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The watch aficionado who wakes up after a 10 year hibernation period will certainly think that the watch industry has not only lost its mind (but that’s another story) but also its hands!
More and more brands are coming out with wandering, jumping, digitaling, rotating hours. The question is “where are the hands”? The two little batons on the dial that rotate clockwise and which we had such huge difficulty learning to read as children?
What in today’s 21st century seems like a new trend is nothing but the renaissance of alternative time display mechanisms which date as far back as the 17th century.
Watchmakers have long sought novel, unorthodox ways of expressing the time of day on their timepieces. From the early days of the pocket watch, they have ceaselessly sought ways to improve upon the classic functional display of the time by means of a pair of hands rotating around a dial. A variety of mechanical systems providing auxiliary or more sophisticated functions soon appeared. Many of them concerned the actual display of the time and date.
One of the first and more original was the wandering hour type clock quite popular in the 17th century.
Also called “Floating Hour Dial” or “Chronoscope” the wandering hour clock was originally devised as a clock that could be read in darkness as it was intended to be back lit with a lamp.
The invention of the wandering hour clock is often attributed to the Campani brothers of Rome (circa 1656) and is said to be a result of a commission from Pope Alexander VII.
In these kinds of clocks, a semi-circular slit opening in the upper half of the dial reveals the hour numerals, appearing one at a time and in ordinary succession. On the outer edge of the opening are the minute graduations marked 0 - 60 minutes. The hour numeral travels from left to right, indicating the minutes in its passage. On reaching the 60 minute mark, it disappears
beyond the slit and is succeeded by the next hour numeral following in its wake.
|The Cmpani Brothers' Wandering Hour Clock|
This distinctive design was quickly adopted by other Italian and English makers such as Samuel Windmills or Edward East. Samuel Pepys, who’s diary (started 1660) gives us first hand narration on great events of British history (the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, the Great Fire of London…) wrote that he had nothing in his bedchamber “but some pious pictures, books of devotion and at my head, a clock wherein a lamp burns that tells me the time of the night at any hour” which shows that the wandering hour clock had become a domestic device.
However, by the end of the 17th century, it seems that the design had started being used no longer for back lighting but to avoid the friction created by conventional hands and by early 18th century this design could be found in pocket watches from makers such Johann Christoph Strigell or Mathieu à Rouen.
The retrograde indications soon followed. In the late seventeenth century, some pocket watches’ hour hand would sweep a segment of a circle for half the day then return to its starting point to begin all over again (on a side note Vacheron Constantin was the first to use a retrograde indication in a wrist watch in the early 30s). After falling somewhat out of favor, retrograde displays returned to the spotlight in late twentieth-century wristwatches. Today they are very much in vogue and take all manner of forms. Technically speaking the movement’s overall construction remains the same but a complex mechanism of racks, pawls and springs, conceived and made with the utmost precision are added to drive the hands as to avoid backlash.
The real proliferation of retrograde displays began in the mid 1990s, apparently following Vacheron Constantin's fabulous double-retrograde Mercator (see below).
In jump-hour watches the hour hand is replaced by a disk with 12 hours on it. As the wandering minutes hand goes from 59 to 60, the hour jumps from one hour to the next, ergo the name.
Jump Hours enjoyed their first brief vogue in the 1820s and 30s, though they continued to be made in small numbers throughout the 19th century. Jumping digital minutes was paired with jumping hours in a small number of pocket watches during the last quarter of that century.
In the Art Deco period jumping-hours watches came into the spotlight once more, both in pocket and wristwatch forms. During the Roaring Twenties jumping-hours wristwatches were produced by eminent names of watchmaking but the fashion declined with the Great Depression, and definitively ended by World War 2 only to come back in the early 90s and the post-quartz renaissance.
Vacheron Constantin’s Alternative Time Displays
It is not clear who the inventor of the first jump hour watch is (called at the time “montre à guichet” or loosely translated as watch with a window), however it is a time display which was produced mainly by French makers such as L’Epine, Leroy & Fils, and Oudin of which some examples date from circa 1830-1835. Swiss watchmakers, other than Vacheron Constantin who made its first jump hour watch circa 1820-1824, seemed less interested in this method of time reading.
