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The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

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November 2008


After coming back from the spring watch shows, and having seen so many watches and having touched, held, examined, and turned them in every conceivable sense, we had the impression that we also had turned into a tourbillon. There were doubles, triples, multi-axials, off-centred, spherical—just about everything you can imagine. Stop, stop! In the end, a little pull of gravity is just what we needed to come down to earth. Now back on terra firma, let’s try to separate the watchmaking wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
So, where do we begin? By the most extravagant timepieces—and there was no lack of them at the shows—or, on the contrary, by the purest and simplest examples?
At first glance, it was the many dozens of ‘concept watches’ that dominated the conversations in the aisles of BaselWorld and the SIHH, as well as in the corridors of many of Geneva’s grand hotels where some of the independent brands showcased their products. These ‘watches’—assuming that we can even call some of them ‘watches’—have assuredly marked a turning point in the history of timekeeping. Or, is this phenomenon just simply a departure from the universe of watchmaking as we know it?

Who are the most conformist?
We can legitimately ask this question since, after having felt so many unconventional objects and been surprised by the size, thickness, volumes, weight, and extravagance of the pieces shown to us, we felt a form of relief—even reassurance—when a watchmaker handed us a refined, pure, classical, and well-proportioned timekeeper that was masterfully finished. In their own way, these timepieces ‘were a sight for sore eyes.’
In fact, these are two radically different horological concepts, going beyond time itself, which are in complete opposition to each other. Are we witnessing a watchmaking remake of the historic ‘Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns’? The answer is not so simple because, in this case, the ‘Moderns’ are not necessarily the ones that we might think, while the ‘Ancients’ are sometimes those that demonstrate the greatest degree of daring innovation.
A brief look back at history may serve to elucidate the present situation. In the famous ‘Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes’ (the literary and artistic quarrel that heated up in the early 1690s in the France of Louis XIV), the ‘Moderns’ wanted to eliminate the traditions of the past, replacing them with new artistic forms that would better celebrate the glory of their Sovereign, the Sun King. Contrary to appearances, however, they were, in fact, the most conformist and conventional of the two groups. On the other hand, the ‘Ancients’, under the guise of accepted classical authors, often masked the strongest and fiercest criticism of the political regime.
In any given situation, without having a veritable perspective, it is not always easy to determine the true conformism of an era—it is not always where you would expect it. Aren’t the most conformist those who desire to differentiate themselves by their originality, at any price? Are we not witnessing today a new ‘conformism’ in terms of extravagance? We could also say that this is a conformism of the nouveaux riches. Why? For the most part, these watchmaking ‘talking pieces’, sold in quantities of a few dozen, at prices upwards of hundreds of thousands of euros, will end up on the wrists of the ‘new’ emerging millionaires and billionaires around the planet.

Beyond appearances
Yet, this parallel must be made with caution as things are always more complex than they appear. Examples of ‘Ancient’ and ‘Modern’ are often happily mixed even within a given brand’s same production. Let’s try, then, to dig down below the surface. In this endeavour, we will place our watchmakers into three categories: ‘beautiful and classic timekeeping’, ‘watchmaking innovation’, and ‘beyond watchmaking’. We realize, however, that these three classifications are often overlapping and sometimes a single watchmaker can make models from the opposite camps. In other words, there is sometimes an ‘Ancient’ in the ‘Modern’ category, and a ‘Modern’ which functions like an ‘Ancient’.
To illustrate this, let’s compare two watches from the shows (both remarkable for selected attributes) that seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. On my left, in the Ancient cat-egory, is the Répétition Minutes Souveraine by François-Paul Journe. On my right, in the Modern group, is a ‘UFO’: the WX-1 by DeWitt. Which watch is the most revolutionary?

