The Quartz Crisis is one of those moments in the evolution of an art (if we wish to grace watchmaking with that term, and why not?) which marks a point in which it becomes necessary for both the art and the artist to re-invent themselves. The handwriting was on the wall for mechanical horology for some time, of course – electronic watches, such as the Hamilton Electric, were never serious competitors to a good mechanical watch (too expensive, too fragile, and not enough of a performance improvement in exchange), but the Accutron showed, starting in 1960, that technology would no more leave watchmaking untouched than any other domain, and with the advent of the quartz watch on Christmas Day in 1969, mechanical horology seemed to face an existential crisis from which no recovery could be imagined.
By the time I became seriously interested in watches, the watch internet in its first incarnation was just starting to take off, albeit in the form of Usenet newsgroups. There were no pictures to argue over, but the intensity and ferocity of disagreements certainly presaged the wild and wooly online watch community of today. And in the wake of the gradual recovery of the Swiss watch industry, which had been so badly damaged by the Quartz Crisis that there was serious talk in the Swiss press of shutting down mechanical watchmaking completely, mechanical horology reinvented itself as less of a necessity, and more of a form of personal pleasure and personal expression.
This, in turn, led fine watchmaking firms to take a fresh look at making both simple and complicated watches, which distinguished themselves more strongly than might have been the case in the past, and we were treated, as the 1980s and 1990s went by, to increasingly interesting and beautiful mechanical watches which would have been considered unthinkable in the decade after the first quartz watches appeared. So much so that HODINKEE’s Executive Editor, Joe Thompson, was able to write, in 1990, that “The mechanical watch has made a Lazarus-like return at the upper end of the market, and is a major feature of the Swiss renaissance. Mechanical watch exports are up 44% in the past two years, to $ 1.5 billion. They represent 39% of Swiss exports sales. Patek Philippe and Rolex, which still make their own mechanical movements, have soared to record sales marketing the prestige, value and rarity of traditional, hand-made Swiss craftsmanship. Now others are following their lead. A chorus of new mechanicals ticked away at the Basel Fair this year, with many brands showing automatic movements for the first time in ages. The mechanical revival may even head down market. SMH [today’s Swatch Group] plans to launch a mechanical Swatch this year.”
In the next decade, there was an efflorescence of mechanical horology the likes of which had not been seen since the turn of the 18th century to the 19th, when many of today’s high complications gradually took on their modern form, and delighting the eye and amusing the mind coexisted firmly alongside the goal of achieving greater and greater gains in precision watchmaking. The masterpieces of that era both set the stage for fine watchmaking as it exists today, and in many cases, are still a benchmark by which fine watchmaking should be judged. Here are three totally subjective personal favorites of mine from the period.
The Jules Audemars Equation Of Time
It would not surprise me very much if many enthusiasts did not even realize that the Jules Audemars line exists at Audemars Piguet. It’s not much in the spotlight these days; in fact, HODINKEE has covered watches from the line only a handful of times since the site was founded, and only two out of six of those stories were on new watches – the remainder were auction reports. Yet, there was a time when the Jules Audemars collection represented Audemars Piguet’s complicated watchmaking at its best, and such watches as the Grande et Petite Sonnerie Repetition Minutes Carillon, Reserve de Sonnerie et Dynamographe were, if not must-haves, certainly watches that anyone with pretensions to horological sophistication would feel they owed it to themselves to know about, and whose importance and place in horological history was valuable and interesting to understand. One of the very first watches in the collection that I ever fell hard for was the Jules Audemars Equation Of Time.
The Jules Audemars Equation Of Time was introduced in 2000, and it was, at the time, the very first wristwatch to have a sunrise/sunset complication – such complications had been made in pocket watches and clocks for centuries, but it had never been put in a wristwatch before. I am not quite sure why the sunrise/sunset complication took so long to appear in a wristwatch – it may at least partly have to do with the fact that it is generally location-dependent, and in the age of modern jet travel, having a complication which is particular to a single place on earth means a pretty niche watch. The Jules Audemars Equation Of Time managed to be the first-ever wristwatch with a sunrise/sunset complication; independent watchmaker Martin Braun launched his EOS watch just a few months later.
As the name states, the Jules Audemars Equation Of Time also has an Equation Of Time complication (this is the difference between mean solar time and true solar time), and moreover, the moment of true solar noon can be read off the dial as well (the time of true solar noon varies by about four minutes per degree of longitude). The difference between mean local noon and civil noon is engraved on the rehaut, and you can determine true local noon by waiting until the moment when the minute hand is superimposed on the Equation Of Time hand. (Amazingly enough, a 12-year-old video by AP showing how to read off the difference between civil noon and local solar noon is still up on YouTube).
