Pilgrim’s Progress – Story on Tourbillons

Twenty years ago when my grandfather died I inherited his closest possession, an Omega manual-wind mechanical wristwatch. I was in standard III and knew not the world of difference between the Omega and the Mickey Mouse Casio quartz I had worn till then.

To my horror the next day, the Omega died. I panicked, thinking I must have spoiled it. Father was not worried one bit. He laughed and told me to wind it, and showed me how. Presto, the Omega sprang back to life.

The lesson learnt was that there were certain watches that needed daily coaxing, a piece of wisdom that had bypassed me, being part of the quartz generation. Till then I had known that all one needed to keep a watch going was a battery change once in a while.

That day I consigned the Mickey Mouse quartz to the shoebox in my cupboard that held my worldly possessions. Winding the Omega was a daily chore that called for a certain discipline. I revelled in it. One can say I was reborn as a mechanical watch aficionado that day.

I realised that once you go mechanical, you can’t go quartz anymore. And that’s exactly the point that the owner of a luxury retail watch chain made when I met him in Delhi the other day. If he says that, it must be true, for, mind you, his chain sells quartz collections from Omega and Longines.

Once not very long ago quartz kept time for almost anyone in India. But the trend has been shifting to self-winding, mechanical automatic watches since 2006.

According to Sandeep Kapoor of Delhi’s Kapoor Watch Company, mechanical automatics now have 80 per cent of India’s luxury Swiss watch market for men. Women have been rather slow to take to these watches. “So, in women’s watches quartz still dominates with a 70 per cent share,” he says.

Not surprise this: The Swiss, the master watchmakers, are in the forefront of the Indian market for these watches. They have been aggressive marketers, spreading awareness and raising the mechanical automatic almost to cult level. Hand-crafted and -assembled, specialty movements are their forte. Plus the longer life of mechanical automatics, as Kapoor sees it, makes them the ideal wrist candy.

Categorised almost entirely as vanity possessions, they don’t come cheap. Three things make them so — the brand value, and the metal of the casing and the gems on them. The really stratospheric price tags are reserved for those in gold (white, yellow or rose) or platinum and studded with diamonds and/ or other precious stones likes rubies.

The third invisible factor that determines price is movements inside. Greater the complication of the movements, the more manhours go into making the watches. And Swiss manhours can be frightfully expensive.

Another feature that most customers are unaware of is that no two handcrafted watches are alike, each crafted separately and painstakingly by craftsmen who have kept the over 400-year-old tradition alive. Every wheel is balanced with precision, every gem is placed with perfection (to minimise friction). Without that precision, a watch can lose time.

Ever since the Omega came into my possession, the world of watches has fascinated me. I have wondered at the mechanisms, movements, dials, casings, everything. There’s even a mechanism, which is actually called retrograde. Why such a name? It’s been years since I embarked on an amazing timeless journey that had no doubt made me poorer but richer as a collector and explorer of the world of fine watchmaking.

Nicolas Baretzki, international director of Jaeger-leCoultre, finally led me ti an answer. “It is the human mind that is attracted to complications or complicated mechanisms, it challenges the brain, just like a puzzle. The amazing thing is that these complex procedures that strive to make a mechanical watch — which by definition has to have imperfection — precise,” he said.

One of my favourite stories about man’s attachment to his watch is told by Satyajit Ray. In that story a character named Thomas Godwin requests his favorite Perigal repeater be buried with him on his death.

Repeater is a kind of movement. “It was invented because in king’s court it was not considered courteous to look at your pocket watch,” Renaud Pretet, brand director of Jaeger-LeCoultre, told me. In a repeater if you press the crown, the watch gives out a soft sound that tells you the minute position. Swiss watchmakers have kept the repeater alive. Patek Phillipe, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Jaquet Droz still make them.