Répétition Minutes Souveraine versus the WX-1
Contrary to all appearances and in spite of all the commentaries that we might hear around us, the most revolutionary is F.P. Journe’s Répétition Minutes Souveraine, a watch that has crossed into new timekeeping territory. With his consist-ent and resolute exploration into the fundamentals of the most classic forms of haute horlogerie, Journe has pushed the boundaries of timekeeping by integrating a minute repeater into a movement whose total thickness is barely 4mm. He has thus succeeded in placing a grand complication—composed of 301 component parts—into the equivalent of a thin and uncomplicated manual-winding calibre. To accomplish this feat, Journe came up with an original system of striking racks and hammers whose configuration takes up less space. In addition, he used a flat gong, which he already employed in his Grande Sonnerie, and mounted it under the dial instead of along the rim of the movement as is the case for traditional gongs. In this way, he not only obtained a larger space for the mechanism but he also succeeded in producing a loud and crystal clear sound. Following his own special logic, which favours functionality and timekeeping performance and, in this particular case, sound quality, Journe chose a steel case (it offers better acoustics) to accommodate his extra-flat minute repeater. In order to gain better energy stability, he used two barrels in parallel, which provide a power reserve of 56 hours.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

RÉPÉTITION MINUTE SOUVERAINE by F.P. Journe

The form of the case, the material, and the architecture of the movement all work together towards the same goal. In other words, nothing is gratuitous. As Journe himself says, “when you practice watchmaking, you do not make mechanical sculptures. Producing toys is another profession. It is not mine.”
For those, however, who are looking for a mechanical sculpture or a ‘toy’ for the big boys (and rich boys, at that, since the retail price is 650,000 Swiss francs), then look no further than the WX-1 by De Witt. According to Jérôme DeWitt, this incredible timepiece is really “a different type of watch and is, in reality, far more than a watch. It is a contemporary objet d’art, which confers a new dimension upon the universe of timekeeping.”
We cannot imagine an approach that is more opposed to that of François-Paul Journe. The desired goal of DeWitt has nothing to do with a continual improvement in timekeeping performance. Rather, it aims to construct a multi-dimensional object whose ultimate objective is not simply to achieve watchmaking quality in itself, or even simply being able to tell or chime the time. This piece goes beyond normal watchmaking. It represents a sort of post-watchmaking.
Is decoupling the object from its function the goal of the ‘Moderns’? Conceptually, the WX-1 effectively dissociates the display of information—hours and minutes—from the ‘movement motor’, which is placed laterally and vertically under a sort of ‘hood’ or ‘bonnet’ that can be slid open to expose the five barrels, gear train, tourbillon carriage, and winding device. It is nearly impossible to depict in detail this “contemporary watchmaking objet d’art” as it is described by its creators, Jérôme De Witt and French architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who brought his architectural knowledge and skills to the project.
The framework—it is no longer a mere case—of the WX-1 is an architectural structure that lies somewhere between a Nautilus submarine and a Star Wars drone. Composed of 370 components made of titanium, eloxed aluminium, and pink gold, this piece weighs only 191 grammes but don’t even think about trying to pass through an airport’s metal detector with it on your wrist, as you will be immediately incarcerated at Guantanamo. The WX-1 is delivered with a desk stand evocative of the Eiffel Tower, thus transforming it into a desk clock.
Winding the five barrels is accomplished in a few dozen seconds by using an electronically-driven tool that is inserted into one of the two ‘chimneys’ located on the back of the case, like two reactors. Another opening offers a lateral view of the vertical tourbillon regulator.
With the WX-1, we are way beyond the limits of normal timekeeping and the criteria for judging an object such as this are obviously quite different than conventional standards. Whether you find this piece fascinating or unsightly is not really important. What is significant is that the WX-1 poses a central question, the question of the ‘Moderns’. By going beyond the norms of watchmaking and trying to draw closer to ‘art’, does this then become a form of gratuitousness or perhaps even vanity? Or is it a sort of subconscious homage to the emptiness of our era?

