Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Quest for Thinness Part 3: The Whirlwind Timekeeper

As promised here is part three of "The Quest For Thinness". However, during the course of deciding to write about these and actually writing and researching, things have changed so dramatically that I've had to rethink the players to feature for this third part, where the focus is on tourbillons. Bulgari decided to simply drop this amazingly thin piece of haute horlogerie into our midst during Baselworld 2014 I believe a vast majority of the watch industry dropped their collective jaws. (Better jaws than watches right?) It was almost a repeat of what Piaget did a mere 3 months before. Bulgari's tourbillon is so thin that it's very difficult to imagine anyone beating its thinnest anytime soon. How so?

Up until this bombshell, the thinnest tourbillon watches that were considered for this post were from Breguet, Arnold & Son and Piaget, the master of ultra thin. Given the unavoidable thickness due to the size of the tourbillon cage, these watches were already getting pretty darn thin. I mean, at a total watch height of around 8mm for the Arnold & Son and around 7mm for the Breguet, these are almost cardboard territory. And the movements? At around 3mm each, that's approaching paper thin. Then Bulgari went and sliced that down further to a mere 1.95mm for the movement and at just 5mm for the overall watch.

Call me gobsmacked.

Arnold & Son Tourbillon

Breguet Tourbillon

I still shake my head when i think just how thin that Bulgari is. And it came so unexpectedly from an brand not usually known for their watchmaking flair. Yes they did buy in a lot of the expertise but it takes real geniuses to develop and produce something like this. Case designers, movement engineers, watchmakers, a lot of people need to work together to make something this work cohesively. As mentioned before, it's easy to make a big watch, but it takes real skills and know-how to fit so much into so little space.

So Bulgari sliced a good 2mm off the total watch height from Breguet's tourbillon. Is this about as thin as it gets?

Why don't we hypothetically design the thinnest movement? Let's use 3 brands as examples, given they're already leaders and pioneers and masters in this field.

First let's look at Jaeger-LeCoultre. I posed the question that if all the minute repeater functions were taken out of the Hybris Mechanica 11, it could free up a fair bit of height. But is it enough to bring it down to under 5mm? What about using their ultra thin movement as a base? They could fit the flying balance and the flying tourbillon to their caliber 849 movement which may add a little more height to its already svelte 1.85mm (bring the total to, say, 2mm). And assuming they still only need 2.2mm to fit everything else in, we could possibly be looking at a total watch height of around say, 4.2mm?

Now let's look at Vacheron Constantin. Their thinnest manual wind movement is even thinner at 1.55mm in height. assuming the tourbillon will add the same sort of percentage in height, that would bring it to about, say, 1.7mm? And let's assume they can also fit everything else (glass, hands, dial, case back) within 2.2mm, that would give us a 3.9mm watch.

Or maybe Piaget can do what they did with the Altiplano, and simply add a tourbillon to it, and somehow manages to keep it at the same 3.8mm? I really cannot imagine a mechanical watch any thinner than this. There are still some laws of physics and thermodynamics to obey. How thin can you go??

The ball is well and truly in your court, Richemont siblings. Go nuts.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Morning Commute

I hopped on the 8:06 to Town Hall as I do every day. (I've always wondered about this way of saying a time and a destination. Wouldn't this be different for everyone depending on which station you board the train from? Or is it the 7:45 from Hornsby? Would that make more sense?) Most of the time it's close to 8:09 or even 8:12. They're just that punctual. Maybe they need their watches serviced?  Although I don't mind it much. Sometimes it's nice to breathe in the crisp morning air, and listen to the dissonant cacophony of birds tweeting, cars honking, air brakes braking and children laughing. Yes I look at my watch that closely not because I'm concerned about being on time, but because every time I look at the time I get to admire this thing of beauty that sits on my wrist, held securely by the skin of a generous animal which gave its life for a worthy cause.

The Grande Reverso Ultra Thin, while long in name, is as simple and elegant as it gets for a watch. There are only 2 hands. I don't need to know the time down to the second. And a two-handed watch has that serenity you just don't get from a three-handed watch. It's as if your time is standing still, a nice bit of white lie and a stark juxtaposition to the ever-rushing world. The watch is taking the time to smell the roses and reminds you that you should also. The dial too, is elegantly crafted. Simple, black no-nonsense Arabic numerals on a silvery white background. Distinctive, high contrast, and easy to read. The brand, subtle yet prominent sits below 12:00 on a vertical guilloche decoration.

