Who is the world’s best watchmaker? If we’re using the present tense, we’re looking for the best living watchmaker. Someone important in the grand scheme of things (within horology). But how would he or she compare to the great masters who invented everything? And what does “best”mean? Technically? Artistically? Or just the most influential? Here’s my take on all that . . .
The Best Watchmaker of All Time: Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823)
Breguet wasn’t the best in class at anything, but the Prussian-born horologist had a knack for understanding promising techniques, developing and perfecting them. During his lifetime, Breguet produced some 17k watches, no two exactly alike.
To his everlasting credit, Breguet produced the first successful self-winding perpétuelle watch. He also shepherded-in the introduction of gongs for repeating watches and created the first shock-protection system for balance pivots.
Breguet designed and developed innovative escapements and the overcoil (an improvement of the balance spring with a raised outer coil). His 1799 montre à tact (touch watch, above) spared wealthy clients the embarrassment of getting caught glancing at their watch at a social occasion.
Breguet is famous for inventing the tourbillon – a continuously rotating cage containing the escapement and balance wheel. By averaging out positional errors, the device counters the effects of gravity on the watch’s accuracy.
While the tourbillon (French for whirlwind) has a measurable effect on a pocket watch (usually carried bow-up), it’s unnecessary in a wristwatch. And yet there it is, from just about every manufacturer of high horology. (Show biz. What you gonna do?)
Make no mistake: Breguet was a design expert with superb watchmaking skills. More than that, he was a commercial genius. His “Souscription” pocket watch basically invented Kickstarter in the 1800s. Just one part of Breguet’s comprehensive and lasting legacy.
The Best Watchmaker of Yesterday: George Daniels (1926–2011)
At the height of the quartz crisis, when mechanical watches were on the ropes, British-born George Daniels invented the coaxial escapement – the first new escapement in 250 years.
Now found in OMEGA watches, the device single-handedly reinvigorated British horology. Here’s OMEGA’s video and wikipedia.org‘s explanation of Daniels’ revolutionary creation:
The coaxial escapement is a modification of the lever escapement with some features of the detent escapement. The coaxial escapement functions with a system of three pallets that separate the locking function from the impulse, avoiding the sliding friction of the lever escapement.
This makes lubrication of the pallets theoretically unnecessary and thereby minimizes one of the shortcomings of the traditional lever escapement. In practice, a small amount of lubrication is used on the locking and impulse surfaces of the pallet stones, reportedly to minimize impact corrosion.
Less well known: Daniels also recovered old watchmaking techniques to create complete watches on his own, without resorting to any specialists. His work is continued today by his favorite apprentice, Roger Smith, making watches the Daniels’ way.
The Best Watchmaker of Today: Pierre Michel Golay (1935 – )
Swiss born Pierre Michel Golay began his watchmaking career with Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. From 1973 to 1998, during the height of the quartz crisis, Golay worked with legendary watch designer Gérald Genta. In the late ’90’s, Golay left the field of battle to become a teacher.
In 2002, Golay came out of “retirement” to gain international fame as the architect of the [now] $3m Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4. The world’s most complicated wristwatch packs 36 different complications.
CAD-CAM? None of that. Golay designed the blueprint of the watch on an A3 paper sheet, using pencil, rulers and compass.
There are many contemporary watchmakers who have a claim on being “the best.” Golay is one of the most obscure and least flashy. He accomplishes monumental tasks through experience, expertise and an intuitive understanding of what is possible. Old school for the win.
The Best of Tomorrow: Rexhep Rexhepi (1987 – )
Rexhepi began his apprenticeship at Patek Philippe in Geneva at the tender young age of 15. From there the Kosovo-born watchmaker went to work for F. P. Journe, assembling their most complicated timepieces. Ten years later, Rexhepi founded his own brand, Akrivia (Greek for precision), working out of his apartment.
Success was not long in coming. Rexhepi’s reputation has soared with each new piece (listed here). They’re designed and manufactured entirely in-house, finished with astounding artistry and fanatical attention to detail.
Apart from his huge technical skill and great inventiveness, Rexhepi represents the watchmaker as independent, innovative and fearless artist.
With a core team of seven employees, Rexhepi’s atelier produces fewer than 30 watches a year. All of them are magnificent in every aspect. All of them pointing to a lifetime of horological innovation and excellence.
Franz Rivoira’s comprehensive book The Watch Manual is available for sale You can find more of his horological writing at Quora.com
Best living: Marc Newson.
Excellent nomination. Click here for his bio.
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