There is a critical moment that represents a kind of singularity in the history of watchmaking: the Quartz Crisis. Like many ground-shaking and ground-breaking occurrences, the Crisis was preceded by a number of warning tremors, including the invention of first electrically impulsed pendulum clocks and the development of first cabinet-sized, and then smaller and smaller, bench-top quartz timekeepers, which gradually made the ultra-accurate pendulum clocks with their vacuum enclosed oscillators that represented the last word in mechanical horological accuracy obsolete. When the first quartz watch available to the public appeared in 1969, it seemed a one-off to many, especially in Switzerland, where the narrative of heritage and tradition is so deeply internalized so as to have become not just part of the watch industry’s self-image, but a part of its reality as well.
The effects of the Crisis are well documented, but at a distance of almost 50 years, it’s hard to appreciate what a devastating impact it had – not just economically, but perhaps even more critically, on the centuries of knowledge in fine watchmaking that had accumulated in places like the Vallée de Joux, the center of the creation of high complications in Switzerland and, for that matter the world.
Really fine watchmaking has always thrived not just on written records, but also on something much more precious and intangible, which is the direct transmission of skills from one generation to the next. In the insular world of the Vallée de Joux, there were many secrets kept as professional trade secrets – everything from particular hand-finishing techniques to masters-level familiarity with such complications as split-seconds chronographs, perpetual calendars, and especially minute repeaters, had both their common general technical language with which one might easily become familiar, but there were also a myriad of means and methods which might only be passed down – often in fragmentary form; much less often in their entirety – to dedicated apprentices for whom an apprenticeship of years or decades might be necessary.
As is so often the case in discussing really traditional complicated watchmaking, the minute repeater is an excellent example of a complication in which the accumulation of insider knowledge could make the difference between real artistry, and merely competent mediocrity. To hear a repeater made in the Vallée de Joux prior to the Second World War – some of the most …read more