“No man is an island” (except one) - Reprise!…

Apr 01, 2021,11:19 AM

This story really begins – as so many stories do – in a bar. A very expensive bar; in a very expensive hotel; in 2013.

John McGonigle has travelled from his workshop in country Ireland to chilly Geneva in order to deliver a new watch. Quite conveniently for all concerned, his visit coincides with SIHH, so the town is awash with celebrity watchmakers, brand ambassadors, retailers and collectors.

John’s brother Stephen had taken the first shift at the bar of the designated rendezvous, the Mandarin Hotel, presumably to warm up the expectant Antipodean customer. A few hours and umpteen bottles of (very expensive) champagne later, Stephen poured himself into an unsuspecting taxi just as John arrived, a little harassed at all of the traffic from the airport, but thirsty because of all of the traffic from the airport. Cue more bottles of (very expensive) champagne.

The delivery that merited so much fizzy vinous sorcery was the first production piece of the McGonigle brothers’ subscription series ‘Tuscar’ One of Ten. 

(Photo of Tuscar prototype with delivered Tuscar by author)

That story was told here: www.watchprosite.com . The [foggy] memories of that evening are both glorious and painful.

(Photo of ‘harassed John’ by aptronym)

(Photo of ‘well-watered John’ with author by aptronym)

The Tuscar was, and still is, everything that was promised. Its journey from concept to production cemented a very firm confidence in the considerable skills of the brothers McG and not a small degree of anticipation for their continuing progress. Jumping forward a few years, then, you can imagine that it took no time whatsoever to respond with enthusiasm to an email from John to say that he had launched his own brand and would be opening up an order book for the first watch to be released by the brand.

As we now know, the brand name John chose is Oileán (pronounced ‘ill-awn’) which means 'Island' in Irish Gaelic. John says that he picked the name because it neatly describes his situation both geographically and horologically. John the man; John the island.

John had managed to secure a number of NOS Valjoux 88 movements which were to provide the base of the first Oileán, a manual wind chronograph with triple calendar and moonphase, now somewhat prosaically designated the HB-1.

Ever optimistically, at the time of taking the order John predicted that the watch would be completed in July 2020. To cannibalise an old saying about lawyers: “You know when an Indie watchmaker is lying about delivery dates; his lips are moving”. In fact, it was hoped that there might be another meeting for handover in August 2020 – this time in Ireland, a ‘home match’ for John. In the event, that would not have been possible anyway; somebody sneezed in Wuhan and suddenly all the planes dropped out of the sky. It wouldn’t have been ready anyway: the watch was delivered this week. All things considered, though, not a bad effort.

The Valjoux 88 is a movement derived from the venerable Valjoux 22 and Valjoux 72 movements; well-designed, complex annual calendar (triple date) movements which found their way into a number of high-end brands. The more complex iteration was the Valjoux 72C, featuring a column-wheel chronograph and a balance beating at a lazy 18,000 bph. The Valjoux 88 added a moonphase complication, and therefore became the most complex movement in the family. Production life ranged from 1947 to 1974, during which a little over 13,000 examples were manufactured.

 (Photo of a Valjoux 88 by Peter Speake-Marin)

The movement itself has a diameter of 29.5mm and a height of 6.95mm. In standard production it was fitted with 17 jewels, it was unadjusted and had a reasonable power reserve of 48 hours. A friend of this site, a certain Naked Watchmaker, has an excellent Valjoux 88 deconstruction article and video on his own website.

John refinishes every component of the NOS movement by hand; reshaping then hand-bevelling all bridges, bevelling the steelwork and straight-graining the top surfaces. Some components are re-made to introduce structural coherence and components such as the screw heads and column wheel are flat-polished. The modified movement beats at 21,600 bph, not 18,000 bph, with a power reserve of about 20 hours. The degree of attention to detail all of this requires means that John will be limited to making only 10 or 12 watches a year. 

(Photo: Oileán website)

For the Oileán, the movement is cased in a 40mm grade 5 titanium case. The case and lugs are formed from a single billet of metal, brush finished on the sides and bright polished on the outer surfaces of the lugs and upper bezel. Although comparatively light, it has fair heft at a height of 14.2mm. Grade 5 Titanium alloy (Ti-6Al-4V) scores approximately 41 HRC on the Rockwell Hardness Scale (~3730 MPa). On the Mohs Scale it scores about 6 compared to, say, platinum at 4-4.5, bronze at 3 or gold at 2.5-3. It can take a few knocks. 

