As we recover from the surprise launch of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher, in-house Historian Michael Friedman explained the historical significance of the new release by retracing the brand’s early deadbeat seconds in his latest article: Every second counts
In October of 2014, the Audemars Piguet Heritage Department published Stopping Time: The Vintage Audemars Piguet Chronograph, an article that shared our research regarding the technical attributes, design aesthetics and rarity of the firm’s exceptional chronograph wristwatches produced between 1930 and 1950. For this article, we plan on stepping back further into the past by exploring a few unusual chronograph pocket watches made during the first 25 years of Audemars Piguet’s history.
Historical dialogues and narratives occasionally shift course as new discoveries are made. This has certainly been the case with the history of chronograph watches in recent years. In 2012, Christie’s Geneva sold a time measurement device made by Louis Moinet circa 1820 with a distinct start, stop and reset function that many global Horological experts have now determined to be the earliest known chronograph. This device, which also has a phenomenal frequency of 30 Hz, was created as a precision timing tool for astronomical observations.
By the early 1800s, clocks and watches had already had a long history of being inextricably linked to scientific observation and advancement. Prior to the invention of the chronograph, precision clocks and watches were developed and utilized to accurately measure and display the passage of time, especially in the fields of navigation, astronomical observation and surveying – John Harrison and his pioneering Longitude timepieces made from the 1730s – 1760s epitomizes this relationship and relevance.
Clocks with precision escapements and deadbeat seconds displays by leading English makers were increasing in production and use by the end of the first quarter of the 18th century and watches with deadbeat seconds and jumping 1/4ths and 1/5ths fractional second displays were being made by the last quarter of the 18th century – these devices can certainly be viewed through the lens of chronograph ancestry as their purpose was to measure and display elapsed time as accurately as possible in specific contexts.
As the 19th century progressed, the functions of jumping fractional seconds, and to a lesser extent, deadbeat seconds, would eventually and occasionally be incorporated into watches with chronograph and split second chronograph complications, including examples made by celebrated watchmaker, Louis Audemars, great uncle of Jules Audemars, and by Audemars Piguet beginning in 1875.
Jules Louis Audemars’ school watch was completed in its first incarnation prior to the origins of Audemars Piguet in 1875 and transformed in the workshops over the following two decades. It is a poignant demonstration of his exceptional watchmaking talents even at a young age. The complicated masterpiece combines perpetual calendar with a quarter repeating mechanism and includes the rarely seen independent deadbeat seconds function. The deadbeat seconds is displayed by a central hand that distinctly stops or ticks at each seconds’ indicator before precisely jumping to the next position – 60 jumps per minute. By comparison, most mechanical watches have a small seconds (i.e. subsidiary seconds) or center seconds that is continuously sweeping around the dial.
Jules’ school watch is cased in 18K pink gold and the dial is made of white enamel, featuring Roman hour numerals, outer seconds track and Arabic five-minute divisions all in black. The large 20’’’ movement requires not one, but two spring barrels. The deadbeat seconds consumes such a large amount of energy, hence the need for a dedicated spring barrel and gear train.
Audemars Piguet crafted No. 3316, an exemplary 18K yellow gold hunter case watch with 19’’’ movement in the mid-1880s. In addition to the split second chronograph mechanism, the watch also precisely measures and clearly indicates each quarter of a second by means of the jumping 1/4ths of a second, displayed by the subsidiary dial at the 6 o’clock position. The jumping 1/4ths makes one complete revolution per second, thereby allowing the user to not only time events to the second, but to the precise quarter of a second. The subsidiary dial at the 12 o’clock position is a 30 minute counter, measuring the overall elapsed time of an event or race lasting between one and thirty minutes. By this time in history, the split second chronograph was widely used, particularly in the sport of horse racing.
Like the deadbeat seconds watch, jumping fractional seconds consumes such a large amount of energy that they need their own dedicated spring barrel. Watches with jumping fractional seconds are sometimes referred to either diablotine, a French term meaning devilish, or to foudroyante, a French term meaning lightning, due to the incredibly rapid movement of the jumping hand.
Produced in the late 1880s and sold in 1890, No. 3824 is a double complication, featuring both split second chronograph and minute repeater. It is important to note that complications were the focal point of Audemars Piguet from the origins of the company. For example, between 1882 and 1892, approximately 80% of all watches made by Audemars Piguet included at least one complication.
This watch has an 18K pink gold case and white enamel dial with slender black Roman numerals; outer seconds track in black and Arabic five-minute divisions in red. What makes this watch unusual and important is that it includes a security device for the chronograph functions. This device increases the stability of the mechanism by reducing recoil and unwanted motion in the gears and hands when the chronograph is first activated.
While subsidiary dials or counters are the traditional way to indicate how many minutes have passed since a chronograph mechanism was activated, there are other less conventional ways of doing so. No. 6225, made in 1899, features an unusual system for indicating the elapsed time of the chronograph.
Upon careful inspection, one will see there are actually four hands attached to the center axis. The first two are the hour and minute hands. The third is the chronograph hand. The fourth hand is where things get interesting: it is this hand that is recording how many minutes have passed since the chronograph was activated, permitting the user to easily record the time duration of an event or race up to 60 minutes. This is referred to as a central instant minute counter.
The dial is made of white enamel with Roman numerals, outer seconds track and Arabic five-minute divisions all in black. There is a subsidiary dial at 6 o’clock indicating the seconds. The movement is a large 20’’’ calibre and is housed in an 18K yellow gold hunter case.
Audemars Piguet’s pursuit of developing and crafting cutting edge chronograph watches is an on-going endeavor that is echoed throughout the entire history of the company: from the chronograph pocket watches that date to the origins of the company, to the first single button chronograph wristwatches produced by Audemars Piguet in the early 1930s, to the exceptional and highly collectible chronograph wristwatches made during the mid-20th century, to the charismatic automatic chronographs of the 1980s, to the release of the Royal Oak Offshore (“The Beast”) in 1993, and to the meticulously executed contemporary Haute Horlogerie chronographs of the 21st century.
Photo Credit: Audemars Piguet. For more information, please visit the official Audemars Piguet website. v