Vacheron & Constantin Observatory Chronometer:
A Hard Working Watch
Vacheron & Constantin, Genève, Chronometre No. 357355, case No. 229365. Completed in 1914. Very fine and rare 18K yellow gold keyless pocket chronometer with Guillaume balance. Awarded Bulletin de Iere Classe and IIIeme Prix au Concours de Genève from Geneva Observatory and Class A Chronometer certificate from Kew Observatory.
Case: four-body bassine 18K yellow gold, polished, back engraved with monogram: “M H L”. Hinged gold cuvette with inscription of chronometer awards.
Dial: white enamel with Roman numerals, outer minute track with Arabic numerals in five minute divisions, sunk subsidiary seconds dial. Pink gold spade hands. Original unsigned dial.
Movement: 20’’’, gilt brass, 21 jewels, wolf’s teeth winding, counterpoised and calibrated straight-line lever escapement, anibal-brass Guillaume-type Integral Balance with gold and platinum poising screws, blued steel Breguet balance spring with double overcoil, swan-neck micrometer regulator. Case and movement signed. Diam. 57 mm.
Geneva Timing Contest:
-Daily mean error 0.27 seconds
-Mean error by position 0.32 seconds
-Compensation error 0.010 seconds
-Rate resumption -0.92 seconds
Archives of the Observatoire de Genève show the watch was tested from November 16th to December 30th, 1912, and granted a Bulletin De Marche on the 10th of January, 1913. Adjusted by famed régleur C. Batifolier, the watch scored 733 points out of a possible 1000, placing 27th out of 109 tested and thus attained a 3eme Prix classification.
Kew Timing Contest:
- Mean variation of rate 0.49 seconds
- Mean change for 1 degree F 0.076 seconds
- Extremes of daily rate 8.0 seconds
Records now kept at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, show the watch was delivered by train to Kew Observatory on January 14th, 1913, in a batch of five Vacheron & Constantin watches. The watch was tested from January 15th to February 28 and the results were entered in the Observatory records on March 5th, 1913. With 78.7 marks out of 100, this watch was awarded a Class A Chronometer certificate.
Observatoire de Genève
In 1766, the Royal Observatory of Greenwich organized the first timing competition on record. In 1772, the Classe d’Industrie et de Commerce de la Société des Arts commissioned the Observatoire de Genève to administer chronometer trials for Geneva-based manufacturers. The trials became so important for advertising purposes that other manufacturers later established facilities in the canton to qualify for competition.
Initially the Geneva Observatory required that a watch keep time to within 1 minute a day. Although 19 timepieces were submitted to the first trials, none were awarded the prize so the standard was subsequently revised to within 2 minutes per day. When a new observatory opened in 1829, a timekeeper was dedicated exclusively to the Bulletin de Chronometre d’Observatoire trials. Up until 1874, the manufacturers were free to submit their chronometers at any time, however, that year saw a complete revision of the rules.
An annual timing contest with a points system was introduced which proved to be a turning point for all Observatory competitions. The new system awarded 1st, 2nd, 3rd and honourable mention prizes for the best timekeeping within the categories of marine chronometer, deck or pocket chronometer, and chronometer with complications.
Watches which successfully passed the tests were issued a Bulletin de Marche, certifying the results obtained. Watches which scored more than 2/3 of the available points were published by the Société des Arts until 1927, then by the Publications de l'Observatoire de Genève until 1968. Over the years the method of scoring underwent some changes, most significantly when the total points available increased from 300 to 1000.
STANDARDS OF COMPETITION FOR 1909:1927
The results are presented in this form:
Daily mean deviation=m
Mean deviation by position=d
Method of calculation points:
2 categories; A and B, but only one formula for both categories.
The category is defined by the diameter of the chronometer.
Class A diameter is less than 43 millimeters.
Category B is larger than 43 millimeters.
A new formula is applied in order to better distinguish the competitors.
The old formula is still present in the results.
The values m, d, c and r are expressed in hundredths of a second.
Total=300 points (0.75-m) * 400 / 3 + (2.5-p) * 40 + (0.20-c) * 350 + (5.0-r) * 6
Absolute perfection 300 points
Total=1000 points (0.50-m) * 600 + (2.0-p) * 150 + (0.150-c) * 2000 + (2.5-r) * 40
Absolute perfection 1000 points
Ideally, competition timepieces were attended by one of an elite group of precision adjusters, or régleurs, who were known to every watch professional in the country. The most famous were C. Batifolier, M. Favre, J. Golay-Audemars, F. Modoux, E. Olivier, H. Wehrli and A. Zibach. Mr. Batifolier was especially renowned at Vacheron & Constantin after he obtained a 1st prize for the manufacturer at the Geneva Observatory Trial of 1898.
