September 28, 2013

Watchmaking for idiots

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A few days ago I got a call from Tigger telling me to block out my schedule for this morning.  Through his connections to Richemont, he had arranged for a group of us to attend a "watchmaking class".  Given my interest in watches (well, I was pretty interested until recently…) he very kindly invited me to be part of his group.  So it was that I dragged myself out of bed on a Saturday morning, dispensed with my planned morning jog and hauled my somewhat-tired behind to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Richemont had taken down an entire floor of the new wing and put on this massive "Watches and Wonders" exhibit, showcasing all of their brands.  As part of this big show, there are a couple of these watchmaking classes.  Initially I thought this would involved the group of us watching some watchmaker putting a movement together, but I couldn't have been more wrong…

We entered one of the rooms at the far end of the building, and I saw that individual stations had been set up for each one of us.  So we were each going to have to do the work ourselves!  Immediately tension rose in the room, as peer pressure started to set in.  What if everyone else finished the task but somehow I screwed up?  Would I look like an idiot in front of everyone?  OMG please please please don't let me fuck this up…  Like little kids at school, a few of us quickly claimed our seats at the back of the class… Nah… I ain't no teacher's pet.  Not sitting in the front row for sure.

Our instructor Gianfranco Ritschel gave us an introduction to the basics of the mechanical watch movement, and after making sure we were mentally prepped, started to lead us step-by-step through the process to disassemble the ETA 6497-1 movement in front of each of us.  This was a large calibre, 78(?)-part and 17-jewel movement originally developed for pocket watches in the early part of the 20th century, with a relatively slow 18,000 vibrations per hour.  It may not have any "complications" as far as I can tell, but the prospect of working on it for the first time was still pretty daunting!

A few rules of thumb:
- pick up the movement by the stem, or maybe by the sides if absolutely necessary
- never touch any moving parts with your fingers.  Pick them up with tweezers only
- secure the movement with the clamp while you work
- sit with both arms firmly resting on the table for steady hands
- use the dome or the plastic stick when working with parts that may accidentally fly away

After being instructed to release the energy stored in the barrel, we began disassembly by first removing the balance bridge along with the balance spring.  The balance spring is probably the most delicate part of the movement, and the one person within our group who actually has experience fiddling with mechanical watch movements ran into trouble here… and ended up tangling his spring while trying to remove it.  One elimination and six survivors after 2 parts…

Removing the train wheel bridge reveals the center, third, second and escape wheels.

After an intense hour, during which we all tried very hard to make sure that nothing went flying, we finally finished the disassembly.  All of our moving parts are now laid out in the compartments of our tray, although by now I had lost track of which parts came from which location…  The naked movement rests on the clamp.

Gianfranco decided to give us a little coffee break so that we could relax a little, and then it was time to move on to the tougher part of the workshop - assembly.

On the bridges side of the movement, the barrel and center wheel go in first…

…then we add on the barrel bridge.

Flipping to the dial side, we re-introduce the setting lever, winding and sliding pinions before sliding in the winding stem.

After putting in the yoke and the yoke spring - the latter of which was particularly difficult as the little bugger has a tendency to fly off - we add the minute wheel, and setting lever jumper on top to secure the yoke spring.  The crown can now be pushed and pulled to set the time.

For those with sharp eyes, the fingerprints on the dial ain't mine.  They were there before I got here.

Flip back to the bridges side, and now the click spring (another tricky little bugger that could fly off), the click, the crown wheel and ratchet wheel go in.  Now we can wind the watch by turning the crown, and the energy is stored in the barrel.

Next we put back the trio of wheels - third wheel, second wheel and escape wheel - along with the pallet, then secure everything with the train wheel bridge and pallet bridge.

We are now left with one more step before assembly is complete - adding back the balance wheel assembly.  Given our friend's experience earlier on, we were all very apprehensive about this final step, which actually required making sure the following four things were done correctly:

  1. slide the balance wheel underneath the center wheel (and the third wheel?)
  2. one end of the assembly has to line up with the jewel at one end of the pallet bridge
  3. the other end of the assembly has to fit between the two prongs of the fork at one end of the pallet
  4. the hole in the balance bridge must line up with the hole in the pallet bridge

Sounds like it requires a certain level of dexterity, no?  Definitely a tall order for someone like me…

Gianfranco gave us a demonstration of this last and crucial step, advising us to anchor our right arm to the table and keep it still while grabbing the bridge with tweezers.  Instead we should use our left arm to change the position of the movement, while we try to carefully lower the balance spring with the right arm via vertical movements only, then wiggle the spring into place by adjusting with our left arm.

Well, I went back to my station and promptly forgot everything Gianfranco said.  I didn't immobilize my right arm and introduced horizontal in addition to vertical movements.  But as luck would have it, I think I got it after a minute or so.  Miraculously, the second I dropped the assembly into place the balance wheel started turning, as energy stored in the barrel was released.  In our little unspoken competition, I finished only shortly after Mrs. Tigger.



After Francisco confirmed that everything was correct, I lifted the final screw with my tweezers and set about securing the balance bridge - the final task before declaring victory.  It was then that I nearly suffered a heart attack.  The tiny screw wasn't firmly secured between the prongs of the tweezers, and went flying off somewhere.  Expletives started to fly in my mind - and perhaps audibly, too.  How the hell would I look for a tiny screw on the dark, carpeted floor?!  Gianfranco had just finished telling us earlier that no real watchmaker's workshop would ever have a carpeted floor, and now I'm totally screwed… or actually, not screwed…

Seconds later, the second miracle of the day (for me) happened.  I found my missing screw on the lower level of my station.  How it could have gotten there after flying off was beyond me, but I wasn't about to question this miracle.  I happily picked it up with my tweezers and, with a few turns of the screwdriver, finished my assembly.

Like obedient school children, we each got up to accept our certificate of attendance for the workshop.  It doesn't mean that we're now ready to be watchmakers, but at least each of us - with a little help from our instructors, and some more than others - has successfully completed the disassembly and re-assembly of a relatively simple mechanical watch movement.

We adjourned for a lovely lunch courtesy of Richemont, and I actually think I managed to stay pretty true within the boundaries of my diet.

Of course we wanted to see some cool stuff at the exhibition, so Carson Chan from Bonhams took us to Roger Dubuis, where we got a chance to handle their new Excalibur Quatuor - a monster of a watch with four balance wheels to counter the effects of gravity.  We were able to see this in rose gold as well as titanium, but of course the all-black titanium version is waaaay cooler…  The sound made by this bad boy was pretty unique, like the engine room of a ocean liner.  It's got to be the loudest watch I've ever heard.

We moved over to Vacheron Constantin, where Nicolas Brindjonc had arranged for us to view some of their bespoke pieces as well as their grand complications in their Atelier Cabinotiers.  We were introduced to their latest and greatest achievement - a watch with 18 complications that has yet to be manufactured.  We also got to handle the Tour d'Ile, a watch with 15 complications introduced in 2005.

But I'm pretty sure that the watch that everyone wanted to take home was the Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731 - the thinnest minute-repeater any of us had ever seen.  Simple and understated, I think it's the ultimate statement of class.  Having just gone through working with the ETA 6497-1 hours ago, the thought (and sight) of a minute repeater whose movement is only 3.90 mm thick is pretty mind-blowing… much like the Jaeger LeCoultre Calibre 101.

This had been a pretty awesome day.  Many thanks to Carson, Tigger and of course Nicolas from Richemont.  I'm still a novice when it comes to watchmaking, but I can say that I'm no longer an idiot… I think...

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