Preserving Purity in Watchmaking: the Guardians of Time “Naissance d’une Montre”

Jul 02, 2015,14:01 PM

Phillipe Dufour placed his bag on the chair next to him, sat on the seat directly behind him, leaned back and exhaled: “You can learn all your life; especially in watchmaking. Along with Robert Greubel we [gesturing to Michel Boulanger and Stephen Forsey seated to his right] started all this to preserve the old knowledge and skills of watchmaking.” With a wry smile he added: “We will probably not halt the demise of the traditional methods, but we might slow the decline.”

[Prototype 1 with the cross section sketch of the tourbillon escapement. Note the individual design of the holding screw to the bridge. Every element of the watch was considered for design, overall aesthetics, and purpose within the watch]

The Guardians of Time are on a mission, and to demonstrate how their mission might yet succeed: in preserving the traditional methods of watchmaking, a watch has been conceived, designed, and manufactured from first principles. No CNC machines: each and every type of component is made by hand, using lathes or the necessary tools, and finished by hand. Starting with an idea(s) and realising the finished form of a watch. It is time consuming, laborious, and you need the patience of a saint, but their intent is clear. So if you can start with a blank sheet of paper: what watch would you want? With a stated aim to teach and preserve the traditional watchmaking ways where you cannot simply take a movement off the shelf, you cannot ask a computer to design the most efficient form, and are starting from the very beginning, where do you start?

It started in earnest three years ago (although before that Dufour, Forsey and Greubel had been part of the TimeAeon Foundation that had similar objectives). After the decision had been made to launch “Le Garde Temps”, The Guardians of Time wanted) to teach and instill in the next generation of watchmakers the skills and methods that are dying out, they had to select someone. After some discussion, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey knew a watchmaker in France who was of sufficient skill and temperament, and willing and able to give up three years of his life to journey from his home and work, and return to the tutelage of the master watchmakers bench. Michel Boulanger, an instructor at The Diderot Technical College in Paris, was selected and agreed to work on the project. The aim was to impart the techniques and knowledge while designing and manufacturing a watch in a strictly limited series.

After the initial announcement back in SIHH 2012 (although Le Garde Temps had been started several years before in 2009), the project disappeared from the attention of the watch world. But back in La Chaux de Fonds, the project was under way. Once selected, it was determined that Dufour, Forsey, and Greubel would meet with Michel Boulanger every month to plan, discuss, and instruct. Phillipe Dufour laughed: “It was an interesting mix! You had Michel from France, Robert is from Alsace, Stephen from England, and I am Swiss. We had many involved and heated discussions! But from the very first, Michel arrived with ideas of what he wanted; what he conceived the watch as. We were there to help.”

[The original working prototype was key wound until Michel had found a main spring and winding mechanism that he wanted]

Michel Boulanger had drawn his main inspiration from the period 1750-1850 admiring famous watchmakers such as Antide Janvier, Jaques-Frédérc Houriet and Abraham Louis Breguet. The overall design and aesthetic that they wanted was for everything to be visible: all the watchmaking techniques that would employed would now be seen in the movement parts from the face of the watch and not from an exhibition back. Michel also wanted the watch to have a tourbillon; a tourbillon that was a central focus of the display. Once the ideas were agreed upon, initial drawings and sketches gave the watch a more tangible form. From there, the only time modern technology was involved was to render the watch and all components in CAD (Computer Assisted Design). CAD also provides a durable digital archive for the design and dimensions of the watch. Although initial sketches and concept were hand-executed and it would be possible to design and measure using paper, a slide rule, and mental arithmetic, that would only prolong the time before a watch was made and do nothing in terms of imparting the traditional methods of watchmaking. Without using CNC machines, it was necessary to make each and every type of component using traditional tools by hand; by Michel Boulanger’s hands to be exact. Because of the hand made nature of the watch, and the wish to display the watchmaker’s skills, the elements of the watch had to have a certain scale.

[Prototypes 1 and 2 beside each other: showing how the design was to allow all elements in the watch to be examined from the dial side]

Dufour continued: “Michel wanted a very pure watch; a watch that demonstrated the watchmaker’s art and skill. The tourbillon cage had to be the main element.” And so it proved to be. For instance, regarding Michel’s final design for the balance wheel, I asked Michel why that design, were there any other influences on why the four part wheel with eight screw weights? “No!” Was the reply, “We just liked that design; it was how we pictured a balance wheel to be.” Michel then moved on to talk about the tourbillon cage. At approximately 18.5 mm, it is almost half the diameter of the watch movement. And that brings with it other considerations. The tourbillon cage was now the largest moving element for the watch and with the dimension and oscillation of the escapement, the design and construction of the bridge had to be considered.

