The name James Taffin de Givenchy carries a lot of weight. Not only is he the nephew of Hubert de Givenchy, the famous French couturier who outfitted screen siren Audrey Hepburn in most of her landmark films, he’s also amassed a loyal following of starlets, all of whom shimmer on the red carpet with his jewels that he seldom loans.
In an age when movie premieres and award shows are the purviews of behemoth jewelry brands, with their hefty marketing dollars, de Givenchy’s company, Taffin, has garnered renown through stealth, accruing a loyal base of customers through word of mouth. He lets his inimitable designs—from intricate clusters to vibrant solitaire stones—shine through. Scarlett Johansson’s engagement ring, comprised of a yellow pear-shaped diamond on a black ceramic setting, is just one example of his discerning taste. The way the juxtaposition of stones and materials play off each other, resulting in a design that is equal parts bold and effervescent, leaves little doubt why his reputation precedes him in certain circles.
These qualities also apply to the under-the-radar watches that he offers to select clients in his salon on Madison Avenue. Titled the Jimmy, de Givenchy first created the timepiece over a decade ago strictly for himself. But after learning about the mechanics behind watchmaking, and the incredible—if painstaking—process it takes to get one made, he decided to debut a collection that would appeal to the men who would visit his appointment-only showroom. To whit, it follows the same attention to detail and one-of-a-kind mindset that was practiced by his uncle.
Each numbered and personalized for the wearer, the Jimmy is an automatic chronograph that features a pronounced rounded case that bubbles up top. Whether it is made of gold, rose gold, titanium, or steel, every watch is water-resistant and has a scratch-proof crystal. The goal for de Givenchy was to create a timepiece that can be worn every day, that is, utilitarian in make but sleek and striking in look. For him, a great watch is akin to automobiles—machines that need to perform, while also having an exterior that turns heads. Indeed, with sensibilities such as this, it’s no wonder why he was once dubbed “the James Bond of the jewelry world.”
Here, de Givenchy explains why his reputation and that of the Jimmy is as close to 007 status as it gets.
When did you first create the Jimmy Watch?
What I mostly do is woman’s jewelry. Watches are a whole different world, but I was curious. In 2005, maybe in 2004, I started working with a friend of mine in France and asked him what it takes to make a man’s watch. He then offered to help with the CAD work. But little did we know there was so much more behind it.
Well, it’s not just about doing a shape of a watch that you want. We did a wax form first, and I brought the wax with me to Switzerland to the Basel watch fair. There, I realized what it takes. You have to pick a movement to go into a watch. It’s like building your own car. Putting the outside drawing of the design is one thing, but the next step was putting an engine in there. Initially, I thought I was going to make just one—not to sell, but a watch for me. Ultimately, I decided that the best solution, rather than building my own movement, was to work with a company.
Who built your movement?
It’s an ETA movement. And at that time, ETA was just about to be purchased by Swatch. Now, it’s owned by Swatch Group. But when I was starting to look at ETA, it was still a small Swiss company that offered different models of movements that were available for purchase. The idea at that time was to buy one and do a chronograph. I always wanted to do a chronograph. I loved the Bubble Back from Rolex, and I wanted to make a slightly larger version with the same function, but with a bubble top instead of a back. I wanted something that I would wear every day that felt like a modern, practical watch with a very good movement.
Did you find what you were looking for?
Not at first. Every watch that was in the market at that time was those one-inch, thick, complicated movements for men. It was the biggest watches you could find in the 1980s, and everybody was going away from flat watches, which now, apparently, is making a comeback. I didn’t want to have something too big, especially because the watch, the design itself, was supposed to fit the wrist, and be a comfortable, flat watch with a complicated movement. So, after looking at a few, I came across this chronograph movement. We took it and built a CAD model that actually worked for that movement. So everything is done around that single movement.
What makes it elegant? The shape, the material?
It’s really about the balance and the proportions. I wanted to keep the face not too big. When clients come into the shop and they see the watch, they’ll buy it. I have a very small amount, and I’m limited to the number of watches that we made. One of my favorites, actually, is the rose gold with the black dial. It’s a great watch with a deploying buckle. Another favorite is the lizard bands that we have. The band we made can only fit the watch, so we have other bands made specifically in France. That was a complicated thing to actually have a comfortable band with an insert that was not built out of metal but built out of a soft rubber that goes into the watches. It keeps the aerodynamic feeling.
You’re known to create pieces with bold color and material, so how does the design of the Jimmy tie into the Taffin brand?
As a man, I don’t wear jewelry. I only wear a watch and a signet ring. Most of the jewelry I design, though large in size, has a purity and simplicity in their forms. And the watches were made with the same idea. I didn’t want anything else than a shape that was pretty, functional, but also masculine. The only thing that jazzes it up a little bit is the ring around each watch. Now, we can offer a personalized color on the rim of any size with a ceramic. Without wanting to be commercial, I always felt that the guy was just gipped at the moment he came into my store. We’ve had cufflinks for a long time, but it is nice to have something else to offer when women asked me if I have something for their husbands.
It just makes sense that you keep these watches rare, and not make more.
I think it was never intended to be a commercial venture. I lost more money in making the watch, but it was never about that. We probably broke even today, but it’s never really about making money. It was really about making something and just enjoying the fact that I have some clients who live with this watch. They just wear them all the time. God forbid something happens to the watch and they bring it back. Though, I have so many movements left that if there’s an issue with a watch, I just put in a brand new movement. I don’t go through trying to fix and to send it to Switzerland. I don’t want them to wait.
So it’s really a passion project?
Yeah, it was about making my own watch. I think over time, in 30 or 40 years, it’ll become a collectible because there were just a few made. That’s good enough for me. I think that’s a great achievement.