Below is one of Vacheron Constantin’s first jump hour models. This watch with a beautifully ex-centred guilloche dial featured the hour indication via an aperture at 12, a central minute hand and sub seconds at 6. Variations with date and repeating mechanism were also made.
|original description of VC's 1st Jump Hour watch from 1820||jump hour circa 1820||with date coirca 1827|
However the big moment for alternative time displays took place about a century later during the Roaring Twenties and the zenith of the Art Deco movement.
In the 1920s-1930s Vacheron Constantin produced some of the most beautiful alternative time display watches (both in pocket and wrist form) and became one of the premiere manufactures of the epoch in terms of divers designs and offer.
The brand produced watches with jumping hours and wandering minutes (via apertures), jumping hours with a central minutes hand as well as certain models with date, the latter only in pocket watch form.
The pocket watches were round, square or square with rounded angles (called Smoking which in French designates a Tuxedo), the wrist watches - which systematically reproduced the aesthetics of their pocket watch counterpart (there are no jump hour wrist watches from that era which are not replicas of a pocket watch) were essentially rectangular with the exception of some ultra rare cushion shaped models.
|circa 1929||circa 1929|
|All left in Vc's archives is this drawing of the ultra rare cushion Jump Hour|
Another model which Vacheron Constantin came to be famous for is the Bras en l’Air (arms up). This type of double retrograde (1 hand indicating the hours, the other the minutes) first came into use in the early 19th century but became fashionable and in vogue in the 1930s. As often with Vacheron Constantin’s more daring pieces of the time the Bras en l’Air is the birth child of Vacheron Constantin’s collaboration with Parisian casemakers Verger Frères. These models feature a central engraved applied character (a Buddha, Serpent charmer…) whose arms point to the hours and minutes inscribed on either side of the dial once a push piece is pressed.
From the 1940s ‘til the revival of the mechanical watch in the late 80s early 90s (with the exception of a small number of zanzy design watches from the very early 70s) alternative time displays disappeared into oblivion with the change in tastes.
The early 1990s saw the return of this type of time display with Vacheron Constantin leading the pack with the amazing Mercator.
1994 - 1997
Directly inspired by the double retrograde hands of the Bras en l’Air models of the 30s, the Mercator is THE timepiece that got me interested in Vacheron Constantin, I used to spend my days staring at its picture in catalogues or drooling in front of shop windows without daring to try it on. It’s the epitome of what Vacheron Constantin represents to me, a mix of high horology and métiers d’art with a dash of audacity!
Launched in 1994, the Mercator may seem like a classic today but 14 years ago this watch was extremely avant guard with its two retrograde hands and engraved or enamel dial.
The Mercator is a tribute to Dutch cartographer and geographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), creator of the first projections of the globe.
Mercator first turned his attention to philosophy and cosmography but soon discovered that he would have to earn a living. He thus shifted his interests to mathematics and to practical applications of this science, starting with the design and construction of instruments ranging from armillary spheres, astrolabes and celestial and terrestrial globes. In time, Mercator’s curiosity came to encompass geography and geometry, metalworking and engraving, drawing and even calligraphy.
It was in 1537 that he published his map of the Holy Land, the first of the 107 which were attributed to him. The dial of the original Mercator models represent a hemispherical map of Africa/Europe/Asia or the Americas as drawn in 1587 by Mercator.
Two versions were then available: in polychrome cloisonné enamel or gold.
The enamel dial models, housed in 36mm yellow gold cases were made in 50 pieces: 38 with the Africa/Europe/Asia dial and 12 with the Americas dial. These exceptionally refined dials owe their satin and glossy finishes to the superb quality of their enamelling done by Belgian artists Jean and Lucie Genbrugge.
The dials of the Mercators are enamelled using the champlevé method, meaning the 18k gold dial is first hollowed out in the shape of the continents and other geographical features as well as the two sectors for hours and minutes. The resulting recesses are then filled with multiple layers of opaque enamel to form a suitable background. Each layer needs to be carefully fired at a temperature of 700° to 800° C (1290° to 1470°F) and, once it has cooled, meticulously smoothed before receiving the appropriate colors, in this case: green, yellow and purple, laid on with a brush composed of a few marten hairs. The operation needs to be repeated for each and every application of enamel, returning to the kiln a good thirty times or more, at various temperatures and for varying lengths of time depending on the color and the quantity of enamel applied. Finally, the workpiece is coated with transparent flux and fired one last time at about 900°C (1650°F) before smoothing and final polishing.
