Postmodern Manifesto: Homing Instinct

<< Back to Watch Collector, January 2014

If you had lived in the Swiss town of Les Bois in the year 1900, you or your neighbors would probably have been watchmakers. Nearly half the area’s 1,400 inhabitants were involved in the trade, producing some 30,000 timepieces per year, many for the most illustrious brands in Geneva. The hardscrabble farms of Les Bois are still a place where prestigious Geneva brands source gear trains and guilloche. And the vast majority of artisans are still as anonymous as they were in the 19th century.

Jacky Epitaux knows this from personal experience. He was born in Les Bois, and many of these master craftsmen are close friends toward whom he feels protective. “A lot of brands are opportunistic,” he says. “They come to our region and take the local know-how.” So after spending a couple of decades in the industry—as a regional manager at Zenith and as CEO of Rodolphe—Epitaux returned to his ancestral home in 2007 to found a company that would properly display the Jura’s talents.

He called his company Rudis Sylva—the ancient Latin name of Les Bois—and commissioned a new escapement that would be worthy of his neighbors’ world-class craftsmanship: an ambitious horological construction he hoped would rival Abraham-Louis Breguet’s tourbillon for its daring. The initial idea was to outfit a rotating cage with two oscillators swinging in resonance, but the combination was simply too complex. Following several failed prototypes, Epitaux handed over the plans to Mika Rassinen, a Finnish expert on complications. After six months of tinkering, Rassinen came up with an idea so radical that it seemed to break a cardinal rule of watchmaking: that an accurate oscillator needs to swing freely. The Harmonious Oscillator—as Epitaux dubbed the invention—connects two balance wheels with teeth like a pair of gears. The toothing makes them swing in opposite directions, so that one wheel’s hairspring is closing as the other is opening. This double escapement is set inside a cage that rotates once per minute, counteracting gravity throughout the rotation. “It cancels out the effect of gravity rather than compensating for it like a tourbillon,” Epitaux explains. “In the vertical position, one escapement is losing exactly the same amount of time as the other is gaining.” He says the watch varies by only more or less two seconds per day. “It’s more effective than a tourbillon,” he claims.

Naturally, given Rassinen’s unorthodox approach, it took some time to convince other watchmakers that harmonious oscillation would work in the first place. “For example, when [renowned independent watchmaker] Philippe Dufour heard what we were doing, he was worried,” Epitaux recalls. “We explained to him that it is not resistance against the balance, but that one balance is always giving power to the other.” In other words, the two oscillators swing freely together.

And they make quite a kinetic spectacle as they swing and pivot. Set in an oversize rectangular case that’s open on the front and side, the Harmonious Oscillator is the ideal mechanism for showing off the region’s flair for fine finishing and decoration. (The watch is now also available in a round case.) Of the 300 components in the timepiece, all but seven are locally made. Bridges and plates are produced in the factory of Epitaux’s friend Fabrice Thueler, and hand-beveled by local craftsmen to a perfect 45-degree chamfer. His neighbor Georges Brodbeck does the guilloche work using machinery that dates back as far as the 18th century, with which he achieves contemporary effects such as the pattern of concentric pyramids on the mainplate. As for the enameller, Sophie Cattin Morales, “she was born on my uncle’s farm,” says Epitaux. “It now belongs to my cousin, who is one of my associates.”

The sundial on the side of that farmhouse, dating back to 1750, is famous in the village. Morales now enamels it on the back of each Rudis Sylva case. It serves as the perfect counterbalance to the Harmonious Oscillator’s hyper-modern movement. The two sides of each timepiece exhibit the history and the future of Les Bois. 

Rudis Sylva, 646.416.1353, www.rudissylva.com