the pun, is in inverse proportion to the number of watches made.

Nicholas Foulkes, the author of more than 20 books on the arts and history, is a London-based writer and editor