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

WX-1 by DeWitt

Tourbillons in orbit
Having asked this question, let’s continue to explore the shows. Oh, here we are at the tourbillons. These devices have become so commonplace that a tourbillon can almost be compared to a poor relative. Among these devices, we again find the famous ‘Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns’, which opposes the approaches taken by a brand such as Greubel Forsey, for example, to those of Zenith, with its Zero-G (zero gravity) gyroscopic cage tourbillon, or Concord, with its C1 Gravity Tourbillon, among others.
As in the case of Journe, the goal of Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey is to remain on the paths of watchmaking, while advancing the art as far as possible. “Our adventure began by our refusal to accept the declaration of our professors who insisted that “Everything has already been done in watchmaking,” explains Stephen Forsey. Their refusal to believe that the state of watchmaking could no longer progress served as the basis for the approach taken by this timekeeping duo. They want to push the boundaries even further, while adding nothing gratuitous, in their quest for better chronometry, technical advancement, and architectural quality. For these two men, these objectives naturally go together, and the result is a series of timepieces: the 30° Double Tourbillon; the 24 Seconds Inclined Tourbillon, designed to neutralize operational deviations; the Spherical Differential Quadruple Tourbillon, which doubled the chronometric performance of the two regulating organs; and the upcoming Equality Differential Tourbillon, which will dispense a constant force to the regulating organs.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

SPHERICAL DIFFERENTIAL QUADRUPLE TOURBILLON by Greubel Forsey

While the efforts of Greubel and Forsey revolve around fundamental research, they also reflect the desire to have perfectly mastered forms. A coherent aesthetic purity is intimately tied to the technical nature of the piece. Their beautiful and wearable pieces are released on a regular basis, with no consideration given to the ‘marketing’ of the product. They may be ‘Ancients’, but this talented duo is decidedly among the most “Modern” of today’s watchmakers.
In opposition to Greubel Forsey’s patient and consistent approach, we find the ‘Modern’ tourbillons of Zenith’s Zero-G and Concord’s C1 Gravity. As amazing and innovative as these tourbillons may seem—they have spectacularly overcome many obstacles—their practical effectiveness remains to be demonstrated. (In this regard, we dream of a chronometric competition organized only for tourbillons.) After seeing Zenith’s Zero-G gyrating in all directions, you cannot help but realize that this watch is truly dazzling. Its contemporary and multi-layered Defy Xtreme case is made of innovative materials such as Hesalite glass, carbon fibre, aluminium, and blackened ti-tanium. The gyroscope cage—made of 166 components—is mounted on cardan joints, like those used in ancient marine chrono-meters, which lets it gyrate endlessly at the slightest movement. While everything else seems to move about in all directions depending on the position of the wrist, the regulating organ is always maintained in a constant horizontal position. The overall system functions because of an ingenious invention patented by Zenith. It joins the vertical and horizontal planes together using conical geared wheels with spiral teeth that inverse and compensate for the movements of the frame.
The same concept of linking the horizontal and vertical planes is used, although quite differently, in the C1 Tourbillon Gravity. This cal-ibre was specially developed for Concord by the ‘alchemists’ at BNB Concept. Faithful to the ‘Modern’ style in its decoupling of the functions, the tourbillon of the C1 Gravity is placed in a vertical position on the outside of the dial and case, making it seem that it was ‘liberated from the mechanism’ to which it is connected by a perpendicular pinion. Attached to the aluminium-lithium tourbillon cage, which rotates once a minute, a solid black aluminium strip engraved with the numerals displays the seconds. Placing the tourbillon on the side of the watch opens up the multi-layered dial to accommodate the various functions: hour, minute, power reserve indicator, trust index, and flyback chronograph.
The ‘warrior’ terminology employed by Concord to describe its tourbillon reveals the brand’s intentions to conquer the market. Among the notable phrases are ‘daring, cutting-edge stage-setting’, ‘insolent construction’, ‘an authoritative and almost martial stature’, and ‘an element besieging the watch, it asserts its presence and looks all set to conquer the case’.
Concord confidently describes its piece as ‘verging on madness, well beyond the scope of tradition, at the heart of reform, and well ahead of its time’. Indeed. When one speaks of ‘reform’, however, it is necessary to explain precisely what the term means, and what exactly is being ‘reformed’. We might also ask if these tourbillons are still ‘tourbillons’ in the strict sense of the term, meaning those as defined by Breguet. According to his centuries-old patent, the rotation of the tourbillon cage, which contains the balance and escapement, is driven by a unique set of gears and turns in the line of the oscillating axis. The pivot of the mobile cage is thus on the same line as the pivot of the balance. This is no longer the case.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

