A Tale of a Supercomplicated Watch
My appreciation for simple watches has been documented in a previous blog; and, I will say again, that nine times out of ten, if I am given the choice, I will select an simple object of outstanding design clarity or execution over something that is complicated and showy, for my own personal use. That is just the nature of who I am, and probably says something about my own personal priorities and perspective (or perhaps my limited budget). Whatever the reason, that in no way prevents me from appreciating truly amazing achievements that push the boundaries of what is possible, particularly when it comes to watches and the craft of horology. Complicated watches have a long history in the horological field, and they have captivated watchmakers and collectors alike, stimulating the pursuit of the ultimate in both technique and craftsmanship. Famous pocket watches such as the Breguet Marie Antoinette, the Leroy ‘01, the Patek Philippe “Graves” Supercomplication, and the Durrstein/Audemars Piguet Supercomplication represent milestones in phenomenal watchmaking.
In the spirit of those titanic complications, I have to share with you an amazing link I put aside some time ago, detailing the creation of a singularly amazing feat of watchmaking for the wrist – a supercomplicated watch which began its life in the 19th century as a phenomenal Grande Sonnerie – Minute Repeating pocket watch movement comprised of 491 parts made by the great watchmaker Louise – Elysee Piguet (of which Piguet made three, the remaining two having been lost). This surviving movement became the property of Franck Muller, who elaborated its complex structure further with a retrograde perpetual calendar, thermometer, and equation of time, thus making it the most complicated wristwatch in the world at that time, an accomplishment which brought Muller much fame. The owner of this singular watch, still convinced that more could be done, took it to Paul Gerber, a noted independent watchmaker in Zurich, who elaborated it still further with a flying tourbillon; after this point, the watch was presented at Basel, to great acclaim. After this, Gerber again returned to his workshop with the singular masterpiece, as the owner had additional ideas for the watch’s further development. Amazingly, Gerber managed to also integrate into the Louis-Elysee Piguet movement a column-wheel controlled split-seconds flyback chronograph mechanism and a power-reserve indication for both the movement and the striking works. To recap, from the time he began his work to the end, Gerber had added an additional 386 parts onto the Muller-elaborated Piguet original, which was already a marvel to begin with, all without adding anything in width to the movement, and only slightly to the height. Along the arduous road to this watch’s completion, Paul Gerber faced many nearly insurmountable challenges, and the heavy emotional burden of working with an irreplaceable and immensely complex base movement which the slightest error could ruin completely.
I don’t want to steal any thunder from the very knowledgeable authors of this wonderful article, who really went to great depth to document the years long saga of effort, expense, and creativity involved in the realization of this beautiful and utterly unique watch. From the efforts of the owner and watchmaker Paul Gerber came a watch which can stand forever within the pantheon of ultra-rare haute horlogerie. An amazing range of photos, animations, and even sound files (for the chimes of the sonnerie and repeater) accompany the text, and make for a wonderful study and appreciation of this masterpiece of mechanical art, and the broader appeal of watchmaking at the most exalted level.