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Breaking All The Rules

  • Jonathon Keats

King George III was an amateur horologist. When he wasn’t busy ruling England or levying taxes on his American colonies, he passed the time by dismantling and reassembling watches. Even by the standards of 18th-century royalty, he was a connoisseur of rare expertise.

For a young watchmaker of exceptional talent, the urge to impress the king was irresistible—the perfect opportunity to start a career—yet no ordinary masterpiece would capture the monarch’s attention. So in 1764, a 28-year-old prodigy named John Arnold contrived to make a watch nobody thought possible: A repeater that could fit on His Majesty’s finger. When a Russian tsar learned of Arnold’s feat, he offered the watchmaker a king’s ransom of £1,000 to build another, but Arnold sagely declined. His bravado had already earned him one of the greatest reputations of his age.

Haute horologerie runs on audacity. Bravado advances the art at least as much as gradual technological progress. The call to do the impossible motivates watchmakers and collectors today just as it did in the 18th century, except the aesthetic, technical, and conceptual sophistication of the timepieces today would make King George turn in his screwdrivers. In fact, over the past decade, watchmakers have challenged practically every assumption about mechanical watchmaking.

Start with liquid, the scourge of springs and gears. Traditionally watchmakers have sealed out water with screws and gaskets. The HYT H2 does the opposite, making liquid integral to the movement, indicating the hour by the transit of luminescent green fluid through a transparent tube. Time flows literally, hydrodynamically controlled by two small bellows that are opened and closed by a system of cams and pistons. Yet the bellows cannot be directly coupled to the train of gears because liquids dramatically expand and contract with changes in temperature. (That’s how a mercury thermometer works.) On a hot day, the watch would run fast were it not for the inclusion of a thermoregulator, a novel mechanism that reduces the pressure as the fluid gets warmer. Preventing leakage is the least significant challenge of making a watch filled with liquid. Audacious watchmaking mothers its own inventions.

If liquid is one of the biggest physical threats to mechanical watchmaking, the digital revolution of the 1970s was one of the greatest historical menaces. In 2008, Harry Winston turned history on its head with a mechanical watch that mechanically mimicked the digital readout of a ’70s liquid crystal display. The Opus 8 was designed by Frédéric Garinaud of Renaud & Papi, who was inspired by a children’s toy: a grid of pins that makes a pixilated portrait of whatever is pressed against the pinpoints. Garinaud reasoned that he could build a similar mechanism that would show the time on a metal plate punched with the horizontal and vertical segments used to display digital numbers. The time is read on the Opus 8 by sliding a lever that lowers the plate for five seconds. A system of pins holds up the appropriate segments, showing the hour. Garinaud’s system is spectacularly complex, a virtuoso feat of horology requiring 437 components to imitate a watch with no moving parts at all. The Opus 8 also emulates the incremental nature of digital timekeeping: For all the phenomenal precision of the Renaud & Papi movement’s 21,600 vibrations per hour, the minutes are indicated with a pointer segmented to five-minute intervals.