The Rise of a Savior
The story of the Legacy Machine Perpetual begins at a point in time when Maximilian Büsser & Friends found itself in deep troubled waters (to say the least).
In May 2006, the company that MB&F had worked with to engineer, manufacture and assemble all the parts for their first movement was sold off to another watch brand — one which unfortunately had no intention of allowing their investment to manufacture watch parts for other watch companies.
For Max and his team, this was a disaster: as a result of the takeover, whatever the company still owed them in terms of delivery was met with delay after delay. The final straw was when a demand was issued to Max to remove the name of Laurent Besse from the movement of the Horological Machine No. 1, because the watch brand concerned was caught in a legal battle of sorts with Laurent.
Max explained that there was no way he could do such a thing because Laurent Besse did engineer the HM1’s movement, and by then everyone had already known that he was very much involved in the realization of MB&F’s first Horological Machine. This was, of course, not very well received by the watch brand, and in January 2007 they told Max that when the last of the outstanding watch parts were ready, they wouldn’t assemble them and just deliver the parts as is.
Max recounts somberly, “I was alone in my flat when I got the news. There was no way I could put these parts together on my own. As it was, the parts were now three to four months late — and here they were telling me that I should simply deal with it. I thought for sure we were done.”
Lucky for Max, renowned watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin was with him that day, who assured Max that they would deal with it. Peter basically took it upon himself to call in favors from his watchmaker friends, who worked for the greatest of brands, but independently.
“And I really want that to be known, really, without Peter that day, we wouldn’t be here talking,” says Max.
Peter managed to round up four independent watchmakers, and along with Laurent Besse, the group of five first met inside a little conference room at Peter’s workshop to assemble movements that had no less than 50 missing components, and to top it all, there was no assembly plan on hand either. With 300 components in each movement, these guys could very well have been asked by Max to assemble them blindfolded.
The band of watchmaker misfits were now meeting every two weeks to discuss their progress and to essentially ask Max, “Where does this wheel go? How do I assemble this?” For Max, this was incredibly nerve-wracking. Relief, though, would come soon from one among the five, who started to take the lead — Irish watchmaker Stephen McDonnell, who was at that time teaching at WOSTEP in the day and using his evenings to do these assemblies for Max. It was Stephen who started to give instructions to the other four about the assembly, and even highlighted parts that seemed to be badly made. An attempt was made to reach out to the company that had made them, but it was met with nonchalance.
Then Stephen took it upon himself to modify these bad parts or even completely remake them. Needless to say, all of this was extremely time-consuming and it was already May by then. Before long another storm started to brew — MB&F was now just inches away from bankruptcy.
“All the money that I had put into MB&F from my own pocket; all the money that the retailers had paid me in advance was gone, and we were going to be in technical bankruptcy in another 30 days,” recalls Max.
But the team of five pushed through and managed to deliver their first two pieces in June. Thereafter, progressively, they were able to make more deliveries every month and save MB&F.
Saving the Savior
Fast forward to four years after that entire fiasco, and Max got word that Stephen had quit his job at WOSTEP and was developing a new movement, on contract, for another watch brand, which had recently run into money issues. Simply put, they were no longer able to pay for Stephen’s services.
Max immediately made the trip up to see Stephen, along with MB&F’s COO, Serge Kriknoff, to ask how they could help the struggling watchmaker, who was once pivotal in MB&F’s turnaround. They could’ve easily tasked him to assemble yet more movements for MB&F, but both Max and Serge knew that Stephen was a man whose intellect could be put to far greater use.
Stephen, at this moment, turned to the two men and said that he had been toying with an idea that he would like to explore with MB&F. His idea was that he had possibly come up with a solution to solve all the issues that plague the classic perpetual calendar.
At this point in the story, Max comments, “Perpetual calendars, absolutely, never work. During my time at Jaeger, it was a nightmare. It was no different when I was at Harry Winston. They jam, they block, they break. They are by far the most delicate of watch complications.”
Stephen put forward his proposal by first suggesting that people had been going about the perpetual calendar all wrong (all 250 years’ worth of past watchmakers). In his mind, the whole idea behind the perpetual calendar was wrong. A perpetual calendar is usually executed by putting a module on a base movement that goes up to 31 days, and forcing it to skip dates on the shorter months. So, the movement is forced to correct something continuously, because by the nature of its construction, it wants to go to 31.
This is why the movement is known to jam so frequently, or it jumps when it shouldn’t. Stephen’s idea was therefore to start with a 28-day base movement — it’s quite a simple solution if you think about it. The next phase of Stephen’s idea was to build a mechanical processor on top of that to stack the required dates thereafter.
Max didn’t even blink when he said yes to Stephen’s madness. After all, Stephen had managed the impossible for MB&F, just four years back. “Three-and-a-half years of development along with a helping hand from my team, and Stephen produced a 581-component movement that simply works,” says Max. “We’ve had prototypes for over a year, which we absolutely abused. We never managed to jam them, block them or break them. It actually worked!”
The brilliance of the whole movement lies in the mechanical processor that Stephen designed. There’s a little pin on the processor wheel, which is programmed by a rake. This rake comes in on the 25th of every month and pushes the pin into one of four positions, in accordance to the number of days there are in that month (28, 30, 31 or 29).
The rake in turn is programmed by a cam, which has different-sized gaps to account for months with 30 days versus those with 31 days. A separate planetary cam is placed on top of that to take care of February, in both leap and non-leap years.
Another cool thing that is a result of the processor is that as opposed to having the date counter jump from the last day of the month to the first day, it’s designed to fly back instead. This means there’s no forcing the mechanism past its programmed day — rather, in accordance with the month that the mechanical processor adjusts it to, it simply flies back to day one.
Stephen has also set up a disengaging measure so that during the sensitive hours when the movement is preparing to make a jump, the user simply won’t be able to use the adjusting pushers — sort of a foolproof safety measure.
All this is simply a small list of the many things the LM Perpetual can do, but the lengths Stephen and MB&F had to go to in order to even make the movement plausible is a story on its own. Take for instance that there is a 11.8mm shaft that connects the balance wheel on top of the dial to the escapement, which is underneath the dial. Stephen had to resort to such an extreme shaft length to ensure that the design dynamics of the Legacy Machine collection flowed into the LM Perpetual — that is, the balance wheel on the dial’s topside.
The word Max uses to describe how Stephen managed to fit all of the 581-part movement into the set volume of the Legacy Machine is “shoehorned”. When you witness the timepiece though, this hardly seems to be the case. Every little treatment on the watch appears to be completely intentional.
Then there are the floating dials, set atop steel rolls, which are again made possible by Stephen’s unique execution of the perpetual calendar movement — because in a classical version, there would be a grand levier running through the top of the module, preventing such an open and skeletonized dial display.
Beyond all of the technicalities and allure of the LM Perpetual, the story of the watch is really that of a human adventure — a story of two men who had to seek each other out at different phases of their lives, so that they might help the other realize his wildest dream.