I was having a discussion with a fellow collector, a gentleman who is discerning and educated, about the Cartier Astroregulateur. You can read my detailed explanation of the Astroregulateur here but in essence the movement is designed to address the same issues of gravity as a tourbillon, except in the modern context of a wristwatch. Remember that the tourbillon was originally conceived by Breguet for a clock or pocket watch, which were always standing upright.
My friend had commented the watch was expensive; retail is EUR250,000 or thereabouts. I explained that the Astroregulateur is as complicated as a tourbillon, the winding mechanism alone (including the pendular seconds) has 130 parts, and is functionally identical to a multi-axis tourbillon, at least in theory. And conceptually it was innovative and creative, a novel approach to a known problem instead of the conventional approach which is multiplying the axes of the tourbillon. His response was, "But it's not a tourbillon!"
The Cartier Astroregulateur
So that brings me to the issue of perception . A tourbillon is perceived to be complicated and consequently expensive. Yet that is not quite the case. Traditionally a tourbillon was rare because the parts were small, thus difficult to machine and finish. And subsequent assembly and adjustment was difficult.
Modern technology has made it easier to produce a tourbillon at all levels, which explains why Jaeger-LeCoultre could make the Reverso Platinum 2 tourbillon in a limited edition of 500 in three years. On the other hand, estimates vary but it’s safe to say only a couple of hundred in total, including wristwatches and pocket watches, were made from invention to the nineties.
I have myself disassembled a tourbillon. Well to be specific I disassembled the whole movement and removed the tourbillon regulator as a whole without taking the tourbillon regulator itself apart. I personally feel it is as complicated a taking apart a chronograph, which I have done, and a perpetual calendar, which I have not.
But if you don’t believe me, Christophe Claret made a similar point when I interviewed him in 2010. “The tourbillon is the most simple [movement] of my production. It is a very nice complication, but for me it’s not very technical.” In fact, Claret also said, “This is why many people like to make [tourbillon watches] – to make money."
And that perception leads to the fallacy that a tourbillon is an intrinsically valuable, rare and complicated mechanism. Some tourbillons are just that, the Patek Philippe ref. 5101 for instance, or the Breguet La Tradition Tourbillon, or the Lange Pour le Merite. But many are not. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Tourbillon in my opinion is a great example of the wonders of industrialisation; it is neither refined nor sophisticated, but admittedly it is cheap.
A separate point that emerged in the same conversation was the topic of Cartier itself. Cartier is undeniably a mass market luxury brand. Brand-specific figures are not revealed, but Cartier does EUR2.0 to 2.5 billion in revenue annually. Its bags and perfumes are sold in airports. Cartier is not quite as mass market as Tiffany & Co. or Louis Vuitton, but it starts at a lower price point than say Harry Winston.
Yet to the average consumer who buys the average Cartier item, pen or cufflinks or small trinket, Cartier is an incredibly exclusive and rare luxury brand. Cartier has done a terrific job of building on its history – Cartier does have an amazingly rich history – as well as creating a modern image of high luxury. Those gilt-edged red boxes don’t cost all that much but look brilliant.
High luxury at Cartier
Because of Cartier’s position as a mass market luxury brand, some discerning watch buyers sneer at Cartier Fine Watchmaking. Traditionalists who think Patek makes the best complications and Rolex the best sports watches refuse to acknowledge what Cartier has achieved in high horology, and how much it is still investing to that end.
Yet the products speak for themselves. Anyone who looks closely, at the Santos skeleton for instance, cannot deny it is highly finished and well executed watch. The truth is Cartier, as a whole, is a mass market luxury brand, but its Fine Watchmaking is exactly that – fine watchmaking.
- SJXThis message has been edited by SJX on 2011-03-24 02:49:50