Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?

The essence of high-end watchmaking, haute horlogerie, lies in complications

Published: Aug 3, 2010 06:46:04 AM IST
Updated: Aug 5, 2010 01:46:40 PM IST
Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?
Pushing the boundaries of the watchmaker's art

It’s Complicated
Mechanical watches are just fancy hourglasses, really. Instead of fine sand trickling from one glass chamber to the next, they have fine springs that unwind and, in the process, rotate hands on the dial.

But people don’t plonk down $10,000, $100,000 or even $1 million to buy handmade mechanical watches just so they can tell the time. Fact is, on accuracy and reliability, mass-produced battery-operated quartz watches beat the Swiss — the acknowledged supreme masters of watchmaking for at least three centuries — over three decades ago.

Shorn of the burden of competing with quartz on accuracy, Swiss watchmakers realised what they were selling wasn’t really time. It was art.

The essence of haute horlogerie (high-end watchmaking), is in its “complications” — which, simply put, are mechanisms that do more than just tell the hours, minutes or seconds. Some are, at least on the surface, straightforward: Calendars, second time zone or moon phase. Others, like the tourbillon, require basic horlogerie knowledge just to understand.

Simple or complex, behind each of them lie tens, even hundreds of tiny mechanical parts — springs, wheels, levers, gears, jewels — created and assembled  with minute precision over hundreds of hours by highly trained watchmakers who learned their craft over years.

Most complications have been around for decades, even centuries. All that differentiates one watchmaker from another is the quality of execution.

Take for instance the tourbillon, said to be invented in 1795 by Abraham-Louis Bréguet (who founded the luxury watchmaker Bréguet) to help pocket watches counter the effects of gravity. Acknowledged to be amongst the toughest of complications, it requires years of training to understand and months to construct. (It’s quite another matter that many watch historians and scientifically-inclined watch lovers think the whole gravity thing was more of an imaginary problem and tourbillons their imaginary answer.)

Essentially a way to package the escapement (which converts the continuous rotational unwinding of the mainspring into to-and-fro motion) and balance wheel (the heart of a mechanical watch, which oscillates tens of thousands of times an hour to measure time) into a single assembly that can then be rotated constantly, the tourbillon today is the centrepiece of any watch it occupies, not just an error-correcting device.

Bréguet’s tourbillon rotated on one axis; watchmakers today have created tourbillons that spin on three. Thomas Prescher, an independent watchmaker who started making his own watches from Twann in Switzerland only in 2002 has, for instance, created “flying” tourbillons (supported from only one side, they give the illusion that they are suspended in air) that operate on three axes.

Well-known brands usually prefer to play it safe, content with creating minor variations of established designs instead of taking big risks with new complications. It is boutique watchmakers, independents like Prescher, who are creating complications that are stretch the limits of what watches can do.

Connoisseurs too are increasingly drawn to independent watchmakers. Perhaps they realise that the money they pay for their watches —  ten thousand dollars and way, way upwards —  nurtures and supports talented watchmakers instead of paying for advertising campaigns, celebrity endorsements or posh retail outlets.

Besides, buyers of big-brand watches have a need that is fundamentally different from what the connoisseurs want. The former want designs that are instantly recognisable, giving them the cachet of the brand. The collectors wants uniqueness.

This frees independent watchmakers from the constraints of past designs, mass appeal or economies of scale, and expands the boundaries of watchmaking. Finding a well-crafted tourbillon or minute repeater from an extremely talented independent can be for many collectors the equivalent of investing in a Subodh Gupta (while he was still unknown) instead of an assistant-produced Damien Hirst.

This is why the complications we have chosen are all from independent watchmakers (Thomas Prescher, Urwerk, Maîtres du Temps, Rebellion, Christophe Claret) and one boutique brand that isn’t in every duty-free (de Grisogono). The complications that lie within the six watches also eschew mere reinterpretation of existing complications in favour of creating ones that truly push the boundaries of aesthetics, skill and art.


Barrel of Fun
T-1000 by Rebellion
Price: upwards of $100,000

Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?Probably the youngest of all the watchmakers in this list, Rebellion started out in 2008 in Lonay, Switzerland. In the short time since then, the company has created five watch designs, including two tourbillons. But the T-1000 is arguably the most impressive and showstopping of the collection.