(Photo: Oileán website)

The movement as finished by John is very pretty indeed. Standard configuration sees the bridges and mainplates gold plated, but rhodium is an option and John is open to most sensible combinations. There are two particularly standout features of the movement. The first is its sheer depth and three dimensionality; we often speak of this when commenting on chronos such as the ALS Datograph, for example. Someone on this platform (was it you, GaryG?) once described the movement of the Datograph as being ‘like a miniature city’; this movement, set in its 14mm deep case, is not dissimilar.  The second standout feature of the movement is the central bridge over the main pinion, shaped to recall the Celtic harp, or ‘cláirseach’. Now, we could haggle for days about the origins of the distinctively shaped harp; there is compelling evidence for its origin being Scottish, not Irish. There can be no doubt, however, that in the modern era the ‘Harp of Erin’ has come to be an avatar for all things Irish.

(Photo of gold movement courtesy John McGonigle)

(Photo of rhodium movement courtesy John McGonigle)

(Photo of rhodium movement, dial-side, by John McGonigle)

Fun fact: although used in many Irish heraldic devices from as early as the 13th century, one of the most iconic uses of the harp image is as the trademark of the Guinness brewery. It was first used as a Guinness logo as early as 1862, and was registered as a trademark in 1876; it has undergone a few changes over the years but is recognisably the same symbol. 

(Photo of Guinness logo over time by underconsideration dot com)

(Photo of Guiness label by vignette dot wikia dot net)

The historical harp symbol was adopted as a rallying flag for the instigators of the 1916 Easter Uprising, and was the preferred symbol to become the official emblem of the country when the new Independent State of Ireland was created in 1922. Problem? Guinness had the trademark! In an act of delicate diplomatic side-stepping, the image was reversed on the harp flag to be used as the emblem of the Independent State, subsequently dedicated to the use of the President of Ireland, whilst the tricolour flag became the national flag. Nonetheless, the ‘Harp of Erin’ has gone on to wide usage as a national symbol of Ireland.

(Irish Presidential flag by chiff dot com)

(Ryannair photo from the Times UK)

Dial side of the Oileán is just as detailed and intriguing.  John notes that he has never seen another watch with a Valjoux 88 with the under-dial mechanism visible. This he has achieved on the Oileán using a smoked sapphire dial (not unlike the McGonigle Tourbillon and the McGonigle Tuscar/Banu) which reveals a gently muted view of the dial side of the movement that does not distract unduly from the seven hands and five (or so) subdials that report the time, date and chronograph functions.

(Photo from Oileán website)

The subdials are pleasingly arranged and proportionate, with the two wheels for the day and date discs sitting neatly beneath the running subseconds at 9:00 o’clock and the 30 minute chronograph counter at 3:00pm. Those day and date discs, by the way, may be ordered black on white or white on black. The inner dial is completed by the 12 hour chronograph counter at 6:00pm, within which sits the moonphase. Each of the subdials features quite a small hand, but legibility is greatly enhanced by the arrow-head shape of those hands and the brightly contrasting lume on each.


(Photo: John McGonigle)

The outer dial is marked with simple baton indices for the hours, a railway track marked in fifths of a second for the chronograph and, at the periphery, is graduated for the date on an inner chapter ring set on an angle. As much of the face as possible has been cut away or left clean to allow a decent view of the dial-side of the movement through the tinted sapphire dial. The crystals front and back are sapphire, convex and double AR coated.

Once again, customisation is something which John has facilitated. The dial and subdials may be ordered in cream or black; you can even ‘mix’n’match’ if you wish, to get that panda dial or reverse-panda dial look.

(Photos: John McGonigle)

The hour, minute, date and chronograph seconds hands are all mounted on the centre axis. The slender, needle-sharp chronograph seconds hand has a substantial ‘counter-balance’ finished in the arrow-head motif that graces all of the hands. The date pointer is subtly distinguished from the hour and minute hands, the former being a slender hand with an ‘open’ arrow-head tip whilst the hour and minutes hands are a cutaway double-width design with ‘solid’ arrow-head tips. All hands are available in blue, rhodium (white metal) or black; any combination of the colours is possible. All are tipped with a vibrant blue lume.

