Watches That Follow the Stars

New York Times, March 27, 2014

GENEVA — In 1982, Ludwig Oechslin, a watchmaking prodigy from Lucerne, Switzerland, returned home after spending four years in Rome, where he had performed a painstaking restoration of the Vatican’s Farnese Clock, a masterpiece of 18th-century horology.

The one-of-a-kind astronomical pendulum clock — made in 1725 for Dorothea Farnese von Pfalz-Neuburg, the Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, and presented as a gift to Pope Leo XIII in 1903 — did more than tell the time; it displayed the positions of the sun and Earth as well as the phases of the moon. By the time Mr. Oechslin, an apprentice of the master watchmaker Jörg Spöring, arrived in Rome, the timepiece was badly in need of an overhaul. His work — which required him to dismantle nearly 1,000 parts, then repair and reassemble them — became the subject of a 1983 thesis that earned him a doctorate of philosophy and natural sciences in the field of theoretical physics from the University of Bern. The effort also established him, at the tender age of 30, as an éminence grise in the watch business.

That is because upon Mr. Oechslin’s return to Lucerne, he was introduced to Rolf Schnyder, a Swiss businessman who saw in the watchmaking wunderkind a chance to realize a quixotic dream. Mr. Schnyder had recently acquired the Swiss watch brand Ulysse Nardin and was looking for a talented technician who could make a wrist-size version of an astronomical pendulum clock.

There was just one problem: Mr. Oechslin wasn’t interested in the mere task of miniaturization. So, he suggested to Mr. Schnyder that they tackle a fresh challenge: making a wristwatch version of an astrolabe, an instrument that helped medieval astronomers tell the time by determining the altitude of the sun, moon and stars.

The ensuing collaboration resulted in a trilogy of Ulysse Nardin astronomical wristwatches — the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus, and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler — that not only revived the flagging brand’s reputation, but also paved the way for a modern reinterpretation of astronomical watchmaking.

At the time, Mr. Oechslin was not convinced of the project’s commercial viability.

“I thought this was nothing people would like to buy,” Mr. Oechslin, who is now the director of the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, confessed. “But the challenge was to find a good long-lasting mathematical solution.”

Three decades later, it’s clear that despite Mr. Oechslin’s legendary smarts, he was not a very good clairvoyant. In the years since his trilogy of astronomical timepieces came out, demand for mechanical watches boasting a functional relationship to the heavens has soared — a phenomenon highlighted by the astronomical sums a few extraordinary models have earned at auction.

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence that Mr. Schnyder’s quirky dream augured a modern watchmaking obsession came this past January, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. The high-end watchmaking fair saw the debut of myriad timepieces featuring astronomical complications — from relatively simple moonphase models that indicate the waxing and waning stages of the moon to Van Cleef & Arpels’s much-buzzed-about Midnight Planétarium Poetic Complication, a functional planetarium with six planets revolving around an 18-karat gold sun in real time.

The plethora of new models paying homage to the stars suggests that even in an era of satellites and smartphones, the industry’s fascination with the cosmos, coupled with a desire to render it in miniature, continues to be a prime focus of the mechanical watchmaking renaissance.

If visitors to the salon had any lingering doubts about the link between astronomy and time measurement, they had only to visit “Horology, A Child of Astronomy,” an exhibition of texts, drawings and timepieces organized by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, for proof that since the advent of the sundial some 3,500 years ago, timekeeping has relied on an understanding of how celestial bodies move through their orbits.

“After observing the natural rhythm of daylight and dark, civilizations around the world looked for ways to measure time, first with calendars, then with instruments of increasing precision,” said Grégory Gardinetti, a watchmaking historian.

The earliest clockmakers attempted to harness the universe using mechanical devices, and their creations remain potent symbols of humanity’s determination to channel the forces of nature that roiled around them. Among the most famous astronomical clocks still in use today is a gilded showstopper in the cathedral of Strasbourg, France. In addition to telling the time, the 16th-century timepiece also displays the phases of the moon, the times of sunrise and sunset, and the solar and lunar eclipses.

“In the Middle Ages, it was only cities or royalty or churches that built clocks,” said Stacy Perman, author of “A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch,” a book about the Graves Supercomplication, a famous pocket watch made by Patek Philippe. “To have astronomical complications was a sign of wealth and the engineering apex of the day. These clocks became symbols of power.”

In search of ways to let individuals share a modicum of that power, watchmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries turned their attention to portable timepieces. Their fanciful creations — a heliocentric planetarium encased in a golden pocket watch by Jacob Auch, for example, now on display at Chopard’s L.U.CEUM museum in the Swiss village of Fleurier — were all the more impressive given that they performed many of the same functions as their stationary predecessors, but did so in a much smaller, and therefore more technically challenging, format.

Those efforts reached their zenith in the first half of the 20th century when Patek Philippe, catering to the whims of two insatiable collectors, produced some of the finest celestial timepieces ever made. In 1927, the firm delivered an astronomical pocket watch to the automobile magnate James Ward Packard that used hundreds of gold stars to map the nighttime sky over his home in Warren, Ohio.

“Packard was in the Cleveland Clinic for almost two years before he died,” Ms. Perman said. “It must have been nice to receive the watch; he could open this celestial chart and have a slice of his home.”

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The New York financier Henry Graves did Mr. Packard one better. In 1928, he commissioned Patek Philippe to create what became the 1933 Graves Supercomplication, a double-faced pocket watch that set a world record when it sold for $11 million at Sotheby’s in 1999. Featured among its 24 complications are numerous astronomical features including a perpetual calendar (a calendar function that takes leap years into account), a moonphase display and a back dial emblazoned with a celestial map depicting the northern sky over Mr. Graves’s New York City home.