The watch is also a perpetual calendar, and it was, in 2000, one of the few watches to feature a high-accuracy astronomical moon-phase indication, which is accurate to one days’ error in 122 years (and 44 days, for those who like to keep track of such things). If you want to get an even better sense of just how much is going on here, you can have a look at the actual manual right here.
On top of everything else, the complications were built on top of one of the most elevated automatic movements of all time – the ultra-thin caliber 2120, which is 2.45mm thick. Even with the complications, the total movement height is only 5.35mm. The production numbers for the watch were very low as each one was essentially a bespoke piece: You would specify the location, and AP would have to make Equation Of Time and sunrise/sunset cams individually for each order. According to an archived listing on AP’s website, it was not a small watch, at 44mm x 11.7mm, which surprised me very much when I looked it up because I have a persistent, albeit two-decade-old, memory of it being a smaller watch; god knows why. The complication spent a brief period of time in a Royal Oak case before being finally phased out. This was quite literally the watch responsible for my learning about the Equation Of Time for the first time (perhaps it was the effort involved, but I’ve had a weakness for the complication ever since), and it represents, I think, a real high-water mark in classic complicated watchmaking.
The Patek Philippe Ref. 5100 With 10-Day Power Reserve
The 5100, which was also released in 2000, is for me one of the most beautiful and interesting simple watches that Patek has produced since the Mechanical Renaissance began in earnest. It is, in certain respects, diametrically opposed in complexity and intention to the Jules Audemars Equation Of Time, but it is its equal in terms of masterful presentation of horology as art and of watchmaking at the high end as the capacity to take infinite pains. It’s a watch that was written about the year it debuted, most entertainingly (in parts one and two of a two-part article), by Alan Downing, who wrote under the pseudonym Watchbore on Timezone.com. The watch was a technical tour-de-force – it was the first wristwatch ever to be made with a 10-day power reserve, a world record at the time – and was the brainchild of Patek’s long-time technical director, Jean-Pierre Musy, of whom Downing waggishly wrote, “Mr. Musy, who, as one of Switzerland’s most talented horological engineers, is unknown to the watch-buying public, is a stickler for what he calls le confort — the provision of every convenience the most exacting owner will ever think of requiring.”
I can do no better than to quote Watchbore more extensively, on some of the distinctive features of the 5100.
“He [Musy] has introduced a calculated amount of friction between the ratchet-wheel and the underside of the top-plate to mitigate, with an agreeable tactile sensation, the lengthy task of winding the watch. Unlike the ordinary leather strap, that of the ref. 5100 will support the watch at a convenient angle when you lay it by your bedside. The watch is also adjusted in this inclined position, in addition to the five conventional positions of adjustment. And in case, while setting your watch, you happen to drop it into the bath, a double seal in the winding stem ensures that water-resistance is maintained even when the crown is pulled out.”
“The movement, regulated at 21,600 v/h by a free-sprung balance with eight adjusting weights, runs in 29 jewels. Turning the weights reduces or increases the effective radius of the balance wheel, thus speeding or slowing the rate, as illustrated on the balance-cock. The balance is dynamically adjusted at the lowest possible amplitude. The watches are delivered with a rating certificate which should show a performance well within COSC norms. Its long power reserve gives the watch some advantage in the tests where the movements are wound daily, as the springs are never allowed to unwind by more than 10%.”
“Measuring 28 x 20 x 5.05mm, the Cal. 28-20 movement is equivalent to a 13-ligne round caliber. Its volume, with 172 parts, is around 18% greater than that of the Cal. 240 Q automatic perpetual-calendar with 275 parts made by the same manufacturer. The rounded corners of the movement suggest that future versions will be fitted into round cases, perhaps with such complications as a perpetual calendar. The winged case, a complex and highly polished arrangement of convexes and concaves is said to take 188 separate operations to complete. Applied gold numerals show the even hours, while the odd hours are indicated by three opposing pairs of lapped markers, variously angled according to their position on the dial. The design is not original, however, having been adapted from the 1952 Ref. 2554 [better known as the ‘Manta Ray’].”
Let’s think about this for a moment – this is a watch whose maker actually went to the trouble of adjusting it not just to positions, but also to the position it would occupy if used as a clock on a nightstand. Dynamic poising at the lowest possible amplitude is a measure undertaken to ensure that positional errors will be minimized even at the end of the (very long) power reserve. All this enormous care in the design, construction, and adjustment of the watch have a whole heck of a lot more to do, if you ask me, with why Patek Philippe is Patek Philippe than any frenzy over a certain steel sports watch. Of course, these details take time and a certain amount of knowledge about horology to appreciate, but these are, after all, the things that make a difference between a genuinely great watch and a merely very good one. An absolutely glorious watch – one whose quiet but thoroughgoing excellence makes for poor Instagram fodder but enormous horological satisfaction.