Watch mechanisms can be very complex. Tourbillon undoubtedly is the most complex of them all. It is an add-on in the mechanics of a watch escapement. Developed in 1795 by the French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet on an earlier idea of the English chronometer maker John Arnold, a tourbillon counters the effects of gravity (yes, that also affects time-keeping) by mounting the escapement and balance wheel in a rotating cage. This nullifies the effects of gravity when the timepiece (and thus the escapement) is rotated.

“Breguet made it because pocket watches were held in upright position in the pocket and not in the horizontal position where the balances should ideally be and so the watches lost time due to gravity,” a boutique manager at Johnson Watch Company explained.

Breguet, Jaeger-leCoultre, Harry Winston and Cartier produce Master and Grandmaster tourbillions. Cartier managing director Louis Ferla said, “A modification in the movement of a tourbillon takes up to five years to develop at Cartier.” The Rotonde de Cartier single push-piece tourbillion sapphire skeleton is still the most sought after piece from the company.

In 2004 Jaeger-leCoultre created the gyrotourbillon, more suitable for wristwatches, which see more movements than pocket watches. It is a two-axis, three- dimensional movement that compensates for the effect of gravity.

Mahatma Gandhi used a Zenith pocket watch. But he had no pockets as he was always in a loincloth. So the watch was slung from the waist tuck-in. He didn’t know this but his watch would have surely lost time, as gravity would tend to slow it down more than it would in a pocket.

The jewel used in a tourbillon is ruby. Ja­eger-leCoultre and Cartier use between 17 and 25 rubies in each tourbillon. Rubies give greater precision and accuracy. Their very sm­all size and weight, low and predictable fricti­on, good temperature withstanding ability, and the ability to operate without lubrication and in corrosive environments make them key to watchmaking. Mechanical watches also use diamond, sapphire and garnet. It takes years of experience to know exactly where to place a jewel — the cap, pivot, impulse, or the centre wheel. No wonder a tourbillon costs the moon – or somewhere near about. It can be anywhere between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 3 crore. But by no means it is the costliest watch money can buy. Not easy to identify one, as buying one is almo­st always a closed- door affair. They don’t carry price tags and prices are revealed only on request. But only to select customers. For viewing — much less buying one — an appointm­ent for special preview needs to be sought. Th­at’s the practice at every luxury watchmaker. Neither the model, nor the price — forget about the identity of the customer — is revealed.

Should you want to take a look at the Opus collection or a Histoirie de Tourbillon, you need to seek an appointment. Depending on who you are, it can be arranged at the Harry Winston boutique in Delhi, according to its manager. That’s only for a look-see; buying comes later. The manager refused to share with me the number of Opus or tourbillon sold, and only said, “It is encouraging”. Harry Winston’s tourbillon range starts at over Rs 80 lakh and goes up to Rs 3 crore.

Harry Winston may see tourbillion sales as encouraging, but not so Kapoor, who said the market was not growing in India. “Price is a deterrent.”

Sebastien Cretegny, international sales ma­nager of Frederique Constant, which recently launched the FC-9 980EGF4H9 tourbillon in India, recently told my colleague Abhinav Kaul, who has been researching the watch market, “Quite frankly, we have not sold any tourbillon in India so far.” Jaeger-LeCoultre makes 15 gyrotourbillons a year, of which two are sold in India. “People attracted by those kind of pieces in India are usually corporate professionals who have travelled the world and are in their mid 40s to mid-50s,” said Cretegny.

Retailers believe there are more customers among Indian professionals, but they prefer to buy the pieces abroad on travel. They get them cheaper there than in India, where customs duties are a deterrent for the super rich. Invariably, they bring them unnoticed by the customs here. Indian retails counter this by offering discounts negotiated behind closed doors.

True, not many Indian Thomas Godwins are there who would want to take their watches to their graves. But watch this space, tourbillions or not, the legion of true blue Swiss watch aficionados in India is growing.

As for me, the next stop in this pilgrimage is tourbillon and being a part of the 400-year-old tradition of precision.



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