Watches: Pyramid Scheme

<< Back to Robb Report, February 2007
  • Keith W. Strandberg

While viewing the early renderings for Jean Dunand’s latest timepiece, Thierry Oulevay, the brand’s president, took note of the futuristic design’s ancient Egyptian undertones. The watch—which combines a perpetual calendar, cathedral-gong minute repeater, moon phase, and power reserve—is particularly distinguished by three turning cylinders that, while displaying the day, date, and month, also evoke papyrus scrolls. Oulevay, who named his company for the Swiss-born artist who thrived during the Art Deco period, expanded on the watch’s Egyptian theme. The 50-year-old executive embellished the dial with two- and three-dimensional pyramid shapes and named the piece Shabaka, after the Egyptian pharaoh who ruled circa 715 B.C.

Like Shabaka, who defended Egypt’s sovereignty from the Assyrians and other foreign invaders, Oulevay and his partner in the Jean Dunand venture, complicated movement manufacturer Christophe Claret, remain independent in an industry that has consolidated under conglomerate ownership in recent years. The pieces they create for Jean Dunand—each unique, even within a collection—incorporate groundbreaking complicated movements into designs that reference the Art Deco–era works of the brand’s namesake. In 2005, Jean Dunand debuted its first model, the Tourbillon Orbital, which starts at $330,000 and features a tourbillon cage that revolves around the center of the dial once per hour. The watch’s geometric dial design combines satin finishes and sapin (fir tree)-patterned guilloché engraving that reflect the Art Deco influence.

Each Jean Dunand timepiece begins with a novel movement conceived by the 44-year-old Claret, whose eponymous watchmaking atelier has developed complicated movements for Harry Winston, Ulysse Nardin, and other premier marques. “The challenge is to combine the three-dimensional technical concepts of Christophe Claret with designs that are truly unique,” explains Oulevay. “We don’t have specific rules, but we do go by the golden rules of proportion, overall design, and harmony.” The Egyptians, too, favored the golden section rule, also known as divine proportion, a mathematical formula for segmenting proportions to create balanced and aesthetically pleasing forms.

“With Shabaka, the brief was extremely short,” says Oulevay of the watch’s initial design directive. “We wanted a strong design, something edgy with an interesting shape, but we respected the golden rule while mixing together the square and the round shapes.”

Claret and one of his designers devised the piece’s rolling cylinders for the date displays. The challenge was to incorporate these rolls, which had to be large enough to depict legible characters, with the minute repeater caliber. A master of minute repeaters, Claret changed the configuration of his basic minute-repeater design to solve the performance problem caused by the large distance between the rolling indicators and the correctors, which allow you to adjust the date in the event that the watch stops. On most watches, the date indicators are close to the adjusting mechanism, but with the Shabaka, the day-of-the-week cylinder is on the opposite side of the dial from the correcting pushers. “We had to develop an ingenious system with levers and microcylinders in order to propose a reliable mechanism for the manual and instantaneous change of date,” explains Claret. “The movement of the Shabaka became more complex as the number of pieces increased substantially to 721.”

Despite the watch’s complexity, Claret points out, it is simple to operate because of its locking correctors, similar to chronograph pushers, on the right side of the watch. However, if you own a Shabaka, you may lose some sleep from staying up until midnight each night, or at least on the last day of each month, to watch the day, date, and month displays simultaneously roll over.

Jean Dunand, www.jeandunand.com; available at Cellini, 212.751.9824, and Wynn & Company Jewelry, 702.770.3520

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