Here is our second instalment of highlights from the Phillips HK Watch Auction XII, taking place on June 5-6.
There are numerous facets to Omega as a brand today, with long standing associations with the cinematic world through its modern stars, and certainly the Bond franchise, through to a wide range of sports, and, of course, its close link with the space program through the past half century. Its Speedmaster Moonwatch is perhaps once of the most iconic watches, bar none, with an awareness that spreads well beyond the inner circles of watch aficionados. We’d like to draw your attention though to an era that preceded it, one which Omega themselves have seldom addressed in recent years, which we find unusual given that it was quite an important one: the brand’s aviation watches.
Horological developments are often linked to each evolution in transportation technology; as we learned to move around our world with ever increasing speed, the timing equipment needed to adapt to those activities, not only in accuracy but in usability. The marine chronometers of the early explorers evolved into the clocks and watches that kept the railways running in a timely fashion. Then the advent of the aviation and automobile industries required that these timepieces become more rugged, transportable, and easily accessible; watches had to move from the pocket to the wrist while being subjected to the elements. Omega, already one of the world’s largest watch manufacturers, always kept up with these developments, and was a keen participant when the aviation world required accurate, well-built watches and even flight instruments that could withstand the rapidly changing environment within an airplane. The brand even developed mechanisms that were more resistant to vibration, and others to temperature changes linked to higher altitudes. Usability and legibility were key for aviators, which led to larger cases, making the watches easier to read and operate. This Omega CK 2042 Aviator watch certainly fit the bill, with its 41mm diameter case, very much oversized for that era. It was designed so that it could be worn over flight jacket on the wrist; there is even reference in Omega literature at the time that the watch could be worn on the knee. Although it has a very functional aspect to it, with the bi-directional rotating bezel and large numerals ensuring the pilot could easily see the required time readings, it has an elegance that would soon be eschewed when these pilot’s watches would be transformed for their military applications. It’s indeed curious that today’s Omega has not devoted more attention to its rich aviation-related history, even though it can be presumed that many of the technical developments related to it eventually gave rise to the Speedmaster collection, which remains one of its modern keystones.
There is a strong tendency for modern collectors, and, it must be said, from many of the fine watchmaking brands in the industry, to look down on quartz calibers. Of course, one can’t vaunt the merits of the hand finishing on these electronic movements, or the skill that the watchmakers require to assemble them. These are characteristics though that we only came to truly appreciate after the quartz revolution, which took a few years to gain pace, starting from the late 1950’s when electronics development affected many industries around the world. The Swiss watch industry did not take very long to react, establishing the Centre Électronique Horloger (CEH) in 1962, a collaborative effort led by 20 of the major Swiss brands, including Patek Philippe, which recognized that the Japanese and American companies were working in earnest on their own developments, with an aim to use the high-tech aspect of electronics and quartz to make significantly more accurate watches than what was generally possible through mechanical means alone. The event that shook the industry was the launch of the first production quartz wristwatch, the Seiko Astron, in late 1969. The CEH’s Beta 21 quartz movement was already in existence, but it would not be commercialized until a few months later, in April 1970, at the Basel Watch Fair, with numerous Swiss watchmakers using it to equip their entries into the quartz watch marketplace. We tend to forget though that this was very much the cutting edge of technology in that era, and therefore, production in large quantities was not a given; even the Seiko Astron would only see limited numbers delivered. The overseas companies though became much more adept at advancing and producing the quartz movements, and over the next two decades, the Swiss watch industry’s slower pace of development led to a severe decline, until a stroke of genius elevated the mechanical movement from a functional device to an example of the ingenuity and artistry of the watchmaker.
Patek Philippe, as highly esteemed then as it is today, was one of the early adopters of the Beta 21, and from the early ‘70s produced a number of iterations of its reference 3587/2. The craftsmanship exemplified in the case and bracelet are typical of the finer examples of Swiss watchmaking, and the reference’s place in history is undeniable. While today, quartz movements have become easily manufactured, they are still eschewed by the fine watchmaking brands, with extremely few of them having even dared to introduce new quartz calibers in recent years. This tends to draw us even more to the 3587/2, for it will forever remain a very rare piece, and an undeniable talking piece amongst watch enthusiasts.
The story behind the Centigraphe Souverain is fascinating because it is perhaps one of the best representations, not only of François-Paul Journe as a master watchmaker, but of Journe’s personality and way of thinking. Although he may be perceived now as one of the modern masters, and an inspiration to a whole new generation of young watchmakers such as Rexhep Rexhepi, who are eager to follow in his footsteps, Journe’s own path was strewn with a number of detours, such that no one could, hand over heart, say that they could have foreseen the prestigious standing he now has within the watchmaking industry. The fact is, young François-Paul was a rambunctious child, one that eschewed rules in very way, growing up in Marseille, a city far removed from the tranquil atmosphere and reputation that Journe’s current home of Geneva enjoys. Watchmaking was seen as a way to try and rein in Journe’s character; although he showed an innate proficiency, his irreverent nature did not stand well with his instructors, and legend has it they suggested he set his sights on any profession other than watchmaking. He had an uncle though, Michel, who was a well-established watch and clock restorer in Paris, who took François-Paul under his wing and promised that he would look after him. Michel managed to get him enrolled in watchmaking school again, this time in Paris, where he would be able to monitor his studies and also have François-Paul apply his learnings in Michel’s restoration workshops. The rest is certainly history; François-Paul found his calling, earned his degree, and his fascination and deep understanding of the very fundamentals of the art of watchmaking led him to devote his spare time to crafting his own pocket watch, as he felt at the time that he would not otherwise be able to afford one.
The Centigraphe embodies some of this rebellious spirit, which remains and is visible when Journe chooses to display it. Although it is presented as a chronograph capable of measuring the 1/100th of a second, its approach is unlike any other: rather than mechanically time every hundredth of a fraction of a second with each tick, Journe’s reasoning is that if he can precisely stop the hand that’s showing the 1/100th of a second at any point, and not just at specific positions of the wheels, he is, in fact, measuring that increment, albeit in a more practical sense. At its launch it was, and continues to be, an approach that is subject to considerable debate within the collector’s community, and a somewhat divisive one, with some claiming that Journe simply cannot say it’s a 1/100th of a second chronograph since the movement does not beat at the required 360,000vph or 50Hz. Others take a more pragmatic view, that a 1/100th of a second mechanical chronograph, especially one that is manually activated, is well beyond a truly practical application as it would be impossible to use with truly precise measurements (if compared with, say, an electronic timer), even with exceptional hand-eye coordination. Whichever side of the debate you ascribe to, the Centigraphe is a supreme example of the thinking that Journe applies to all of his timepieces.