So, when the editor of this website asked me to put together a list of the top ten watches of this year’s 2014 BaselWorld watch fair, my brain immediately went into its list assembly place.
But there were two problems. The first is my brain has no list assembly place. It just does not take well to mathematics. Seriously, ask me to solve a mathematical problem intended for an eight-year old child and I’ll just stare at it and mumble incoherently and possibly drool. The second thing is, it dawned on me that as the owner of this magazine, I could conceivably do what I wanted rather than have the empirical dogmatism of a list imposed on me. And so what I decided to do instead, was offer you, our reader, a break down of what I thought were the greatest horological achievements shown at the Basel Watch Fair, in the year our Lord two thousand and fourteen, grouped into several fun but fundamental categories.
This began as an update to a pre-existing movement found in the Breguet 3755. Says Breguet’s brilliant President, and two times Revolution Man of the Year, Marc Hayek, “I think I drove my team crazy because as we made the watch slightly larger all the indicators of the pre-existing movement were just out of position to my eye. In order to make sure the indications had the right balance we essentially had to construct an all new movement.” But the result is ethereal.
Pure sublime classical watchmaking at its finest in the grande style of the maison’s founder Abraham Louis Breguet. What is visually stunning on the dial of either model (it’s offered with a classic guilloche solid gold dial or as an open work dial with skeletonized movement) is the way the time indications have been raised and are read of a beautiful ring of frosted sapphire crystal. You can see the flamed blued steel retrograde date indicator at 12 o’ clock as well as the day and month hands within the subdials at 9 and 3 o’ clock pass beneath this ring. This repeating motif of three intertwined circles –creating the top part of the dial- is beautifully counterpointed by the tourbillon mechanism at 6 o’clock first patented by Breguet in 1801 as well as the three armed seconds indicator mounted to the tourbillon cage. Interestingly the open worked version of the watch, replete with one of the world’s most beautiful leap year indicators integrated into the subdial at 3 o’ clock, brings a stunning modernist sensibility without losing an iota of the brand’s peerless authenticity.
No brand has greater right to create a long power reserve, thin, elegant tourbillon than Blancpain. Already with the now quarter-century-old caliber 23, the brand has in its possession a stunning flying tourbillon, with a distinctive non-concentrically placed balance wheel and a eight-day power reserve. Thanks to the use of two special crown wheels, despite the fact that the watch used only one barrel, it was supremely easy to wind. This year, Blancpain unveils the evolution to this extraordinary movement, now with automatic winding and offering up an extraordinary 12 days of power reserve, still using just one barrel.
According Blancpain’s movement design engineer, the ingenious Vincent Beccia, the Villeret Tourbillon 12 Jours’ caliber 242 actually has 14 days of power reserve, but the watch automatically stops at 12 days to maintain constant torque over its power reserve. Its beautiful grande feu enamel dial dominates the front of this watch. Flip the watch over and you’ll see, though, that it is not a peripheral winding automatic movement, because the oscillating weight is still fixed at the center of the movement. Here, the mass of the rotor is relegated to the perimeter of the movement, allowing the movement to remain extremely slim. But it is the tourbillon that your eyes will be immediately drawn to, where you’ll revel in the delightful architecture of the bridge beneath the cage. Here the third wheel, which drives the tourbillon, has been seamlessly integrated with the architecture of the bridge. Finally, while the watch at the BaselWorld fair had a titanium balance wheel, the actual balance will be made of more traditional material, but will have a very special design where each screw is placed on a section of the wheel that curves inwards to aid in overcoming aerodynamic turbulence.
With its new and very dynamic CEO and my buddy, Jean-Christophe Babin in place, Bulgari demonstrates its new vision for its timepiece division by combining great Latin-inspired design with extraordinary authentic Swiss watchmaking. Hot out of the gates and giving credence to his vision is the new Bulgari Octo Finissimo.
This watch has phenomenal technical credibility boasting the world’s thinnest tourbillon movement at 1.95mm in height. To achieve this, the Bulgari team completely re-conceptualized the tourbillon movement, now mounting the tourbillon cage pivots on a peripherally driven ball bearings system. The use of a free-sprung balance wheel also helps minimize height. This movement is placed in the 5mm-thick Bulgari Octo case — an icon of timeless elegance. There is a delicious tension, between the overt muscularity of the case expressed through its aggressive bezel structure and short squat architectural lugs, and how deliciously and capriciously thin the watch is.
Made in a wonderfully classic 40mm size in platinum, there is no doubt that the Octo Finissimo will become a reference high complication in the future. If this is a sign of things to come for Bulgari, with Babin guiding the way, the future looks bright indeed.
When Gérald Genta first designed the Nautilus for Patek Philippe in 1976, one of the daring concepts he proposed was to have the bezel of the watch joined to the case using two hinges on either side (in collector lore, these are affectionately referred to as “ears“), using two vertical screws.
