The Virtues of Simplicity In Watches
I love simple watches. The more I go down the road, so to speak, and see, admire, and try on different watches, I find that I am invariably most attracted to ones that are the most clean, classic, or at least appear so, externally.
Mechanical complications are a wonderful thing, to be sure, and ones that are obvious in their complexity are pretty neat – how can you fail to be impressed by something like the Audemars Piguet Concept Watch, the Blancpain Le Brassus 1735 watch, or a multiple-retrograde perpetual calendar chronograph from Roger Dubuis? While these three examples are extremely diverse aesthetically, they all share an emphasis on mechanical complexity. The numerous functions, and the way they are presented, make these watches daunting, both conceptually and visually.
Then again, there are other very complicated watches which are very serene, concealing their mechanical virtuosity beneath a very modest facade. Looking at one of the older Audemars Piguet Grande Sonneries (before the model was updated with the dynamograph for the chime) all the eye could make out was an incredibly beautiful round 38mm watch, with an hour and minute hand, and a small subdial for the subsidiary seconds. Only a tiny button on the case at 10 o’clock, and a little 3-position slide on the opposite side indicated this watch was anything beyond a basic timekeeper. This is one of the ultimate examples of luxurious discretion – a watch worth well over a quarter of a million dollars with an immensely complicated movement with a part density of over 150 pieces per cubic centimeter, which tells the time with beautiful chimes. The same could be said for the minute repeaters produced by Blancpain. Two perpetuals with very harmonious, classic layouts include the Patek Philippe Ref. 3940 and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar watch. Even though both of these watches indicate full day/date/month/leap year/moonphase, the display is very quiet and understated. Gotta say, I really like that, as more and more watches hit the market with every conceivable doodad; and that, it seems, is really a great part of my evolution of tastes – after seeing so many eye-popping watches with numerous subdials, multiples of hands, and tourbillon cutouts, the ”boring” three, and four handed watches are as refreshing as a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.
Now we come to the watches that are truly simple. (And, before I go any further, ”simple” is a relative term; I’d be very poorly qualified to attempt the assembly – and probably even the disassembly – of even the most basic manually wound movement which still can come in at over 150 parts.) Just hours, minutes, maybe seconds, and possibly, although not necessarily, a date display. A couple weeks ago I wrote about the Piaget Altiplano watch, and the Girard-Perregaux 1966, both really gorgeous ultra-slim gold watches, and perfect examples of this category. Sports watches too, can be of the simple variety, and probably should, for the sake of the adventures that sports watches are supposedly created to accompany; after all, the less functions a watch (or any machine) has, the less that can break or malfunction under stressful conditions. The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch, while a chronograph, is a wonderfully clean one; its manually wound Lemania chronograph movement is tried, tested, and classic – it has served on astronauts wrists as they underwent extreme G-forces, accelerations, and even walked on the Moon. The same could be said of many classic Rolex models – the Explorer being a particular favorite of mine, due to it’s stealth factor. Again – we have a stainless steel watch with a black dial that shows only hours, minutes and seconds, but I can’t seem to take mine off my wrist whenever I need an tough watch; that the Explorer also happens to have wonderfully understated good looks, has a great four-decade-plus history, and is an exceptionally good timekeeper, are added bonuses which delight me to no end. At 36mm, it isn’t even fashionably large, but I really don’t care; three years after trading another watch to get it, I like my Explorer more than ever, now that it is personalized with use and my personal travels. It’s one watch I won’t sell, unless I need an emergency down-payment for a kidney or something.
In my humble opinion, the ultimate simple watch in the world today, is Philippe Dufour’s magnificent and appropriately named “Simplicity”. Of course, “simple” is a lacking adjective to describe this watch, whose execution is anything but simple, and very likely represents the ultimate movement finishing and quality of construction found anywhere on the planet. Last I read, Mr. Dufour and his few gifted assistants are filling close to a decade of back-orders, such is the demand for this incredible manual wound watch that features only hours, minutes, and seconds. My words would fail very poorly to convey the storybook craftsmanship that Philippe Dufour puts into his very tiny production. Mr. Dufour began producing the Simplicity AFTER having made some remarkable complicated pieces, including a staggering Grande Sonnerie wristwatch; the master wanted to return to a simple watch, with only the basic elements, thus focusing instead upon the flawless execution of every single detail, those both visible and invisible to the eye, as well as materials. The Simplicity is, quite probably, the most expensive three-handed manually wound watch in the world, but I have to say, were I so fortunate, it would be my personal “holy grail”. If you haven’t seen it, please visit the link below to see more of Philippe Dufour’s amazing work, with additional links to information and stunning macro-photography of these watches and the man who makes them found at the bottom of that page.