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The Watchmaker's Art

Bruce Goldman
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

A tourbillon, a sophisticated device designed to eliminate errors caused by the pull of gravity, consists of a mobile carriage or cage that carries the escapement, with the balance in the center, and generally rotates once a minute. The escapement is made up of an escape wheel with teeth and a pallet that interact to send impulses that drive the balance; when the balance, a wheel whose weight is concentrated along the rim, and an attached hairspring receive the impulses, they oscillate back and forth at a consistent rate, keeping proper time.

The tourbillon is of such complexity that only a few hundred have been made since Abraham Louis Breguet patented the invention in 1801. Muller is one of the few watchmakers since to receive a patent for improving the tourbillon, and a second patent is pending.

"The tourbillon is very difficult to make and very difficult to associate with other complications, yet it results in a watch with better timing," says Muller, whose 1996 Imperial Tourbillon watches retail for about $85,000. "Collectors understand the watch and want something very special. They know that I'm the first watchmaker to put the tourbillon with this complication, with that complication, etc."

Signing his first wristwatch "Franck Genève," which adorned all his subsequent creations until he formed his company in 1991, Muller continued to endow his watches with the most complicated mechanisms imaginable, while at the same time designing them in a simple yet elegant style that harkened back to yesteryear. The end result: wristwatches that stood out from the crowd.

"They're large on the wrist--you can see them very well across the room," Joe Thompson, editorial director of American Time magazine, says about the bold, large styling of Muller's watches. "Rolex has this same kind of distinctive look." And, says Abe Azaria, manager at Cellini jewelers in Manhattan, Muller's "cases are extremely tasteful. Whether they're curved or round, he's got maîtrise [mastery]. That and the amount of complications that he's introduced in his cases--he really blew quite a bit of people away in the industry."

"They were refreshing compared to what everybody else was doing," says Colin Jensen, co-owner of Jensen Stern in Ketchum, Idaho, which in 1992 became the first U.S. store to carry Franck Muller watches. "The proof of that statement is that when he came out with his curved-case timepiece, everybody in the industry, including Patek Philippe and Bregeut and Vacheron and Audemars [Piguet], has made a tunnel-shaped or curved timepiece themselves. I think they've come clearly short of producing something as pleasing as Franck Muller's curved timepiece."

In 1987, fresh off the success of his first tourbillon wristwatch, Muller introduced the Minute-Repeater Tourbillon with free oscillation, a timepiece two years in the making in which many of the several hundred components are visible through its skeleton dial. In 1989, Muller debuted the retrograde Tourbillon Minute-Repeater wristwatch with a perpetual calendar, complete with a mechanism that takes care of those pesky leap years.

The following year, he introduced his first chronograph, coupling it with the intricate tourbillon. Later versions of the chronograph--which incorporates the functions of a stopwatch--offered wearers a "double face": conventional time and "world time" of cities in 24 time zones on one dial, pulsimetric indication (calculation of pulsations per minute) on the back dial, in 1991; a tourbillon and perpetual calendar, in 1992; a double face (now patented) whose second dial now included indication of two other measures: telemetric (distance between an acoustic event and an observer) and tachymetric (speed of an object over a certain distance), also in 1992; and a perpetual calendar with a moon phase and retrograde monthly equation, which indicates the difference between the true sun day--the interval of time that passes between two straight passages of the sun at the meridian--and the average sun day--24 hours, or the average of all the days of the year, in 1994.

In recent years, Muller has introduced the simple but elegant Art Deco-style "Casablanca" line and a series of glittering diamond watches, as well as a number of timepieces sporting the sophisticated technology for which he has become renown. Among these are several minute-repeaters and a double jumping hour watch, which led to two additional patents for Muller. One patent was for the striking mechanism indicator, which allows one to visualize, via a path of a hand through a sector, the lapse of time during which the minute-repeater mechanism is in motion. The other patent was for the double jumping hour, which lets the wearer adjust the hour of a second time zone independently from the local time.

While the complications became increasingly complex over the years, Muller never forgot the other key ingredient to a successful watch: it had to look good. As he was slowly increasing production from 300 watches in 1992 to the 3,500 a year that his firm makes today, he was creating the never-before-seen three-dimensional Cintrée Curved cases to complement the traditional Classiques, or round ones. The 18-karat gold cases and the meticulously crafted dials, hands and straps meant the owner could look fashionable while he was figuring out the time on the next continent. Muller was living testament to the marriage of design and machine.

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