The rather quirky design of the watch conceals an even more quirky mechanism that hides underneath it: Six individual mainspring (the “primary power supply” for mechanical watches) barrels connected together via a propeller shaft driving two chains on either side. The result: A power reserve of 1000 hours (most hand-wound watches offer anywhere from 40-60 hours) or enough juice to last over 40 days without a winding. When it comes to the design of the time display, it is content playing second fiddle to the six-barrel power mechanism – two vertical rollers that rotate to indicate hours and minutes.

If you think the whole shebang reminds you of motor cars, you would not be wrong. That’s exactly where Rebellion got the inspiration for the watch from.

Crazy Like a Faux
Meccanico dG (Pink Gold and Rubber) by de Grisogono
Price: ~$500,000

Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?Before it started making watches, de Grisogono spent the first seven years of its life acquiring the reputation of an edgy designer jewelry maker famous for its use of “black diamonds.” So when Fawaz Gruosi, its iconoclastic founder-designer, started making watches in 2000, many expected radical designs. They were not to be disappointed. He played around with case and dial designs, colours, complications and of course, black diamonds.

The Meccanico dG, first unveiled in 2009, de Grisogono shows that it’s not just a pretty watch face. The patented mechanism powers two time displays — analogue and digital — through a total of 651 components. What’s so unique, you ask?

Well, the ‘digital’ display is really a set of 23 micro segments driven by a complex arrangement of cams and gears. As the seconds advance, these segments rotate in perfect synchronisation to change  the ‘digital’ display.

103-T “Tarantula” (Mexican Fireleg) by Urwerk
Price: $57,000

 Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?

There were no watches in 3500 BC. Yet most Sumerians in the city of Ur got to their meetings in time, thanks to sundials.

When watchmaker Felix Baumgartner and designer Martin Frei got together in 1997 to start Urwerk, inspired by Ur, their designs would, naturally, be anything but conventional.
The 103-T “Tarantula”, the last in the line of Urwerk’s by now well-known 103 line, is an instant opinion former: Either stunningly beautiful or confusingly ugly. It tells time by having four aluminum satellites rotate simultaneously – 480 degrees every hour – while lining up in front of a minute arc. The “Tarantula” moniker comes from the arachnid-like orbital cross from which lie suspended the four satellites. The movement is manual, vibrating at 21,600 beats per hour to provide 43 hours of reserve time. The back of the watch holds a titanium “control board” that sports a chronometer, power-reserve indicator and “precision adjustment screw” for horology wonks.

But whether or not you like Frei’s design concept, you cannot but help admire Baumgartner’s workmanship. To manually power such a complex and heavy mechanism (the complication is 300 times heavier than traditional “hands”) for over 40 hours is itself an accomplishment. And then you have Urwerk’s choice of materials – bronze/beryllium, ARCAP 40 – a copper/nickel alloy and titanium.

Many Hands Make Watch
Chapter One (Red Gold/Silver Dial) by Maîtres du Temps
Price: $300,000 – 350,000

Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?What do genre-hopping band Gorillaz and Maîtres du Temps have in common? Clue: Not music or watchmaking.

Both are projects that bring together artists — musician Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett in the case of Gorillaz and master watchmakers like Peter Speake-Marin, Christophe Claret and Daniel Roth with Maîtres du Temps — to create outstanding and often unique works of art.

“Chapter One” was created by Speake-Marin and Claret and marries incredible complexity with an elegant tonneau-shaped case. I say incredible complexity because within the watch lie the following: a one-minute tourbillon, mono-pusher chronograph, retrograde date indicator, retrograde GMT indicator, day of week indicator, moon phase indicator all powered by a manual-winding movement.

Now each of those complications are complex enough for watchmakers and rewarding enough for connoisseurs to be individual watches in themselves.
Put them all together in one watch and you have yourself a watchmaking tour de force.

Watchmakers who attempt such pieces often have a tendency to render design almost as  an afterthought, in the process creating pieces that appeal to their peers much more than buyers.

The Chapter One stands out because it remains cognisant of that conflict, in the process creating a fine balance between jaw-dropping complications and graceful, almost classical design.

Mystery In An Enigma
Mysterious Double Axis Tourbillon by Thomas Prescher
Price: $335,000 – 355,000 direct from Thomas Prescher

 Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?

While Bréguet might have invented the modern tourbillon, that most intricate and mesmerising of all watch complications, in 1795, Thomas Prescher has been busy reinventing it to kingdom come on the shores of lake Biel in the Swiss town of Twann since 2002.