It's difficult to imagine the Reverso as a sports watch, and yet therein lies its humble, but significant beginnings: as a sports watch for Polo players who seemingly cannot control their wayward flying balls and forever getting their poor timepieces smashed in. The Reverso "reverses" over on itself so the hard metal back protects the watch during the game, and all the player had to do was flip it back over to see how much more time before the chukka ends. The piece on my wrist is a direct descendent of said pioneering sports watch. Manually wound and solid case back for when I do pick up the game of Polo. Ultra-thin? I suppose... It's the thinnest watch I have.

As I was staring at my watch I wondered what other people in the same carriage are doing. Is there any truth to the myth that 90% of the people just bury their heads in their smart phones/tablets? Surprisingly it's not 90%! A cursory glance around the carriage reveals 45 possible seats. 10 empty. Obviously all of them are of the middle seat in the 3 seater section. 2 girls are putting on their makeup. 3 guys have their heads against the window; resting I assume. I can't see their eyes. Surprisingly again only 5 has earphones on. Ok. One of them has an audio technica headphone. No dr dre beats here today. Ratio of guys to gals is 3:1. Half the guys are in suits. 3 people are reading actual books! As in made of paper! Only one person looked up to admire the view as we cross over the Sydney harbour bridge. Granted I was seated in the lower deck so the view does get obscured. 2 guys are on their laptop. Presumably working/emailing. From what I can tell only a handful have their heads buried in their phones. I bet no one stares at their watch for half the trip. There is one young couple deep in whispers. So sweet. The rest of the passengers seems to be just in a daze. Blanked out.

I also wonder what is on the minds of people who get up to stand at the door 45 seconds to a minute before reaching the station. Were they traumatised from a missed exit experience?

"Ladies and Gentlemen. Next stop Town Hall. Please be reminded to take all your belongings with you and thank you for travelling with Sydney Trains."

One more glance at the watch before I struggle out of my seat and walked through the carriage towards the doors. Glancing down as I pass by the other passengers to check out what's on their screens, I was dismayed to find no one was playing candy crush.

After "Big Sister" Opal reads my card and send crucial private information to the gummy mint the hard plastic gate creaks open and my access to the daily grind is granted and thus begins another day in the rat race. The upside? I get to stare at this beauty all day. And that makes it all right. As I stand in the lift that takes me to my day cell, I top up the juice by winding the buttery smooth crown and listening to the soft clicks as the spring inside the barrel tightens, I knew everything was going to be all right.

**No… I didn't take pictures of the view in the carriage. That would be plain weird and creepy. Let's just let the imagination run with this one.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Top Gear Season 21 Wrist Watch - Richard Hammond's Tag Heuer Grand Carrera Chrono

We briefly touched on Richard Hammond's Grand Carrera back in 2009, but that was with a dodgy low-res screen cap and it was more of a point-and-identify exercise than an in-depth look at the watch. Whilst watching the latest episode we FINALLY get another close up of the watch during the 'news' segment of the show, and this inspired me to do a proper post on it.

So as we have identified, the watch on Hammond's wrist is the Tag Heuer Grand Carrera Chronograph, Calibre 17, an officially certified chronometer. This is one of my favourite Tag Heuers. No, really. I've loved it ever since it was launched back in 2007 and I do think it is one of the most successful Grand Carrera models they've done. So successful in fact that here we are in 2014, and it is still part of the range. The reason why it is so successful? The disc system (where rotating disc display the chronograph minutes and the running seconds) rather than the more conventional hand display, and the perfectly balanced and symmetrical dial. Trust me. Balance and symmetry in a watch does wonders.

It also helps that there are some very well thought out design features. The bezel is very thin, which makes the dial look bigger, which I like. The shape of the double sapphire crystal in the back case is a nod to the two window cut-outs on the dial revealing the rotating discs. The minute hand that reaches the minute tracks!! This is something lacking in Tag Heuer's latest masterpieces and I really wish they'd kept it up.
The Grand Carrera was actually a brand new range of watches for Tag Heuer, and this range was designed to raise the, err, luxuriousness of the brand and move them higher up in the price bracket. In some ways this was done quite successfully, but it did take sometime. Keep in mind that it is always much more difficult to move up a price point than down, especially since the range didn't have any in-house movements to 'justify' the price. The movement powering the Grand Carrera Chronograph is an ETA 2824-2, which is essentially a 2892 movement with a chrono movement on top of it. Nothing spesh, sure, but it works perfectly fine.

