Historical Horology: When Mechanical Watches Made A Comeback

Posted on 29 December 2013 by Patrick Kansa

 

Mechanical-Movement-Vs-Quartz-Movement

As we’ve seen in other articles, the watch industry is one that constantly reinvents itself. The quartz revolution of the 1970s left a lasting, perhaps indelible, mark on traditional watchmaking. While the quartz watches brought us unparalleled accuracy in increasingly more affordable packages, the watches ushered in by the Seiko Astron just lacked something that the mechanical watches had. Call it artistry, or a mechanical soul, or whatever your term of choice is – we just know it’s something we’re drawn to. Fortunately, there’s been a bevy of independent watch makers (along with the big players) keeping things alive).

If the 70s saw mechanical watches retreat, it’s in the 80s where it began a resurgence. It as at that time that Rolf Schnyder, the new owner of Ulysse Nardin, started to mix things up. This was all made possible by the hire of trained archaeologist and Vatican clock restorer – Ludwig Oechslin. When he started off, he created some fairly complex pieces that were based off of astronomical clocks from the 18th century. Not content to rest with those, Schnyder put forth what seemed to be an impossible task – put a complication in a watch that conventional wisdom said wouldn’t work on awrist.

Tourbillon

What complication was that? The tourbillon. With how present that complication is these days, it’s easy to forget that 20 years ago, it was a much different story. It was in 1998 that Schnyder bought the rights to this tourbillon idea from Carole Forestier, and put Oechselin on the task of making the concept work (to that point, it hadn’t). Three years later, the watch debuted – the Freak. To be sure, it didn’t look much like the initial concept – nor did it look like anything else on the market.

It was also at that same time (1998) that Harry Winston hired a new person on-board that we’ve all heard of – Maximilian Büsser – to turn around their watch division. These days, many have read about the various annual Opus collection watches that have been released. Those watches have allowed independent watch makers (such as François-Paul Journe and Vianney Halter) to showcase the amazing creations they were coming up with.

Ulysse-Nardin-Freak-Blue-Phantom

What I haven’t touched on in this article (well, there’s quite a bit, actually) is how the technology that drove the quartz revolution also came to bear, and make possible, a lot of the innovation we’ve come to enjoy in the mechanical side of the equation. For that, and an even more information on the new resurgence in mechanical watches, you really should give this article by Jonathan Keats over at Wired a read – it’s interesting to see how this more “modern” history has been shaping up. It’s an interesting read, covering all sorts of interesting items – like the above – as well as the Mikrogirder and an intriguing magnetic movement (the Résonique) that’s in the works.

harry-winston-opus-1-by-fp-journe

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