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					34SPECIALREPOR
                    Slim but
                    not anorexic




Jean-Philippe Arm   Can the phenomenon be attributed to a normal and          False impression. Last century’s advertisements
                    expected return of the fashion pendulum? Or is it         forever claiming record slimness among the wasp-
                    an economic response – an acknowledgement that            waisted starlets of the watchmaking world, give a
                    after the feast and the ensuing global indigestion,       superficial idea of the productive energy of a fairly
                    it’s diet time and thin is in? Whatever the cause, it’s   closed branch of watchmaking. Similarly the string
                    clear that after an epidemic of arm-stretching XXL        of records proclaimed in the brand museums and
                    wrist-gear, the spring of 2010 sees a blossoming of       monographs suggests a contest as keen as the
                    the slim, graceful, ultra-thin wristwatch.                Olympics’ 100 metres. Nor should anyone be
                    The return of the thin could be ephemeral, so it’s        fooled by the subdivisions into categories and
                    worth seizing the opportunity of examining this           types of thin watch. In fact the entries in the refer-
                    ancient watchmaking speciality of mechanical              ence books have remained unchanged and
                    miniaturisation with its fanatical struggle against       unchallenged for years.
                    thickness. It’s a story of challenges, triumphs and       Martin Wehrli grins widely when he shows a
                    world records… but also of disasters, as watch-           1.32 mm-high 1952 movement in his den at the
                    makers creep closer to a fatal precipice. There’s a       Audemars Piguet museum in Le Brassus. “It used
                    gap between slimness and anorexia that it’s better        to be for pocket-watches that are still the thinnest
                    not to cross.                                             today. You can see them at auction, but it’s terribly
                    The extra-thin movement has always held its own           difficult to reproduce their balance shafts … In fact,
                    special status in the hierarchy of watchmaking            they were replaced by a movement 1.9 mm thick.”
                    challenges. Although it’s not classed as a compli-        The balance-shaft is the Achilles heel of a thin
                    cation, it has always required a great deal of cre-       watch, and you don’t push your luck.
                    ative discipline and dexterity to design and make.        Likewise, a thin 1927 baguette movement also pro-
                    Some brands have dabbled successfully in thin             duced by AP for a number of firms was replaced a
                    watches in the course of their histories, but they        quarter of a century later by a new calibre – of the
                    are very few. Even scarcer are the original move-         same dimensions. There was no question of tempt-
                    ments fitted into these elegant pieces.                   ing fate by shortening the yardstick. The trend was


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       more likely in the opposite direction; in successive
       product generations the thinnest watches were
       given a bit of slack to ensure their reliability.

       Slimming together. AP has produced a lot of thin
       movements in its past. “It’s a vocation of ours.
       We’re known for it,” says Wehrli. “Even the pocket
       minute-repeaters were made to be thin. We also
       managed to put a movement inside a 20-dollar
       coin.” Corum converted the try in the functional
       Double Eagle coin-watch of 1964, with the help of
       another distinguished constructor, Frédéric Piguet.
       Jaeger-LeCoultre at the other end of the Joux
       Valley also has quite a number of ultra-thins in its
       1,000-calibre repertoire. Once again the collabora-
       tive yeast got to work among the region’s players.
       LeCoultre supplied the movement parts ;
       Audemars Piguet assembled them for its own
       clients and for other brands. A third partner also
       had its say in the project, and not the least, for
       Vacheron Constantin spoke with the authority of its
       presence in Geneva. This is how it too can claim a
       track-record in thin watches, which have always
       had a place in the brand’s collections.
       The drive for manufacturing self-sufficiency that
       has taken hold of brands since the end of the last


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SPECIALREPORTS



  From left: the famous 1953 calibre only 1.64 mm thick; an “extra-thin” watch by Vacheron Constantin; the slim Jules Audemars
  perpetual calendar and a Double Eagle coin watch by Corum.