(Photo: John McGonigle)

The watch is delivered on an elegant plain leather strap (no CITES issues!) made by one of the world’s better-known strapmakers, ABP. If somehow you haven’t yet perused the work of ABP (Atelier du Bracelet Parisien), you must! The strap features quick-change springbars and a titanium tang buckle signed with the harp emblem to echo the feature bridge.

You will have noticed that the watch in many of these photos features a couple of minor customisations which, hopefully, complement and respect John’s work.

Dial-side, it’s all about a stealthy, monochrome look: black on black dial features; white on black numerals and day/date; black or rhodium hands and rhodium plates on both sides of the movement with a view to eliminating too much contrast and highlighting the signature ‘harp’ bridge. The moonphase has been inverted for the Southern Hemisphere (where this watch will live) and the country of origin has been more correctly identified as ‘Eire’, not ‘Ireland’, so as to eschew the language of the imperialist colonial oppressors!

(Photoshop mock-up by John McGonigle)

(Poor photo: author)

Similar changes have been made on the caseback. Rather than the standard repetition of the brand name coupled with ‘Made in Ireland’, this piece honours the watchmaker with ‘Déanta ag John McGonigle’ (Irish Gaelic for ‘Made by John McGonigle’) engraved in a Celtic-themed font, surrounded by Celtic knot engraving.

(Poor photo: author)

When you think of engraving in the horological universe, only a few names regularly come to mind: perhaps Eddy Jaquet, Jochen Benzinger, Stefan Kudoke and Kees Engelbarts. There are others, of course, but these seem to be the haute de gamme practitioners. It was fortunate, then, that John was able to entice his friend Kees Engelbarts to collaborate on suitable designs to feature on this Oileán. That was the good news. The bad news was the case material: remember those ‘hardness scale’ ratings for Grade 5 titanium? According to John, Kees went through dozens of engraving tips and has sworn never to work on titanium again! However, all of that effort paid off; the engraving is very skilfully completed and adds a welcome nationalistic flourish to the caseback.

(Photo of Kees Engelbarts from his Facebook page)

(Photos of engraving in progress by Kees Engelbarts)

But that isn’t where it ends.

It was agreed that Kees would attempt to create a design that could placed on the side wall of the case. This was quite challenging; not only because of the case material but also because the side profile of the case is tapered to ‘shrink’ around the movement and houses the pushers for the date and moonphase setting. 

Again, John and Kees collaborated on a suitable theme to engrave. Together they settled on the image of a swan as being representative of where they each live and as something that has interesting shapes capable of being scaled down. John was very taken by the shapes of a swan in flight, while the symmetry of its feathers appealed to Kees. 

(Photo of swan by 911 dot com)

(Photo of another swan by… someone)

So it is that Kees (doubtless swearing profusely at the top of his voice) completed a remarkably detailed cameo image of a swan on the side of the case.

(Photos of engraving in process by Kees Engelbarts)

(Photos of swan in situ by author)

Happily, swans don’t only inhabit John’s and Kees’ worlds; they are a big feature here in Australia as well. Unlike Europe, however, white swans are virtually unknown here; the native swan is black. 

(Photo of black swans by Geoff Park)

Much like this watch, come to think of it. Well, why not? Please welcome into the world John McGonigle’s Oileán HB-1 ‘Black Swan’!

(With immense gratitude to John McGonigle and Kees Engelbarts for their imagination, skill and patience)


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Comments: view entire thread


A tip of my paddy cap to John on his latest creation . . .

 By: Dr No : April 1st, 2021-12:32
. . . and a wink and a nod to you for inimitable presentation. Grazie , pplater. Art PS - seeing as how KE sweated bullets engraving the swan, perhaps the Oileán should be on your wrist whenever playing pool. Cuemaker BF (also Irish) cussed loud and long ...  

Cheers, Art...

 By: pplater : April 1st, 2021-21:14
(...or would you prefer 'Three Ball Charlie'? - you knew that was coming). There's no point in making it easy for 'em, right? We should not rest until we've found the hardest material to work with and the most insane application for that material! Hope al... 

