Back in September 2015, Chopard Group launched a new brand. The new company was named for one of the most important figures in the evolution of precision timekeeping: the Swiss chronometer maker Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807). We took a fairly in-depth look at the life and work of Berthoud in our In-Depth introduction to the new company’s first watch the Chronomtre FB 1 and particularly at his rather tumultuous relationship with Pierre Le Roy, his biggest rival in France. Berthoud spent most of his professional life in France, and perhaps just to put his life in context, we can look again at what Commander Rupert T. Gould has to say about Berthoud in The Marine Chronometer, Its History And Development:
Although practically the whole of his working life was passed in France, he is justly regarded in his native land as one of the greatest of all Swiss horologists who have done so much to advance both the science of horology, and the prosperity of their country…he is chiefly remarkable for his extraordinary industry, as both maker and author he was the most voluminous writer on horology who ever lived and for the marvelous variety of his conceptions…his deservedly great fame must rest at least as much upon his writings as his mechanisms.
The inspiration for the Chronomtre FB 1 was the architecture of the classic marine chronometer, and the features of such timpieces. Generally, for obvious reasons marine chronometers had a long power reserve, and a design that made observing any daily variations in rate as easy as possible. Internally, they virtually always had a chain and fuse, which is a device intended to provide an unvarying amount of torque to the balance. The latter is not typically found in a wristwatch because of the amount of space it takes up in the movement, although there are a (very) few high end watchmakers that use them, including Lange, and of course Breguet.
The FB 1 also has a tourbillon, which is very much from the world of watches rather than marine chronometers. The latter were always placed in gimbaled boxes, so a device like the tourbillon, which is meant to match the rates in the vertical and horizontal positions, would have been unnecessary and even undesirable as the tourbillon puts a considerable extra drain on the energy available for the balance. The power reserve system in the Chronomtre FB 1 is quite interesting as well; instead of the usual differential gear system, the FB 1 has a cone that moves downward as the mainspring runs down; a ruby roller on the surface of the cone transmits its height to the power reserve hand. I should mention that “chronomtre” in the name of the watch isn’t just window dressing; it’s certified as a chronometer by the COSC.
Externally, the Chronomtre FB 1’s octagonal design echoes the gimbal system used to keep boxed chronometers level when at sea. There are four sapphire panels set into the sides of the case, to allow a better view of certain features of the movement.
I hadn’t seen the watch since its introduction in Switzerland, so for all intents and purposes, it was back-to-square-one, first impression time when we received it. For all its complexity, it’s not a terribly large watch. The case is 44mm x 13mm, but seems smaller and 13mm is quite slim for a watch with a fuse and a 56 hour power reserve. In rose gold the case geometry is a bit more pronounced than in the white gold version (it’s offered only in white or rose gold) and in that metal, perhaps more overtly luxurious, but given the degree of visual hyperbole that usually travels along with high concept timepieces like this, the overall effect is surprisingly dignified. There are ceramic inserts between the lugs which act as strap carriers, and along with the slate colored dial, it’s a great combination of black/near black, and gold.
The dial arrangement has a superficial resemblance to a regulator dial, but it’s not a regulator dial has a central minute hand and hour hand in a subdial, while the FB 1 has a center seconds hand, and the time in a subdial. The impression of precision you get from the FB 1 is very definite it feels like a luxury precision instrument, rather than a luxury or design object first, and a precision machine second.
Generally speaking, super-watches like this have three jobs; the first is to succeed as design objects per se; the second is to present some compelling take on mechanical timekeeping; the third is to look the part that is, they are to some degree social signals and social display objects. The Chronomtre FB 1 certainly can fill the bill in terms of the third requirement; it’s unusual enough to not be mistaken for any other watch, and it’s certainly not a watch that any owner need worry about seeing on someone else’s wrist. However, it manages to be different without looking like it’s doing so just for the sake of being different, and the fact that the design is noticeable without feeling attention-seeking, is a huge plus in making the concept of a connection to the spirit of a 19th century chronometer maker plausible.
In many instances this kind of watch is visually impressive and technically interesting as well but not especially practical to wear on an every day basis. Of course, one of the purposes of a marine chronometer historically was to run accurately with as little rate variation as possible, for days and weeks at a time, so the idea of a chronometer that you only wear on special occasions is kind of counter to the whole spirit of the thing. The Chronomtre FB 1 is actually a watch I can see wearing, if not every day, then at least with much more frequency than you’d ordinarily associate with a high end, very small batch complicated watch with high end finishing, and a number of out-of-the ordinary mechanical solutions.
The exterior of the watch and the wearing experience are in this case very much dictated by the design of the movement and its level of finishing in that sense, you could say that the Chronomtre FB 1 wears its heart on its sleeve. In fact, the watch clearly is intended to make the movement a part of not just the overall design, but of the actual wearing experience; the Chronomtre FB 1 has a very well integrated open dial showing the one minute tourbillon carriage, and the 1:1 gearing by means of which it drives the center seconds hand.
The view through the caseback isn’t a primary aspect of the wearing experience per se, but in the case of the Chronomtre FB 1, it’s certainly value added and then some, giving you a compelling show if you have the watch off your wrist and on a bedside nightstand. The level of finish is excellent and the overall design beautifully balanced, with three circular elements the base of the fuse cone, the base of the mainspring barrel, and the tourbillon centered around a very elegantly shaped cock for the tourbillon carriage. The fuse cone is at 3:00 and you can see the crown wheel at 6:00 remember, when you wind a watch with a fuse, you’re actually winding the chain off the mainspring barrel onto the cone, which is why the click is on the fuse as well. You can also see a Maltese Cross stopworks on the mainspring barrel, which restricts the available power reserve from the mainspring to the section that offers the best delivery of energy (a common feature in chronometers and high grade pocket watches as well, by the way).
You can also clearly see the four timing weights on the freesprung balance, as well as the Breguet overcoil balance spring. In fact, the Chronomtre FB 1 is a veritable museum of all the features of a high grade chronometer pocket watch: freesprung balance with overcoil spring, chain-and-fuse, stopworks, and a longer-than-average power reserve, with power reserve indication and, of course, a tourbillon. That it’s a combination of both marine chronometer and portable watch elements is, I think, not so much a mark against the FB 1 as it is a recognition that it’s not a copy-paste of a marine chronometer, but a wristwatch that is influenced by the marine chronometer in particular, and the history of precision mechanical horology in general.
It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that on the wrist during the day and dial up at night on the nightstand, the Chronomtre FB 1 gained exactly three seconds a day, every day, steady as you please; stability of rate more than accuracy as such, is of course the hallmark of a real precision timepiece.
It’s a clich to say a large-ish watch is “suprisingly wearable” but it’s nonetheless true for the Chronomtre FB 1. More to the point, it’s a watch obviously full of lavish high end watchmaking that also feels plausible as a frequent companion on the wrist an unusual and unexpected benefit of its exhaustive cataloguing of all the most essential elements of precision timekeeping from the horological Age Of Heroes.
Full specs can be found in our in-depth introduction; see the FB 1 at ferdinandberthoud.ch.Price, $222,890, available by application via request for private meeting. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more.