When Two Geniuses Meet: François-Paul Recounts Meeting Ray Charles

If you’ve ever attended one of F.P. Journe’s annual January shows, you might have noticed some background music playing. If you have, or haven’t, then the next time you go, try to listen closely and you might pick up on a rather well-known song called, “Georgia on my Mind” by Ray Charles. As someone who has spent full days in that lobby, I can tell you that it’s pretty much one custom soundtrack playing on repeat, and that everything you listen to was specifically chosen by Mr. Journe himself.

This brings to light an interesting story and one I have introduced in the past via my Instagram some time ago, here. I recall hearing the story through a translator the first time and well, it wasn’t very clear but it was moving as is; so much so that I couldn’t stop thinking about it ever since. I quickly developed an obsession with the thought of these two masters meeting and so, not too long ago I sat down with Mr. Journe and wanted to hear it again, directly in French, straight from him. So what follows is the story of Journe and Ray Charles, as told by François-Paul Journe.
Who was Ray Charles?

Let’s start off with a quick background regarding who Ray Charles was. Often referred to as “The Genius”, Ray Charles was a famous musician, composer, singer and songwriter who excelled in the musical genres of soul, jazz, blues and gospel, among others. Ray was born in 1930 in the American state of Georgia and was active between the years of 1947, till his death in 2004; with the 1950’s and 1960’s being his breakthrough years. Throughout his musical career Mr. Charles, collected 10 Grammy awards and what perhaps was the most captivating thing about Ray, besides his music, was that Ray was blind since the age of 7. Despite his blindness, this is a man who was collecting music awards and was praised as “the only true genius in show business” by Frank Sinatra, and quoted by others as someone who was more important in music than Elvis Presley. I would say that if you don’t recall the state of Georgia’s official song then perhaps his hit song “Hit the road Jack” might ring a few bells.

Ray Charles, 1960’s Photo: Maurice Seymour

Ray & François-Paul

When it came to Ray Charles, Mr. Journe describes him as one of his personal idols having first been attracted to his music while he was only around 16 or 17 years old. Between the two, there was a mutual friend whom Mr. Journe knew personally from his days in Paris, and who worked as Ray Charles’s manager and thus, as you could imagine by now, this meeting was bound to happen.

Surprisingly however, Mr. Journe only ever got the chance to meet Ray Charles in 2003 mentioning that he was invited many times prior but kept postponing for different reasons. There goes in 2003, Ray was in town for a show and François-Paul was sitting at a café when he got a call to come over to Ray’s hotel and meet his idol and spend what would later be simply, one memorable evening. He recalls that at the café, there was a musician whom François-Paul casually invited along saying something along the lines, “I’m heading to see Ray Charles, you want to come?”

The musician at first thought it was a joke and then obviously that lead to him going through a state of shock and then of course, a lot of excitement.

They had left the café together and proceeded to Ray’s hotel room where Mr. Journe was introduced to the famous musician and here you had the first meeting of two geniuses, each of their respective backgrounds, chatting together. Mr. Journe was introduced as a watchmaker/friend and Ray obviously needed no introduction but Mr. Journe goes on to describe the meeting in a bit more detail.

He recounts the presence of someone who was a magician, and who proceeded to perform some magic to Ray Charles which Mr. Journe remembers crystal clear. Upon relating this story he had taken my hands and performed a simulation of the exact same trick. He recalls it clearly mentioning that Ray had absolutely no clue what the trick was about and he never understood it with Journe saying, “Can you imagine performing magic to a blind man?”

The trick revolves around placing a coin in a person’s hand, then closing the hand to a fist followed by the other, empty but fisted as well, then somehow making the coin relocate from one hand to another without the person sensing it. Again, Ray understood nothing of this trick.

Ray Charles & François-Paul Journe, 2003

Mr. Journe doesn’t recall the exact discussions of the evening but notes that they spoke of many things and that it was a good vibe. Being blind, Ray had somewhat of a sixth sense regarding people he met. He would often feel some sort of an “energy” by touching another person’s arm and as Journe describes, “As long as he held your arm then you knew he was enjoying your company.”