All's good here, pplater. My pool table mechanic is coming over in a few hours . . .

 By: Dr No : April 2nd, 2021-06:47
. . . to install a fresh sheet of Simonis 860 (British racing green, of course!) and hopefully resolve two problematic pockets. Still accumulating cues and Omegas; hoping for a revival of the postponed Stones tour. In other words, nothing has changed.

Great post and excellent looking watch .

 By: Watchonthewrist : April 1st, 2021-13:18
Gorgeous movement en dial and i am a big fam of engraved cases .

Thanks WOTW...

 By: pplater : April 1st, 2021-21:15
All credit to John and Kees; the end result is hugely satisfying. Cheers, pplater.

Merci, Nico!...

 By: pplater : April 1st, 2021-21:19
Tim is a huge supporter of the brothers McG; we have swapped notes before on the 'grail' status he affords to their work. That's a very big call from someone as knowledgeable and immersed as Tim. Another big supporter is Ian Skellern, who was good enough ... 

Dear pplater... thank you so much

 By: mrds : April 1st, 2021-14:03
...for a most interesting read on a special watch. You could (well, should!) be a writer. Best, Daniel

Very kind, Daniel...

 By: pplater : April 1st, 2021-21:21
Although it is no more than 'giving back' a small fraction of what this site and its members have provided, it is gratifying nonetheless that the effort should be appreciated. Cheers, pplater.

What a fantastic post, a great compliment to the watchmaker.

 By: Jay (Eire) : April 1st, 2021-18:25
I would love to see one of these in the metal, and I think when I go home next I will try to visit John (assuming my wife permits it). I would love to have one of the McGonigle pieces but the size is prohibitive for me. This new offering from John I was e... 

Wow, Jay!...

 By: pplater : April 1st, 2021-21:33
The Children of Lir came as a complete surprise, but how very appropriate! Thanks for mentioning it; the history of this watch could be about to re-write itself. ;-) For the benefit of others who did not know the legend, this extract is from 'askaboutirel... 

Bulk up seems to be the answer to many of life’s problems ! LOL

 By: Jay (Eire) : April 2nd, 2021-06:42
I think the 40mm might be workable, but would need to see it in the metal on my wrist. The Tuscar etc I just never bothered as I knew they would be too large for me. The other thing which immediately came to mind reading your post and noting John’s flexib... 

You can count on it, Jay...

 By: pplater : April 2nd, 2021-06:52
...and the discs are a great idea, IMHO - shoulda thunka that. If you ever want to discuss your other ideas on PM, you’d have a willing correspondent. Cheers, pplater.

Love the customization aspect.

 By: MichaelC : April 2nd, 2021-05:16
And the engraving, quite good and artistic on such a small area! Thanks for your post.

You’re right, Michael...

 By: pplater : April 3rd, 2021-07:31
The ability to customise a watch greatly amplifies the ultimate appreciation of the piece. There is a sense of collaboration in the design and a sense of uniqueness in the resultant product. This is where independent watchmakers come to the fore. John, it... 

Absolutely, well said.

 By: MichaelC : April 3rd, 2021-08:06

Superb watch

 By: donizetti : April 2nd, 2021-12:32
And the Post does it more than justice! Love the dial and although I am personally critical of swans after battling them from river Kajaks in my misspent youth I guess I‘ll make an exception there. Glad to see you back in the forum within such an unusual ... 

Thank you, Andreas, for your comments here...

 By: pplater : April 3rd, 2021-07:26
...and in response to the first failed posting effort. Amongst the many thoughts posted about a new watch, or watchmaker, yours count for something - especially given your balanced appreciation of the efforts of both haute horologerie manufactures and elv... 

Pplater, coming out of retirement for an epic post😜

 By: Tim Jackson : April 3rd, 2021-01:27
This really does huge justice to our dear friends John & Stephen. I’m so glad that you continue to support them, it’s guys like you who get them and it’s important for them to get this lovely feedback. They are really under the radar and do some extra... 

Not retirement, Tim…

 By: pplater : April 3rd, 2021-07:18
...more like Covid lockdown! But thanks; it’s a pleasure to be posting more, lurking less. You are right to say that guys like the brothers McG deserve more of our support. The horological world sans Indies would be so... beige! Thank you for putting your...