Watches & Jewellery

Tricky times

A new breed of über-complex watches showcases the artistry for which the top marques are famous, reports Nick Foulkes.

December 18 2009
Nick Foulkes

Jérôme Lambert, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, is looking slightly concerned. It is a balmy early-September evening in Venice during the waterlogged city’s annual film festival (of which his brand is a sponsor), and he and I are enjoying a nightcap in Harry’s Bar with supermodel turned photographer Astrid Muñoz and her polo-player boyfriend Eduardo Novillo Astrada. But Lambert’s attention is held neither by his bellini nor the beautiful woman next to him; instead he keeps surreptitiously checking his BlackBerry.

I ask him what is wrong and he admits that he is a little nervous about the nocturnal journey across the water to the island of Giudecca being made by a package the size of a large wardrobe. This large wardrobe is, in fact, a safe. Locked inside it are three of the most complicated wristwatches you are likely to find, and in around 24 hours Lambert will unveil them before an audience of collectors who have been flown in from around the world. (The watches are sold as a set called the Coffret 55, from €1.8m.) But right now he is understandably worried that they might wind up – please forgive the pun – at the bottom of the lagoon, from which it might be difficult to extract a large and heavy safe.

Two of the watches, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Gyrotourbillon and its ravishing Reverso à Triptyque, have already been launched (and I am a big fan of the triple-faced Reverso, which crams 17 complications, including the whimsical astrological indicator, into one watch). But it is the third watch, the Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie, of which Lambert is most proud, boasting of its 17 patents and rattling off its complications and attributes like a 19th-century scholar conjugating a pile of Latin verbs: “Westminster Carillon, world premiere carillon – longest carillon, four sonorous monobloc crystal gongs, grande sonnerie, petite sonnerie, silence [ie, an off switch], minute repeater, flying tourbillon, instant perpetual calendar, retrograde days, retrograde months, retrograde date, bissextile year display, jumping hour, regulation device with inertia blocks, strike-power-reserve indicator, watch-power-reserve indicator, incremental time setting…” Oh yes, it tells the time too, displaying the passing hours and minutes.

This is clearly a very important piece of work for Jaeger-LeCoultre, and no detail is deemed too minor. Take the kangaroo-skin-lined strap: there is even a patent on the buckle made by Roland Iten, which offers single millimetre adjustments. There is another patent for the one-tonne safe, which also acts as an amplifier for the chiming watch and allows the owner to enjoy the sound of his watch without having to expose it to the risk of theft. “We found the safe after reading an article in How to Spend It,” explains Lambert, who approached specialist manufacturer Döttling to carry out the commission. “We are very proud of this watch and we expect our friends to do something better for the future, but we will see how long it takes them,” he says, provocatively.

Obviously the Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie is at the extreme end of the complicated watch market, but there are plenty of marques offering timepieces that are in effect a compilation of the greatest hits of haute horlogerie. And although these complicated watches are expensive, they also offer value. The global economic crisis has had an effect on the way people buy watches. Jérôme Lambert speaks for many when he says, “When times are good, people are not so selective” and, indeed, the period from 2004 to 2008 saw a frenzied omnivorousness when it came to timepieces. Today the binge appetite for wrist-worn exotica has been replaced by a more discriminating approach in search of true horological value, and it is at just such a customer that one of the most satisfyingly designed watches to be launched this year is aimed.

Dr Gino Macaluso, CEO of Girard-Perregaux, is one of the most cerebral men in his industry and, having trained as an architect before joining the watch business, he has an innate understanding of proportion and harmonious design, qualities blended with watchmaking savoir-faire in the Girard-Perregaux Tourbillon, Perpetual Calendar (£199,000), chronograph with moonphase.

“There is a very strong segment of true, heavy collectors who buy watches for the pleasure and the patrimoine [heritage], and not just to show off to others – this is really our target group; these are not watches for the fashion crowd. Everything is produced in-house, and this is very important since, by making watches like this, we are continually improving our skills. The three-bridge tourbillon is a piece of the history of Girard-Perregaux, and then you have some additional interesting functions with the chronograph, the perpetual calendar and the moonphase underlining our history and tradition in complications.”

Juan-Carlos Torres of Vacheron Constantin agrees with Macaluso; he feels that watches with multiple complications from long-established brands “reassure the customer, putting years and centuries of expertise into their grandes complications”. For its 250th anniversary in 2005, Vacheron Constantin launched the Tour de l’Ile (sold for €1.2m, no longer available), a wristwatch comprising a minute repeater with a torque indicator for the striking mechanism, a tourbillon, a perpetual calendar, a power-reserve indicator, a second time-zone indicator, a moonphase indicator, an indicator showing the time of sunrise and sunset, a chart showing the celestial vault in the northern hemisphere and the equation of time. And among the watches he will be bringing out next year is a tourbillon with the equation of time and 300 hours of power reserve.

Of all complications, the equation of time is surely the most arcane, showing as it does the difference between solar and terrestrial time. Sidereal time, as Patek Philippe reminds us in its brochure for the Sky Moon Tourbillon (£727,500), another super complication, “is the period of time between two consecutive passages of a fixed star across a certain meridian – its duration averages 23 hours 56 minutes and 4.09892 seconds.”

One would have thought that, earthbound creatures that we are, terrestrial time would have been entirely sufficient for us, but when it comes to these more complicated watches, the movements of the heavenly bodies suddenly assume an inordinate level of importance.

Take Moonstruck, for instance, just launched by Ulysse Nardin (£56,400), a mechanical timepiece that gives the correct time of the tides. Rolf Schnyder, together with legendary horological polymath Dr Ludwig Oechslin, has been working on this project for about eight years, and when he gets into describing the various factors that have to be taken into account, it becomes clear that it’s amazing it got done so quickly. “The tides vary according to longitude and when I started to take the subject up with Ludwig I saw how important the moon was, but tides are not only created by the moon – the sun and rotation of the earth have an impact too. This watch is something that has not been done before,” he says.

Schnyder is particularly proud of the moonphase as “it does not just move on a 29.5-day cycle; it shows the exact phase of the moon always according to its position in relation to the sun. Thousands of years have to pass before it makes a mistake.” Even though he claims the piece is “very easy to set” and a breeze to read, he does concede that it will only appeal to a very select group of horolophiles. “I don’t think it is for the mass market,” he says with the kind of understatement that deserves a Nobel Prize.

The number of watch-lovers who can afford these watches, who want to make the effort to understand the culture they come from, and who are prepared to wait patiently for them is about as limited as the number of watchmakers capable of putting them together. In recent years the tourbillon has been king, with some customers wanting them without really knowing what they are. I was once told the story of a customer who identified it as the “watch with a hole in it”.

Marc Hayek, CEO of Blancpain, however, detects a new maturity: “After this huge hype of tourbillons that we’ve seen in the past couple of years, there is now a swing to an attitude of ‘Let’s see what else exists as complications’.”

He has just finished delivering the last of Blancpain’s grande complication Le Brassus 1735 (£640,000), and next year will be launching what he calls “a very new and very, very complicated grande complication”. This new watch will be announced at the Basel watch fair, and so Hayek is not giving too much away, but in the end it will be more complicated than the outgoing 1735 and include the important equation of time that, for Hayek, is so appealing because of its paradoxical nature. “It is useless, but so romantic,” he explains, adding that he finds that he is ineluctably drawn to this complication’s illustration of the “imperfection of time”. In short, complications carry a philosophical payload that mere bling is incapable of delivering.

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