Modern Masterpieces Of Horology

Antique watches and clocks often command very high prices at auctions. But many modern watches – scooped up directly from their makers – now also fetch very large sums and attract much attention. The Calibre ’89 by Patek Philippe, for example, brought $3.17 million when sold in 1989. A duplicate is expected to bring more than twice that. These modern masterpieces are the collectibles of tomorrow; their makers bear the names that will echo in auction halls of the future.

In a way, the modern masterpieces of horology are rarer than, and at least as artistically made as, those of old. Unlike the old masters, contemporary masters generally make every part of the watch or clock themselves. Interestingly, some of the later timepieces have many more complications than the old masters’ works ever had.

Record books reveal that while famous watchmakers of a century ago did conceive the inventive construction of their masterpieces and might have made some of the basic parts themselves, they often used the services of other specialists. For example, specialists were called on for perpetual calendric mechanisms, lunar calculations, striking mechanisms, musical inclusions, alarm or astronomical displays, engraving, jeweling, case-making, engine-turning, escapements and springing.

By relying on specialists, the old masters could produce large quantities bearing their own signatures. Breguet, the most famous of old masters, made no secret of the fact that he employed up to a hundred watchmakers. He encouraged them with rewards for extra fine work and dutifully recorded their contributions in his records.

By contrast, modern masters make everything themselves. It comes as no surprise, then, that they can’t produce large quantities. This makes their timepieces comparatively rarer than those of old.

Who are these craftsmen and where do they work their wonders? Here’s a closer look.

George Daniels deserves much of the credit for the rebirth of master watchmaking. Indeed, this Englishman is the world’s most honored watchmaker. Early in his career, Daniels became known as a restorer of museum-caliber watches. He often was called on to virtually remake old masterpieces.

Eventually, he started to make his own watches and to include his own original ideas under the Daniels signature.

Daniels prepared himself for watchmaking by learning to make not only the watch case and its intricate decorations, but also the dials, hands and various parts, including his own new escapement.

He incorporated several original ideas in his very complicated watches – for example, a watch escapement that requires no oil.

His book Watchmaking offers complete instruction in making an entire watch, including case, dial and hands.

Richard Good & Anthony Randall, former curators of the horological section of the British Museum, both have been influenced by Daniels. Both won medals from the British Horological Institute and both were commissioned by America’s finest time museum – The Time Museum at Rockford, Ill. – to produce modern timepieces.

One of Good’s masterpieces is a carriage clock with a triple tourbillon carriage in its movement and case. The clock, now at The Time Museum, is a tour de force of the watchmakers’ art, skill and inventiveness. Good’s escapement revolves not only in the normal action, but also gyrates in the various positions to neutralize errors. The escapement also assures the watch of highly effective lubrication of the watch parts and lessens ambient disturbances. It’s the only one of its kind to provide these particular actions.

Good’s son, Timothy, helped to complete the commissioned timepiece. The technical details were described in the April 1981 National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Bulletin #211 and the British Horological Journal.

Good is a silver medalist of the British Horological Institute and received an honors diploma from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers at the National College of Horology. He has made precision watches and has headed Mercers of London, a company that makes chronometers. Good also has written horological books.

Randall produced a carriage clock similar to Good’s on commission from the Atwood Time Museum at Rockford. Randall’s clock has a distinct gyrating tourbillon. It incorporates an unusual type of remontoire (see “What is a Remontoire?” on page 144) and an unusual form of mainspring power.

Originally a physicist, Randall studied watchmaking in Switzerland, has worked under George Daniels and has taught at Birmingham Polytechnical. He has been awarded the Kullberg Medal by the Stockholm Watchmakers Guild and has received awards from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. He also contributes articles to the British Horological Journal.

Gerhard Hutter is of Viennese birth but has practiced watch- and clockmaking in the U.S. for many years. Clients at his shop in Palm Beach, Fla., include many famous – and undisclosed – personalities.

Hutter has received the Dana Blackwell Award, the highest clockmaking honor from the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, and has won many first-prize gold medals in annual NAWCC clock competitions.

Of all his winning clocks, the Orrery Clock is his favorite. Aside from telling the time, it also shows the positions of the Earth, Mercury, Mars and Venus at speeds of actual relationship. Each of the heavenly representatives is mounted on a platform as part of an ongoing, day-to-day timepiece with a complicated set of gears, wheels and pinions, levers and bearings. The clock was acquired for an undisclosed sum when displayed at Hutter’s own show immediately after the competition.

