time-keeper


Ludwig Oechslin

DR LESS

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March 2017


Ludwig Oechslin

“My pieces seem simple, but the intellectual path to a simple build is extremely complex. Making things simple is not the same as simplifying. For instance, it might mean designing a single part that can perform three different tasks and solve three problems.”

W

hen we ask Ludwig Oechslin about “simplification” he immediately corrects us: “My aim is not simplification per se; my aim is to make watches that are useful, reliable, precise and durable. Reducing the number of parts, and thereby simplifying the movement, is a way of achieving this. By increasing the number of parts you increase the possibility of error. Some parameters are impossible to calculate, particularly those concerned with friction. Mathematically, precision is calculable, but physically, it’s relative. In my view, functionality is more important than beauty, or the number of parts. My kind of watchmaking is completely the opposite to Haute Horlogerie.”

Dr Ludwig Oechslin is an unusual figure among the great watchmakers of our time. The former curator of the International Watchmaking Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds (MIH) is a Renaissance man, someone for whom the usual boundaries between different intellectual disciplines simply don’t exist. After graduating with degrees in Classical philosophy, Latin, Greek and archaeology, he embarked upon a watchmaking apprenticeship while simultaneously teaching himself mathematics, astronomy and mechanical engineering. He also found time to study theoretical physics as part of his studies in the philosophy of science, and was awarded a doctorate by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich for his thesis on “priest-astronomer-mechanics”.
“But what was fundamental for me,” he explains, “was the analysis I had to perform on the Farnese clock in the Vatican Museum. It is an extraordinary clock, extremely complicated, which uses several levels of epicyclic planetary gearing. What is fascinating is that Bernardo Facini, who built the Farnese clock, didn’t have all the mathematical tools he needed to calculate the gearing, so a large part of his work was based on experiment. As I worked on the clock I developed my own mathematical models, which subsequently enabled me to work out potential new systems. Having to recalculate and rebuild something according to a pre-established mechanical blueprint requires serious thought. And thanks to this analysis I was able to rediscover those lost ideas, which today have become innovative ideas.”

The Trilogy

Ludwig Oechslin’s first creation, presented in 1985, which was a direct result of this research, remains a landmark. In 1981, in collaboration with his watchmaking mentor, Jörg Spöring of Lucerne, he built an astrolabe clock. Rolf Schnyder, who had just taken over as CEO of Ulysse Nardin, asked if it could be made into a wristwatch. This became the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, which has a movement based entirely on epicycles, and which indicates the position of the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky at any given time. It also indicates sunrise and sunset, the phase of the moon, solar and lunar eclipses, the month and the day of the week. All this comes in a 40 mm case with a thickness of 12.8 mm. It requires adjusting once every 144,000 years. A phenomenal achievement.

Two further watches would follow, to complete the Astronomical Trilogy: the Planetarium, “mechanically simpler, because the five planets rotate around a single axis with a precision of several thousand years, but mathematically more complex,” and the Tellurium, which uses a coloured dome to display the daylight side of the Earth. “But I had to find an extremely slim solution to fit on the watch dial. I came up with the idea of a wire that could be deformed by means of two torque points, one at each end. The Moon is mounted on an epicycloid, so that it always faces the sun.”

In addition to these astronomical performances, Ludwig Oechslin threw himself into the pursuit of reliability, which resulted in the Perpetual Ludwig, created for Ulysse Nardin in 1996. Abandoning traditional levers in favour of the exclusive use of wheels and gears, he succeeded in eliminating all risk of user error, which until that time was the main problem with a perpetual calendar. Simplification, in the service of reliability. There followed the brilliant Freak, also for Ulysse Nardin, which appeared in 2001. The aim of this project, which took him ten years to bring to fruition, was “a simpler and more reliable escapement than the pallet escapement. I achieved this by means of an entirely symmetrical escapement: the two wheels supply the same amount of energy to a tiny central component. It’s very simple from a theoretical point of view, compared with the complex angles of a pallet escapement. It’s also easier to make, and more reliable. What’s more, there is very little friction, which makes lubrication unnecessary. We used silicon for this escapement: we needed a very strong and light material to reduce inertia.” The escapement is mounted on a carrousel, which performs one rotation per hour. “Everything is epicyclic, except for the barrel, which occupies the entire back of the watch, and provides a power reserve of eight days.

The movement is wound by means of a bezel on the back of the watch, and the time is set using the front bezel.” Simple, when you think about it. But there aren’t many people capable of thinking about it quite like that.

