Watches & Jewellery

Motion slickness

Watch winders are becoming as ingenious, elaborate – and in some cases, quite as desirable – as the timepieces they are designed to keep ticking. Simon de Burton reports.

November 16 2010
Simon de Burton

The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 is generally accepted as being the world’s most complicated wristwatch: it is claimed to have 36 functions, among them grande and petite sonnerie chimes, a minute repeater, a tourbillon regulator, two power reserve indicators, dual time zones and a flyback chronograph.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this £1.4m mechanical marvel, however, is its mind-bogglingly complex perpetual calendar and moon phase display which automatically compensates for leap years, indicates the secular years and mimics the waxing and waning of the moon to an accuracy of 6.8 seconds per lunation. Best of all, it will continue to display the correct day, date and month for a perfectly adequate 999 years.

There is, however, one small drawback: allow the mighty, 1,483-part movement to grind to a halt (it has a three-day power reserve) and the Aeternitas Mega 4 won’t be able to tell you whether it’s Tuesday or Christmas until you hand it back to Franck Muller for a full and inevitably expensive recalibration.

The self-winding mechanism – whereby the mainspring is wound by a weighted rotor that oscillates with the slightest movement of the wrist – ensures that the watch will continue to run as long as it is being worn. But leave it untouched for a few days and time will, inevitably, stand still.

The same problem applies to far less complex watches than the Aeternitas Mega 4, of course – any moonphase or calendar model will be left out of synch if it is allowed to stop and, as with most mechanical objects, it is better to keep the parts of any watch moving than to leave them in a dormant state that will eventually cause oils to clog and parts to seize.

But when you own a whole collection of watches, there are inevitably going to be some that get left unworn for longer or shorter periods of time. The solution to the problem appeared some years ago in the form of the first automatic watch winders which, at their most basic, take the form of a small box equipped with an electric motor and an “artificial wrist” on which to mount the timepiece. When connected to the mains, the motor moves the holder back and forth to activate the rotor in order to keep the mechanism fully wound.

But now watch winders have become as mechanically impressive, just as ingenious and often as expensive as the products that they are designed to house – and as the number of collectors with dozens or hundreds of watches continues to grow, the designers of watch-winding machines are becoming ever more imaginative.

One of the leading manufacturers of winders is the German clock and watch firm Erwin Sattler, which offers what is possibly the ultimate piece of furniture for the truly obsessive horolophile in the form of the Thesaurus (€86,000), a desk that is entirely dedicated to the storage of watches and watch paraphernalia. At first glance, the Thesaurus looks like a well-made and rather unexciting item of furniture of the type that one might have seen in a Berlin architect’s office when Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius was at his most influential. But things become decidedly more interesting once you begin to experiment with the remote-control unit.

Pressing the appropriate button causes a pair of glass and brushed-steel towers to break through the surface of the desk and rise smoothly to a height of around eight inches. Each contains a four-bay watch winder which, with an additional command from the remote control, can be illuminated by a bank of LED lights designed to show the contents in all their glory. The drawers, meanwhile, are lined with non-slip, non-scratch alcantara leather and can be fitted out in various ways for the storage of more watches, jewellery and so on.

Another Erwin Sattler creation, the €165,000 Rotalis 60, is even more impressive. Designed for wall mounting, it initially appears to be nothing more unusual than a mirror – but remote activation of the 100 LED lights causes the mirror glass (bullet-proof, of course) to become transparent and the 60-bay winder to be revealed. The bit that Ian Fleming would really have loved, however, is the fingerprint-recognition technology: at the touch of an authorised user’s digit, the two glass panels separate and allow access to the contents.

And it doesn’t end there. The Rotalis 60 is so technologically advanced that it can be programmed with data pertaining to more than 5,000 different models of automatic watch to ensure that the movements of each winding bay are appropriate to the piece that it houses, thus preventing over-winding and excessive wear of components. The so-called “intelligent control” simulates the course of a day with a 14-hour active phase and a 10-hour passive phase. And, in accordance with the needs of the true perfectionist, each watch ends its “active” phase positioned precisely vertically at the 12 o’clock position.

At the Marcus boutique in London’s New Bond Street, meanwhile, you will find London’s only “watch wall” as installed by the specialist Austrian firm of Buben and Zorweg, suppliers of watch winders to avid collectors such as Michael Schumacher and Flavio Briatore. The “wall” takes the form of a series of windows that house 40 computer-programmable winders and the custom touch of a built-in wine cooler and cigar humidor.

“As collecting watches has become a serious business, more and more of our clients are demanding a high-tech, good-looking and interesting watch-winding system,” says Edward Margulies of Marcus, which retails Buben and Zorweg products.

“There are more highly complicated watches on the market than ever before, and these really do need to be kept running and correctly wound, whether they are being worn or not. The fact that the winders can be programmed to simulate day-to-day use is very important as simply oscillating the watch back and forth, 24 hours a day would eventually do serious damage to the mechanism.”

Indeed, winders are becoming so de rigueur among owners of complicated, automatic watches that many brands now throw one in as part of the deal. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s range-topping, Hybris Mechanica set (about €1.8m), comprising the 26-function Duometre Grande Sonnerie, the three-dial Reverso a Tryptique and the Gyrotourbillon, is supplied in a customised, six-foot tall, 800kg fire-proof and bomb-proof safe made by the German firm Döttling. It contains a bank of automatic winders, storage for numerous additional watches and drawers for jewellery and other valuables.

Döttling has been making luxurious safes since 1919 but has only begun to incorporate winding mechanisms into its products relatively recently. One of the latest for the jet-setting watch fan is a €155,000, limited-edition version of its Bel-Air model that has been created for yacht broker and charter firm Edmiston. Bound in crimson calf skin, it contains winders for 20 watches and drawers for a few dozen more. (Döttling’s Legends No 126 safe, sold for about €180,000, was made by Charf in 1820 and is now equipped with a watch-mover section with eight watch winders, four drawers for additional watches, and a secret compartment.)

Yet even winders that are designed to accommodate just a single timepiece can be fascinating and covetable mechanical marvels in their own right. British firm Rapport, for example, has created the aptly named Optima Time Capsule (£1,995). This aluminium tube has a visible brass winding mechanism, sits on a bevelled glass base and has a hinged, porthole-like door with a “bullseye” lens to magnify the owner’s pride and joy. It’s equal parts Science Museum exhibit and Damien Hirst installation.

Indeed, some watch winders are becoming so interesting that they are beginning to challenge their intended contents as objects of desire. SwissKubik winders, in particular, have come to be regarded as being both functional and decorative. Developed by watch-industry veteran Philippe Subilia, the SwissKubik was designed to run on standard alkaline batteries rather than mains electricity to make it entirely portable and immune to unexpected power failure. There are other portable systems on the market, but none matches the SwissKubik’s ability to run for three years on the same batteries. But it’s the look of these 10cm cubes that makes many people want to buy them. Even the basic, £415 model looks attractive in its brushed aluminium finish, but the fact that the boxes can be locked together and trimmed in wood, leather, rubber or even python skin has led to them being regarded as working objets d’art. One example has even been created in white gold and set with 3,876 diamond brilliants. It is said to have sold for almost £250,000, but I reckon that’s a wind-up.