Purnell was originally founded in 2006; the founder, Jonathan Purnell, says that the inspiration for the company was his grandfather Cecil, a British soldier who was wounded in World War I and who recovered from his injuries in Besançon, France, where he studied watchmaking. As part of his education, Cecil Purnell learned about and became fascinated by the tourbillon and, in the fullness of time, passed his interest on to his grandson. Jonathan Purnell worked in the watch industry for over forty years, for firms which included Harry Winston and Vacheron Constantin, and when he founded Purnell, he decided that the company would devote itself exclusively to making tourbillon watches. The company, which debuted its first watch in 2009, has stayed true to the original inspiration and has, in recent years, devoted itself to making both very opulent and very complicated timepieces. One of Purnell’s most dramatic watches is the Escape I Spherion. The Escape I was introduced in 2017; it is a very high speed, triple-axis tourbillon whose cages rotate, from the outer to the inner, in 30, 60, and 8 seconds. In 2019, Purnell introduced the Escape II, which has two triple-axis Spherion tourbillon systems linked by a differential, and which in motion, is one of the most kinetically dramatic wristwatches I’ve ever seen.
The tourbillon system is the brainchild of watchmaker Eric Coudray. Coudray’s name to this day is not especially well-known despite the fact that his work is. Most recently, he collaborated with MB&F, and Kari Voutilainen, on the MB&F Thunderdome, which, you might recall, is also a triple-axis high-speed tourbillon (with cages turning once every 20, 12, and 8 seconds, from outermost to innermost), and during his time at Jaeger-LeCoultre, he developed the first Gyrotourbillon. Though he is, to this day, not as famous among enthusiasts as he might be (this is probably partly due to the fact that both in price and in engineering, his work skews very much towards the high end), he is a major force in the industry, and his company – TEC Ebauches, in Vallorbe – is a highly regarded source of complicated movements for such clients as Louis Moinet, Manufacture Royale, MB&F, and, of course, Purnell.
Coudray has said of his own work that, “Most of the things I create are more than just watches … It’s not just for the performance and all of that. It’s an exercise in style.” Certainly, if you are easily moved by mechanical ingenuity, your first reaction to the Escape II is apt to be visceral and emotional, rather than intellectual. I’m cheating a little bit with this video inasmuch as it’s a time-lapse video, but it certainly gets across the dynamism of the movement.
The most recent versions of the Escape II are being made with either a forged carbon case (of which there are three versions, distinguished from each other by different colorways) and a fourth version, in black DLC grade 5 titanium which is named, logically enough, the All Black.
It will surprise no one to discover that these are quite large watches, although I don’t think you can reasonably expect a double, triple-axis tourbillon wristwatch to be anything other than pretty darned big – which these are, at 48mm x 19mm. The case has been designed so as to make the action of the two triple-axis cages as visible as possible, and this includes a cut-out at the bottom edge of the case with a sapphire window in it (the lateral window is actually part of the one-piece crystal, rather than a separate window) so that you can see the tourbillons even when you are not actually looking directly at the watch.
There are a number of windows cut into the case flank as well, and overall, the visual effect is pretty mesmerizing – even in still images, the combination of mechanical complexity and stark contrast between the finishes of various components is very striking.
The mechanical solution to the problem of running a triple-axis tourbillon at such a high speed is based, rather remarkably, on an escapement which was originally invented by the American watchmaker, Albert Potter, in the mid-1800s. Potter was born in Albany, New York, in 1836 and moved to Geneva in 1875, and he is responsible for a number of chronometer-grade pocket watches, with very recognizable bridge layouts and, often, very mechanically ingenious designs as well. His escapement uses a fixed escape wheel, with inward-facing teeth, against which the escape wheel is driven by the going train. The first use of this arrangement in a high-speed tourbillon, of which I am aware, is a five-second tourbillon by Franck Muller (this, however, is a single-axis tourbillon).
Normally, a tourbillon cage carries the escape wheel, lever, and balance, and the pinion of the escape wheel engages with the teeth of a fixed (non-turning) fourth wheel. The cage is propelled by the going train, and as it turns, the escape wheel rotates against the teeth of the fixed fourth wheel and in turn, passes energy on to the lever and the balance.
