Naissance d'une montre

Under the aegis of the Time Æon Foundation, Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei have decided to support the project of two talented watchmakers for Naissance d'une montre 2. Under the benevolent gaze of their elders, these two watchmakers will create from scratch, by hand, an exceptional watch. Then in turn they will pass on their experience and knowledge.

Naissance d'une montre - Chapter 4

Episode 04

Naissance d'une montre - Chapter 3

Episode 03

Naissance d'une montre - Chapter 2

Episode 02

Naissance d'une montre - Chapter 1

Episode 01

Many, if not most, watchmakers today are simply the last in the long chain of specialists required to make a modern watch – assembling, rather than making, pre-fabricated parts into a working machine.

However, complete watchmakers have to be able to calculate, design and make those parts, each requiring different skills. They also need very broad knowledge, ranging from mathematics to metallurgy.

Below are some of the techniques and tools that complete watchmakers need to master to make watches in the traditional way.

Screws with a twist

Screws were one of the first industrial commodities to be standardised and all of the screws used in watchmaking today conform to the Swiss watch industry’s NIHS standards. Today it’s almost unheard of for a watch manufacturer to make its own screws, when screws of every pitch and dimension are available for a few cents.

Yet it is important for the complete watchmaker to know how to make screws in case they have to, for example, replace a non-standard screw in an antique watch.

 

 

Bent springs

Abraham-Louis Breguet is credited with the discovery that if you bend the outer end of a flat balance spring up over the plane of the spring and towards its centre, it allows the spring to expand and contract more concentrically. This is important, because a spring that wobbles from side to side as it oscillates disturbs the rate and amplitude of the balance, especially one with a relatively slow frequency.

Several watchmakers have since improved on the Breguet overcoil, by bending the end of the spring in a varity of calculated shapes designed for different balance frequencies and inertias.

 

 

Taking a bow

The Jacot tool is one of the most iconic watchmaking tools, especially when powered by hand with a horsehair bowstring wrapped around a ferrule. The latter is a small lathe that has been used for centuries for delicate work on tiny parts, mainly the pivots of wheel shafts and arbors. These are the hardened tips that turn in, or on, the jewel bearings, and are critical to the precision, reliability and longevity of the movement. Pivots are also one of the most fragile parts and often the first to break if the watch receives a severe shock. The pivots have to have extremely precise dimensions, and be hard, straight and smooth to perform reliably.

Sticks are humankind’s oldest tools. The fact that wooden sticks are still used in the manufacture of sophisticated machinery such as luxury watches is of particular fascination. Wood is uncomplicated, natural and has many near-magical properties. Of particular interest is that wooden sticks are used in one the most important aspects of high end watches — the fine finishing.

PHILIPPE DUFOUR ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SIMPLE STICKS

Watch nerds can enjoy endless debates on the relative merits of boxwood and beech for polishing pinion leaves, and gentian stalks versus elder sticks to buff up chamfers. For maximum effect, should the wood be harvested in spring, in autumn, or even at midnight during the full moon?  It’s an endless debate because there is no one correct answer.

 

 

Cyrano Devanthey and Dominique Buser had the opportunity to learn more about using wood for hand finishing by the master himself, Philipe Dufour. They joined Mr. Dufour in the Vallée de Joux to share his knowledge and experience, taking a seat at the workbench, by the master’s side. Cyrano Devanthey explains, "To gain Mr. Dufour's trust, you have to show enthusiasm and seriousness. But once he is convinced, he opens up to you and shares his knowledge without restraint. Mr. Dufour hid nothing from us, and on the contrary, he revealed many of his secrets and techniques that make his timepieces so sought after. Mr. Dufour explained that you have to use all of your senses, including touch and sound, when aiming for perfection."

 

 

Gentian wood is used for the final polish. Its hard shell makes it resistant and its soft core is perfect for the final shine. Elderberry marrow with alcohol is then used to remove polishing residues because it doesn’t mark the gleaming surface beneath.

To make the Naissance d’une montre 2 project as authentic as possible, Dominique Buser and Cyrano Devanthey, assisted by David Friedli, had to build a watch under the watchful eye of a committee.  This committee was not a band of savvy marketing executives, but rather three seasoned watchmakers who produce some of the most sophisticated timepieces available today. Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey were in charge of the style and layout of the movement, while Felix Baumgartner supervised its construction, and Martin Frei designed the case.

