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Looking to the future, watchmakers dial back

Manufacturers have gone mad for reviving classic names from watchmaking's past, but heritage isn't always enough to keep new creations ticking over, says Tim Barber.

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In the late 1970s Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, of Hitchhiker's Guide and Blackadder/Spitting Image fame respectively, hit on a good wheeze. They gathered together a huge list of existing place names -- words that were, they said, 'doing nothing but loafing about on signposts' -- and ascribed definitions to them, in a book they called The Meaning of Liff. It's a perennial in the lavatories of Middle England to this day. (In my family, words like 'Kirby' -- a bit of food stuck to someone's face -- and 'Amersham' -- a sneeze which never arrives -- entered common usage, and we've added a few ourselves.)This might appear to have very little to do with watches, but it has. It's a game the watch industry plays with abandon. Names that have been loafing about not on signposts but in archives and auction catalogues are being claimed, dusted down and ascribed to fledgling brands that have nothing -- but nothing -- to do with the original marque.

There has been a glut of them of late. Names like Czapek, Angelus, Ferdinand Berthoud and Le Roy have come flying back out of the dim corners of horological history, landing boldly on the dials of new wristwatches. Some are celebrated, much-missed firms; others are rather obscure, though lofty claims of greatness -- and, more egregiously, of an apparently unbroken legacy -- are easily applied by those who've paid for trademark rights.

Deceptive this practice can be; opportunistic and unimaginative it most certainly is; and the results can be deplorably tacky -- a quick Google will reveal the cheap indignity that is these days heaped on the great name (now Chinese-owned) of Thomas Earnshaw, for instance. But it does, on occasion, produce some very good watches, even if the narrative behind them is hard to marry up. Manufacture Royale, for instance, is a young firm producing highly complicated, stylistically offbeat watches, and takes its name -- without rhyme nor reason -- from a short-lived watch company founded, of all people, by Voltaire. 'Our roots stretch all the way back to 1770,' says its website. Hardly.

It was with the names of a number of other British greats -- George Graham, John Arnold, Thomas Tompion -- that the blueprint for such appellative appropriation was set back in the mid-1990s. These were acquired and packaged up by a group of Swiss industry executives under the collective title 'the British Masters', with each watchmaker a sub-brand.

The whiff of opportunism was there from the start, despite the high quality of the work: there was (and is) something just too ironic about Swiss brands pretending to be British, made all the more awkward by clunking references to British history and the progenitors' glorious horological legacies. The British Masters (which always sounded more like a golf tournament anyway) broke up, though both Graham and Arnold & Son continue as successful and impressive brands, the latter as the shop window for a specialist movement-making firm, La Joux-Perret. Its watches are technically and creatively electrifying. But the more of these it turns out, the less relevant its claims on John Arnold's legacy -- and in particular the words 'since 1764' that adorn its website and branding -- seem to be.

The most interesting new example revives the name of Ferdinand Berthoud, a Swiss clockmaker born in 1727. Unless you're a keen collector of rococo pendulum clocks or a student of marine chronometers, you'll be unlikely to have heard of him; however, a splendidly eccentric octagonal gold watch bearing his name, with a movement that's more or less rococo in its complexity, can now be yours for £161,000.

Berthoud was a heavyweight in the field of chronometric precision, his marine chronometers -- accurate clocks used for navigation -- the equal of most in horology's great age. He came from Fleurier, the watchmaking town where Chopard (among others) is based, and it is Chopard's owner Karl-Friedrich Scheufele -- a watch industry veteran of very sound judgment, it's worth emphasising -- who acquired the name after he discovered someone with rather more humdrum ambitions was after it.

He could have left it there, of course, but an opportunity is an opportunity, and in the Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 Scheufele has done the name justice. It is a heavyweight piece of watchmaking, and something of an academic exercise in the reinterpretation of classical horology in wristwatch form. Its movement is constructed like that of an old clock; its tourbillon, 'fusée and chain' gearing, chronometer accuracy and magnificent hand finishing reference the best traditions to a very high level. Collectors of original Berthoud clocks may well sniff, but they should not sniff too hard -- they might see the value of their clocks rise as a result.

A century after Berthoud came Franciszek Czapek, a Bohemian watchmaker who headed to Switzerland and for six years partnered with one Antoni Patek, before they went their separate ways -- Patek into posterity alongside Adrien Philippe, Czapek as a maker of fine pocket watches (Napoleon III was a client) under the name Czapek & Cie.

It's questionable whether Czapek would garner much interest now, were it not for the Patek link; nevertheless, the watches newly unveiled in his name, by a team led by art-world entrepreneur Harry Guhl, are impressive. Backed by a pool of early investors, Guhl and his partners funded the development of a new proprietary haute horlogerie movement. It's presented in an elegant and rather unusual watch that bears a passing resemblance to certain Czapek originals; Guhl is now aiming to raise a further million Swiss francs through crowd-funding platforms to go into volume production.

Ferdinand Berthoud's great rival Pierre Le Roy and German 19th-century watchmaker Moritz Grossmann are also among past greats whose names are fronting new high-end and high-quality watch companies. But if the pre-wristwatch era throws up a few such candidates, the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s -- which killed off so many famous watch companies -- gives founders of new brands a plethora of defunct names on which they can pin their colours.

One example comes from the same team behind Arnold & Son, which this year also relaunched the name Angelus in most peculiar fashion. Founded in the 19th century, Angelus is now mostly known (and collected) for its classic mid-20th century chronographs. One major collector of these, it turns out, is Sebastien Chaulmontet, the technical brains behind Arnold & Son, who consequently acquired the Angelus name and has relaunched it with a mystifyingly odd watch that presents a huge tourbillon in a case the size and shape of a large Zippo lighter. It has nothing to do with chronographs, and speaks even less of classic design, though it is quite beautifully made.

There seems to be something thoroughly arbitrary about the name 'Angelus' being attached to this watch. But then any appointed name is arbitrary, and perhaps bringing a once-famous marque back into the spotlight can have its benefits. According to one collector acquaintance, the prices for classic mid-20th-century Angelus chronographs since the launch in March would suggest this to be the case.

This is really too eccentric a watch -- and Angelus, quite frankly, too obscure a brand, bar a coterie of specialist collectors -- even to court the suggestion of opportunism. Chaulmontet is a genius, and was clearly hungry for a platform beyond that of Arnold & Son to spread his creative wings. One wonders, though, what it says of the modern Swiss industry that it required the apparently arbitrary attachment of yet another old name for a fresh vision in watchmaking to be realised.

 



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