In the quest for the truth about what appears to be a mechanical “back to basics” movement, Europa Star asked a number of watchmakers to help navigate the complex route that leads to simplicity.
With the participation of Denis Flageollet (De Bethune), François-Paul Journe (F.P. Journe), Edouard Meylan (H. Moser & Cie), Luc Perramond (La Montre Hermès), Sandro Reginelli (Maurice Lacroix) and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht (Agenhor).
After years of mechanical excess, we appear to be witnessing a return to greater moderation, in both technical and aesthetic terms. The one-upmanship that has prompted designers and watch builders to display the guts of their timepieces, exaggerate their dimensions and pile complication upon complication has clearly abated, as we saw in Basel this year.
Simplicity, purity of line and a restrained choice of materials once again have pride of place for a wide variety of brands and creators in all price brackets.
Is this the objective reality as others see it, or is it merely a subjective impression? To clear things up in our minds, and to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon – if that is what it is – Europa Star asked a number of figures from the watchmaking world.
“The wristwatch is subject to such constraints that any additional complexity makes the watch more fragile.” Jean-Marc Wiederrecht (Agenhor)
Are we really witnessing a “back to basics” movement in watchmaking, a return to greater simplicity and moderation?
The feeling that there is a return to simplicity is widely shared, and for most observers this trend has not come as a surprise but has been gradually gaining ground over the last few years. As Luc Perramond, CEO of La Montre Hermès, notes “for a number of years now we’ve sensed a return to more authentic objects, without any superfluous technical or aesthetic features.” Sandro Reginelli, product and marketing director of Maurice Lacroix, states “The trend is very clear... We have seen it coming for some time, but it is now firmly established.”
Jean-Marc Wiedderecht of Agenhor, an independent manufacturer that works for a wide variety of clients and therefore has a very broad view of the market, has a similar take. In his view, “Yes, the number of pieces that are extremely complicated, often without any obvious reason, and that have a complex and busy aesthetic seems to be diminishing. A new ‘neo-classical’ trend based on far more discreet and above all much slimmer designs has been gaining popularity for several years.”
But Denis Flageollet, co-founder and director of the technical department of De Bethune, tempers these statements. “I hope one day to be able to confirm this, because mechanical excess causes nothing but problems, and eventually people lose interest,” he notes, implying that there is still some way to go before a greater degree of moderation is achieved.
Nevertheless, although he rejects “mechanical excess” he argues strongly for “creative excess” which “is always full of good sense and should have the ability to drive us towards simplicity. Let us be creative, and we might just achieve this ‘moderation’!”
An interesting exhortation which, as we shall see below, leads to an altogether different observation: simplicity is a complex business.
“It’s not the tools that are making movements more complicated, it’s the men looking for a competitive advantage. By acting in this way they have lost the sense of what makes an object beautiful.” Luc Perramond (La Montre Hermès)
Is this “return” to greater simplicity simply a pendulum effect, or is it here to stay? Could there be deeper societal or economic reasons for it?
“I think there has always been a place for classical, elegant design. What I believe has happened is that the extremes have changed. The bell curve has had its ends cut off and we are going back to more classical, minimalist watches,” says Edouard Meylan, the young CEO of H. Moser & Cie, a brand that is emblematic of the quest for a certain horological purity. In his opinion, the phenomenon is clearly societal and cyclical: “Luxury has existed for millennia, but the way we consume luxury has evolved. Is this a cyclical phenomenon? Of course.”
Similarly, in the eyes of Sandro Reginelli, “What we are seeing more or less everywhere is a return to origins, to authenticity. It is a strong trend, one that is not confined to the watchmaking industry. In terms of society, we are seeing a demand for legitimacy from consumers, not just aesthetic and technical legitimacy, but also in environmental and historical terms. The desire for excess is dead and buried; what people want is a return to simplicity.”
For Luc Perramond, just as obviously, it is “a general trend following years of excess and euphoria. A trend which,” he notes in passing, “is good for Hermès, a brand that has always focused on simplicity, dialogue, functionality, authenticity and restraint.”