C1 GRAVITY by Concord, ZERO-G by Zenith

The carrousel joins the dance
In an attempt to settle this debate (in passing, it seems that most buyers of ‘tourbillons’ don’t really care about this controversy), the anarcho-watchmaker, Vincent Calabrese—who moved lock, stock, and barrel to Blancpain—has created not a ‘tourbillon’ but a ‘carrousel’.
Without going into too much technical detail, let’s just say that the carrousel, invented in 1892 by Bahne Bonniksen of Denmark, is different from a tourbillon in the sense that it is linked to the barrel by two different gear trains. The transmission of energy is thus separated from its counting. In the event that a tourbillon stops, the entire watch stops, but this does not happen in the carrousel. The innovation in the Blancpain Carrousel is the development of a system that ensures the rotation of the carriage in 60 seconds, which was not the case for earlier carrousels.
The Danish watchmaker created the carrousel in the aim of providing a level of precision comparable to that of a tourbillon, but which would be simpler to fabricate. As it turned out, the carrousel proved very complex to produce and the device was gradually abandoned.
In the case of Blancpain’s carrousel, this device does not really resolve the debate among initiates because not only does it rotate in one minute, which was, up to now, only reserved for the tourbillon, but its balance is also at the centre of the carriage, just like in a tourbillon.
Quite possibly, though, this device will open new avenues of research, and Blancpain has not hesitated in announcing ‘the arrival of a new family of timekeepers’.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

CARROUSEL by Blancpain

Departure from watchmaking
With the carrousel, we still are in the category of pure watchmaking, even if it is both ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ at the same time. This is a far cry from the activities of someone like Romain Jerome who made headlines with his Day & Night Double Tourbillon, a device with two carriages that function alternately. Developed by BNB Concept (yes, them again!), Romain Jérôme transformed this invention to create ‘an exceptional timekeeper that doesn’t tell the time’. Devoid of all the ‘basic’ indications, namely the hour, minute, and second, it frees up space for two alternate periods of 12 hours.
Their stated claim of ‘departing from watchmaking’ seems to be right in tune with market demands, judging from Jérôme’s revelation that he received “50 million Swiss francs worth of orders at his minuscule stand of 32 square metres during BaselWorld” for his controversial timepieces, the Titanic DNA, “which have been on the market for only the last five months.”
The success, at least in terms of notoriety, of the Day & Night Tourbillon, (which only retains a sort of mechanical animation from the art of watchmaking and is nearly devoid of all timekeeping functions) is emblematic of a conceptual turning point in watchmaking. Driven by marketing considerations, it is, in my opinion, the clearest sign that a watchmaking bubble is forming.
In this same vein, we discovered a large number of young brands at the spring fairs, which are nearly all embarking on the same route: large pieces displaying all the exterior signs of modernity (bold forms, mix of materials, superlative functions, views of the movement, tri-dimensionality of the dials, a predilection for pink gold and the colour black); targeting the high-end of the market (tourbillons, flyback chronographs, minute repeaters, per-petual calendars); all claiming to be ‘avant-garde’, at least in terms of price since, for the vast majority, timepieces from still unknown brands are selling, at a minimum, in the five to six figure range.
When the ‘avant-garde’ becomes so overcrowded and dominant, we can legitimately ask ourselves if it still represents the avant-garde or if it has, in fact, not simply become the prevailing conformism. While we can and should salute the great creativity that drives watchmaking today, we must also try to differentiate what is really creative from what is, to all appearances, a generalized trend.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

