By Mark Rozzo
The elements of great watchmaking-precision, ingenuity, beauty, surprise, delight—are all found in great food, and no one knows this better than chef Eric Ripert. A passionate Vacheron Constantin ambassador, free-ranging watch collector, and zealous advocate for the high art of horology, the man who made New York’s Le Bernardin into the most sophisticated seafood restaurant in the world (with three Michelin stars) certainly knows his oysters—on the plate and on his wrist. Ripert spoke with Watch Journal about watches, cooking, his undying regard for Swatch, and the mystery of time itself.
So how did you get hooked on watches?
I was very young, fourteen or fifteen years old, and my mother gave me a Cartier Santos, my first real watch. It’s a rare one. It was not a limited edition, but they didn’t do many of them. The dial window is sapphire; stainless-steel-and-gold bracelet. A very simple watch—a beautiful watch for a young kid. I still have it here in New York. But I think my wrist has grown a lot since I got that watch!
I hear you are quite fond of Swatch.
Yes! I still have a Swatch that says, “DON’T BE TOO LATE.” Swatch does a fantastic job. They reinvent themselves all the time, with artistic ones and some that look like luxury pieces. The coolness of Swatch doesn’t go away. I really started to be knowledgeable about watches in the late nineties, early 2000s. I got my first Vacheron Constantin and started to understand how you value a watch, which is not necessarily about the name itself or diamonds or gold. The value of the watch is about the complications. I had no idea about that. So I started to enter that world through Vacheron Constantin, who actually mentored me. I went to Switzerland to visit the factory, and they taught me a lot. I didn’t know that every piece in each of those watches is decorated in a different way. And then the complications—the way they calculate the time and the moon and the sun, the rhythm of the planets and everything else.
Why was it that Vacheron Constantin became so important for you as a watch wearer and collector?
I like their philosophy. It’s about simplicity, not about having something flashy. The design is always very sober. It’s about the beauty of the details that only a collector will recognize. And, for me, what is interesting is that it has a lot in common with the craftsmanship that we have in a kitchen. There are a lot of similarities. What I like most about watches is the fact that time—it’s not tangible, right? Time, the way they calculate time, to me, is still a mystery—exactly like the way we put flavors in a sauce. You cannot really measure the flavors that go to into a sauce. But we still do that. So we have that in common. And when I met with an artisan at Vacheron, I had a lot of discussions with him about that. So that created a lot of respect and friendship for the brand. I had that bonding with them, which creates loyalty.
What is it with chefs and watches? Thomas Keller loves Vacheron and Panerai. Daniel Humm has been an Audemars Piguet ambassador. Daniel Boulud likes his Rolex. Do you guys trade notes on watches the way you might talk about wine or Michelin stars?
First of all, they’re all very good brands, fantastic brands. Audemars Piguet is fantastic. I have some Rolexes at home also. You can take one of those from 1956 and put it on your wrist today. They’re totally timeless, in a sense. But when I talk with those guys, it’s usually more about drinking and eating! It’s sometimes about watches, but not so much.
Which one are you wearing right now?
A Vacheron Overseas, stainless steel. Some collectors put watches in a vault or in a safe and admire them. I like to wear them. My problem is that I am in a kitchen! But the Overseas is very strong and can be with me in a kitchen. I also have a Vacheron Constantin Patrimony in platinum. I wore it in the kitchen and within one month I was three times at the store. In the end, I was so embarrassed. I said, “Okay, I’m not going to wear it in the kitchen! I’ll just wear it outside.” I broke the glass. I got the bracelet—crocodile—drenched and stained with sauce and oil. I even burned one bracelet once. I was working by the stove, and I don’t know what happened. Instead of burning my wrist, the watch protected me. So it was burned. And again I was embarrassed. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I cannot call them and tell them about this—they’re gonna be, ‘How can you burn a bracelet?’ I did that with my Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921—such a great watch.
Owning these watches—and you have more than 20—implies responsibility, stewardship. Do you ever think about this in terms of passing down your own watches?
So my son is fourteen years old. He’s definitely not getting any watch from me now! [laughs] However, when he is more mature—and if he has an interest—I will obviously share with him the knowledge and the pleasure of having watches, along with the importance of supporting the craftsmanship that goes into creating those watches. To me, it’s about preserving the know-how of those artisans. It’s not about showing off. It’s a philosophical statement: I’m helping artisans who are carrying on generation after generation of incredible craftsmanship and precision.
Speaking of artisans, I know you don’t like having tech gadgets in the kitchen. You prefer to do things by hand.
I’m a guy who likes knives and a spatula and a whisk, and that’s it. I collect knives, too. I have some beautiful knives. But it’s the same thing, whether it’s about the art of cooking, the art of making a knife, the art of making a watch: It’s about the connection we have in common among artisans.
Do you always buy new, or do you sometimes do vintage?
Sometimes I do vintage. And in that case, I go to Tourneau. And I know a couple of collectors who’ll find you the watch that you want if you have something specific in mind. All those ultra-experts, the amazing collectors, they have something eccentric, something very unique-slash-crazy about them, in a good way. Anyone who’s really knowledgeable about watches has something crazy about him!
Are there any particular details you look for in a watch, like favorite complications, a certain kind of dial?
I like to know what is inside the watch, what nobody sees. I always look inside. They open the watch for me, and I look at all the pieces. They are all engraved with a different design. And that, for me, it’s like, “Wow.” Those pieces are so tiny and the precision is crazy. Not even a computer does that. It’s man-made.
And I’d guess you’ve bought watches for people in your life.
Yes, of course. For my wife, Sandra, mostly. She likes a lot of the designs that Cartier does. She has five or six watches she wears regularly. She has also an old Hublot, from about thirty years ago. The kind with a rubber bracelet. I got her that one. It’s so simple and gorgeous.
I like when I see you and you’ve got your prayer beads on one wrist and a Vacheron Overseas on the other. It seems like a healthy, elegant yin and yang, to mix religious metaphors.
At the end of the day, I think it represents part of my personality, right? It is what it is. Watches—they represent us, in a way. They are part of who we are.