The following translation is an excerpt from the annual report of the Classe d’Industrie et de Commerce de la Société des Arts on the 1917 Geneva Observatory chronometer trials, Mr. Batifolier was in the employ of Patek, Philippe et Cie on this occasion, however, François Modoux represented Vacheron & Constantin most adequately.
THE JOURNAL OF POLYTECHNIC AND INDUSTRY MONITOR
CLASS OF INDUSTRY AND TRADE
Meeting of Wednesday, February 20, 1918, under the chairmanship of Mr. A. Bétant President
Mr. President delivered a eulogy of Mr. Moses Lighter, a member of the Class, and informed members that the deceased gave us a legacy of Fr. 200. The congregation stands to honor the memory of our colleague.
Report R. Gauthier on the support of chronometers in 1917. The floor was given to Mr. Director of the Observatory for his report on the contribution of chronometers in 1917. Gauthier announced that 132 first timers, including a Marine, have been deposited at the Observatory, against 106 in 1916; 128 in first class and in second class only three. Of these 128, 112 have received the Bulletin and 16 have suffered a failure. An interesting fact is that none of the failures are due to compensation events or changes in temperature, although they are very difficult.
90 pieces took part in the contest, 19 were filed twice and three were of foreign origin. These 90 pieces were submitted by seven manufacturers and regulated by twelve adjusters. The result of the contest:
Contest of isolated parts
Points Manufacturers Regulator
842 Vacheron and Constantin Modoux
831 Patek Philippe & Co. Batifolier
809 Vacheron and Constantin Modoux
808 Vacheron and Constantin Modoux
807 Patek Philippe & Co. Wehrli
805 Vacheron and Constantin Modoux
801 Patek Philippe & Co. Golay-Audemars
799 Vacheron and Constantin Modoux
795 Vacheron and Constantin Modoux
785 Patek Philippe & Co. Golay-Audemars
777 Patek Philippe & Co. Batifolier
Competition of series
812.8 Vacheron and Constantin
800.8 Patek Philippe & Co.
Prize, average difference daily
Vacheron & Constantin
Prize, average timing
Patek Philippe & Co.
Prize, Premier Bulletin.
Mr. Bétant thanked Prof. Gauthier for his very interesting report and then gave the floor to Mr. J. Mauler for his talk on the mechanism of Jaquet-Droz automata. Mr. Mauler who worked himself to the setting of these machines when they returned to Neuchâtel, possesses a perfect knowledge, which ensured a special interest in his presentation.
A similar competition system was followed in 1884 at the Astronomical Observatory of Kew, England, then in 1885 by the Besançon Astronomical Observatory in France. Unfortunately, the tests were never standardized between countries so a comparison of results was not encouraged.
Kew Observatory was built by George III in 1769 to observe the Great Transit of Venus. From 1842 to 1871 it was run by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and from 1871 through 1899, by the Royal Society. The observatory was taken over by the National Physical Laboratory in 1900. Sextant certification work was transferred to their Teddington facility in 1910 and chronometer testing followed in 1912. The Teddington laboratory continued to use the well-known K.O. mark for Kew Observatory.
On July 15, 1914, Kew achieved the distinction of granting the first chronometer certificate to a wristwatch; the ubiquitous Rolex. By 1974, all Observatory trials were discontinued after the mass-marketing of quartz movements made accuracy a certainty.
Then And Now
For two centuries, Observatory Trials were the ultimate test of chronometry. Movements of superior technical design, perfect finish and expert regulation were selected from inventory or manufactured for the purpose. The pinions and wheels were polished to exceptional tolerances, hairsprings were pre-tested and hand-picked, and the dimensions of shafts and bearings were perfectly machined.
The movements were then fixed to square blocks, for easy handling, and enclosed in aluminum or wooden cases for transportation. Unsigned dials and plain hands were often used as aesthetics were not a consideration. After 45 days of continuous testing in 5 positions and 3 temperatures (4°C, 20°C and 30°C), the most precise chronometers were awarded honours for the year while manufacturers enjoyed the publicity and resulting sales.
Observatory Chronometer movements were kept by their manufacturers for years, even decades, and few were released for sale as complete watches. One can only imagine what the esteemed régleurs of the past would think of modern times, with over one million Chronometer certificates issued annually.
They would probably feel distressed knowing that today a far less onerous test is necessary to achieve the designation of Chronometer. Administered over 16 days by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), movements are now required to meet these Exigences minimals:
· Mean daily rate in 5 positions (Mav) -4/+6 seconds
· Mean daily rate variation in 5 positions (Vav) 2 seconds
· Maximum variation in 1 position (Vmax) 5 seconds
· Difference between vertical and horizontal rate (D) -6/+8 seconds
· Greatest difference between mean and daily rate (P) 10 seconds
· Thermal variation per °C (C) ± 0.6 seconds/degree
· Difference between first and last daily rate (R) ± 5 seconds
The current regime of chronometry testing has evolved away from the principles underlying Observatory Trials. Today’s chronometer is “good enough” if it meets minimum standards (95% of movements tested are passed) whereas the trials of the past rewarded only the top few.