After much argument, Dufour conceded, the bridge was agreed that it would be open, but constructed in two parts and not machined from one. There was discussion even down to the finish on the (near obscured) vertical of the bridge and the holding screw. Even the screw was individually designed and finished to complement the aesthetics of the bridge. Initially, on the first prototype, the bridge was constructed from a single piece. But the bridge and the holding screw were not sufficiently rigid for the large balance wheel and tourbillon cage. The inertia from the oscillating escapement, although the forces at work are on the micro level, was too large for the initial bridge to hold the tourbillon steady and retain accuracy. A bridge redesign, where the base was enlarged, construction changed, and the top part cut out, proved to be successful. The new bridge both added to the aesthetics, and in the two part construction (the base of the bridge, and the stem and top part, are manufactured separately), both improved rigidity and finishing.

[Version two of the tourbillon bridge: note the design of the blued holding screw and the polish on the curved surface of the vertical section of the bridge. The polish can only be achieved using wooden tools and hours of painstaking polishing.]

With the prominence of the tourbillon within the movement, placing the dials and the winding barrel became the next considerations. The design of the dials, the winding barrel and mechanism took some time to consider. First: the dials. As the dial finish was being considered, Philippe brought in some silver dials from nineteenth century pocket watches: engraved numerals and dial markers, that were then inlaid with enamel and lacquered. These techniques have not been used for almost a century. The dial and other components of the watch, properly maintained, can last for centuries. Not this year, or the next, but for this generation, the next, and for generations to come. For the Naissance watch, the dials were to be from white gold; the same principles apply as they do for the silver dials, only the Guardians preferred the lustre of the white gold finish.

[A comparison of prototype 1 (left) and prototype 2 (right): note that there are small differences in the dimension of parts].

The placement of the dials was equally a consideration. While the watch was to concentrate on the tourbillon, there still had to be an aesthetic to the movement configuration. This involved moving the dials to locations within the watch that were not optimal in terms of minimising the gear train. Placing the second hand subdial at the location to the left of the tourbillon escapement required two wheels with over a hundred teeth. But for aesthetic reasons, the dial was placed where it was.

The winding mechanism with the double ratchet effect, that was part of the second prototype, was also derived from an old pocket watch. Dufour reached into his bag and pulled out a folder where all the various ideas for his watches had been stored: a particular type of finishing, the technique for the dials, and in this instance, the design and mechanics behind the winding barrels and winding mechanism. Dufour had seen the design before and so produced an illustration that Boulanger could learn from and interpret for himself. The pocket watch was from a Louis Elisée Piguet Grand Sonnerie, No 6, and had two winding barrels: one for the time keeping mechanism, the other for the sonnerie. Dufour had used it himself in his Grand Sonnerie watch No.2. Over several of Michel Boulanger’s monthly visits to La Chaux-de-Fonds with Robert and the NM team he took the idea and adapted the winding mechanism for the Naissance watch. The initial winding system: that you can see on the first prototype was actually key wound. The second prototype has the ratchet winding system, and just as Michel conceived; winding the watch is a tactile and emotive experience: you can feel the main spring tighten as you wind the watch.

Other changes between the initial prototype and the second (the one exhibited at SIHH this year) were slight changes in the dimension of plates or bridges. The hands and dial were designed and manufactured; as well as the winding mechanism. With the support of the NM team, It took two months to take the original prototype apart and inspect and clean each element, as a start point to then consider how to improve the parts of the movement. Now that the fully working “Montre Ecole” is completed, and has been running perfectly, work has begun on the third prototype: the fully finished watch.

Michel estimated that it would take another year at least to finish all the elements to the necessary standard. And that standard is very high indeed. When you have watchmakers of the calibre of Philippe Dufour, Stephen Forsey, and Robert Greubel advising you, and looking over your shoulder to ensure that finishing is completed to the necessary standard, you bet it will take a year! It is the smallest of elements that will be scrutinised: the burnishing on the edges of the tourbillon cage; the polishing of the teeth on each and every pinions; the polished curved edge to the tourbillon bridge: possible only using wood and hours of painstaking skilled manual labour. But all agreed that such finishing was necessary: it preserves the watch and reduces (wear applicable on the moving surfaces) as well as enhancing the aesthetics of the watch movement (that in this instance are instantly on display for everyone to see – as intended).