And yes, I love it so much that I did end up picking one up myself. On the leather strap. But I really should've bought one on bracelet, since they're so expensive to buy as a spare part...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Zenith Watches Signs NBA Star Russell Westbrook

O to be Russell Westbrook. He gets paid to wear Jordan sneakers. He gets paid to wear Zenith watches. I'm sure there are other perks as well from being Russell Westbrook but I'd be very happy with these two. This new partnership will no doubt raise the profile of Zenith but hopefully this doesn't mean the return of the Defy range. Actually I don't mind if the Defy name comes back. It was part of the Zenith history but as long as they don't come back looking like they did in the early 2000s... Ahem. 

I think it could be a good move to bring back the sports line or a "rugged" line of watche for Zenith. Most Of the brands these days have concentrated far too much on making pretty dress watches for a certain market but there is a place for sports watches too. Not everyone wears a suit every day. Plus a gold dress watch doesn't quite go with Jordans. At least I know I can't pull off that combo. 

The Zenith Defy... erm... Hopefully we don't see a return of this....style...

Russell joins an elite list of NBA stars already sporting fancy Swiss watches. LeBron, Kobe and Wade to name but 3.

Anyway I think Westbrook will be really good for Zenith. They definitely need some exposure after the off period and rebuilding the brand image again. Although they did quite well with Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos project, but I feel that Red Bull seem to have gleaned most of the attention out of that exercise. It's in the name for starters. I doubt in a few years' time people are going to remember what watch was strapped to Felix's wrist. Hang on, he had a watch on? A mechanical, 36,000 vph mechanical automatic chronograph? My point exactly.

Here's to the Zenith Defy Westbrook. Let's just hope there ain't no bling on dis thang.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Top Gear Wrist Watch Season 21 - James May's Vintage Memovox

It's been a while since an update was done on Top Gear wrist watching. And to be honest, it's not that I didn't want to, but the boys from Top Gear aren't helping either. They haven't worn anything they haven't worn before. And on the occasion that I catch something that I think I haven't seen before, it's too far away for me to be certain. There was this one vintage watch on one James May's wrist that was first seen last season but for the life of me I just couldn't pick it. Watches from the 60s all look alike! So like any sane people would do in this situation, I gave up and not give it another thought. Until this current season.

As James may showed off his multitasking skills at the risk to his own life (driving, narrating, looking at the camera and NOT at the road, performing some fancy card trick with a top hat and doves in tow) my attention went straight to his wrist. And yes. That round vintage watch with a silver/beige dial is back.

This time I had help.

@initiahjh, a fellow watch enthusiast and connoisseur whose knowledge in all things vintage *ahem* is second to none. Plus apparently he was searching for something just like what May was wearing so I completely trust his insight. There were tell tale signs on this watch, and as you can almost make out from the below and above screen grabs, courtesy again of @initialjh, these were enough to go on.

So what are these tell tale signs? 1. 2 crowns- one each at 2:00 and 4:00 positions. 2. Something that looks like a disc in the middle of the dial. 3. You can just make out the triangle on this inner disc. and 4. Date window. From these visual clues @initialjh came to the conclusion that the watch is most likely the Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Alarm watch, from the 60s.

I won't bore you with a history lesson, so feel free to skip the next paragraph. Otherwise, here's the abridged version:

Jaeger-LeCoultre first introduced the mechanical alarm watch, the very first Memovox (the voice of memory) in 1950, with the Calibre 489. This was then followed by the very first automatic winding bumper alarm movement in watchmaking history in 1956 with the Calibre 815. The one on James May's wrist is powered by the Calibre 825, which is essentially the 815 with a date. This first came about in 1959. In 1970, the Calibre 916 replaced the bumper winding system with a full winding rotor and the balance frequency was increased frm 21,600 vph to 28,800 vph. The current iteration Calibre 956 is a direct descendant of the Calibre 815.

On the left is the original manual wind Memovox from 1950. On the right is the Calibre 815, the first automatic winding alarm with a bumper movement (see the springs?) The Calibre 825 looks the same as the 815 but with an added date function on the dial side.

The vintage Memovox is getting quite difficult to come by, especially one in good condition and original dial and hands. Here is an excellent post about all the variations of the 60s Memovox.

However, if you're like me and wouldn't mind a modern day version (and pay roughly 2-3 times the price of the one from the 60s) these are a lot easier to find. The current Memovox is part of the Master range, and with it comes the JLC 1000 hour control test. The watch case proportion is very well balanced at 40mm in diametre and about 8.6mm in height. Rather than having a hammer hitting a post and giving a buzzing sound for the alarm, the hammer hits a gong, giving it a very crisp note, which actually sounds quite melodic. The volume and quality is amplified if you have the watch sitting on a wooden bedside table, for example, as the wood reverberates the ring and the further improves the acoustics. Another great thing about the Calibre 956 is that it incorporates all the latest bells and whistles, including ceramic bead winding system, variable inertia balance and quick date setting.