I asked Mr. Journe how long their discussions went on for and I recall an answer along the lines of 2 hours or thereabout.
The Watch

Perhaps what might be playing in your mind now is what watch was Mr. Journe wearing on such a night, and the answer is a prototype Octa Calendrier (Q). The Q was first released in 2003 to the public with a brass movement but this specific model actually had two prototypes. The first had a brass movement and the second one had a black dial, platinum bracelet and an 18k rose gold movement that was outsourced as a trial. It was this 18k rose gold movement Q that Journe was wearing but it had a slight fault in that upon casing up the watch, Journe spotted a slight misalignment between the sapphire crystal and the case. From my understanding it was either a gap or slightly unlevelled and Journe figured that it was a prototype and nobody would notice so he cased it up and wore it.

During their meeting, as Ray was blind, he used his incredible sense of touch to feel the watch and while he said absolutely nothing, it was Mr. Journe who thought to himself as (my words) “a deer in headlights”. He thought that he could get away with a gap that nobody would notice but he certainly didn’t plan that one of his idols would come to feel it, which was a bit disappointing to him.

During a recent trip to Geneva, I asked Mr. Journe to show me the watch he wore that night and he pulled it out for me to observe. I took some pictures of it and when he came back to pick it up he was explaining to me what was wrong with it. As he picked up the watch to return it to its storage he told me in a somewhat disappointed tone:

“It was a blind man who noticed this.”

The Octa Calendrier worn by Mr. Journe when meeting Ray Charles. Currently a property of the Montres Journe Museum

The Planned Watch

François-Paul remembers that among some of his watches, Ray had a Patek Minute Repeater and his more-worn watch was an electronic watch that spoke the time. Following that evening, Mr. Journe decided to make a watch for Ray by sourcing the same electronic movement in Ray’s watch but, casing it in a case designed and made by Mr. Journe himself. As he was in Switzerland, the movement itself was easy to find but there was one problem; they were mostly in French and so the process took a little longer than anticipated however, he finally was able to source an English-speaking movement.

Unfortunately, shortly after, Mr. Journe received the call that Ray had passed away and so his goal of gifting Ray Charles a watch had ceased. Today, François-Paul still has the movement but he never made the watch nor has he ever drawn what it would have looked like saying, “It stays in my head. It was meant for Ray Charles but Ray is dead. If he is dead then he is dead and there is no reason for me to draw it or make it.”

When I asked if he would ever reconsider, he explained that since the watch was meant for Ray and Ray alone, it would be disrespectful for him to make it for anyone else.
Additional Thoughts

Mr. Journe is a man of few words but everytime he speaks or mentions a story he always leaves me absolutely speechless, quite literally as if someone smacked me across the face. The first time I heard this story I stayed up the whole night just thinking and imagining; how it had occurred that two masters of their craft would come to meet one day.

Prior to first writing about this specific story, I requested permission from Mr. Journe wondering if I could share it and he simply said, “Why? I never made the watch anyways…”

Yet, it wasn’t the watch I was interested in the most but rather, it was the story that he told as a whole. Mr. Journe had let a tiny detail pass in certainty that nobody would have noticed it but was stricken when a blind man, in this case his idol, would go on to feel a work of his that was short of perfect. In fact, Journe recalls this evening every time he finishes casing up any watch with a habit he developed as a result of it; going over the case and sapphire with his finger to ensure that he never lets anything slip past him and that he never makes that mistake again. He does it in memory of Ray Charles, his idol.

Mr. Journe never attended any of Ray’s concerts simply because he doesn’t enjoy concert vibes but when asked what makes Ray Charles his idol and what his favorite song was he replied with:

“Ray was a professional and perfectionist. He excelled at his profession and he took his work very seriously. He was a professional who never cancelled a single concert in his life by choice. He was a true professional and nobody was like him. My favorite song is “Georgia on my Mind” because that is a song that could only be sung by Ray Charles. Nobody after him could ever do it any justice, it was Ray’s song and Ray’s alone.”

Mr. Journe only ever met Ray once in his life but was invited several times after, yet he kept postponing to the next chance. Unfortunately, while he kept postponing to another time, one day he got the call that there wouldn’t be another time because Ray had died.

“I only met Ray once, but it was enough for me. I never felt like he was someone you had to meet several times to remember and really know. All it took was one visit with Ray Charles and you immediately felt the moment and cherished it,” he told me.

Ray Charles, 1983 Photo: Rob Bogaerts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *