There’s snakes… snakes in the US$395,000 watch

Parmigiani’s Toric Capitole Waves in rose gold has an undeniable horological joie de vivre to match its technical chops

BY JACK FORSTER

Parmigiani Fleurier SA has a long history of looking to unusual past masterpieces for inspiration — one of the best known examples is the Pantographe wristwatch, which has an oval case and telescoping hands that mimic the appearance of a pantograph machine (a tracing device that allows one to make a bigger or smaller copy of a drawing or design). The Pantographe is based on a most ingenious oval pocket watch, which was made by the English makers, Vardon and Stedman, around 1800, and which is part of the Sandoz Collection (the Sandoz Family Foundation is Parmigiani Fleurier’s parent company).

The Perrin Frères wandering hours pocket watch, in the Sandoz collection

Another quite spectacular piece in the Sandoz Collection is a pocket watch made by Perrin Frères, of Neuchâtel, from around the same period as the Vardon and Stedman pocket watch. The Perrin Frères timepiece has a wandering hours complication, in which the minutes are shown in a sector on the front of a watch by a numeral showing the hour, which “wanders” across the sector over a 60-minute interval. It’s also a repeater, with gongs that have a serpentine shape and which have alternating blue and white stripes, giving them the appearance of snakes. Parmigiani Fleurier has created Toric Capitole wristwatches based on this pocket watch in the past (as unique pieces, although all share the same basic case design and movement) and this year, they’ve released the latest version: the Toric Capitole “Waves”.

The overall flawless finish of the case give the watch, interestingly, a more classic feel than the rather baroquely ornate impression given by the pocket watch

This is really watchmaking as art, as was the original pocket watch. There was a period prior to the general adoption of technology necessary for watches to be real precision time-keepers (bimetallic balances, the lever escapement and mainsprings capable of delivering something like a stable amount of torque across a reasonable power reserve, among other things) during which watchmakers competed with each other in making portable timekeepers of the highest possible amusement value, as to-the-second daily accuracy was something of a crapshoot.

As watches became more precise, they also became (in general) less and less ornamental, but there’s an undeniable, horological joie de vivre in watches like the Perrin Frères pocket watch and many of its contemporaries, that became something of an endangered species as the age of the precision watch wore on through the mid-to-late 19th-century.

High-end watchmaking can be very bombastic, and it can also be technically impressive

The Toric Capitole “Waves” is a modern watch technologically, of course, but it’s still in the same spirit as the pocket watch on which it’s based and like the pocket watch, is a repository of high-craft watchmaking techniques. The dial execution is a new one for the Toric Capitole family of watches, with enamel waves contrasting with the mother-of-pearl minute track, and the double bezel and gracefully downturned lugs combined with the overall flawless finish of the 45mmx12.1mm case give the watch, interestingly, a more classic feel than the rather baroquely ornate impression given by the pocket watch.

One of the most breathtaking features of the Toric Capitole “Waves” is the movement — this is more or less expected from Parmigiani Fleurier, but the movement has an extra element that makes it stand out, even in the small world of high-end minute repeaters (which is a bit of an oxymoron as minute repeaters in general are a high-end affair; the complication seems to have been able to resolutely resist industrialisation).

The Toric Capitole ‘Waves’ is a modern watch technologically, of course, but it’s still in the same spirit as the pocket watch on which it’s based

The “Waves” duplicates the snake-motif gongs found in the original pocket watch — this was done by first resin-coating strips of the gongs, heat-bluing them, and then removing the coating; this leaves the distinctive pattern of blue-and-white stripes that make both the “Waves” and the original pocket watch so visually arresting. The gongs are also “cathedral” gongs, which make two complete turns around the circumference of the movement, and the resulting deep, rich tones make the “Waves” as pleasant aurally as it is rich visually.

High-end watchmaking can be very bombastic, and it can also be technically impressive, and flawless from a craft standpoint, but also rather dull. Doing something original but tasteful in watch design has never been particularly easy and today, it’s probably never been easier to make a reliable watch from a purely technical standpoint, or harder to make a really distinctive but coherent design — this is partly due to market pressures, but it’s also due to the great inherent challenge that good watch design poses. The Toric Capitole “Waves” radiates a certain degree of horological gravitas, but its lyricism, plus the unexpected visual charge provided by the snake-motif cathedral gongs, gives it a complex but harmonious character rarely seen from any brand involved in high-end complicated watchmaking today. — Bloomberg

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