Europa Star

François-Paul Journe, sovereign timekeeping

April 2006

“Those who know watchmaking do not make a grande sonnerie,” begins François-Paul Journe, a little maliciously, “because it is the best way to get your hands slapped. A few years ago, I made one for a ‘leading brand’, as they say, and of course it never had any problems, and for a very good reason. It never left the case it was stored in.”


These illuminating words summarize the difficulties in making a grande sonnerie (full strike). Moreover, do you see any of them on the market? Apart from Gérald Genta a long time ago, and Philippe Dufour who produced six pieces, it is very rare to find anyone who dares attack the Grail of timekeeping. People also should not confuse a ‘repeater’ watch with a ‘grande sonnerie’. A repeater, as its name implies, indicates the hours by means of a chime that is activated at will, which is, in itself, already quite remarkable. But a grande sonnerie not only chimes the hour at will, as in the repeater watch, but it also chimes the hours and quarter-hours in passing, like a clock. This means that it is a true master of complications.
“The problem,” continues François-Paul Journe, “is that it is generally necessary for a person who uses this kind of timepiece to have a degree in watchmaking in order to use it correctly. As for me, I wanted to make a grand sonnerie that an eight-year-old child could use! Therefore, I had to put up barriers everywhere, and find a new concept that would let me make a highly traditional watch, yet one that would be modern and functional.”


Forgetting everything
Faithful to his working method, François-Paul Journe began by ‘forgetting everything’, and starting with a blank slate. For three years, he thought about it, then left it aside, then picked up the idea again, until one day, he seemed to be on the right track. During the two following years, he created a ‘shuttle’ that went between his drawing board – on which he worked in two dimensions – and his technical bureau that recreated his plans in three dimensions. Once this long step was accomplished, the work on the prototype stage began. The prototype was made six to seven times until, in August 2005, the Grande Sonnerie was ready with all the desired specifications, and it proved achievable to the tune of four watches per year.
So how does this Grande Sonnerie, “easy enough for an eight-year-old child to use”, differ from all its predecessors?
First of all, the Grande Sonnerie Souveraine by François-Paul Journe has only one spring. The spring is attached to an arbour at its centre (around which it unwinds) that drives the sonnerie (strike train), while the exterior of the arbour drives the going train (in the opposite direction). This patented particularity allows the watch and the sonnerie to be wound in the traditional manner, thus unidirectional (which avoids possible unintentional and damaging manipulations).
This particularity also requires a very delicate equilibrium of the forces, managing and conserving both the autonomy of the timepiece and the force of the strike of the hammers. They strike the gong 96 times in 24 hours (if we count all the hours and quarter-hours) for a total of 600 strikes, energized internally. (By comparison, a minute repeater is armed using a latch device each time that the wearer wants to hear the chime, and it emits a maximum of 30 strikes.)
This difference alone (600 strikes as compared to a maximum of 30 strikes) is indicative of the difficulty in regulating the energy of a grande sonnerie. Contrary to others, the one by Journe does not have two barrels, but uses only one spring as described above. “Miraculously,” says François-Paul, “the forces were right the first time. In the opposite case, it would have been necessary to redo all the gears of the strike train because we cannot have too much force on the hour wheel.”


Many patents
Another aspect (also patented) of this exceptional piece is the power reserve. Should it indicate the remaining power of the movement or of the strike train? If we look at it on the dial, we notice that there are no graduations. Why?
This is because the information comes from three distinct sources: the winding, the un-winding of the movement, and the unwinding of the sonnerie. This is because the energy division differs as a function of whether or not the sonnerie is activated. In the silent strike mode, the watch has a power reserve of five days, which passes to 60 hours in the small strike mode (it chimes the hours in passing and one strike at each quarter-hour), and then to 24 chiming hours in the grande sonnerie mode (it chimes the hours in passing, while at each quarter-hour, it repeats the hour and the number of quarter-hours that have passed). After 24 hours in the grande sonnerie mode, the chime is deactivated but the watch will still run for another 24 hours in the silent strike mode.
But the ease of use of the Grande Sonnerie Souveraine and the innovations that it contains do not stop there. François-Paul Journe also wanted to make it water-resistant, which he has accomplished using a small pushbutton with a column wheel and screw-in crown. When the latter is unscrewed to adjust the hour (this can be done in both directions, which is generally not the case in a grande sonnerie), the mechanism of the chime is automatically blocked, thus avoiding any unintentional or damaging manipulation.
Another important ‘detail’ is that the arbour of the rack has been placed not on the side but at the centre of the watch, thus allowing for a larger rack than those found in a pocket watch (which is what its characteristic display allows). The result is greater comfort and more safety when handling the watch. Another innovation of this watch, where everything inside is ‘generous’, is a very rapid strike activation, also patented.
Last but not least, the gongs of this grande sonnerie are not, as is usual, circular, and as such are not placed all around in the case. They therefore do not reduce the space that is available for the movement. In fact, they are not gongs in the proper sense of the term, but rather ‘plates’ in the form of flat resonators, which have a high acoustic quality. In addition, they can be seen through an opening in the dial.

Uncompromising design
From a design point of view, the Grande Sonnerie Souveraine, faithful to the ‘ethical’ canons, we could say, of François-Paul Journe, does not give in to the temptations of decoration. Pure, sober, with the highest degree of readability, it conceals its extreme sophistication under a modest yet impeccable appearance. If its case is made of steel (the only FP Journe timepiece made of this metal), it is for a very good reason. The sound is exemplary, since steel transmits sound waves much better than materials that are so-called ‘noble’ but less conductive. The surprisingly compact movement, with its powerful architecture, is constructed upon a gold plate and bridge. It can also be admired through the sapphire crystal case back. The classic beauty and quality of its finishing is enough to take your breath away.
Once again, François-Paul Journe demonstrates with this absolutely exceptional timepiece (as is its price, for that matter, which is around 650,000 Swiss francs, without taxes) that he is not one to just talk big. He has raised the art of watchmaking to one of its highest points.

Source: Europa Star April-May 2006 Magazine Issue