Another of his prize-winning astronomical clocks is pictured here. It contains a perpetual calendar, the equation of time (sundial vs. clock time), the positions of constellations as they progress through the seasons, signs of the zodiac and the sun and the planets relative to the fixed stars. The clock’s gearing is designed to indicate the mean or the average year of 364.25 days or the daily 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds of our time. The moon is accurately represented by a “dragon wheel” that makes the Metonic cycle of 18.6 years. The whole is calculated to the latitude of Palm Beach (26.7x).

Hutter has made many other unusual clocks, no two alike. He is a champion of the use of microroller bearings in clocks where the bearing friction is greatest and is one of the first to use this mechanism.

Gene D. Clark of Pagosa Springs, Colo., produces high-grade handmade tourbillon watches. He closely follows the ideas and influences of the 19th century horological genius Breguet, using old tools and ordinary watch and clockmaking equipment.

Earlier training as a jeweler-watchmaker provided him with the skills and knowledge to undertake the making of the watch movements and their cases. Clark’s first watch appeared less than a decade ago, so he is considered a comparative newcomer to the small club of world-class watchmakers. He is also the first in the United States to produce a tourbillon watch in the style of Breguet.

Clark’s entire production of seven tourbillon watches appeared recently in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Bulletin, written and photographed by Audrey Peyton.

The watches are numbered in the order they were started, though this doesn’t reflect the order in which they were finished. Clark’s own favorite is No. 5 (shown, left) It employs the marine chronometer spring detent escapement. No. 4 has a constant force arrangement in addition to a tourbillon carriage.

All of Clark’s works have been sold before they were finished. His first tourbillon pocket watch sold for more than $40,000 some years ago. Since then, his reputation has risen steadily. A later watch sold for $110,000 and is on the market again for $250,000.

Kiu Tai Yu, a self-taught horologist who was born in China and now lives in Hong Kong, produces small wrist watches with tourbillon escapement carriages.

Each is made to reveal the internal balance-gyrating movements through an aperture on the dial side. Some of these contain a “flying tourbillon” arrangement in which the upper balance bridge can be observed without apparent pivotal support. This makes for better viewing of the revolving action of the complete escapement.

He was born in Suzhou, Jongsu Province, in 1945 to artistically gifted parents. His mother is a well-known calligrapher and his father is equally well-known for his engravings of signature seals. Out of this enriching environment, he made his first watch in 1970 and his first tourbillon in 1991. The following year, he was invited to join the select Academie Horologerie Creatures Independent, an organization that George Daniels founded in Geneva, Switzerland. Members gather at the Basel trade fair in Switzerland yearly to show their latest achievements.

While relatively new to the field, Kiu Tai Yu is improving his technique and skill with each new watch he makes. Enthusiasts look forward to seeing each of his new creations.

Daniel Roth is one of the most highly respected makers of complicated wrist watches. His individualized pieces are recognized for their detail and their artisanship. Roth’s shop in Switzerland’s Valley Joux has achieved a worldwide reputation. Some faithful customers wait and buy his creations as the models emerge.

Roth has developed a recognizable style that includes an uncluttered watch case, revealing in some cases a decorated, skeletonized movement. His watches also incorporate various types of horological complications. Most have rounded tops and bottoms, but with straight sides and a strong framework.

Derek Pratt, who also works in the Valley Joux, is considered unusual – even among his contemporaries.

Like other watchmakers, he designs and makes his own complete watches, using hand skills and often employing the use of hundred-year-old tools and equipment. But he also uses advanced technology to make some of the most delicate metal parts. For example, his articles in the British Horological Journal describe his high-tech method of using a small spark erosion device to make some of the smallest, odd-shaped parts.

Pratt’s watches have both tourbillon and one-minute remontoire to aid in the supply of power in macroseconds to the balance; it has brought him much attention from his peers.

Pratt works for Urban Jurgensen & Sonner, a company named after the 18th century founder of the Jurgensen family of watchmakers. He is so highly regarded that his name appears on the “Urban Jurgensen & Sonner, Copenhagen” sign, with the additional legend, “Made by Derek Pratt in Balm, Switzerland.”

Shown here is one of his prized tourbillon watches with his well-known one-minute remontoire.

Phillippe Dufour of Derriere-la-Cote, Switzerland, is one of the highest rated individual watchmakers in Switzerland.