The latest Patek Philippe Nautilus still features these iconic “ears”, but something very interesting happens when you press the hinge on the left side of the 40.5mm case. What looks like the left hinge is, in fact, two pushers shaped exactly like the famous “ear”, but that operates the watch’s travel time second time zone hand. This skeletonized hand is normally hidden beneath the luminous civil hour hand, but press the top pusher to move it forward in one-hour increments, or the lower pusher to move it backwards. You can tell if this hand refers to day or night hours with the “Home” aperture at three o’clock, while the aperture at nine o’clock provides the same information for local time.
What happens if you accidentally press both pushers? Says Patek Philippe’s president, my friend Thierry Stern, “We realized that this is a very real possibility, so if you press both pushers, you will not damage the watch and the home time hand will advance by one hour.” If that wasn’t enough, the two pushers on the right side of the watch activate the chronograph function with elapsed seconds read off the large central hand and minutes in the subdial at six o’clock.
Ten years ago at my first BaselWorld fair, the feeling around the TAG Heuer booth was totally electric. Stéphane Linder, now TAG Heuer CEO, then head of products, had rushed to Basel with the very first timepiece that dispensed with gear wheels and replaced them with tiny belts that needed no lubrication.
In the context of 2004, this was simply mind-blowing. At the time, there had only been one watch with a silicon escapement, Ulysse Nardin’s Freak. At the time, Richard Mille’s concepts of super-lightweight and the use of carbon and titanium in his movements were only just gaining traction with buyers, so the idea of a watch with tiny belts instead of gear wheels was the equivalent of announcing the moon landing in the ’60s. This act instantly repositioned TAG Heuer as not only the producer of well-priced reliable sports watches, but also as one of the true technical pioneers in the watch industry.
This year, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this seminal achievement, the TAG Heuer Monaco V4 — a watch with four barrels arrayed like an engine and wound using a linear mass — Linder and his chief of high watchmaking, Guy Sémon, launch the stunning tourbillon version of the V4. The tourbillon in question is driven by a micro-toothed belt that fully surrounds the toothed cage. In so doing, it helps isolate the cage from shock and also generates a smoother motion to the cage. Says Linder, “I love the combination of the ultra-futuristic belt-driven movement combined with one of watchmaking’s most classically beautiful complications, the tourbillon.”
In the first year of the new millennium, Ulysse Nardin’s owner and president, the legendary Rolf Schnyder, introduced the very first watch to use silicon escape wheels — his wildly revolutionary Freak. Immediately, he recognized the potential of silicon as it applied to watch components and soon set up Sigatec, now one of the biggest suppliers of silicon components on the industry. Thus, it is fitting that Ulysse Nardin unveils their silicon Anchor Escapement, which just might be the coolest technical achievement of the year.
It is similar in principle to the Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement invented by Nicolas Dehon, which uses a buckling blade to control every impulse to the balance wheel. However, while the Constant Escapement’s blade is fitted across a rather large framework that arches across the balance and escape wheels, here the blades are fitted to a frame that fits very compactly on top of the balance wheel. In fact, in a normal watch, it would be mounted to the same bridge or cog as the balance. This far more compact size and practical position means that Ulysse Nardin were able to make a tourbillon version of their Anchor Escapement, which adds a new level of chronometric possibility to the resulting timepiece.
There’s a reason why Rolex is part of the agreement among the titans of the watch industry, including the Swatch Group and Patek Philippe, for the all-important thermal compensation treatment that allows the production of accurate silicon hairsprings. That is because according to Rolex technical guru and head of R&D Jaques Baur, Rolex was the very first company to experiment with silicon components, including hairsprings, escapement wheels and levers with integrated pallets.
When I was first shown images of these parts dating back well over 20 years, I nearly fell off my chair in awe. But the question that kept recurring in my mind was, when was Rolex going to release its first silicon hairspring? The answer is this year — and what a hairspring it is! The Syloxi hairspring uses a layer of silicon dioxide to compensate for changes in the material’s elasticity at different temperatures. It possesses a wildly innovative form, with coils that not only become thicker as you get to the outside, but are actually spaced further apart from each other to aid concentric breathing. The collet is, of course, integrated, and there are attachment points for not just one but two studs. Another amazing innovation is that the watch’s Paraflex device is actually toothed, not unlike an Oyster caseback, and is turned to adjust the rate of the watch — meaning, it is an antishock device with an integrated regulator.
So why did Rolex decide to launch this technical overture in, of all things, a 34mm ladies’ watch like the Datejust Pearlmaster 34? I suspect that it is a typical Rolex stealth move to enter the market in an unexpected way, but the implication is clear that this is not the last we’ve seen of the ambitious and magnificent Syloxi hairspring.
Stay Tuned For Part 2 coming next week…