Stars in the making: astronomy-inspired timepieces

The planets are in alignment: watchmakers are now turning to the poetry and precision of the night sky as inspiration for exquisite timepieces that celebrate cosmic contemplation. Nick Foulkes reports

Front and back of the A Lange & Söhne rose-gold Perpetual Calendar Terraluna, £157,500
Front and back of the A Lange & Söhne rose-gold Perpetual Calendar Terraluna, £157,500

The watch industry seems to be having a metaphysical moment. For years it has been all about speed and accuracy. Now it seems to have taken the collective decision to contemplate something more eternal than mere evanescent seconds and insubstantial minutes. There is a desire to ponder the infinity of the cosmos. You might even say that watch brands are on another planet and, in the case of Van Cleef & Arpels, you would be quite right.

Van Cleef & Arpels rose-gold, aventurine, serpentine, chloromelanite, turquoise, jasper, agate and sugilite Midnight Planétarium Timepiece, price on request, surrounded by dial and rotating-disc details
Van Cleef & Arpels rose-gold, aventurine, serpentine, chloromelanite, turquoise, jasper, agate and sugilite Midnight Planétarium Timepiece, price on request, surrounded by dial and rotating-disc details

Van Cleef has carved itself a unique niche in the market, offering what it calls “poetic complications”. Time, for the French jeweller, is a concept to be pondered rather than a quantity to be measured or the means of ensuring prompt arrival at your next meeting. In fact, its latest creation, the Midnight Planétarium Timepiece (price on request), would have you saying things like, “I’ll see you when Jupiter aligns with Mars”. The chief function of this watch is not to show the wearer such earthly information as the time of day (after all, what are mobile phones for?), but to show the position of the planets in our solar system. Terrestrial time is indicated by a shooting star that rotates around the dial, but the charm of this timepiece is the midnight-blue aventurine discs, which, with their minute copper inclusions and rotation at different speeds, give a sense of stars in the night sky. Each disk is topped by a planet in a tiny, coloured semiprecious stone. This is not a watch to be hurried – the fastest-orbiting planet, Mercury, revolves around the rose-gold sun at the centre of the watch just once every 88 days and you’ll have to wait 29.5 years to see Saturn make a complete circuit of the dial.

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But being an antidote to the instantaneous nature of life today is precisely where the attraction lies, believes Van Cleef & Arpels president and CEO Nicolas Bos. “We have already been working on watches with depictions of the night sky and pieces based on the signs of the zodiac and we continue to explore the idea of poetic watches, so we’ve started to work on this idea of poetic astronomy inspired by the great tradition of astronomical timepieces of the past.”

The Van Cleef & Arpels rose-gold, aventurine, serpentine, chloromelanite, turquoise, jasper, agate and sugilite Midnight Planétarium Timepiece's surrounding dial and rotating-disc details
The Van Cleef & Arpels rose-gold, aventurine, serpentine, chloromelanite, turquoise, jasper, agate and sugilite Midnight Planétarium Timepiece's surrounding dial and rotating-disc details

With this type of watch, Bos aims to capture some of the magic that was part of man’s earlier attempts to map the night sky. “During the 17th and 18th centuries, the most accurate scientific reference books on astronomy were beautiful objects, with elements of art and poetry in the way the planets were described.” He was also struck by the beauty of the planetaria that recreated the planets’ movements. “Some were created as works of art; the globes were sculpted in hardstones and were both scientific and extremely decorative.” And working with Dutch astronomical watchmaker Christiaan van der Klaauw, Bos’s craftsmen have miniaturised the world of 17th-century astronomy and placed it on the wrist.

Front and back of the Vacheron Constantin white-gold Maître Cabinotier Astronomica, price on request
Front and back of the Vacheron Constantin white-gold Maître Cabinotier Astronomica, price on request

However, Hublot chairman Jean-Claude Biver is looking back even further than the 17th century. In 1901, Greek sponge divers discovered a Roman shipwreck off the island of Antikythera, laden with bronze and marble statuary, jewellery and a large, unidentifiable calcified lump that transpired to be the most fascinating item in the entire cargo. It took around a century before the scientific methods of our age could decode its secrets. On this device, dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism, pointers moved around dials to display the positions of the sun and moon over the zodiac scale, as well as the solar calendar, moonphases, the months and the likelihood of eclipses; it is even suggested by some that it showed the five planets then known to astronomers.

Hublot titanium Antikythera SunMoon, £250,000
Hublot titanium Antikythera SunMoon, £250,000

Further research into the Antikythera was made possible by support from Hublot, and Biver decided to translate some of the functionality of the ancient artefact into a wristwatch, thus linking the world of classical antiquity with the digital age. “But when I saw the results of the project,” he says, “I felt such emotion because it belonged to watchmaking culture and we had, in effect, taken this idea from the grave and given it life. I said we would never sell the watch, so instead we produced a small version, the Antikythera SunMoon [£250,000 limited edition of 20], which is also a kind of astrolabe, but totally in the same style as and benefiting from what we learnt from the original.” Biver believes there’s a real interest in such watches “because astrolabes and perpetual calendars are nostalgic and romantic and there is a need for dreams.”