Jean-Marc Wiederrecht also sees it as a pendulum effect. “As in the majority of sales domains, product lifespans are increasingly short. Watchmaking, for the same commercial and marketing reasons, needs to offer regular changes. We are emerging from a period of very ‘muscular’ watches; it’s only natural that the pendulum should swing quite heavily in the opposite direction,” he observes.
Denis Flageollet notes that this return to simplicity, while in his view not yet fully established, “can only be a healthy development. But I would call it more a need for balance rather than a need for simplicity, probably caused by a society that craves stability.”
François-Paul Journe dispenses with all the theorising and says it is all down to fashion. “One brand comes out with something special; people see it, some even buy it, then ten other brands follow and this creates a fashion phenomenon. Now, it doesn’t bother me, I’m not other people, I follow my own path with my own ideas and if people like them, that’s great. If not, as the singer Georges Brassens said, I put them back in my guitar.”
“The more established markets seem to be buying less ostentatious luxury than the emerging markets. Thus, as the emerging markets become more established, it is not surprising to see them trend towards the classical.” Edouard Meylan (H. Moser & Cie)
Can a return to simplicity be observed in all markets?
Denis Flageollet sees simplicity, or what he prefers to call “balance”, as a matter of education and culture. And the main driver of this evolution towards greater balance is emotion. “Through emotion, the amateur is gradually transformed into an aesthete, and the aesthete recognises perfect equilibrium. All over the world, human beings of all stripes are drawn tothis noble quest. Let’s hope their number grows every day.”
But Sandro Reginelli offers a more pragmatic view: “In a far more trivial way, this trend is largely due to the growing influence of the Asian market, particularly the Chinese market. Demand in these markets is clearly focused on the small-diameter 3-hand timepiece, which they identify today as being the hallmark of Swiss watchmaking, of the ‘Swiss made’ label.”
Edouard Meylan agrees in part, although he reverses the polarity of the discussion. In his view, “the more established markets seem to be buying less ostentatious luxury than the emerging markets.
Thus, as the emerging markets become more established, it is not surprising to see them trend towards the classical.” Two alternative points of view on the influence of one market on another. The jury is out: is the return to classicism caused by the Chinese or by the more established consumers? Probably both.
Will the trumpeted arrival of so-called “intelligent” watches have the backlash effect of confirming the return to more classical watchmaking?
It may well be the case that the observed reversion to the fundamentals of watchmaking is accentuated by the arrival of a new kind of competitor, the smart watch. It was Sandro Reginelli that gave us the most considered response to this burning question, one that Swiss watchmakers often prefer to ignore.
For him, it is “a vast debate, but one it is currently difficult to enter into. Clearly, intelligent watches – the famous smart watches that everyone is talking about – currently available as gadgets, have not yet reached technological maturity. The product still has to be defined; in the current situation it is not easy to see its added value. But without a doubt, this newcomer will bring changes to our industry.
The question is, what changes. Will its advent have the contrarian effect of strengthening classicism in the watchmaking sector, or will the two factions gradually merge? Perhaps we will see mechanical timepieces with a classic design that deliver advanced ‘smart’ technology at the same time. Looking at certain indicators, such as Apple’s interest in the traditional watchmaking industry, or the ideas of new kids on the block such as Withings, or the probable birth of the hybrid ‘mega-intelligent’ watch (this might be one of the things Apple has up its sleeve...), I would lean towards the second hypothesis. Let us just hope that when the revolution comes, it is a velvet revolution, not a bloody one. It is not in anyone’s best interests to relive what we went through in the 1970s with the arrival of quartz.”
This view is shared by Denis Flageollet, who nevertheless sees an opportunity when he notes that smart watches will lead to “a lack of emotion on the wrist, which will be compensated for by objects bearing the stamp of purity and discernment.” This view is fully shared by Edouard Meylan, for whom this new phenomenon “will certainly have an influence, even if the watches concerned are in my opinion tools rather than luxury objects. Their necessarily more ‘technical’ design should drive watchmaking towards greater classicism, in order to strengthen the demarcation.”
This point of view is further explored by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, who explains, “the appearance of this new type of object, for which displaying the time is a secondary function at best, forces us to reassess the situation.