Observatory Trials Reborn
Exciting news was received in 2009 when the Concours International de Chronométrie timing competition was undertaken to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Horology in Le Locle. The issuance of timing certificates by the Glashütte and Besançon Observatories and rumours of a similar British enterprise under consideration must certainly have provided additional motivation to reawaken the heritage of time trials.
The Chronométrie 2009 Concours was conducted in three stages involving four locations. The watches started at the Besançon Observatory in France, where they were subject to the standard 16 day COSC test. They were next shuttled to COSC in Biel, where the 16 day trials were repeated. Then followed a side trip to Le Locle where the watches were subjected to shock and magnetism stresses before being sent back to Biel for a third round of tests following the standard COSC formula:
N=1000 – [(500 x │C│) – (100/3 x │D│) – (100 x Vav) – (10 x P) – (20 x Vmax) – (10 x │R│) – (12.5 x │Mav│)]
The final score was obtained by adding the tests: N Final=(0.4 x N1) + (0.4 x N2) + (0.2 x N3). As can be seen, the tests following shock and magnetism were allotted less weight. Organizers were undoubtedly relieved when the small risk they undertook to introduce those two new standards did not induce any degradation of scores. Furthermore, while not stated in the publicity literature, one might wonder if adjustments were permitted between stages considering the transportation involved. Research in this area was hampered by the discovery that, soon after the winners were announced, the competition website went offline.
This first Concours was a tentative affair, only open to European brands. The “International” label apparently referred to the inclusion of France as a testing venue. The format did not correspond with traditional Observatory competition and was rife with compromises. Results were kept anonymous but for the category winners. Of sixteen wrist watches that began, six were eliminated during the trials, including five at the first stop in Besançon. Just as well that Vacheron Constantin was absent from the fray.
Based on a perfect score of 1000, Jaeger-LeCoultre gathered 909 points with their Master Tourbillon Cal. 978 to win the Brands category, while René Addor received 795 points with his Calibre Papillon for seventh overall and top score in the Independents category. Despite official secrecy, the guerilla press disclosed the failure of Audemars Piguet’s entrant was due to a broken spring, while watches from Voutilainen, Chopard, Randin and Journe were also tagged as non-finishers. Many expressed surprise with the severity of the tests and admitted to their lack of preparation. The most admirable performance must be accorded to René Addor who achieved victory with a prototype that he completed in his basement studio just prior to the event. Perhaps he has some kinship with a régleur of the same name who appeared in the 1918 report of the Société des Arts.
Watch enthusiasts should be overjoyed at the resumption of chronometer competitions, but there is much to consider before the next Concours in 2011. A resurgence of interest in mechanical accuracy, contrasted with the acknowledged irrelevance of standard COSC measures, has created a demand for truly competitive trials. Should the organizers and participants embrace the concept with greater commitment and transparency, modern horology will surely benefit. With some encouragement, Vacheron Constantin may even seek to reclaim past glories!
Dean aka TickTalk
May 5, 2010
1. Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Classe d’Industrie et de Commerce de la Société des Arts, February 20, 1918
2. Chronometre Royal 1907: 100 Years of Flamboyance by Alex Ghotbi
3. History of Omega Observatory Trials and Precision Records by Michael Ting
4. Antiquorum Biography: François Modoux
5. Secrets of Vacheron Constantin by Franco Cologni
6. Time on Trial by Justin Koullapis, QP magazine
7. Revelations of a Secret Competition by Alan Downing, Watch Around magazine
8. Observatoire de Genéve website
9. Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres website
10. La Commune du Locle et le Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle press release
· I would like to thank Rory McEvoy, Curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, who responded most enthusiastically to my research requests.
· The Observatoire de Genéve requires a fee of CHF 200 to re-issue a Bulletin de Marche.
· International Organization for Standards (ISO) will provide a copy of the current Standard 3159-2009 Timekeeping Instruments: Wrist Chronometers, for CHF 50.
· Further reading on COSC and its relationship with the watch industry may be found at TimeZone.com in an article by Alan Downing titled ‘Inside COSC’.
· Charles-Édouard Guillaume was 51 years old when this watch competed in time trials with his revolutionary Anibal composite balance wheel, which he referred to as a Balancier Intégral. In 1920, Guillaume received a Nobel Prize for the invention of Invar and Elinvar, and thereafter the term “Guillaume balance” was commonly applied to the Integral Balance in recognition of this fame. In his Nobel lecture, Guillaume suggested one “slight defect” with the widespread use of his alloys in chronometers; the régleur may no longer be required.
* All photos are property of the author and may not be reproduced without consent