Once a young captain in the German Navy, Prescher traded his sailing skills for watchmaking ones over a decade-long training, internship and repair-restoration career before finally starting his own brand. In less than a decade he has created a trilogy of tourbillons that would be the envy of any watchmaker, maybe even Bréguet himself. Prescher’s single, double and triple-axis tourbillons all “fly” on a cantilevered support instead of being supported by bridges that mar their beauty.

The Mysterious Double Axis Tourbillon though is one of Prescher’s most intriguing creations. The centerpiece of the watch is a flying double-axis tourbillon supported by a “constant force” escapement, which is quite an achievement in itself. What takes the cake though is the complete absence of any mechanism around the tourbillon, as Prescher has adroitly hidden it all behind the case bezels on either side.

That’s not all. The top contains an oscillating weight connected to the calendar display, harnessing gravity to always show the right day and date to the wearer no matter how the watch is held. Finally there’s the minor thing about the hours and minutes at the bottom, time. Pfft! That’s like saying the Bugatti Veyron, the roughly $2 million automobile that pushes out 1000 horsepower to reach 400 kilometers per hour, can also take you from point A to point B.

A “mesmerising kinetic sculpture” is what Prescher terms the watch. I don’t think I could have put it better.

Stellar Debut
DualTow (NightEagle) by Christophe Claret
Price: ~$500,000

 Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?

There is a reason why Christophe Claret is on our list twice: He is known among horologists as the “complications specialist.” In the 20 years that he has been making watches, he has produced a staggering number of unique complications. But because most of them were on contract for his clients — larger watch brands — Claret’s fame didn’t extend beyond a closed set of insiders.

But with the DualTow, the first watch to bear his name, Claret’s brilliance is now out there for connoisseurs to see and own.

Inside the watch lie two key complications — a patented planetary-gear (a concentric gearing mechanism with the “sun” gear driving “planet” gears which in turn engage with the largest “ring” gear) chronograph with a striking mechanism and a tourbillon. The time itself is told through two rubber belts printed with hour and minute numerals, driven by a set of micro pulleys. The choice of rubber by a master watchmaker is interesting it is a material that usually degrades over time. But Claret claims to have stress tested the belts in the DualTow to be able to confidently claim otherwise. The hand-wound movement offers a 60-hour power reserve.

Interestingly buyers can customise their DualTow to their own tastes — changing case, bridges, hands, display belts, pusher and wristband — by using Claret’s “Configurator” tool on the Web site.

"I Design for My Taste”
Thomas Prescher,  master watchmaker

 Clockwork Awe: What Makes Designer Watches Tick?

Accurate time is available on your phone, computer… or $10 wrist watch. What is haute horlogerie’s appeal?
It’s the difference between a picture that can be emailed, or viewed on a computer and a hand-drawn painting. Because these watches take long to create, and because the maker has to live from it, they are expensive. The buyer therefore is a supporter of art and micro technique, not merely a buyer of a watch made 100 million times.

Which do you believe ought to have the upper hand: Design or mechanism?
It’s a question of philosophy of the brand, what they want to express. Take cars. Bugatis from the Al Capone era used to go at 150 miles per hour back then and are still extraordinarily beautiful. A timeless combination of design and technique will work for centuries.

Why is the tourbillon still valued so highly by collectors?
Tourbillons were originally developed for pocket watches, to equalise for different positions of the crown. Yet 99 percent of all tourbillons on the market are for wrist watches. The only tourbillon that makes sense in a wrist watch is one that turns on more than one axis and is spherical.
They are beautiful, their motion is mesmerising to the viewer. We want to create something timeless and beautiful. We are creating art and the linen where we paint on is the watch.

How long did it take to create the Mysterious Double-Axis?
You don’t get up in the morning and decide to make a double-axis tourbillion. The process began when I developed my first triple-axis tourbillon in 2003-2004. It took me nearly two years to develop the know-how before setting out to make it. It took at least 2000 hours — over half of my 12-14 working hour days — over a couple of years.

How do you get an idea of what buyers want?

I design for my taste. I’m a very difficult person to satisfy on design, quality and function. When a client wants a customised watch, I design it together with her/him. We exchange thoughts and designs until there is something the client agrees with. Sometimes that can take even a year.

How can independent watchmakers compete against large, established and rich brands?
Large companies need to make more than one piece per model to be commercially viable. Most independents should work in their own niches to serve potential clients in ways the big brands cannot. These are rich clients who have nearly everything. They don’t want to own “their neighbours watch.”

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(This story appears in the 13 August, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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