Great. I think I just talked myself into a Memovox. Sigh.

Nothing new to report on the other 2 hosts. Clarkson seem to have gone back to his trusty Omega Planet Ocean. The length of absence corresponds roughly to the time it would've taken for the watch to be completely refurbished at the factory in Switzerland. And Hammond hasn't been showing his wrist lately. Someone should write to the producers. And the tame racing driver? Some say that he is so fast that if you strap a watch to his wrist (if he had a wrist) it would go backwards. And he believes by fitting a tourbillon to the engine it would counter the gravity effect on the pistons and make the car go smoother and faster. all we know is... He's called the Stig!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Quest For Thinness Part 2: The Minute Repeater Strikes Back

It is very entertaining observing the intra-company sibling rivalry that doesn't seem to stop. Round 2 involves the same 3 siblings of the Richemont group: Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin. Piaget as you might know wanted to hold the record for everything thinness category there is in the world of haute horlogerie. And they did have all the records (thinnest automatic, thinnest mechanical, thinnest minute repeater, etc) until Vacheron decided to spoil things by introducing the thinnest minute repeater watch late in 2013, pushing the total height down to a mere 8.09mm (compared to Piaget's 9.4mm in the Piaget Emperador Coussin XL, which was released in early 2013).

JLC, still reeling from having their thinnest mechanical watch record wrenched away by Piaget after such a short period decided that there is nothing like the sweet revenge of beating them at their own game (and dealing a double blow to Vacheron at the same time) and launched not only the world's thinnest minute repeater watch, but one with a flying tourbillon/flying balance AND a peripheral winding system to boot! Just as the thickness of the thinnest manual wind watch dropped quite significantly (in terms of percentages) the thickness of the ultra thin minute repeater watch dropped from 9.4mm to 7.9mm in just under 12 months. Sure is amazing what intra-group competition can do!

(Yes I realise that it takes far longer than mere months to plan/design/engineer/manufacture such amazing feats of craftsmanship and oneupsmanship but it makes for a much more entertaining read to pretend as if all this has just happened in real time)

I guess Vacheron can console themselves at still owning the record of the thinnest minute repeater movement (at 3.9mm thin) compared to JLC/Piaget's (at around 4.8mm each) but then again, the Vacheron movement is manual wound whereas both JLC and Piaget are both automatic movements.

The Vacheron and the Piaget are both quite traditional in their movement design, whereas JLC pushed the envelop just that little bit more in order to cram in extra complications (just like Piaget did away with a separate movement and case construction in their quest for ultimate thinness in a mechanical watch and combined the two to make the watch one integrated unit). Rather than having a slider to activate the minute repeater, JLC instead opted for a pusher, which stays flush with the case after activating the minute repeater, and a separate mini slider to release the pusher if you didn't catch the time the first time 'round.

JLC has also removed as much as possible around the tourbillon to make it first of all, reduce the amount of space it takes up and second, to offer a completely unobstructed view of the tourbillon. Again, people have expressed concern at the fragility of a flying tourbillon topped with a flying balance, but I guess JLC's done their homework and made sure something like this will still be sturdy enough for everyday wear.

And finally, a peripheral winding system dispenses with a centrally mounted rotor (takes up too much space), instead a weight spins around the edge to wind the movement up. This idea is not new.  The first patents to this system where filed in 1955 by Paul Gostel and a decade later by Patek Philippe. The first brand to offer this system in a serial production was Carl F Bucherer back in 2008. Subsequently numerous brands also presented their version sof the peripheral winding system, with DeWitt in 2009 with their Calibre DW8014, followed by Audemars Piguet with their Calibre 2897 in 2011, then in 2012, by Cartier (of all brands) with their calibre 9603 MC, even though they've not announced it as such, instead focusing on the design attributes (a bejewelled panther spins above the dial, but is in fact the 'rotor' for the movement). And finally, in 2013 with Breguet's Calibre 581DR, which currently also holds the record of the thinnest automatic tourbillon movement (that's another one Piaget needs to get back...).

From Top Left: Carl F Bucherer, Audemars Piguet, DeWitt, Cartier. Breguet movement not shown because I couldn't find a brand PR shot.