His complicated wrist and pocket watches feature the grande-sonnerie, ringing time as in a clock in passing. A clock in passing refers to a lever that can be set to trip a lock that hits a bell to strike the hours. His timepieces also give the precise lunar indications and equation of time (the difference between the varying day lengths of a sun dial and precise mean time) and show the amount of mainspring power left. This latter service requires a tiny version of the differential used in the rear-end axle of automobiles (originally a horological invention and some 200 years old), and other complications.

Dufour’s is a one-man production and, therefore, limited; but his watches may bring well over a half million dollars each. L’Epe Giant Clock, seen at the Basel Fair in April 1994, was the largest reproduction of what is called a crystal regulator in the U.S. Normally, this is a shelf or table clock with glass panels on four sides using a two-jar mercury temperature compensation pendulum. Many of the better ones employ the visible Brocot escapement on the outside of the porcelain dial. (Here you see the clock anchor in front and can observe the back and forth escapement action.) Brocot escapements were originally French, but thousands were made later in Connecticut.

The clock shown at Basel resulted from a challenge among watchmakers at L’Epe of Sainte Susanne (near Montbilliard, France) to build a clock six times as large as a normal 10″ shelf clock. The 1.3-ton clock took 2,800 hours of work (including 350 hours of planning, engineering and design) from 20 of Dufour’s prime staff members. The 71/2-ft. high clock case weighs one ton and has a solid brass framework. All was hand-polished and varnished. It’s adorned with sculptured capitols and decorated columns of goldplated bronze and has four beveled glass panels, each 10mm thick.

The mechanical movement in the clock weighs about 265 pounds. The train of wheels is solid brass; the dial is enamel. The Brocot escapement and escape wheel arbor are visible, showing the jeweled pallets in action. The pendulum has two large vials of mercury that alone weigh 31 pounds. The clock was supposed to make a world tour, but it is rumored to have been sold – presumably an offer that couldn’t be refused.

Richard Daner is one of the few makers whose names appear on watches made for the prestigious company Gubelin of Switzerland.

He was born in Germany in 1930 and served an apprenticeship under highly qualified masters in Essen after World War II. In 1952, he moved to Switzerland and sharpened his skills by restoring high-grade watches with many complications. He often had to make the broken or missing parts by hand.

In 1972, he began to make one-of-a-kind complete watches in his leisure time. He also wrote articles for horological magazinessuch as Uhren in Germany and Chronometrophilia in Switzerland.

In addition, he translated the French-language Swiss book by LeCoultre, Guide to Complicated Watches, into German.

Daner has made numerous watches in association with Gubelin. Some of them have individual names to best describe their individuality:

  • “Circle of Life,” which sold in 1982 for 67,000 Swiss francs. (The Swiss franc currently equals approximately US83.

  • The “Astrum” embellished with diamonds, which sold in 1985 for SF48,000.

  • “La Fabualeuse,” which sold in 1985 for SF950,000.

  • The “Collosus of Rhodes” wrist watch, which sold in 1991 for SF56,000. The time is indicated by the position of each arm in the sectored arcs. At the 12 o’clock position, the arms jump back to the starting position.

WHAT IS A REMONTOIRE?

The term remontoire is engraved or stamped on the back dust covers of many Swiss and French watches made mostly after 1860. Strictly speaking, the term indicates the watch doesn’t have to be wound with a key.

In sophisticated watches and precision clocks, however, the term denotes something else. Power is created with a tensed mainspring in a watch’s slowest moving part, while the timekeeping element in any mechanical watch (the balance in a watch or other portable timepiece and the pendulum of a clock) is the fastest moving part. For most of their free-running action, the unit that keeps these parts in motion is delicately triplocked until the balance or pendulum unlocks it at the point of its greatest speed and strength. The locked escape wheel then must be ready to supply an impulse.

Allowing for some exaggeration, this can be likened to a freight train locomotive that pulls 100 cars behind it. The cars are linked in such a way that by the time the pulling action is transferred to the cars one by one and the last car is jerked into motion, the locomotive already is traveling five miles per hour.

In the 18th century, watchmakers seeking more precision realized that if they could supply an independent and instant source of power closer to the escape wheel, impulses to the timekeeping element would be more equalized.

During the train of wheels’ rest periods between impulses, the main source of power (weight or mainspring) can be used to load that auxiliary power connected to the escape wheel. That unit is called a remontoire in ultra high-grade precision timepieces.