Clearly, ‘intelligent’ watches perform or will perform tasks that are impossible to contemplate with the mechanical components of current watches. Working on this assumption, it is logical for brands to attempt to differentiate themselves from these new products by strengthening and communicating the advantages that have cemented the success of mechanical watches, such as their beauty and the extraordinary micro-techniques necessary to ensure that our good old timepieces continue to work correctly, focusing on workmanship and the use of time-honoured construction techniques.”
Luc Perramond, however, does not believe there is any mutual influence. In his opinion, “the two phenomena are not linked. They represent two different markets, whose clients have very different needs.” But in the end, nobody really knows. The borders are perhaps more permeable than we think, and “classicism” could well end up crossing over. Could Apple’s design, with its pure lines and graphical simplicity, force the watchmaking industry to differentiate itself by once again displaying its mechanical innards?
Have the extraordinarily powerful computer design tools now available helped to make movements more complex when they could have been simplified?
The quest for greater horological complexity and the addition of ever more components clearly went up a gear with the advent of computer-aided design tools, used in combination with increasingly powerful CNC machines.
The marriage of digital and mechanical technology led to the birth of highly sophisticated systems and mechanisms, accelerating the rush towards watchmaking excess.
For Denis Flageollet, the answer is obvious. “Finding solutions to problems has been made so much easier by these tools that many engineers and builders have lost sight of the original meaning of their craft, which is to find THE solution. Thankfully, many of them are also able to keep a cool head despite the power of these tools.”
For Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, computer design tools are a double-edged sword. As he explains, “The extraordinary power of the new computer tools and modern means of production (materials, machining) have made it possible to create objects that would have been impossible to produce or even to imagine until relatively recently.
This progress has often gone hand in hand with an increase in quality, and the ability to offer watches that are often more accurate and with new functions. But unfortunately, with these tools there is also a great temptation to think less, and therefore to end up with watches that are more complex than necessary and consequently more expensive and less reliable.”
This opinion is shared by Edouard Meylan, who believes that “many horological UFOs were born because of the power of these tools and new technologies such as LIGA. On a computer anything is possible, as many designers and brands have learned to their cost. In fact, it is no easy matter to turn a computer-generated design into an item that is both reliable and profitable. With any set of specifications, it is vital to set price parameters. This imposes an industrial approach, a simplifying approach, which in theory also has the advantage of increasing reliability.”
“Whatever the power or potential offered by computer technology, you must understand that all movements without exception are developed by people, not tools.” Sandro Reginelli (Maurice Lacroix)
But rather than blaming their tools, others that we contacted placed the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the people using them, an attitude Luc Perramond summed up perfectly when he said, “It’s not the tools that are making movements more complicated, it’s the men looking for a competitive advantage. By acting in this way they have lost the sense of what makes an object beautiful.”
This opinion is shared by Sandro Reginelli, who points out: “Whatever the power or potential offered by computer technology, you must understand that all movements without exception are developed by people, not tools. As a rule, complications and technical developments begin life in the creative imagination of watchmakers. Computer tools come in afterwards, by facilitating the process of development, calculation and conceptualisation, shortening the time to bring the design to market and better defining the field of possibilities.”
François-Paul Journe cuts to the heart of the debate with his usual frankness: “It is very difficult to find people in a design office who are willing to simplify. They do the drawings and then let the watchmakers sort it out for themselves! When I used to make my watches by hand, shaping the pieces with a saw and a file, I can tell you that one less piece to make was good news. That is why I have always simplified and tried to make the components serve a dual function. Over time it has become a habit.” So, is simplification in fact the logical outcome of working by hand?
“Making things simple is far more difficult than making things complicated.” François-Paul Journe (F.P. Journe)
As Ludwig Oechslin says, the quest for simplification “makes you think more.” Is achieving simplification therefore more complex, conceptually, than merely stacking components?
This paradox – that simplicity is more complex – is confirmed by all our interlocutors. “Making things simple is far more difficult than making things complicated,” says François-Paul Journe, “and those who go for complicated are not asking the right questions, they are looking for the easy way out.” Denis Flageollet puts it a different way, noting that “the quest for simplification demands greater mastery and a better understanding.”