AS AUTHENTIC AS POSSIBLE

Each had their say in the production of this unique manually-wound three-hand watch with a power-reserve indicator. “It all started as a bit of a joke between Dominique and I," explains Cyrano Devanthey. “At watchmaking school, Dominique insisted that making a watch entirely by hand was within the realm of the possible, where I was far more sceptical, believing it to be an almost impossible task.” The challenge was on!

 

To meet the criteria of the Naissance d’une montre 2 project, the watch had to be traditionally handmade, innovative, and beautifully finished. Quite a challenge! Buser and Devanthey’s movement structure features a couple of unusual and noteworthy features. The first is their constant-torque spring that coils between two drums. The rotating drums are wound through a planetary gear that provides constant power – a world-first for a wristwatch*. The free-sprung balance is also unique with a bow tie shape and two opposing inertia screws.

 

 

It all looked quite straightforward except that the movement was upside down, with the balance on the dial side. This meant that the going train had to be reversed. Once the work was underway, Buser, Devanthey and the committee decided that the watch looked too symmetrical, so the layout and the shape of some of the bridges were altered.

 

Even though the mission was to build a watch with the same tools as in the 1950s, modern technology came into play. Like all haute horlogerie watches today, the Naissance d’une montre 2 started as a virtual watch, built up and kinetically tested on a computer screen. But instead of sending the data electronically to the CNC programming console, the drawings, and specification sheets for each part were printed out.

 

 

The frosted Maillechort baseplate and bridges, steel bars, and minute and hour hands were created at the Greubel Forsey manufacture. The glass, jewel bearings, and blank for the hairspring were, of course, sourced from outside suppliers.  Basically, they had to make all the mobile parts of the watch — the smallest and trickiest bits. They also had to make the screws and pins, the cover for the mainspring, the chapter ring, and dials for the small seconds and power reserve.

 

Buser and Devanthey drew up a list of the tasks and tools required to make 20 essential components consisting of 104 different parts and almost 200 parts in total, winning the bet for Buser!

“It’s masochism!” declares Cyrano Devanthey, explaining why he and two of his colleagues are making a sophisticated 21st-century wristwatch from scratch using the discarded tools and techniques of a bygone age.

The watch Dominique Buser, Cyrano Devanthey and David Friedli are bringing to life is a return to the sources. They are taking back ownership of the ageless techniques that they learned at watchmaking school. Indeed, like any other complete watchmaker, they have spent four years learning how to make, assemble, adjust and case-up a timepiece. This was followed by work experience to consolidate their skills. “After years working as watchmakers, Dominique and I turned towards engineering. We became expert in computers and manufacturing software. We construct our watches in 3D, and the tolerances of a few microns can be magnified to several centimetres with a clic, as if by magic. We felt the need to become manual workers again and get closer to the raw material,” they declare in concert.

THE OBSOLETE WAY OF MAKING A WATCH

Devanthey, Buser and Friedli’s small workshop in the sleepy town of Buchs in northern Switzerland’s Canton Aarau, is fit for its purpose.  It is entirely equipped with hand-operated and even hand-powered tools that were rescued from scrap when mechanical watchmaking collapsed in the 1970s.  Although most were made in the early 20th century, their basic design and functions are as old as watchmaking itself.

The manufacturing revolution sweeping away rare and valuable skills is worrying to some hands-on watchmakers of the old school. Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, who make a handful of extremely sophisticated watches a year, decided to act. They established the TimeAeon Foundation which aims to preserve the crafts and techniques required to make horological works of art rather than mere products. The members are all trued-in-the-flat watchmakers who actually make watches.  Among them are the master of the exquisite finish, Philippe Dufour, and the expert in complex mechanisms, Felix Baumgartner, the co-founder of URWERK watches.

 

 

In 2012, Greubel, Forsey and Dufour taught a French teacher of watchmaking how to make an entire watch using traditional tools, in the expectation he would pass on the skills he had practiced. The resulting tourbillon wristwatch was the first in a project called Naissance d’une montre (Birth of a watch).

 

In 2019, Time Aeon announced the Naissance d’une montre 2 projet, and the watchmakers chosen to build a watch in the most artisanal way were Cyrano Devanthey, Dominique Buser and David Friedli.