  century has somewhat unravelled the collaborative               Papi subsidiary. It was made more reliable by
  networks that used to be the way of business. Ups               relaxing the traditional constraints on the mecha-
  and downs in the market or economic necessity                   nism. The trick was to mount the rotor on a rail of
  most often determine whether brands co-operate                  four rotating jewels. AP has never stopped produc-
  or go it alone.                                                 ing the calibre for its traditional partners as well as
                                                                  itself, and not only for ultra-thin watches but also as
  Geneva hallmark for the Joux Valley. These influ-               a base movement that won’t make a club sandwich
  ences reach into the micro world of the thin                    out of a complicated watch. The latest example is
  watches produced in the Joux Valley. “At one time,”             the thin Jules Audemars perpetual calendar that
  continued the keeper of AP’s watchmaking her-                   came out in January at the SIHH.
  itage, “we no longer produced enough pieces to                  Such concerns over looks and comfort might be
  keep up a parts workshop. That is evident from our              justified, but does an ultra-thin make a suitable
  collaboration with LeCoultre. When that company                 base movement, given that its delicacy and light-
  also got into difficulties in the 1980s, we became              ness make efficient selfwinding a problem ?
  shareholders because we needed our supplier.                    Recent advances in materials and energy man-
  When Richemont took over Jaeger-LeCoultre, we                   agement enter into the equation here.
  relinquished our 40% share and at the same time
  took over the production of the Calibre 2120, which             The Jaeger challenge. Jaeger-LeCoultre did not
  we now make entirely in-house, and not only for                 abandon ultra-thin watches when it broke up with
  ourselves.” Martin Wehrli can’t resist a further hint.          AP. One of the four models of the 175th anniver-
  “It’s how our Joux Valley movement gets its                     sary collection presented in 2008, the Master Ultra
  Geneva hallmark,” he explains.                                  Thin, was intended to represent the company’s
  All this didn’t happen overnight. The way towards               particular expertise in this area. It was also a
  resuming the manufacture of one masterpiece of                  reminder that the Jaeger and LeCoultre merger
  selfwinding flatness and taking it into industrial pro-         had its origins when Edmond Jaeger challenged
  duction passed through Le Locle and AP’s Renaud                 Swiss watchmakers to come up with the world’s


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SPECIALREPORTS



  While Zenith returns to its former slim elegance in Le Locle, the cradle of the extra-thin watch outside the Joux Valley
  remains in La Côte-aux-Fées, home of the Piaget workshops, pictured here in 1947.




  thinnest movement in 1903. Jacques-David                      calibre with the Historique Ultra-fine 1955,
  LeCoultre took it up with the 1.38 mm calibre 145             described as “the thinnest watch in the world
  made for a pocket-watch. For half a century it was            today with a height of only 4.1 mm.” Vacheron
  used in a variety of simple and complicated watches           Constantin’s manager, Juan-Carlos Torres, put
  and founded a notable dynasty of movements.                   that claim into perspective when he presented the
  In 1953, the LeCoultre calibre 803 entered the ring           watch at the SIHH: “We’re not going to thump our
  at a height of 1.64 mm. It was adopted by the com-            chest and compare vital statistics with our friends
  pany’s usual clients under a variety of badges. In            among the other brands. The most important thing
  1964 it swelled slightly to 1.85 mm to accommo-               is that these are magnificent watches with excep-
  date an anti-shock system, but the barrel had to              tional movements.” It’s in fact a double tribute
  lose its bridge and the escapement shrunk to keep             because there’s also an Historique Ultra-fine 1968,
  it within that limit. The same design, relabelled the         a square watch fitted with a 2.45 mm selfwinding
  Calibre 849, is now used for the thinnest watches             movement and given the calibre number 1120.
  of the “grand dame” of Le Sentier. It used to share           Alert readers will have noted the winning
  the honours with its selfwinding sibling, the                 sequence: Calibres 920, 1120 and 2120…
  2.45 mm Calibre 920, which came out in 1967.                  The historic watchmaking axis of the Joux Valley
                                                                and Geneva has its counterparts in the Jura.
  Winning trio. Vacheron Constantin’s reference                 Twenty years ago, Zenith in Le Locle demon-
  ultra-thin is the calibre 1003, which sneaks under            strated an aptitude for thin watches, and this year
  the bar at 1.64 mm. The project was launched in               it has made a welcome return to its traditions with
  1953 with its Joux Valley partners to mark the com-           elegant pieces fitted with its 1992 Elite calibre.
  pany’s 200th anniversary in 1955. Its direct ances-           They show that the Defy Xtremes haven’t totally
  tor in the same mould was the 9 lignes manually               buried proper watchmaking.
  wound Calibre ML, born in Le Brassus in 1946 and              In La Chaux-de-Fonds, Corum launched its cele-
  advertised in comparison with a coin. This year the           brated Coin Watch in 1964 by putting a movement
  venerable Geneva company remembered its lucky                 inside a 20-dollar gold coin. It was a manually


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SPECIALREPORTS

                                                              The 43 mm diameter Altiplano model is fitted with
                                                              Piaget’s new extra-thin 1208P selfwinding calibre.