Radical simplification

From 2002 to 2014, Ludwig Oechslin was director and curator of the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chauxde- Fonds. When he left Ulysse Nardin he left behind all the countless ideas he had developed for them – as far as the watch industry was concerned, he worked exclusively for them. Among these ideas was one that would result in the MIH watch; it saw the light of day because Rolf Schnyder generously agreed to hand over the copyright. “I wanted to make a genuinely useful watch, with a calendar function that put the day, date and month on a single line. This could only be found on Patek Philippe pocket watches. I had to find a solution that would allow it to be big and highly readable. I moved the line to the side, because it wasn’t possible to have it in the centre. And that is how my annual calendar was born.”

But there was still so much that Oechslin wanted to do. “During my time with Ulysse Nardin I made many other proposals to Rolf Schnyder, some of which he considered ‘too simple’ for his brand. He agreed to liberate this potential so that I could use it elsewhere.”

And that is how Ochs und Junior was born.

In possession of his own brand for the first time, Oechslin had complete freedom to develop all his ideas for technical simplification and optimum legibility.

Three examples of simplification

PERPETUAL CALENDAR

For his Perpetual Calendar, which has the same perforated analogue display as the Annual Calendar, Oechslin achieved “extreme simplification” with just nine additional components, and three modified components*. This drastic reduction also means far fewer interactions between the parts, and thus superior reliability.
The Perpetual Calendar is no longer adjusted by means of a traditional pusher system, but simply via the crown. The date can thus be adjusted in both directions. It takes just 23 minutes to assemble the Perpetual Calendar watch.

Ludwig Oechslin
1. Dial* • 2. 12 hour ratchet wheel* • 3. Date disc* • 4. Baseplate for perpetual calendar mechanism • 5. Date ratchet wheel • 6. Bridge 7. Month ratchet wheel • 8. Another bridge • 9. In-between wheel • 10. Month disk • 11. 4-year ratchet wheel • 12. Additional tooth

ANNUAL CALENDAR

Oechslin’s goal is not only technical, requiring the number of parts to be reduced to a minimum; it is also functional and ergonomic, offering the simplest and most direct way of displaying calendar information. So, for his Annual Calendar, the holes in the dial serve as analogue indicators: 31 holes around the outside show the date, 7 holes at 6 o’clock display the day of the week, and 12 holes at 12 o’clock indicate the month.
The date is adjusted once a year, on 1 March. Technically, Oechslin has succeeded in designing an annual calendar mechanism with just five components (compared with the usual 150 or so):

Ludwig Oechslin
1. Dial that serves as a module in the gear system • 2. Month disc and cog with 5 teeth, double-toothed • 3. Weekday disc • 4. Collar with two fingers bonded to the hour rod 5. Date ring

MOON PHASE

Oechslin has applied the same extreme technical simplification to the moon phase function (which requires adjustment every 3,478.27 years) by offering a direct and instructive reading of the relationship between the Earth, the Sun and the Moon. The centre of the watch represents the Earth, and the golden disc at 12 o’clock represents the Sun. Full moon is indicated when the Moon is at 6 o’clock, directly opposite the Earth and the Sun. The new moon is when the Moon is hidden between the Earth and the Sun, at 12 o’clock. At that point, the Moon is represented by a black disc at 6 o’clock. There are also 31 perforations to indicate the date.

Ludwig Oechslin
An epicyclic gear train driven by a central finger (1) bonded directly to the hour pipe turns the lunar disc (2) beneath the dial counterclockwise. The central finger engages with a wheel that has 12 teeth (3), whose pinion with 14 teeth meshes with an 18-tooth wheel (4), whose pinion with 14 teeth meshes with the fixed recessed ring gear with its 109 teeth (5) machined into the underside of the dial. In addition, there is a date ring (6).
A MANIFESTO OF REDUCTION
Facts about Ochs und Junior watches
  • Concept: Rigorously simple watches by Ludwig Oechslin.
  • Unique point 1: Ludwig Oechslin creates ochs und junior watches for his own pleasure. They are not designed to meet the needs of the market.
  • Unique point 2: ochs und junior watches use gear systems to implement functions. Their turning wheels support Oechslin’s goal of displaying time horizons in analogue fashion. Traditional mechanical watches implement functions using levers and springs (and far more parts).
  • Unique point 3: Oechslin’s date spiral is designed to make the time the first information in the watch’s visual hierarchy, and to make the date readable from the same distance as the time.
  • Unique point 4: Patination and milling for dial contrast.
  • Unique point 5: Visibly machined cases, crowns and buckles that do not obscure the raw materials they use.
  • Unique point 6: No logo and no descriptive text on the dial or the case.
  • Current models: Oechslin’s perpetual calendar watch is executed with just 9 additional parts, and the date can be adjusted forwards and backwards. His moon phase watch provides 3,478.27 years of precision using 5 parts. His annual calendar watch offers analogue display of the month, date and weekday using 3 additional parts. Oechslin’s date watch has just the essentials, and his two time zones watch displays two time stories on one hand.
  • Price range: CHF 6,000 – CHF 22,000