DAY & NIGHT DOUBLE TOURBILLON by Romain Jerome, OPUS 8 by Harry Winston

Playful and poetic
The most playful and whimsical pieces are not always the most creative, although some certainly are. One example of the latter is the very amazing Opus 8 by Harry Winston Rare Timepieces. The Opus 8 epitomizes the joys of an unbridled imagination, even if its ultimate function is to tell the hour and the minute—or more precisely the nearest five minutes.
In the Opus 8, the hour is shown, as if by magic, by digitally expressed numbers (for example, 20h00 is expressed by 08PM). Upon request (a slide activates the demand), the hour appears and is displayed in relief on a plate that a few seconds earlier seemed to be perfectly flat, showing only a regularly engraved motif. Seeing the number appear in three-dimensions is quite simply magical!
As for the minutes, they are indicated on the right side of the case in a vertical scale graduated in five-minute intervals where a marker moves from one interval to the next. While this may not be absolutely precise, it is, despite appearances, absolutely mechanical.
This remarkable feat results from the creative enthusiasm of a watchmaking outsider, Frédéric Garinaud. A graduate of the French Naval Academy with training as an onboard mechanic, he attended the Conservatoire des Arts & Métiers in Lyon and became a specialist in galvanoplasty. Garinaud entered the world of timekeeping in 2001 when he joined Renaud & Papi, the ‘laboratory’ for Audemars Piguet, where he founded the Watchmaking Specialties Unit (Cellule des Spécialités Horlogères) in 2005. His relative freshness, compared to the weight of tradition, undoubtedly allowed him to work unfettered by ‘determinism’. A child of his century (he was born in 1971), he proposed a very pop art vision of watchmaking for the Opus 8. His watch resembles a large cathode ray tube television with segmented numbers that seem to be engraved on a plate reminiscent of the first digital screens.
The fact that the Opus 8 was inspired from pin art games (in which 3D images are created from objects pressed into them) is not mere chance. (Europa Star will return to this amazing piece in the next issue.) The Opus 8 is representive of a playful segment of watchmaking made possible by the use of advanced technology. In this regard, we also think of the latest creations by de Grisogono, which we discussed in our last issue. So, let’s not deny ourselves the pleasure of enjoying these types of timepieces. Watchmaking can be humorous and full of (technical) fun.
On the subject of playfulness—and even poetry—we might mention in passing a very lovely and charming realization, the Hermès Grandes Heures. While it is not a highly complex watch, it nonetheless involves a technical innovation in how the time is read: subjective and ultra-personal. The distance, around the edge of the watch, that separates the hour indications is not at the customary regular intervals but varies as a function of the hours that are most import-ant to the wearer. For example, while 12 o’clock is always at its right place, 1 o’clock may be at 2 o’clock, and 2 o’clock may be at 3 o’clock, then 3, 4, and 5 o’clock squeeze up against the next hour until 6 o’clock, as if these important working hours should pass more quickly.

The password: silicon
Moving away from these lovely examples of timely poetry, let’s return to more technological innovations. One word that was brandished about the spring shows like a watchmaking ‘open sesame’ was ‘silicon’. We heard it at Ulysse Nardin, at Chopard (with a new high frequency movement made of silicon), at Frédérique Constant, Girard-Perregaux, and at Patek Philippe.
Now, a new threshold has been crossed. We have passed from the ‘simple’ utilization of silicon as a replacement for other materials to the creation of new escapement geometries, as exemplified by Patek Philippe, or even to the development of new and totally original escapements by Girard-Perregaux. During a well-attended and highly technical conference, the Patek Philippe Advanced Research unit presented its third innovation, the Pulsomax® escapement. The principle of the Pulsomax® is similar to that of a classic Swiss lever escapement but has the added advantage of improving the performance by optimizing its operation using new and exclusive geometries. The new levers are cut, or more exactly created in a Plasma DRIE etching process that allows for the machining of components made of Silinvar® (a patented ma-terial obtained from pure silicon in a patented vacuum oxidation process that has temperature-compensating characteristics) on a second horizontal plane. This new lever therefore no longer needs to be fitted with ruby pallets. The pallets have been integrated into the lever itself whose entire geometry has been redesigned (each of the two pallets has its own shape). The lever is connected to a new escape wheel, also made of Silinvar“, which has been reconfigured to have 16 teeth instead of the traditional 20. The DRIE process allows for the realization of unusual, minuscule, and precise shapes whose tolerances are half of those made with traditional methods.
The result, according to the watchmakers at Patek Philippe, is greater energy transmission to the balance, optimized efficiency because of improved isochronism (Patek Philippe claims a 30 percent increase in power reserve, which means that a watch with a power reserve of 48 hours would now run for 62 hours), significant and measurable improvements in reliability over the long term, without lubricants. This escapement (the first to be 100-percent made by Patek Philippe—a comfort to the independence of the family company) will equip the third generation of watches entitled ‘Patek Philippe Advanced Research’. Produced in a limited series of 300, under Reference 5450, they will feature a platinum case, automatic winding movement, annual calendar, lunar phases, and a power reserve indicator.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