Cartier platinum Rotonde de Cartier Earth & Moon Tourbillon, £195,000
Cartier platinum Rotonde de Cartier Earth & Moon Tourbillon, £195,000

In a world of rapid change and uncertainty, there is something comforting about the concept of a watch that can predict the actions of the heavens and put the wearer in touch with eternal values, while simultaneously making eternity seem more manageable. It is this sense of order that appeals to engineering-oriented IWC. Even though it is a brand that tends to be more concerned with rugged, high-performance watches, it has also addressed mankind’s need to connect with the cosmos. A couple of years ago, IWC chose to show off its technical ability with the Portuguese Siderale Scafusia (£500,000), a sort of mini observatory on the wrist, featuring a map of the night sky. It took the boffins at its HQ in Schaffhausen the better part of a decade to bring the project to fruition, but then planetary time is of a different order to that on earth. For instance, those who remember Ludwig Oechslin’s past planetary collaborations with Ulysse Nardin (the exclusive Trilogy set of astronomical timepieces, €399,000) will be delighted to learn that he is working with the brand on two other such projects, the more long‑term of which is not expected before 2021.

Patek Philippe white-gold Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref 6002, about £780,000
Patek Philippe white-gold Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref 6002, about £780,000

What makes this spirit of cosmological enquiry so fascinating is to see the way different brands interpret it. This year Cartier launched a new take on the moonphase indicator, the Rotonde de Cartier Earth & Moon Tourbillon (£195,000). At the push of a button, a lapis-lazuli disc slides across the aperture at six o’clock that displays the tourbillon, creating a crescent or covering it completely and providing a visual representation of the moon in the night sky. It is a charming solution that is very Cartier: elegant and chic.

Greubel Forsey white-gold QP à Equation, price on request
Greubel Forsey white-gold QP à Equation, price on request

In contrast, even though it deals with heavenly bodies, there is something definitively down-to-earth and practical about the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna (£157,500) by A Lange & Söhne. The face that presents itself to the wearer when on the wrist is that of the deconstructed dial, which will be familiar from the Lange One collection. The best of the watch is only appreciated by the wearer when he takes it off and turns it over to reveal an exact representation of the northern hemisphere of our planet, which makes one revolution every 24 hours. This is surrounded by a moving celestial disc on which the moon, waxing and waning, is depicted orbiting the earth, mimicking the real thing with almost photographic accuracy by taking 29.531 days to make the journey. Again, I take their word for it. However, it will need to be corrected by one day – after 1,058 years. The cunning part of this watch is that it uses the balance wheel as the sun, giving a constantly updated real-time snapshot of the position of the sun and the moon as seen from the earth. “It is a collector’s piece,” says CEO Wilhelm Schmid. But as well as sitting in a safe or on the wrist of a collector, it also has a place in the classroom. “I used it to explain to my children why we have day and night and why we have full moons and new moons.”

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However, it will take more than basic Copernican knowledge to get to grips with the Greubel Forsey QP à Equation (price on request). Greubel Forsey’s world is a place of mathematical complexity that baffles all but the most technical of watch buffs. The brand is known for its tourbillons, so of course this watch has a 24-second tourbillon, but here the professorial duo have turned their attention to the equation of time. This allows the wearer to tell the difference between solar time and mean time, created by earth’s slightly elliptical orbit around the sun. It is a recondite but long-established function that had been tackled over the years by many brands, so Forsey wanted to take a different approach. “We were behind the Richard Mille Planetarium Tellurium [featured in these pages some years ago], so we had already realised a bit of a dream. What interested us was not to copy what had been done, but to achieve a high level of precision and design so that everything was programmed and regulated from the winding crown,” says Forsey. “It is a project we have been working on for nearly 10 years and it meant reinventing a mechanical computer to code everything together.” Forsey is particularly proud of one of the watch’s key components: a cam that is usually kidney-shaped has been engineered with a profile so unusual that Greubel Forsey called it “manta ray”, as that was the most analogous shape. Using the small scale that looks like a miniature ruler and colours that indicate whether solar time is ahead or behind terrestrial time, the wearer is able to work out the difference between the two and see the four periods in the year when the times coincide – at the two seasonal solstices (summer and winter) and two equinoxes (spring and autumn).

Indeed, it was around the time of this year’s September equinox that the latest astronomical watch appeared in the horological firmament. Vacheron Constantin’s Maître Cabinotier Astronomica (price on request) boasts many functions: minute repeater, equation of time, tourbillon, perpetual calendar, date, power reserve, sunrise and sunset times, and a sky chart on the back of the watch displaying the solstices, equinoxes, age and phases of the moon, the seasons and zodiac signs. According to CEO Juan Carlos Torres, this watch, with its map of the heavens, is the mark of a maker that truly specialises in fine watchmaking. He says the brand took inspiration from its past: in the 1920s, Vacheron Constantin made a number of astronomical pocket watches, including one for King Fuad I of Egypt.

Meanwhile, a more recent planetary classic was referenced last year by Patek Philippe, when the brand’s celebrated Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref 5002, which first appeared in 2001, was succeeded by the handsomely decorated Ref 6002 (about £780,000). Its president, Thierry Stern, is clearly smitten with the romance of the astronomical watch. “Timekeeping began with the observation of the heavens, so for us in the industry, as well as for our clients, astronomical watches have always been a source of fascination. We also believe there is a level of poetry and beauty in the mechanism.”

But the Sky Moon Tourbillon was born out of an even more ambitious timepiece, the Star Caliber: a pocket watch offering a staggering 21 functions in addition to hours and minutes. It was designed to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium and featured such arcane information as the “time of meridian passage by Sirius”. A book was published to coincide with the launch of this masterpiece and it has a line that could apply to the lofty ambitions of the current crop of astronomical watches. The Star Caliber is described as “a window opening onto the mysteries of the universe and inciting us to become, in turn, philosopher, sage and connoisseur of beauty”.

Philosopher, sage, connoisseur of beauty… if nothing else, this shows that while the timepieces may be a test of the watchmaker’s skill, there is also a lot for the wearer to live up to.

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