For a very high speed tourbillon, however, this arrangement is a challenging one thanks to the amount of inertia involved, and for the Spherion system, an alternative arrangement is used, in which the escape wheel is fixed – this is the Potter escapement. The escape wheel teeth face inward, and as the innermost cage rotates, the pallets of the lever engage with the escape wheel teeth. The balance locks and unlocks the lever in the usual manner, and energy is thus transmitted to the balance.
The single biggest challenge with any tourbillon is that the mechanism is an energy parasite. Normally, in a conventional movement, the fourth wheel drives the escape wheel directly, which then passes energy to the lever and balance. There are energy losses all along the going train due to friction (which can be reduced but never completely eliminated) and also at the escapement itself, thanks to the sliding friction at the lever pallets and to the geometry of the lever. Ensuring that enough energy gets to the balance to maintain optimum amplitude through the entire power reserve of the watch was, and still is, one of the primary challenges in precision watchmaking.
In the tourbillon, the problem is made even more severe owing to the fact that the going train must drive not just the escape wheel, but also the lever and balance, and cope with the inertia of the cage itself; the entire arrangement has to be started from a stationary position every time the lever unlocks the escape wheel. For this reason, even a conventional tourbillon historically had to be constructed to a very high degree of precision, and the cage was always made as light as possible, in order to reduce the load on the going train.
As you can imagine, the problem goes from bad to worse in a multi-axis tourbillon, especially if you want to run it at high speed. For this reason, titanium is a commonly used (if you can say “common” about multi-axis tourbillons) material for the cage, but you must still keep the structure gossamer thin. In the Spherion system, the clearances between the cages are minute – 0.1 to 0.2mm – and the whole kit and kaboodle weighs only 0.79562 grams which, Purnell says with pardonable pride, is “less than the weight of a standard paper clip.” There are a total of eight Incabloc anti-shock systems per Spherion – two each for each of the three cages, plus two more for the balance itself.
Given the complexity of the system, the size of the watch starts to seem, not Brobdignagian, but merely reasonable. As Coudray has said, the idea is to not just produce something which is clever mechanically, but to use ingenuity and mechanics in the service of making something with as much visual razzle-dazzle as possible.
And razzle-dazzle, the Escape II has, and then some. This sort of watchmaking is highly specific in all sorts of ways, of course – the watches start at $ 470,000 for the forged carbon models and $ 460,000 for the model in black DLC. If you’re of my turn of mind, that sort of pricing is liberating because, as I am no more likely to buy a half-million-dollar triple-axis double tourbillon than I am to become airborne by flapping my arms, I am free to simply enjoy these watches as an abstraction. There is considerable pleasure to be had in following this sort of watchmaking, even if you’re never going to be a client for it (or, if you are a potential client, it is not your particular brand of vodka), and a lot of the fun for me, in being a watch enthusiast, is in seeing the work of folks like Eric Coudray evolve over the years – nothing wrong with a little (or a lot) of wow factor every once in a while. The only downside, really, is that I always itch to see stuff like this in person, and that isn’t happening these days. But it’s still more than cool to know that unapologetic maximalist watchmaking, combined with real technical brilliance, is alive and well.
All lifestyle images, and video, Alex Teuscher for Purnell.
The Purnell Escape II Full Black and Forged Carbon models: cases, either forged carbon or grade 5 titanium with black DLC coating; both are 48mm x 19mm and water resistance is 30 meters. Movement, caliber CP03, designed by Eric Coudray, triple-axis double tourbillon “Spherion” with cages rotating at 30, 16, and 8 seconds; Potter-type escapement with fixed escape wheel. Frequency, 21,600 vph, running in 67 jewels with 32-hour power reserve; power-reserve indication using suspended mobile cone. Six mainsprings in 4 barrels running in parallel. Adjust to 12 positions (I assume six per Spherion). Total movement weight, 15.7 grams. Limited edition of 20 pieces per reference. Prices, $ 470,000 in forged carbon and $ 460,000 in black DLC titanium. For more, visit Purnellwatches.com.
The Purnell Escape II Full Black and Forged Carbon models are being shown at the Watches & Wonders Shanghai exhibition from Sept. 9 to 13.