PULSOMAX®, 5450P by Patek Philippe

The Constant Escapement
Girard-Perregaux followed a much more daring path, unconcerned with improving the tried and tested Swiss lever escapement. Instead, the brand’s goal was to create a totally new, original, and incredible escapement. The result is the Constant Escapement. Its design can be qualified as ‘revolutionary’ since its architecture is not only radically different from the Swiss lever—and every other—escapement, but its operational principle is also completely different.
To understand how it works, think back to your childhood and a toy that you made jump as you pressed on a curved metal strip. As the strip changed form, it acted like a spring and propelled the toy forward. In the Constant Escapement, a bistable blade allows for the distribution of energy with a constant amplitude and constant rate right up to the end of the power reserve. Finer than a human hair, the blade is created using the DRIE silicon etching technology. It is integrated into the frame that supports it and together they form the escapement spring. This spring works like a micro-accumulator of energy. At each alternance of the oscillator, it stores the energy, then frees it by passing from a stable state to a second ‘metastable’ state (exactly like the metal strip in the toy, which, when you push on it, passes from a ‘stable’ state to a second ‘metastable’ state, and the toy jumps forward).
Delivering constant force impulsions, thus allowing a constant amplitude and constant rate despite the variations in received energy. (Pressing harder on your toy’s metal strip does not change the amplitude of the toy’s jump.) In designing their new invention, the watchmakers at Girard-Perregaux had to obviously rethink the architecture and geometry of the entire escapement. The six-toothed escapement wheels, winding lever, detent lever, and the double plate are all arranged in a completely new manner. (Europa Star will return to this innovation in more detail in its next issue.) With this new escapement, Girard-Perregaux intends, over the long term, to succeed in reaching ‘unequalled’ chronometry.
Returning to our comparison of the ‘Ancients’ and the ‘Moderns’, we find that Girard-Perregaux, Patek Philippe, and Ulysse Nardin are three great ‘Ancients’ that are nonetheless truly avant-garde—an ‘avant-garde’ that does not limit itself to cosmetics or depart from the art of timekeeping. On the contrary, these companies are diving into it even deeper.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

THE CONSTANT ESCAPEMENT by Girard-Perregaux

Japanese beauty and technology
In its own way, a great historic brand like Seiko (this ‘Ancient’ dates back to 1881) is also diving deeper into the art of timekeeping. In this case, Seiko is mixing the avant-garde of chronometric research (the Spring Drive movement) with respected traditions in decoration.
The success of the Spring Drive Sonnerie has already shown that Seiko can offer a completely Japanese alternative to Swiss haute horlogerie. In this case, it is the slow and quasi-Buddhist sound of the chime as well as the highly original decoration of the movement with Japanese motifs.
In addition to the limited editions of the new Spring Drive Moonphase and Spring Drive Chrono, whose design and decorative refinement have taken another step forward, Seiko introduced, in the privacy of its spectacular new stand, a marvellous small round Spring Drive. Alas, this manual-winding watch with a platinum case will only be distributed in Japan.
The watchmakers of the brand’s Micro Artist Studio can only produce five examples of this new watch per year. Its magnificent and immaculate dial is made of traditional Muritake porcelain on which the very delicate hour markers have been painted by hand. Adding a touch of modernity, two oversized Arabic numerals have been lithographed and appear only faintly depending on how the light hits the dial. Turning the watch over, we are impressed by the beauty of the decoration on the movement. The finishing is absolutely perfect. Even the inside of the barrel has been polished (to decrease friction). The only el-ement that has not been manually polished is the main spring. The jewels have not been moulded but cut out. Between the bridges, we can almost imagine a small river flowing, its banks dotted with flowers.
On a technical note, the ‘glide wheel’ that guides the hands which move without the slightest jerk—even those imperceptible to the eye as in traditional watches—has been optimized. Its centre is made of aluminium, in order to make it as light as possible, while its exterior is in 18 carat gold to make it heavier. The working reserve attains 60 hours thanks to a new and original ‘torque return system’ that allows for the excess torque to be returned to the barrel spring. When the torque is at its lowest point, a pawl stops the system. Again, technical invention respectfully works with the art of watchmaking—with no gratuitousness—and for the better.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

