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Breguetʼs Acolyte

Jack Forster 11/21/16

November 1991 (11/91) Mr Journe’s completes his 1st wristwatch Tourbillon

This article was originally published in the Numero 1, Fall 2016 edition of the F.P. Journ[al]. We’d like to thank our friends at F. P. Journe and author Jack Forster for allowing us to reprint it. Look for more articles from the F. P. Journ[al] in future posts.

 

It’s no secret to anyone who has followed his work for any length of time that to F. P. Journe, the work of Abraham-Louis Breguet represents a touchstone not only for beauty in design but also for technical innovation. F. P. Journe’s watchmaking is based on a certain ideal that in many respects has more in common with the heritage of French horology rather than Swiss, with an emphasis on elegance and the projection of an aura of effortless sophistication rather than one on showcasing mechanics and technical achievement for its own sake.

 

Nonetheless, in Journe’s work there is technical sophistication and to spare–but it’s always integrated with and supportive of the aesthetics of the timepiece as a whole. With that in mind, let’s take a look at F. P. Journe’s body of work in the making of the tourbillon, as well as the history–and raison d’etre–of and for the complication. It’s natural that F. P. Journe would, as a spiritual heir to the Breguet legacy, take an interest in tourbillons. As is well known, the tourbillon was invented by Breguet, apparently, by the way, out of thin air; there is no known predecessor to the invention, either in the form of a watch or even as an idea in the known horological literature. The patent for the tourbillon was granted to Breguet in 1801 and up until the 1980s there may have been fewer than 800 made. Often regarded nowadays primarily as an exercise in aesthetics, the tourbillon was in fact created as an aid to accuracy.

 

A watch held in different vertical positions will run at slightly different rates in each position, so ordinarily, a watchmaker has to laboriously adjust a watch so that there is as little variation as possible. In a tourbillon, the balance, balance spring, and lever are mounted in a rotating cage (often the rate of rotation is one minute, which allows the cage to also function as a seconds hand, although both faster and slower tourbillons exist). This gives a single, average rate for all the vertical positions, which should allow a watchmaker to simply adjust the flat positions to match the single rate for the vertical positions, thus producing a more accurate watch.

The first F.P. Journe pocket watch completed in 1983

 

The problem with tourbillons is that they add a great deal of mechanical load exactly at the point where a watch is most vulnerable. One of the biggest problems in watchmaking is that by the time energy gets to the escapement, there has been a significant loss of power due to friction, so the gear train is typically constructed to keep friction as low as possible. Normally, the available power only has to be enough to keep the balance turning, but in a tourbillon, enough energy has to be available to move the entire cage, with the balance, spring, and lever as well. Part of the reason making a tourbillon was considered a real proof of horological mastery was because it required the ability to make a watch to an unusually high level of precision, as well as the skill to make a tourbillon cage that was as light as possible. This was simply beyond the ability of many watchmakers,  so a tourbillon became not only a sign of technical prowess but a statement of mastery in watchmaking as well.

 

With all this in mind, it is remarkable to reflect that F. P. Journe made his first masterpiece–and we use the word here in its original sense of “proof of mastery of a craft”–all the way back in 1983. The watch was (and is) a pocket watch, and in many respects, it is extraordinarily reminiscent of the work of Breguet; it also is strongly aesthetically connected, through Breguet’s work, to the oeuvre of Dr. George Daniels, another of Breguet’s spiritual heirs. Unlike most Swiss watches, the original Journe pocket tourbillon does not use the rhodium plating and jewel-like finish of most high- grade Swiss watches.

 

Instead, the movement exhibits the sober, neat, craftsman-like gilt finish so typical of Breguet’s work with visual accents from the highly polished steel of elements, such as the beautifully formed click for the mainspring barrels and the Maltese cross stopworks. The only other flashes of color are from the painstakingly heat-blued screws (whose very large heads are a definite and deliberate homage to the work of Breguet) and the visible train jewels. In 1983 there were few if any watchmakers, independent or otherwise, engaged in this level of work, and in its stately dignity the original Journe Tourbillon lays claim to both the intellectual and technical heritage of Breguet and points to a future of rich potential as well as to the luxury of materials and visual restraint that would be characteristic of Journe’s work yet to come.

Front and Back of Mr. Journe’s Second Timepiece

Over the subsequent years, François-Paul continued to experiment with, and refine, his mastery of some of watchmaking’s most sophisticated complications, including the constant force device known as the remontoire d’egalité, which is a type of constant force mechanism, and of the constant force devices that can be added to a watch, the most complex. This invention was first created to improve the accuracy of clocks and was first adapted for watches by none other than John Harrison, in his work to develop a reliable marine chronometer. In wristwatches, they are virtually unheard of because of their complexity and the amount of space they require. Journe made his first watch–again, a pocket watch–with remontoire in 1986.

 

We mention the remontoire because it was used for the first time in a wristwatch in 1991–and it, and the tourbillon, were both incorporated in a wristwatch for the first time in 1991. That watch became known as the Tourbillon Souverain and was one of the signature pieces in Journe’s collection when his firm, F. P. Journe-Invenit et Fecit, was launched in 1999.

 

The Tourbillon Souverain was (and is) a wristwatch like no other and even today, sixteen years later, there are few watches in existence that represent the same degree of ingenuity. The Tourbillon Souverain was shown by Journe at Basel in 1999 and was an immediate success; it’s safe to say that in both design and technical sophistication, it set a new standard for independent watchmakers and brands alike. The first 20 Tourbillons Souverain were actually created on a “subscription” basis; this allowed Journe to have access to much-needed cash immediately, but it was also another echo of the work of Breguet, whose “souscription” (subscription) watches solved the same problem in the early nineteenth century.

Why is the Tourbillon Souverain such a remarkable watch? First, of course, are its technical attributes. To place a tourbillon of any kind in a wristwatch had seldom been done prior to the advent of the Tourbillon Souverain; a few Omega observatory chronometers, a handful of Pateks (also intended for the observatory competitions), and rarities such as Audemars Piguet’s self-winding tourbillon from 1986 were among the few examples. Not only did Journe manage the extremely technically challenging milestone of placing a tourbillon in a wristwatch he did so with the addition of a remontoire that rewinds itself once per second, thus supporting a third complication: a deadbeat seconds. The remontoire and tourbillon were both visible through the dial side of the watch, and for good measure, there was an indication of the power reserve as well. To fit all this into a thin, elegant 38mm case had never been done before, and its combination of distinctly French thinness and sophistication with a high degree of complexity, made F. P. Journe a household word in horological circles virtually overnight. The Tourbillon Souverain is still a pillar of F. P. Journe’s collections today and still one of the most distinguished examples of how Journe’s reinterpretation, and fresh vision, of the Breguet legacy have made history once again in the twenty-first century.

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