As the conversation about the Naissance watch wound down (pun sort of intended), the topics turned more generally to the future of independent watchmaking and mechanics in general. Philippe Dufour looked at his own Simplicity prototype on his wrist: “Preserving the skills and the old methods has not been easy. I remember when independent watchmaking was all but dead. It was George [Daniels] who showed us that it could be done. He used to turn up in the Vallee every autumn in one of his Bentleys. One year, he showed up in a green one with a compressor at the front”; “A supercharger” interrupted Stephen. “Yes! And the noise and the speed as we drove around the mountains…!” Phillipe Dufour laughed and clapped his hands. “I miss George” as his eyes drifted towards the floor. The Guardians know that time is not on their side; but if they can sow some seeds of knowledge among the younger generation, then there is yet hope. Le Garde-Temps Naissance d’une Montre ( is that hopeful beginning within the Swiss Cantons, the start of preservation, and that the future will contain a younger generation who wont rush to produce a watch for the sake of marketing; but a watch that contains the skill and mastery of watchmaking in its purest form.

Andrew H
This message has been edited by 219 on 2015-07-02 14:06:42 This message has been edited by MTF on 2015-07-06 15:06:25

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Thank you Andrew. A beautifully done article about

 By: timerider : July 2nd, 2015-14:35
a topic that must be discussed, appreciated and supported my all true collectors of fine Timepieces. Thank you so much for putting this all together and making such a brilliant read. Best to all, Tim

I am not a natural GF fan...

 By: Mostel : July 2nd, 2015-20:29
I appreciate and admire their work, but find their designs over the top. Their level of execution is unassailable of course. Well, it is very exciting and interesting to see them joining with The Master to hopefully create something a bit more restrained,... 

Thank you for that informative post. I think that the combined fire power of these

 By: : July 2nd, 2015-23:47
horologers has created a most intersting concept piece, It has the DNA of a breguet with the finesse of an independent Julian

All agreed on that: the important difference is that it is

 By: 219 : July 8th, 2015-00:28
all designed, conceived, and executed by hand. That allows certain aspects to be different and an aesthetic that occurs in an organic way. Andrew H

Thanks Mostel! I like their designs: especially their

 By: 219 : July 8th, 2015-00:27
24 second incline with the asymmetric case, but beauty is in the eye of the loop holder! Andrew H

Thanks. They look like a poster for

 By: 219 : July 8th, 2015-00:25
The Expendables! But of course, for any watch lovers, are anything but! Andrew H

From the birth of an organisation

 By: MTF : July 3rd, 2015-16:12
Andrew, Thank you for the update of the project. The first year was just an introduction of the goal and the chosen. The second year saw the first prototype. I did not see the third year's progress that you have summarised succinct... 

GF always do special series of 11 watches...

 By: 219 : July 8th, 2015-00:30
it stands for '1' Robert and '1' Stephen. Arguably in this instance they could have gone for '1111', but then perhaps if there are two watches from the Garde Temps, that would work! Andrew H

thank you for

 By: ztirual : July 5th, 2015-05:59
the very interesting presentation of this project. I am slightly confused though. Is the purpose of the project to sell watches that are been made 'traditionally'? Yet another make/ brand? Other watchmakers also do that and quite a few are very good at it... 

Questions are good! They are the product of an enquiring mind....

 By: 219 : July 8th, 2015-00:37
The design is Michels. His wishes, his thoughts, his design. He is a senior instructor and teacher at a watchmaking school. What the others in the room are now teaching him are the hand finishing techniques and methods that are laborious and specific, and... 

Thank you Andrew

 By: ztirual : July 8th, 2015-10:42
of the 3 watches you mention the finish of the vintage model is the best, as it was not done to impress, was never meant to be seen being made in tempore non suspecto. I love the work of some independants like Dufour though. Alas, like many, I miss the si... 


 By: Dylan T. Dutson : July 6th, 2015-08:34
If people like this don't pass on what they know, eventually things become lost to history. I love that they are taking the time to pass the torch. Oh, and excellent read by the way. Regards, Dylan