Sandro Reginelli also raises the matter of watchmaking culture. While saying that he agrees completely with Ludwig Oechslin, whose pioneering role in this return to simplicity he acknowledges in passing, he points out: “You have to understand the fundamentals of watchmaking history in order to be able to rethink them. Certainly, the need to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and the market- and media-driven quest for innovation have probably drawn our manufacturers into something of an ‘arms race’. It is indeed so much easier and quicker to pile complications on top of each other.
But in the end we are brought back to the definition that Leonardo da Vinci came up with, way back in the Renaissance: simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Because of the new desire for simplicity that has emerged as a reaction to the headlong rush towards complication, we will be obliged to go back to the drawing board.”
Jean-Marc Wiederrecht has similar thoughts. “I completely agree with Ludwig Oechslin. The quest for the ‘simplest possible’ is absolutely essential to produce a truly beautiful horological product. Unnecessary complexity is a result of a lack of reflection, which leads to higher prices, decreased reliability and an increased need for after-sales service. Time spent on conceptualisation is vital and can sometimes be very lengthy. The construction phase should not begin until sufficient time has been allowed to consider every possible route, including the most improbable ones.
This ‘time-wasting’ in the pre-construction phase is an opportunity to decide, in the first instance, whether or not it is worth proceeding with development. Then, if the decision is taken to continue, it can be done in the simplest possible way.”
Edouard Meylan gives a concrete example of this long and difficult exercise in simplification. “Take H. Moser & Cie’s 327 movement. In the first version of this movement we had 14 different types of screws. It took three people working together to reduce this to two types of screws. The price of a screw may be negligible in comparison to the whole piece, but reducing the number of types of screws reduces assembly time, and that is far from negligible.”
By choosing simplicity, does watchmaking gain in reliability and accuracy?
Jean-Marc Wiederrecht is absolutely convinced of it. “The wristwatch is subject to such constraints that any additional complexity makes the watch more fragile. It is somewhat ironic that complex systems, for example to improve accuracy, give no better results on the wrist than simple watches that are well executed.
The theoretical advantages they are supposed to bring are cancelled out by the increased number of components. The recent Swatch Sistem51 is without a doubt the most simple automatic watch with the fewest components ever built. Despite large-scale production and highly competitive manufacturing costs (and remember, this is in Switzerland!), the watch offers very respectable functionality and performance. Its extreme simplicity has certainly played an important role in achieving these magnificent results.”
While Luc Perramond states that “mechanical complexity exponentially increases the risk of poor performance”, and Denis Flageollet responds with a resounding “absolutely!”, Sandro Reginelli is less categorical. “Not necessarily. In the future, simplicity could just be an aesthetic façade that hides technical complexities.
But in the immediate term, and from an industrial point of view, let us not forget that some brands have invested heavily in developing their current movements, with a view to making them more profitable, and this has resulted in simplicity by design.
Others are looking at simplicity in terms of the new movements they plan to build in the future, sometimes even drawing inspiration from pieces in their own in-house museums. But in the end, reliability and accuracy come with time, and prove themselves over the long term...” François-Paul Journe also has some doubts, but of another kind: “Reliability is not that simple. Simplification can increase it, but only if it is well thought-out. Simplify, yes, but not to the detriment of reliability. Beware of the pitfalls. You achieve the right balance through experience.”
Another observation is supplied by Edouard Meylan.
The CEO of Schaffhausen-based H. Moser & Cie, whose main brief was to make production of its “understated and essential” watches more reliable and profitable, offers a salutary reminder: “Let’s not forget that even for simple products, it is vital to go through all the stages of prototyping, testing, proving and automating. Simplifying a product does not mean that you simplify the process of bringing it to market.”
And that is without considering any complications that may be added before this “simple” watch can be placed in the shop window and onto the wrists of customers.
- Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, Agenhor/Van Cleef & Arpels
Among Agenhor’s many products is the Heure d’ici & Heure d’ailleurs, engineered for Van Cleef & Arpels. With its minimalist lines expressed entirely in white gold, a simple white dial with piqué detail, a retrograde minute hand displaying local time and two jump hour indicators, it has completely reinvented the concept of the dual-time watch.
Offering an immediate and perfectly legible time readout, selection of the jump hour and minute activates a single hand that stands out clearly against a completely clean background.
- De Bethune, DB29 Chronographe Monopoussoir Tourbillon
A tour de force of watchmaking simplification, both aesthetically and mechanically.
