Back in the year 2006, I happened to see in person a very unexpected watch from a very unexpected company. The watch was the Quenttin Tourbillon, from Jacob & Co., which was (and is) a massive timepiece with a then-unprecedented 31-day power reserve and vertical tourbillon. The Quenttin kicked off a whole new genre of competition among watchmakers. The longest power reserves in watches prior to the Quenttin were usually found in pocket watches, for which eight days was generally pushing it. Long power reserves mean either multiple mainspring barrels, or one very whopping big one, and the long power reserve generally meant sketchy chronometry at either extreme of the running time. The company that finally walked away with the record was Hublot, whose La Ferrari was launched in 2013 with a 50-day power reserve; as far as I know, no one has made an attempt on an absolute record for a long power reserve in a wristwatch since then.
There is, of course, the Vacheron Constantin Twin Beat, which has two separate oscillators between which you can switch and, with the lower frequency balance (1.2 Hz) in use, the watch will run for 65 days. It is not, however, meant to be worn in this mode, nor to keep time especially precisely; instead, this is basically a standby mode for the watch, intended to keep the perpetual calendar up to date if the watch is unworn for an extended period of time. Even with modern technology, exceeding the La Ferrari’s record would likely result in an unwearable timepiece (La Ferrari is already a watch of ursine heft, to borrow a phrase) and would probably require innovations in escapement technology. (The Parmigiani Fleurier Genequand oscillator concept watch had a theoretical power reserve of 70 days, but Parmigiani has apparently dropped the project, at least for now.)
With the brass ring firmly in hand, Hublot seems to have stepped back a bit from pursuing any further absolute records in terms of power reserve, but it still is active in the niche of long power reserve watches. Their flagships for the moment are the MP-11 watches, which have seven in-series mainspring barrels and a power reserve of 14 days. While still quite large, at 45mm x 14.50mm, they are nonetheless relatively far more wearable than something like the La Ferrari (or the Quenttin). The MP-11 has appeared in several different case materials since it was introduced as a platform for the caliber HUB9011, and it was launched this year at LVMH Watch Week in Dubai in January in Hublot’s patented Red Magic ceramic.
Now, before going any further I think that the point must be made that a long power reserve watch certainly does not need to be a fire-engine red visual paean to strident horological extroversion. Vacheron makes a long power reserve watch that is as respectable as a seat on the board of a white-shoe banking firm (or at least, as respectable as such a seat used to be). While a heftier size is more or less a given with a long power reserve watch, the fact remains that the Hublot MP-11 Red Magic looks the way it does, not out of any technical necessity, but because that is how Hublot wants it to look (and by extension, one assumes, how Hublot thinks its customers want such a watch to look).
The reason I’m going on about this a little is because while you can draw a comparison between the Vacheron and the Hublot from a technical watchmaking perspective, I think it is extremely unlikely that there is anywhere in the world, now or ever, anyone scratching their head as they struggle to choose between the two. The client for the Hublot is very likely not only a repeat Hublot client, but one for whom the attention-seeking aspects of its design are not a liability, nor incidental, but rather an asset and indeed, the entire raison d’être of the watch.
While it is a technical record-holder, I don’t think anyone would call the La Ferrari a high point in modern watch design from the standpoint of aesthetics. While the enormously long power reserve is indisputably impressive, the design always struck me as a little perfunctory next to the technical complexity of the watch, and the biomorphic case seemed a rather clichéd attempt to look cool and futuristic.
The Big Bang MP-11 Red Magic, therefore, surprised me when I saw the first pictures in Jon Bues’ Introducing post from January. I would have expected, had someone just described the watch to me, to find it, if not forgettable at least not terribly compelling. But it seemed somehow to work, to cohere in a way – albeit in its own very idiosyncratic way – that some of the other MP-11 watches, and certainly the La Ferrari, had not. In person – in the ceramic, as it were – I found it managed to carry the day, finally, through the sheer strength of its own convictions.
I think much of the success of the MP-11 Red Magic is owing to the surprising depth and richness of the red ceramic. In a different material, the overall design might not be as successful (the Red Magic ceramic version is the only one I’ve actually had a chance to see and handle), and it gives the watch all the lightness and ease on the wrist you would expect from a ceramic case (I’m speaking in relative terms, of course – this is still a 45mm x 14.5mm watch and no mistake). The material has some of the same sense of subtle grain and texture you get in a fired enamel dial, and it catches the light, and shifts in tone as the light changes, in a pleasingly distracting fashion – not that this is a watch that was ever not going to draw attention to itself, but as it does, it is nice that there is a lot to look at.
I’ve said that the MP-11 Red Magic looks the way it does because that’s how Hublot wanted it to look. This, of course, is obvious on one level, but it’s also true that not every design attempt succeeds in reaching its goals. Making a watch like this is quite a lot riskier than making, say, something like a flat time-only dress watch in a precious metal, or making a diver’s watch (both genres for which there is a well-established design vocabulary). Very often, the sort of watchmaking that the MP-11 Red Magic represents does not quite live up to its ambitions, but in this instance, I think the combination of unsuspected depth and richness to be found in the case material, in combination with the technical aspects of the watch, make for a timepiece which I think stands a pretty good chance of continuing to be appealing – and fun, which after all is the point of the whole exercise – long after the novelty has worn off.
The Hublot MP-11 Red Magic: case, red ceramic, 45mm x 14.5mm, with specially shaped sapphire crystal to accommodate the mainspring barrels. Movement, Hublot 14-day caliber HUB9011, running at 28,800 vph in 39 jewels; seven mainspring barrels running in series. Limited edition of 100 pieces worldwide; price, $ 86,000. For more, see it at Hublot.com.