Winding Watches

Clock frame style mounting
A new watch winder design
Many objects made by human hands throughout history speak to the need to accomplish something extraordinary. Often such objects simply arise from a single-minded dedication and a fair bit of skill. In other instances, such an unusual object could only result from the meeting of maker and benefactor.

no 106 Breguet

One intriguing example of the latter is the Breguet watch no 106 designed for Marie Antoinette. It is a tour-de-force of 18th century horological technology commissioned in 1783 (with no time frame and an unlimited budget) as a gift by an anonymous admirer. It wasn’t completed until 1827 – after Marie had been sent to the guillotine and Breguet had passed away. I’ll refrain from commenting on the political, economic and societal circumstances surrounding the creation of this watch but its recent history serves as a bookend for a story that’s a sure candidate for a compelling film plot. The master thief Na’aman Diller, a perfect heist, an unsolved case and a one-of-a-kind watch made for a queen.

With its rock crystal faces – it was clearly intended to fully display both the effort that went into its making and the wonder of its 23 “complications“. But more germane to this story is the fact that Marie Antoinette was the first customer for Breguet’s self-winding watch design called the perpétuelle.

The self-winding mechanism of a mechanical watch is dependent upon the movement of the watch wearer to spin an out-of-balance flywheel configured as a pendulum whose back and forth movement is utilized to keep the watch wound. This in turn is predicated upon the owner actually wearing the watch . . .
And, in the case of a watch such the No 106 Breguet, this is vitally important since the halting of the watch mechanism means not just manually winding the watch but resetting (without a keyboard) each of its various complications as well.

So picture yourself a collector of contemporary and vintage mechanical watches. (Check out the Breguet site for an example of the current state of affairs). You own a collection of watches – many with multiple complications and maybe even a few with the legendary tourbillon mechanism. To insure they are all ready to wear without tedious adjustment of the mechanism they must be kept wound. Sure, you could spend your mornings going through the collection manually winding each watch in turn (or maybe strap them all to your arms, don a full black cape and go for a nice long stroll.) But as it happens, the easiest way to keep them all ticking is to arrange a means of simply rotating them on the mechanical axis for a given number of turns per day and all is well.

Maybe something like this . . . Strap the watches onto the rotating and spinning arms and set the whole thing in motion.

The common solution is more like this:

Oribita Avanti 12 watch winder

A nice cabinet with individual winder mechanisms for each watch. Simple, efficient and to-the-point.

But take another look at the Breguet no 106 above. The watch is a miniature mechanical circus act in a glass case. There were much simpler watches even in Marie Antoinette’s day (she reputedly carried a simple Breguet watch to the guillotine.) Such a watch served the time keeping function quite satisfactorily. It’s clear from a review of the current offerings that the typical watch winder of the present day is a philosopical sibling of the simpler Breguet.

So I wonder why such mechanical poetry as is displayed in the no 106 might not also find its way into a watch winder. Clearly most perpetuelle owners would be inclined to have their watch collection handled by a winder like the Orbita Avanti. But surely someone would enjoy having the watch-tending chore managed by a more engaging mechanical contrivance such as the design that begins this posting.

As it turns out, I was commissioned to pursue this very idea.

More next time . . .

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