CREDOR TORQUE RETURN by Seiko

A. Lange & Söhne sets the hands to the right time
You can also see this approach at A. Lange & Söhne, a brand that, with its Cabaret Tourbillon, has caught everyone out. A few years ago, when Europa Star, well before the others, dared to scientifically cast doubt on the utility of the tourbillon in a wristwatch, there was a general outcry. We were accused of trying to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs (since then, this prolific bird of fowl has laid many, many dozens of golden eggs).
The rate accuracy of a wristwatch that a tourbillon provides has remained in dispute, even if everyone knew that the device was not totally precise. But A. Lange & Söhne asked the important question that no one else had: “If the tourbillon watch offers superior rate accuracy, why hasn’t anyone yet invented a device allowing the tourbillon to be instan-taneously stopped in order to set the time to the precise second?”
The German brand answered its own question brilliantly and concretely with the first stop-seconds mechanism ever to be integrated into a tourbillon movement. Dismissing the option of mechanically stopping the entire tourbillon cage that would result in a fatal decrease in amplitude, the watchmakers at A. Lange & Söhne opted for a mechanism that would directly and instantaneously stop the balance inside the carriage, thus preserving the potential energy of the balance spring during the stopping process. Theory was one thing, making it work was another.
Their solution is not simple to describe, but basically it involves an arresting spring with two dissimilar arms in the shape of a ‘V’. When the crown is pulled, the spring is activated and its two arms come to rest on the screw balance. This braking spring is mounted on a hinge in such a way that, even if one of the three pillars of the tourbillon carriage (which continues to rotate) touches one of the two arms of the arresting spring, the other is lowered to the rim to stop the balance. The curvature of the braking spring was defined empirically during a long series of tests. Its two ends are bent in a way that prevents any unintentional engagement during operation. As soon as the ‘brake’ is released, the balance immediately continues to oscillate.
For the first time in the history of watchmaking, we can now adjust a tourbillon to the exact second. A wonderful demonstration of precision, this mechanism equips the superb manual-winding Cabaret Tourbillon, with a double barrel that provides a working reserve of five days. The case is available in either platinum or pink gold.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

CABARET TOURBILLON by A. Lange & Söhne

Masterly skill
A similar demonstration combining technical excellence and aesthetics is offered by Patek Philippe with its Grande Complication, featuring a minute repeater and an instant per-petual calendar, viewed through original windows, as well as a tourbillon at the back of the movement. The brand has also added lunar phase and day/night indicators, also visible through windows.
The great elegance of this watch resides in its obvious restraint and purity, which provide amazing readability and functionality. Its most remarkable feature is the instantaneous change of the calendar indications, which takes place precisely at midnight. The complex mechanism of the perpetual calendar, which is made up of 212 components, was designed as a module to fit a previous movement, the Calibre R TO 27 PS, which now has become the R TO 27 PS QI.
At the heart of this calibre, a spring motor ensures the execution of all the watch’s functions over a period of 48 hours. This includes the change of the calendar indications that are displayed not by hands but with discs, thus requiring a much greater force. Control of this instantaneous and collective change is assured by a large lever, commanded by a four-tiered rack, which ‘works jointly with a month lever, positions the year programming cam, and is itself connected to other commutation cams via articulated arms.’
Moreover, a system of two springs with the same force, but acting in two opposing directions, controls the variable force required to change the indications, depending on the length of the months and whether the year is a leap year or not. This complex device, as well as the large lever, are both patent-pending.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

