Chronometry – Who Gives a Sh!t?
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Chronometry – Who Gives a Sh!t?

Yesterday, the results of the 2011 Concours International de Chronométrie were announced.  This is a competition where brands submit their pieces to be tested under numerous conditions and shocks to see which keeps the best time.  Unfortunately, my subject line will be the only of its kind in the industry, because really, who cares?
This is one of many cases where I feel the watch industry is asking the wrong question.  Guys, you’ve lost.  Your watches that cost more than cars tell worst time in all tested conditions than a watch McDonalds gives for free with a Happy Meal.  In fact, maybe next competition they should enter a McDonalds Happy Meal watch to end this silliness once and for all.

Of course these tests have a rich history.  Before quartz, they made a lot of sense.  It was important to focus on precision when no alternatives were present.  But now that problem is solved.  Precision is a weakness of mechanical watches, not a strength.

Every watch company and executive has to have a clear answer to one question: “Why make a mechanical watch?”  “To strive for precision,” is an answer that lies somewhere between insane and idiotic.

So congrats to the winner, Greubel Forsey‘s Double Tourbillon Technique.  It is a fantastically beautiful watch for all the right reasons, not made one iota more interesting by this contest.

 

  • Sérgio Moreira

    Steve,
    Agree, and nice to hear it said with honesty by someone within the industry.Now, just because it begs the question, Why make a mechanical watch?

    Best, Sérgio

    • There are lots of defensible reasons in my mind.  To showcase old world craftsmanship, to experiment with new materials or inventions as an intellectual exercise, to play with design and function, etc.  For MB&F it is to create mechanical sculptures and focus on the art and ingenuity of the machine.  I personally find that to be the most compelling reason. As these are not reasonable objects, why maintain a pretense of reason?

      • Sérgio Moreira

        That last sentence / question is liberating. Essencially claiming the right to create out of passion. Haven’t heard that – again, honesty – in a while. one more reason (!) to admire MB&F

  • Michael Laskin

    Hey Steve,  I sort of (respectfully) disagree.  Of course a cheap quartz watch will always keep superior time to basically any mechanical watch. It’s an entirely different technology.  So that’s apples and oranges – and I put that comparison off to the side. The history of the mechanical watch has been a  striving for precision, sturdiness, reliability, longevity – after all, well made and designed (and maintained) mechanical timepieces will keep reliable and accurate time for hundreds of years.  We don’t know about the quartz watch yet, and it’s possible lifespan.  I have a Zenith-based Daytona, and it loses NO time for weeks at a time – right on the second.  I find that remarkable in a mass produced mechanical product.  The great chronometers made by Omega, Zenith, etc over the years still are remarkable and I see beauty and value in that – much of it inner beauty.  Some fine watches today have simply become a statement, a luxury exotic car worn on the wrist. That’s fine. There’s room for that.  But I see great beauty and value in the new Patek chronograph movement, for example.  Nothing really very new there, it’s very traditional, but it’s a spectacular piece of work.  I see beauty and value in great traditional watchmaking, and that includes precise timing.  I LOVE the new, more traditional, MB & F watch, by the way – spectacular timepiece.  One of the reasons Rolex has lasted is that it is an anachronism.  It’s changes are gradual, it’s design conservative.  But they do function well and precisely for as long as you wish.  I am not really a fan of that brand, but they have mastered mass-production and high precision – which is not easy.  Anyway….interesting thread.  Just thought I’d add my 2 cents.  Best….ML

    • Hi Michael,
      I don’t think we disagree as much as you think.  I also can see the value in that Patek or any other “classic” piece.  I am not advocating to throw out the past, I love the past!

      However, with modern production techniques, all watches keep what I would consider to be perfectly adequately precise time (+- 10 sec is fine by me, most are better).  What we are measuring here is so far into the realm of diminishing returns that IMHO it would only be valid were there not another technology to keep perfectly precise time when it is needed.

      Best,Steve

  • William

    So we should stop having 100 meters sprint races because we invented the golf cart?
    Actually Chronometry is one the sine qua non reason why mechanical watchmaking should be relevant today. Among  a delirium of over the top watches made of unpronounceable metals, with over the top designs (n’est ce pas Steve?), or anal retentive finishes made by half retired lonely watchmakers, there should be a great equalizer. The function of chronometry today is just that. A common denominator which regardless of the price point or the self proclaimed performance brings everyone to the same level. The fact that a 19 year old Watch School apprentice can participate with a fine tuned Unitas 6498 against a Greubel-Forsey or  FP Journe is exactly what is needed to deflate some egos in this industry.

    No marketing BS, just a clock doing what it is suppose to do against an impossible task.

    William

    • Michael Laskin

      Well argued, William.  I am a fan of the better ETA movements as well.  They are like Toyotas or Hondas:  plentiful, dead-on reliable, easily serviced, easy to obtain parts for, etc. Exciting and exotic?  No. But there is an honesty to what they are:  inexpensive, reliable, sturdy, etc.  Creating truce mechanical precision at a mass-produced level is one of the greatest achievements in watchmaking, in my opinion.  Seiko (at their higher grade), Rolex, ETA, etc.  

    • Hi William,
      I think my answer to Michael below mostly responds to your post.

      For a company like GF, I believe chronometry is relevant only in that their stated purpose is to develop technologies to improve chronometry.  This is reasonable to me, but the interesting part is the technologies as an exercise in human creativity and execution, not in chronometry itself.  So, when it is put in a competition that marginalizes the means and emphasizes only the end, which itself is of no real consequence, then really who cares?  

      Thanks for the well thought out comment.