The appropriate details are then penned on each globe with the aid of a binocular microscope. Following this, a layer of protective fondant is applied to enhance and protect the finished work. Finally, the dials are extensively buffed until each is as flat and glossy as possible.
Each individual map takes over twelve days to produce, meaning an average of just two dials can be made each month without taking into account the possible breaking as enamel is extremely brittle and unpredictable, requiring prudent and gradual cooling down to room temperature to avoid potentially destructive internal tensions that can cause the dial to shatter.
The enamel dialed Mercator was awarded the “Best Dial” prize at the 1996 World Watch and Jewellery Show in Basel (today’s Baselworld).
A non enamel dial model was also offered representing the same maps. Cased in yellow gold or platinum with yellow or white gold dials etched with acid and enamelled. The yellow gold model with yellow gold dial is a favourite of mine as it really gives the impression of a centuries old parchment. Even though these models were regular production models, the complexity of the twin retrograde mechanism and even more the difficulty in making the dial automatically limited its production.
Vacheron Cosntantin also answered special requests for specific markets with enamel dials representing a specific region or continent (Hong Kong, France, Portugal, North America etc…) mainly in yellow gold cases, sometimes in platinum and rarely in rose gold. To the best of my knowledge the only special edition Mercator with an etched gold dial was made for Thailand in platinum and rose gold making these pieces extremely rare.
|Thailand (platinum)||Thailand (rose gold) -scan courtesy of Teetan|
There is also the odd Chinese zodiac and the one made for a Formula 1 racing aficionado who had the front part of a Ferrari F1 car on the dial. Both these watches, as far as I’m concerned, totally distort the whole original idea of the Mercator and the ancient map related concept and would have better remained as projects.
Over the 10 year period the Mercator model was made in only 638 pieces (all dial (engraved or enamel) and metal combinations)!
For the anecdote the first Mercator watch with enamel dial depicting Africa/Europe/Asia was auctioned by Antiquorum at its 1994 “The Art of Vacheron Constantin” sale.
The movement of the Mercator is as interesting as its dial. It houses the extra flat (2.45mm thick) cal 1120 modified for a bi-retrograde time indication. The calibre was born without the Geneva Seal which was added to later models starting 2003. The hands, which have been very ingeniously shaped in the form of a compass progress divergently across two arc-shaped zones, one graduated from 1 to 12 hours and the other from 0 to 60 minutes. Each hand returns instantly to zero on exactly completing one half day and one hour respectively.
The complexity of the double retrograde hands was made even more difficult by moving the hands to the top part of the dial resulting in the hands and the crown to be on a different axis.
JUMP HOUR ref 43040 and the SALTARELLO
The Jump Hour and the Saltarello are somewhat apart in Vacheron Constantin’s modern offerings of alternative time displays as they are the only ones which do not have an engraved/sculpted or enameled dial.
Launched in 1994 (a great vintage for VC alternative time displays) the Jump Hour is directly inspired by a 1930s historical piece. At 12 is an aperture with the hours’ disc which jumps immediately to the next hour once the onyx triangular minutes indicator reaches 12 after having made a complete one hour tour of the dial.
The 36mm case housing the automatic caliber 1120 exists in yellow gold and platinum and features a beautiful guilloche dial. This watch is certainly an under looked watch and one of my favourite VC’s from the 90s. Definitely worth looking into especially considering that it was produced for only 4 years with a very low production number of 192 pieces in yellow gold and 131 in platinum.
For years I compared the Saltarello’s look to a bathroom scale with its retrograding minute hand placed at the centre of the dial but you have to admit that its design is very original. The Saltarello adds an extra complication to its jump hour function, and at the same time gives a nod to its past by adding a retrograde minute hand, a complication which was starting to be in demand at the end of the millennium.
Launched at a watch show held in Berlin in 1997, the cushion shaped Saltarello (also housing a caliber 1120) was made in a limited edition of 500: 200 in white gold, 200 in rose gold and 100 in yellow gold.
The silvered dial features a guilloche sunray pattern but one of the coolest features of the
Saltarello is hidden from the eye: its gorgeously skeletonised/engraved rotor. It is to the best
of my knowledge the only model (along with the Audubon series) which is the only non
skeleton watch with such a rotor.
End of Part 1