  wound 9 lignes movement, 1.73 mm thick and with          corporation. It produced the 9P for its own, then
  a power reserve of 42 hours. The assembly and            modest, needs and for many other brands. The cal-
  finishing were done in the workshops of the brand,       ibre made the most of a long reign in a multiplicity
  which has kept the Double Eagle watch as the             of mainly women’s watches that took every fash-
  prize of its collection. Over the years it has adopted   ionable advantage of its slim lines.
  calibres from Frédéric Piguet and ETA, as well as        It naturally gave rise to a selfwinding counterpart.
  quartz movements.                                        The 12P, launched in 1960, drew its power from an
                                                           off-centre micro-rotor in pure gold, and was not
  Pilgrimage. One road from the Joux Valley to             more than 2.3 mm high. Piaget is now paying trib-
  Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds takes you via             ute to this calibre 50 years later.
  Sainte-Croix and the Etroit pass. But instead of         It did indeed give thin watches a new boost in the
  going straight down to Fleurier, the true fan of thin    pre-quartz era when people were more impressed
  watchmaking will detour to the left for a pilgrimage     by such feats. Above all it spread the reputation of
  to La Côte-aux-Fées, the shrine, if there is one, of     the brand from La Côte-aux-Fées to the far
  the ultra-thin. This was where Piaget was born and       reaches of the world, as being trendy, crazy and at
  raised and where the ultra-thin got its second wind.     the same time a serious producer of highly refined
  A claim made without exaggeration, for it was in the     movements.
  years 1950 to 1960 that the thin watch reached the       When quartz movements appeared, Piaget
  height of its popularity. Gérald Piaget, third-gener-    remained in the game and even in the top league
  ation at the head of the firm and an inveterate trav-    at the initiative of fourth-generation Yves Piaget, a
  eller, saw which way the wind was blowing, and           trained engineer. The company’s quartz movement
  Valentin in the workshops translated his vision into     would be ultra-thin as well. The Calibre 7P went to
  the mechanics that customers wanted. Thus did            the top of the new electronic-watch podium
  Piaget patent the 2 mm manually wound Calibre 9P         at a height of 3.1 mm. Five years later the 8P
  in 1956. Its presentation at Basel the following year    squeezed under the 2 mm barrier, but without its
  won the brand the esteem of the watchmaking              battery. Meanwhile a counter-offensive on the


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SPECIALREPORTS


  Thin ancestors : the manually wound 9P calibre, born in 1956 and the selfwinding 12P launched 50 years ago.




  quartz battlefield was underway from Ebauches SA            were inherently more fragile and needed more
  at Fontainemelon. Its R&D department, with André            care. That was taken for granted. But this time the
  Beyner and Maurice Grimm, would let fly the amaz-           black spot in reliability arose from the fact that at
  ing Delirium, which lost height by using the bottom         that time we had no means of producing micro-
  of the watchcase as the movement baseplate. (It             spheres that were all identical. That’s why the
  was originally called Delirium Tremens, a pun on the        bearings didn’t work well.”
  French très mince – very thin – which is pronounced         Piaget learned its lesson. Over the past 20 years it
  the same.) ETA took care of manufacturing and               has remained true to its vocation in the regular
  Movado of the profits. Better known is Delirium’s off-      development of thin movements, but with enough
  spring, the Swatch, which uses the same technique           margin to ensure their reliability. The same principle
  of integrating the movement in the caseback.                applied to the watch commemorating the 50 years
                                                              of the 12P. The selfwinding Calibre 1208P, “the
  The Guinness record. The revival of the mechan-             thinnest on the market” measures 2.35 mm, and it
  ical movement turned the page on the crisis of the          could still tighten its corset a few notches without
  1970s and Piaget rose to a new low with the                 suffocating. It can be found in the 43 mm diameter
  1.2 mm manually wound 20P, which earned it a                Altiplano model with small seconds at 4 o’clock, the
  Guinness world record, and the 2 mm selfwinding             latest in Piaget’s slim-line collection.
  25P. These dimension brought the movements to               After a first wave of ultra-thins unveiled in Geneva in
  the limit of their reliability and even beyond. Only a      January, a number of brands have lined up skinny
  few series were produced. If the 12P could be cen-          watches for Baselworld 2010. Back to the sixties?    •
  sured for an inadequate power reserve, the price
  of using a micro-rotor, the 25P suffered a worse
  handicap. It had been developed by Jean Lassalle
  who had ingeniously replaced the conventional
  anti-shock system with a ball bearing. Yves Piaget
  remembers it clearly : “The ultra-thin movements


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                                                                     watch around no 009 spring-summer 2010 |

				
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