Personally I like this strive for thinness. As Daniel Riedo, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre mentioned, that it is much easier to make a watch with a thick case, than it is to make it thin. It shows the capabilities of a manufacture, when they are able to make a watch as thin as possible, without all that dead space inside the watch. I salivate at the prospect of what could possibly come next! I wonder how much space the minute repeater takes up? If JLC got rid of it, could they challenge Breguet for the thinnest automatic tourbillon movement? Or does Vacheron and Piaget have something in the works already? Only time will tell and perhaps stay tuned for: The Quest For Thinness Part 3: The Whirlwind Timekeeper.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Speake-Marin Dinner in Sydney

The Sydney Tarts and Peter Speake-Marin go way back. In fact we hosted Peter's first trip Down Under. And his second trip. This was back when Peter would traverse globally on tourbillon* worldwide tours to showcase his collection. And sometimes to hand deliver them to new owners. Now that the brand has grown and expanded so much, Peter was able to delegate the travelling and the selling to others, and on this night, it was with pleasure that we met with Dariush Djavaheri (travelling) Area Commercial Manager Asia & Middle-East and Josh (selling) from Swiss Time Machine (PSM's authorised retailer in Australia).

There was terrible weather for Dariush's first trip to Australia, right when we are experiencing one of the wettest November in Sydney. Apparently Melbourne wasn't much better but then that was to be expected.

It was a delight to be able to see the collection again after all this time. In attendance were no less than five owners, with plenty more potential owners-to-be.

This time around PSM hosted the dinner at the Park Hyatt in Sydney, and we were in "The Study" which is a private room, perfect for the evening. Park Hyatt did not disappoint with the food nor the service. Both top notch! The highlight would definitely have to be the steak, which was tender, juicy and succulent. Mine was ordered medium rare and was cooked thus. (unlike certain places where their idea of medium rare is a strip of tough leather worthy of being mounted on a dive watch). The accompanying mash was smooth and creamy I hate to think just how much fat and calorie was needed to make it so buttery smooth... And the dessert? the quote of the night was "that fixed the holes in me socks!" That says it all, doesn't it?

Now, onto the stars of the night. Most of the time, watches tend to look better in real life. There are always exceptions to the case, but PSM's latest collection, including the Resilience and the Spirit Mk II, were just superb in person. And even better on the wrist. The main issue (thickness of the case) that a couple of us had was addressed and was an issue no longer. In fact, the new generation cases offered much better proportions thanks to a new, slimmer movement, and overall balance was greatly improved. The Spirit Mk II DLC immediately stood out from the rest. It worked better than any of us had thought it would. This is why it’s always important to see watches in the metal and more importantly, to TRY THE WATCH ON.

The matte DLC treatment matches the matte black dial, making the watch extremely stealthy, yet at the same time it stands out because of it. However, having compared the DLC version to the regular steel version of the Spirit, I would personally choose the latter, simply because it's the more versatile watch and I'm not sure how a black cased watch would fare over the long run.

The Spirit Mk II is essentially PSM's entry level watch. The "no-frills" edition. You have the distinctive Piccadilly case, and amazingly detailed and three dimensional dial (have a close look at the lume). What you miss out on is the custom movement, which in this case is a Technotime TT738. You do have the option of paying a little more and option the PSM finishing with the custom topping tool rotor with the see-through back. (This brings the movement designation to EROS2) The movement aspect is a little disappointing. I mean, don't get me wrong, I am very taken with the Spirit Mk II and do see myself owning one in the near future, but when you buy an independent watchmaker's watch you kinda want the movement to be... special... and not just a basic movement in a fancy case and dial.

If, however, you don’t want to go through the hassle of ordering the Spirit Mk II with the custom movement/see through case back etc etc, perhaps the Resilience would be the way to go. It is much dressier than the Spirit, but it comes with the EROS2 movement as standard, and the dial is enamel. Stunningly beautiful in person and simply breathtaking. The one on the night was in rose gold, which was pretty much perfect. If budget doesn’t stretch that far, there is also a stainless steel version, and it’s not that much of a hike from the price of the Spirit.

The PSM Resilience in gold

I'm sure I'm in the minority here, as I believe the Spirit is doing extremely well, and I guess given the low production numbers and price point, you'd need to sacrifice some aspect... PSM is in a growth stage, and with it comes growing pains. I'm not sure if there was the need to bring the entry level model down to a certain price point? As I would happily pay the extra and have more PSM touches to the
movement. I suppose we'll wait and see how the brand evolves.

Thanks to @initialjh for most of the images used on this post.

*whirlwind... geddit?

**Apologies- this post was meant to appear much earlier, but life got in the way... Better late than never, no?