To add to its complexity, the piece also boasted two esoteric astronomical complications: sidereal time, which is based on the Earth’s rotation in relation to a fixed point, such as a star; and the equation of time, which indicates the difference between conventional, or mean, time as measured from the Greenwich Meridian, and “real” time as determined by the position of the sun.

Not that Mr. Graves was likely to have consulted these features. “Even back in Graves’s time, most of those functions weren’t necessary,” Ms. Perman said. “Nobody really cares what sidereal time is, just like you don’t need to know where Saturn is on its revolution. It’s really about having something special, something difficult, something technical.”

Patek Philippe upped the ante on all three fronts on its 150th anniversary in 1989, when it unveiled the Calibre 89, a pocket watch nine years in the making. Brimming with 33 complications, it could determine the date of Easter, moonphases, sunrise and sunset, and leap years for the next seven centuries. In April 2004, an 18-karat white gold model, one of only four Calibre 89s ever made, brought more than $5 million at the Antiquorum sale in Geneva.

If collector interest is any indication of relevancy, however, then one astronomical complication rises above all others: the perpetual calendar. Virtually no watchmaker with high-end aspirations would leave the calendar function out of its repertoire — Patek Phillipe’s perpetual calendar chronograph, for example, is perennially on back order — which may help explain why this year’s Geneva salon saw the unveiling of so many extraordinary examples.

For the prestige German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, the talking piece of the show was its Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar “Terraluna,” with a sober-looking dial belying its intricacy. The mechanism featured a perpetual calendar with Lange’s signature outsize date, a power reserve of 14 days, a constant-force escapement and — the pièce de résistance — an enormous orbital moonphase indicator on the plate of the movement depicting the location of the moon relative to the Earth and the sun.

Anthony de Haas, director of product development at A. Lange & Söhne, said the initial idea was to make a perpetual calendar with a triangular dial layout inspired by the Richard Lange Tourbillon “Pour le Mérite,” introduced in 2012. “But we didn’t find any space for a moonphase indication, so we said, Why not try something on the back?” Mr. de Haas said. “We have a dial designer whose hobby is astronomy, and he came up with the idea to make an orbital moon, using the balance wheel as the position of the sun.”

At Cartier, Carole Forestier-Kasapi, who heads its watchmaking operation, impressed the horological community with her new Rotonde de Cartier Astrocalendaire, a tourbillon and perpetual calendar priced at $204,000. Discarding conventional renderings of the calendar complication, which typically feature a moonphase display through an aperture at the six o’clock position, she created a complication showing the date, the month and the day of the week on three concentric rings surrounding a central flying tourbillon, with a leap year indicator positioned directly on the movement.

Montblanc upended tradition in another way with its new Meisterstück Heritage Perpetual Calendar, delivering a steel model for the bargain basement price of $12,800, virtually unheard of in the world of high complications.

Most watches loaded with astronomical complications fall at the extreme edge of the price spectrum. Take the new Tourbillon Astronomique from Antoine Martin, debuting at this week’s Baselworld luxury watch fair in Switzerland: Showing, among other things, sunrise and sunset times calculated to the buyer’s location, the limited edition of 12 watches is priced at 500,000 Swiss francs, or $570,000, each.

Offering a wristwatch with functions calibrated to a customer’s exact coordinates is one way for watchmakers to set themselves apart in a crowded field; but even seemingly straightforward astronomical features, such as moonphase indications, can be compelling.

“Although you have all the modern devices that tell you so many things, I really think just the image of a moonphase featured on a dial is poetic and true to watchmaking tradition,” said Karl F. Scheufele, co-president of Chopard, which is introducing the Lunar Big Date into its L.U.C. collection at Basel.

In fact, all around the watchmaking world, the moonphase display is quietly emerging as the sleeper hit of astronomical complications. From Graff Luxury Watches’ new Diamond GyroGraff — a three-dimensional moonphase indicator offset at the 8 o’clock position, coupled with a double-axis tourbillon, going on display at the brand’s new booth in Baselworld — to the CVDK Real Moon Joure from Christiaan van der Klaauw, the Netherlands-based watchmaker responsible for building Van Cleef & Arpels’s Midnight Planétarium, the humble feature is undergoing a revolution of its own as watchmakers strive for superlatives.

“It is the most accurate moonphase in the world, with a deviation of only one day in 11,000 years,” bragged Daniel Reintjes, Christiaan van der Klaauw’s chief executive and creative director, of the Real Moon Joure.

Even Mr. Oechslin has returned to the moonphase, in his boutique watch brand, ochs und junior, founded in 2006 in Lucerne. The watchmaker says that in the 30 years that have passed since his restoration of the Farnese Clock, he has been evolving toward a more austere philosophy of watchmaking. Built with just five parts, the moonphase complication in the patina model that he introduced last April is the embodiment of this ethos, which he describes as “rigorous simplicity.”

“All of my prior experiences and background, including the astronomical timepieces for Ulysse Nardin, were necessary in order to reach the simplest result with the most precise calculation and the least number of parts used,” Mr. Oechslin said.

One can’t help but see his full circle journey through timekeeping as inevitable. Like the planets, moons and comets that move through the heavens, watchmakers revisit the astronomical functions year after year — and for good reason. “The planets and stars have the same cycle,” Mr. Reintjes said. “If it has a rhythm, you can put it in a watch.”