5207 by Patek Philippe

Classicism revisited
Besides this exceptional timepiece, the vision of Patek Philippe’s ‘current’ 2008 collection was an antidote to the stylistic effusion that we encountered throughout all the spring fairs. The brand’s quest for the highest level of equilibrium, the greatest harmony in proportions, and the refinement in the finishing are among the many parameters that define what can be called ‘classicism’, or in other words, timelessness.
This return to classicism is one of the great paradoxes of today’s watchmaking offer. It was evident among many brands, which, while proposing truly mind-boggling timekeepers, still maintained other more subtle, refined, and elegant timepieces in their line-up. Zenith is one such example. Along with the most ‘Xtreme’ pieces, Thierry Nataf also presented a series of very lovely watches in the brand’s Class collections that evoke great purity, displaying the hour, minute, and seconds, on a clou de Paris decoration, or triple dates, on perfectly proportioned timepieces. “We are revisiting the classics and adding very slight modern touches,” explains Nataf.
The trend towards a return to simplicity and purity was noticeable at a number of brands. Another example is Chopard, with its very elegant L.U.C. XP on a slate dial, which combines slimness (white or pink gold 6.80mm case), performance (two barrels giving a working reserve of 65 hours), and automatic functioning (off-centred rotor in order to obtain the desired thinness).
The same brilliance in terms of thinness and classicism was found at Jaeger-LeCoultre, with its superbly minimal Master Grande Ultra Thin. Its automatic Calibre 896, featuring a variable inertia balance and ceramic ball bearings, is only 3.98mm thick.
A few swallows certainly do not make a spring, but this trend is more than a simple reactionary return to the ‘Ancients’. It rep-resents a revitalization of the art of simplicity and purity. It is in complete contradiction to the timekeeping ‘Hummer’ objects that have occupied the front pages of the watch media. Perhaps this trend prefigures a quiet change in direction for the industry.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

L.U.C. XP by Chopard, MASTER GRANDE ULTRA THIN by Jaeger-LeCoultre

Absolute vintage
Is one of these changes in direction the manifestation of the ‘vintage’ trend that continues to gain in popularity? It seems to be a little like the automobile industry where we have seen the return of the Mini, then the Fiat 500. Will the neo-2CV be next?
After TAG Heuer’s immense success with the neo-Monaco, it was Jaeger-LeCoultre’s turn to reinstate the Polaris, while IWC went even further. The brand celebrated its 140th anniversary by betting nearly exclusively on a ‘reinterpretation’ (in the words of Georges Kern) of six of the brand’s iconic timepieces: the Pilot of 1936, the Portuguese of 1939, the Engineer of 1955, the Aquatimer of 1967, the Da Vinci of 1969, and the Portofino of 1984.
At the extreme end of the vintage trend is Nicolas Hayek who reconstituted, ex nihilo (or nearly, since the watch had still not been ‘miraculously’ found), the famous Marie Antoinette timepiece—the absolute masterpiece by Breguet. You should have seen Hayek during the presentation of this watch at BaselWorld, as he interrupted the carefully elaborated communication plan (a gradual rise in anticipation produced by a series of cleverly produced films) by leaping into the crowd, like a rock star surrounded by his body guards, to show the object to the over-excited fans.

The Great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

MARIE-ANTOINETTE WATCH by Breguet

The most anticipated watch at the Spring shows was, therefore, a re-edition, or more exactly, a very remarkable and refined re-creation that is “faithful in all details to the original,” that will not even be put up for sale. “It is impossible, for the time being, to establish a realistic figure. It is priceless,” explains Nicolas Hayek.
This was an instant of triumph where the ‘Moderns’ tasted the greatest glory by revisiting the ‘Ancients’. It is another paradox, but then we know that there is no lack of them in watchmaking.

Source: Europa Star June - July 2008 Magazine Issue