The Longines Ephemerides Solaires, 1989
If you ask most enthusiasts nowadays what they think of when they think of Longines, chances are that they’ll talk about watches from the company’s Heritage collection – a range of generally mechanically straightforward, vintage-inspired timepieces that look back to some of the more popular and better-known designs and models from the company’s past. There is one model in the Heritage collection, however, which points to a different part of Longines’ past, and that’s the Hour Angle watch, whose persistence in the collection is something of a minor miracle. For all that I can’t imagine it’s an important watch to the company commercially, it’s one I’m glad they’ve kept in production – a large, basically exact reproduction of a watch made to determine the local hour angle, or longitude, when navigating an aircraft.
Back in 1989, just as the mechanical renaissance was gathering steam, Longines celebrated the 100th anniversary of its trademark (hey, why not) by producing a watch that is both something of a one-off in the company’s history, but which also is an extension of the interest in celestial phenomena which the Hour Angle watch represents. This watch is the Longines Ephemerides Solaires.
This 37mm watch has an ETA 2824 as a base caliber, but it also includes a sunrise/sunset complication (yes, I know we just said that the AP Jules Audemars Equation Of Time was the first; more about that in a minute) at 12:00 on the dial, and an indication of the solar declination: This is the angular difference between the path of the Sun in the sky and the celestial equator. The declination is zero on the equinoxes, and reaches a maximum angle of 23.44 degrees on the solstices, and you can see that the indication for solar declination shows a maximum declination of 24 degrees (a reasonable approximation given the tiny size of the indication’s aperture).
The Equation Of Time is shown by the blue line on the rotating bezel, which has a conspicuous locking lever at 6:00 (why, I’m not sure, as the position of the blue line doesn’t change; maybe it’s intended to keep the bezel locked so that the current month is at the top of the dial), and you basically just read off the approximate Equation Of Time for the day to within whatever resolution your vision is capable of – assisted, perhaps, by a magnifying glass. One owner of this watch mentioned on Timezone.com, in 2001, that he definitely needed one to read off the sunrise/sunset complication. The month and date are shown in apertures on the left and right respectively.
How to read off sunrise and sunset times is less obvious. Instruction manuals for this watch do not appear to have made it online (which is not surprising given the date of manufacture and the small number of watches made – 1,000 in stainless steel and 200 in gold, according to the gent on Timezone), and indeed, a search for the manual turns up several plaintive requests from new owners of pre-owned Ephemerides Solaires watches asking if anyone has one. As far as I can tell, the hour of sunrise and sunset is given by the position of the boundary between the blue and gold sections of the respective indicator rings along the bottom of each sector. In the watch in the picture, the date is August 2. The sunrise/sunset times are calculated for St. Imier, Switzerland, which is the historic home of Longines and, indeed, the time of sunrise on August 2 in St. Imier was 6:13 AM – the watch shows 5:13, but this doesn’t take into account European Summer Time, which adds an hour. What the 1-15-30 graduations might mean is less clear to me – possibly the time difference between actual sunrise and sunset, and twilight, which is about 20-30 minutes; I’m not sure how you’d read that off from the indications though.
So why is the general consensus that the Jules Audemars Equation Of Time was the first wristwatch with a sunrise/sunset complication? Well, I think it partly has to do with the fact that the Ephemerides Solaires watches only tell these times for St. Imier, Switzerland (you have to do some mental arithmetic to arrive at the correct time for your location, unless you were born in St. Imier, plan on dying in St. Imier, and have no particular plans to ever travel beyond the borders of St. Imier), and partly to do with the fact that the resolution for the time is limited by the quite minute size of the indications. Still, you have to give Longines credit for kinda-sorta getting there first. This is an awful lot of astronomical information in a pretty small watch, and it shows a real inventiveness in making such complications at a relatively affordable price. It’s a difficult watch to find, although they do pop up at auction occasionally, and prices never seem to have risen above the three to four thousand dollar mark, even for one of the gold models.
It is said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but I think a slightly different version of the adage applies to watchmaking, in which those who forget the past – well, simply forget it. But the period between 1990 and 2000, for all that it has faded from the memories of both brands and collectors, represents a time when the Swiss mechanical watch industry was shaking off the deadly lassitude of the Quartz Crisis and finding, to its surprise, that people still wanted what it was selling. The rediscovery of its own ingenuity gave birth to a generation of sometimes extremely interesting watches, and it is hard to avoid feeling as if, in the age of Instagram, more emphasis is laid on cosmetics and less on real watchmaking value at every price point. These things tend to run in cycles, though, and perhaps relative exhaustion with the obsession with cosmetics that has characterized the last ten years will give way to – or at least, find itself balanced by – greater curiosity about horological creativity in the months and years to come.