Second, minute and hour markers are arranged concentrically to improve legibility; the lugs are simplified to the extreme to optimise comfort on the wrist; an invisible hinge gives access to the double case back without affecting the purity of line; and the single button (monopoussoir) is discreetly integrated into the crown at 3 o’clock.
Turning to the movement, the chronograph’s clutch function is the subject of a patent for its simplicity and functional advantages; the frequency of the 36,000 vph tourbillon makes it easy to measure to 1/10th of a second; the tourbillon is enclosed in a U-shaped framework rather than the usual pillars, which would be too bulky to work correctly in a wristwatch; the balance is made up of a silicon centre surrounded with white gold, which is far lighter for the same inertia, and easier to calibrate than a traditional screw balance wheel; the hairspring has a simplified flat coil, which avoids the complexity of a Breguet coil but has the advantage of keeping the centre of gravity perfectly centred and preventing any deformation of the hairspring in the event of a shock.
- Dressage L’Heure Masquée, La Montre Hermès
“The Dressage L’Heure Masquée provides a means of playing with time, of forgetting time, thanks to a relatively simple mechanism with a highly sophisticated design. The subtlety of the module is the result of exhaustively studying the architecture of the movement and fitting the components together like a jigsaw puzzle,” according to Hermès. Following Le Temps Suspendu, which gave users the ability to mask the time display on demand, L’Heure Masquée does the opposite: in ‘normal’ mode, only the minute hand is visible, with just the initials GMT appearing in the lower aperture. Not very readable, in fact. It is only by activating the crown-integrated push-button that the hour hand instantly appears and moves to the correct position, while the time zone is simultaneously displayed.
- F.P. Journe, Le Chronomètre Souverain
Labelled the “antithesis of complicated watchmaking” by its creator, the Chronomètre Souverain draws its inspiration from the marine chronometry of the early 19th century. Behind a pared-down dial that features an understated play between guillochage and numbers, a hand-wound movement oscillates at 21,600 vph. Twin barrels in the classic configuration of precision watches operate in parallel, providing a force that remains stable for a large part of their official power reserve. The chronometric index-free escapement, with variable inertia spread over four weights, is regulated dynamically in six different positions. Seen through the transparent case back, the balance and escapement appear mysteriously detached from the movement, beating time with no visible means of propulsion. In fact, the wheels are located under the dial, leaving only the centre wheel to underline the splendid isolation of the balance. Architectural simplicity in the service of accuracy.
- Masterpiece Gravity, Maurice Lacroix
The Masterpiece Gravity, equipped with an automatic manufacture movement, the Calibre ML230, includes 188 components, the strict minimum required. This deliberate choice delivers a stripped-down aesthetic while increasing reliability. Its frequency of 18,000 vph (2.5 Hz) is the ideal rate for silicon, a self-lubricating material that reduces power consumption, increases accuracy and eliminates the usual need for lubrication.
The off-centre hours and minutes display is set on a white lacquered dial, domed in the centre and attached with two mirror-polished screws. The Contemporary model has diamond-cut indices while the Classical model has roman numerals. Around the outside of the dial is a flat minute rail featuring circular brushing. This cutting-edge contemporary watch tells the time in a highly creative way while engaging the emotions.
- Endeavour, H. Moser & Cie
“Innovative but very discreet. It’s all in the details,” as they say at H. Moser & Cie about their new Endeavour collection. The watch is presented in the form of a two-hand watch with small seconds, 39mm in diameter and 12.5mm deep, which is quite simply perfectly designed. Faultlessly elegant, its design owes something to the strict codes of 1920s Bauhaus, tempered with an inspired 60s touch: wide bezel, long, slim, faceted hands, a smoked rose gold, slate or silvered dial with a subtle sunburst effect, and a smoothly curved, aerodynamic case, topped with a domed glass. A perfect, rarely achieved balance. A new in-house movement, the HMC 327 calibre, offers some innovative and avant-garde features. The calibre with its traditional finish has a minimum three-day power reserve and a stop seconds function, but also features a silicon lever with ruby pallets and a silicon escape wheel.
Source: Europa Star August - September 2014 Magazine Issue