Something old, something new –that’s the theme that runs through much of watchmaking. Lest we forget, the basic technology of watchmaking consists of a mainspring barrel, gears, a lever escapement, and a temperature compensated balance controlled by a balance spring. All of those elements –every one –were in place by 1750, boys and girls, when Mr. Thomas Mudge, member of the Longitude Board, student of the great George Graham, and (unusually for a watchmaker, a breed who are not know for their tolerance for rivals) general all-around nice guy, invented the lever escapement. (Well –adapted from the anchor escapement, to be exact.) That’s an oversimplification, of course, but not much of one –the evolution of watchmaking since then has been surprisingly incremental, and –with the notable exception of the introduction of quartz watches in 1969 –largely a matter of improvements in materials science, evolution of industrialized precision production, and (at the high end of chronometry) the conservation and transmission of skill in adjusting and regulating for accuracy.
But there’s a lot more to the story of watches and watchmaking than technical progress, and the watches that are the most memorable are ones that hit a certain sweet spot –an integration of mechanics, design, and the spirit of design of their time that takes them out of the realm of both transient fashion and pure instrumentality and makes them enduring. For me one such watch has always been Corum’s Golden Bridge, which has been, over the last few years, released in a whole new range of flavors that reflect the prevailing taste for large, aggressively styled wristwatches that you can “read” in terms of style and, in a lot of cases, what they project about social status, from a distance.
But there’s no substitute for the original design –released in 1980, the Golden Bridge made the movement the star of the watch, and what a movement it was, and is. A beautifully structured piece of mechanical architecture from Vincent Calabrese, who developed the first prototype in 1977, the Golden Bridge movement in its first incarnation hung suspended in space, surrounded by transparent crystal panes that gave the Golden Bridge movement the center stage position it so richly deserves.
This year Corum debuted a new version of the Golden Bridge automatic, which has a clever trick up its sleeve. The problem with openworked and other transparent watches is that while they look impressive off the wrist, on the wrist what you’ve got is a view of the skin and hair on the back of your wrist –often nicely framed, but still, a window on one of the more mundane couple of square inches on the human body none the less. For the 2013 version of the Golden Bridge Automatic, Corum’s placed a series of fine metallic vertical stripes on the transparent case-back, which allow light to pass through when the watch is off the wrist –preserving the sense of light and transparency that made the original Golden Bridge so enticing –but which, when the watch is on the wrist, render the case-back essentially opaque.
It’s a clever, simple solution to a fairly ubiquitous problem. There’s a persistent habit among enthusiasts, and the enthusiast press, for taking manufacturers to task every year for not introducing something really revolutionary but the fact is, going for revolutionary every year typically produces quite a lot of either questionable technical developments of dubious real merit, or forgettable, novelty driven designs that seem dated as soon as they appear, or both. There is a very great deal to be said for making something terrific just a little bit better –especially if it shows attention to exactly the level of fine detail that you’d hope for from a company that’s the steward of a classic.
And for those of you who prefer your classics straight up, the hand-wound version of the Golden Bridge remains one of the very few truly original designs of the 20th century.