      -Steve

  • Jason P

    Precision and chronometry may not be the quintessential element of today’s mechanical timekeepers, but without it our watches would be horribly inaccurate.  The Verge escapement was important because it could control the release of power from its source.  Its biggest weakness, though, was that it was not an accurate timekeeper.  Subsequent escapement technologies from the cross-beat escapement to the co-axial escapement have continually advanced the precision of mechanical timekeeping.  Therefore, I think we cannot underestimate the importance of chronometry and precision in watchmaking.     

  • ei8htohms

    Gotta disagree with you in part. The patronage of a noble if no longer necessary craft is a pretty good reason for mechanical watchmaking to continue to exist in my humble opinion. If this extends to fine finishing and all the other skills involved in making fine watches, then it might as well extend to chronometry as well.
    As far as chronometry competitions go, I have no problem with limiting the classes in ways that make the field competitive. They still race the GT cars even while they’re getting dusted by the prototypes, you know?

    The problem I have with this latest incarnation of these competitions is the unwillingness to publish all results. They’re just chicken.

    • Hi John,
      I think my comments to William and Michael below better state my point than I did in the original post.

      You would know better than many, what conclusions can really be drawn from seeing that one specific piece is 0.2 seconds/day more precise than another specific yet unrelated piece?  I mean, aren’t we splitting hairs for no reason?  At the very least it seems we’re performing experiments that yield no generalized conclusions whatsoever.  Is precision really a problem in modern mechanical watchmaking?

      I would argue it is just an excuse for creativity, like trapping the mouse with a Rube Goldberg device.  The point is the device, not the mouse trap.  To compete on mouse trapping only without taking the rest into account is silly.

      Best,Steve

      • ei8htohms

        I think the car racing analogy is appropriate here.  
        Audi (or Bentley) winning Le Mans doesn’t indicate that their road cars are necessarily faster or more reliable than the other makers they compete against, but it does indicate that they have the engineering prowess to top other companies best efforts in these areas and one HOPES that they take some of what they learn from their race cars and apply it to their road cars.  

        It’s absolutely a marketing exercise and like all such exercises largely won by whoever throws the most money at the project, but not always.  And as a marketing exercise, I think it is closer to conferring genuine quality on the brand’s products than celebrity endorsements for example, which rely on the same sort of “quality by association” mindset.

        If companies are going to be spending resources on marketing anyway, I’m delighted to see some of that spend on an individual or team of individuals doing their damnedest to get another 1/10th of a second of precision out of a mechanical watch.

  • Now THAT, is a provocative title!  🙂

    • ha, yes it is. Honestly it’s the first thing that popped into my head when I thought about it, so why edit myself 😉

      • Jason P

        so you meant to say the chronometry contest is pointless, not chronometry?

        • The contest is indefensibly pointless. The pursuit is somewhat interesting merely as a challenge to spark creativity

          • Jason P

            I agree.

  • Steve,while I agree with you about the happy watch – to my mind very poor timekeeping from ‘ne plus ultra’ tourbillons is one of these industry secrets. They are hard to adjust – and the technique is of questionable value in a wrist watch – so the net result is they usually do much worse than a regular watch.

    I remember seeing Stephen Forsey talk about timekeeping – so it’s clearly something that matters to GF – and given all the challenges for a watch like this I think this is achievement.

    Does it matter for a watch that is more of a kinetic sculpture than a time keeping instrument – not in the slightest. But to me it does indicate that the founders care about this. Some sort of integrity I guess.

  • AndrewH

    The watch on your wrist looks great: but you may as well wear a wind-up toy on a strap!So why do we wear a mechanical watch?  Given most of us out there have an electronic device with a clock function, then what’s the point?
    Do we want a wrist watch to be accurate?  To know that when we turn our wrist to look at the time, we know that the watch is some unknown minutes away from what the time actually is?  The answer is yes, I suspect, in the majority of cases.  So if that is the case, then we would also like know, that if we build a movement, a mechanism, that if the odd ‘knock’ or bump or temperature variation comes along, that the watch is still telling time accurately?
    Watches, as a machine have a raison d’etre: to tell the time of day.  The interest in the watch for most is to marvel at the mechanics, the finish, the beauty that is in the machine and the ingenuity to tell time, day in and day out.  Otherwise, that watch has no point.  There is something inherent in the striving for a watch that can beat the remorseless forward motion of technology.  Rather than be the indiscriminate luddite we choose to hold that ingenuity with mechanics, that have a visible understanding, is a machine worth owning.
    Are watches personal expression? Sure, some wear a watch that reflects who they are.  Some designs are more avant-garde than others, some have new materials, and some are the bastion of conservatism.  It’s part of your lifestyle choice.  However, if watches are simply style and design, they have no more worth than a piece of jewellery.  If no chronometric excellence, then you are left with all style, and no substance.  Generally, substance is required to maintain longevity.
    GF’s stated aim is chronometric excellence, but not alone.  They are concerned with aesthetics, with design, with finishing, and craft, but also that improvements can be repeated.  It is not simply the case that you build a movement to look ‘nice’ or different.  The movement and the improvements contained therein must have a purpose: to improve the timekeeping of the watch.  Improvements might be by small margins, but that is the nature of progress.
    Watches are designed to ‘keep’ time on your wrist.  A competition to test which watch does that better than others should lauded.  And so it is with the Chronometrie Competition; and that is why the industry and enthusiasts give a shit.
    Andrew H

    • Thanks, Andrew.  I am certainly not arguing that a watch should not tell precise time.  That is a basic requirement to be called a watch.  My gripe is with focusing on chronometry as an end in itself when better chronometry can be attained for pennies and modern production makes passable chronometry easy to attain.  See my comment to ei8htohms below.
      Best,Steve

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