For the better part the perpetual calendar complication’s existence, its display on the dial of a timepiece has either been with the use of subdials that indicate each piece of information pertaining to a calendar, or aperture displays, ala Patek Philippe 3448.
It took the likes of two master watchmakers, late into the 20th century, to challenge this norm. What they came up with was the first ever bi-retrograde indication used on a perpetual calendar: one retrograde indication pointed out the day and the other the date. The watch that was produced with this new approach, is the watch that we know today as the 1989 Harry Winston Bi-Retrograde Perpetual Calendar. And the two master watchmakers, who dreamt the watch up, are none other than Mr Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and the late Mr Roger Dubuis.
While it’s too late to ask Mr Dubuis about the watch today, the sole keeper of the tale now, Mr Wiederrecht shares, “I met Roger in the early 1980s. We were members of the Les Cabinotiers de Genève society, which included Paul Buclin, Svend Andersen, Franck Muller, Antoine Preziuso and a few others.
“Aside from the formal gathering, we the members met informally and very regularly, as friends, to share our experiences and passion for high-end mechanical watchmaking. Our conversations and the individual expertise that each one of us brought to the table, even resulted in us imagining and then manufacturing ten pocket watches with a perpetual calendar.
“Those ten watches were easily sold, in subscription, to nine lovers of fine watchmaking, the tenth piece was offered to the Watch Museum in Geneva. What I have to mention about the ten pieces that we produced is that all the components of the movements as well as the boxes and dials, we made by hand!”
The Les Cabinotiers de Genève aside, it takes a lot for two watchmakers to come together to work on a new approach to perpetual calendar indication. “Roger and I were very close in the way that we approached watchmaking,” continues Mr Wiederrecht, “our great friendship and mutual respect led us to speak about collaborating to develop and produce high-end watches, and if possible with high creative value.
“I was working then on developing new timepieces in my workshop in the Geneva countryside, while Roger was assembling movements in his workshop on Rue Gourgas in Geneva. In parallel to our personal activities, as each of us was independent, we decided to create a general partnership society named, PME Developments Horlogers for the development, production and commercialization of our shared realizations, intended for prestigious watch brands.”
“As it is the case today with the advent of smartwatches, we sensed then that the development of the quartz watch market would become predominant for the mass production of ‘normal’ useful watches. We knew, however, that this phenomenon would also highlight the contrast of the beauty, the complexity and above all the legacy of perfectly well-made mechanical watches. We were quickly convinced that this was an ideal time to revitalize the development and production of very fine watches with a radical new approach.”
What’s fascinating to me is that above and beyond their shared values, what the two gentlemen shared most deeply was their courage: their courage to embark on a new approach to watchmaking, in what is acknowledged to be one of the darkest periods for watchmaking, in recent memory. But to take on the perpetual calendar of all things, in a time as uncertain as the Quartz Crisis? Now, that requires a pair of iron ones.
“For Roger and I, the perpetual calendar is among the most beautiful and useful complications, but also most difficult to achieve. But we took it on ourselves, to dream, and dream together of creating a simpler and more reliable perpetual calendar movement than those produced at the time. We also wanted it to be easier to read and easily differentiated from the existing models. In fact, the real challenge was settling on the idea to go ahead. From there it was pretty much smooth sailing.”
But how did the idea come about? Serendipity? Stroke of genius (or, rather geniuses in this instance)? Says Mr Wiederrecht, “It was simpler than that! We didn’t invent the retrograde display. The greatest watchmakers had already imagined and used it, but essentially for pocket watches.
“In the 1980s several watch brands began to produce watches with retrograde power reserve indicators, but to my knowledge we were the first ones to create an additional module allowing this type of display, which we could’ve applied to any small round counter indication.
“I really like the concept of the retrograde indication, because it clearly defines the beginning, the end and reset of cycles displayed on watch dials. I was very keen on replacing the typically used small round counters on watch dials, so I submitted to Roger the idea for a very simple mechanism, allowing an aesthetic and a readability previously unknown. It called for two retrograde indications, one on the left and one on the right of the dial, to replace the small day of the month and the day of the week sub dials. I made the proposal based on one of our existing Perpetual Calendar called PME1.
“Roger was immediately on board. We worked hard, and quickly, to produce what we had dreamt up. This is how the 1989 Bi-retrograde Perpetual Calendar was realized.”
It’s hard to imagine that something as complex as what was proposed to Mr Dubuis was realized with the fluidity that Mr Wiederrecht describes. But he insists, “Thanks to his [Roger Dubuis] talent and his years [14 years, in fact] as a watchmaker in the Patek Philippe Grandes Complications workshop, Roger had extraordinary experience in assembling movements and had the perfect mastery of the finishing techniques as required by the standards of the Poinçon de Genève.
“It was only natural that he took over all the tasks related to the production of the movements we decided to manufacture. For my part, I have always had a passion and curiosity for fine and complicated watchmaking, but limited knowledge of the actual watchmaking.“Nevertheless, I have a good grasp of what is possible to rethink and approach with fresh eyes where existing complications are concerned. With our collaborations, I therefore devoted myself to the development of new complications, drawings and submitting proposals to the expertise my friend, Roger Dubuis.”
Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to ask Mr Dubuis for his sentiments on realizing the first ever Bi-Retrograde Perpetual Calendar. There is, however, an interview published by Roger Dubuis the brand in 2014, which lends us a glimpse: “The beginning of this new stage in my career [having left Patek Philippe] was undoubtedly the creation of a first perpetual calendar. It embodied a complete break with the usual symmetry of conventional models, since the months and days of the week appeared on the upper part of the dial, with a moon phase and a complete calendar in the lower part. Following this, in collaboration with a talented movement developer [Mr Wiederrecht] and his team, we created a bi-retrograde perpetual calendar. This meant that when I was called upon to devote my instinct and intuition in the realm of watchmaking to creating a company bearing my name, it was an easy decision. The name Roger Dubuis was officially registered on May 19th 1995 – also happens to be my wedding anniversary.”
The importance of the endeavor Mr Dubuis took on with his friend is also evident in the watch that he was most seen wearing during his days at Roger Dubuis (the brand), his personal Sympathie Bi-Retrograde Perpetual Calendar Moon Phase, which had a champagne dial.