Most crafts with much of the existing variety coming from variation and permutation have a basic technical vocabulary. Like in classic French cooking you have the so-called “mother” sauces (béchamel, velouté, espagnole, tomate, and hollandaise) on which the formal vocabulary of haute cuisine is built. In watchmaking, you have the time-only watch, the chronograph, the calendar (normal, annual, perpetual), the repeater, and so on. There is a lot of real interest to be found in coming up with an infinite number of variations on a theme and you could eat just French cuisine for the rest of your life with no pain, but if that was all you ever had, and suddenly someone offered you a shot at, say, sushi at Jiro’s, you’d probably leap at the chance like you’d never leapt before. Likewise, in watchmaking there is a standard repertoire of variations on the basics, from which many lifetimes of satisfaction can be had – but there are also, occasionally, watches different enough to be a real breath of fresh air.
There have been periods of really wacky inventiveness in the history of watchmaking. One of the greatest took place right at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, when breakneck innovation in precision timekeeping was just starting to really pick up steam. The Ovale Pantographe (first shown as a prototype in 2011) is a watch inspired by a much older pocket watch from this era.
The basic idea behind the Pantographe is a simple one. It is a non-round watch, the distance between the tips of the hands and the perimeter of the dial varies as the hands go round. This is, you might say, a non-problem, and of course, human ingenuity being what it is, it is a non-problem which has called forth a solution, and one which is laudably Rube-Goldberg-esque: mechanical telescoping hands.
The Ovale Collection Pantographe is actually based on a much older watch, which is from about 1800 when high-precision watches had not yet become common, but when mechanics – which had by then become advanced enough to allow the creation of some truly impressive, if not bizarre, automata, such as the internationally renowned Digesting Duck of Vaucanson – allowed a more free reign to the imaginations of watchmakers than ever before.
These were the halcyon days that gave us the tourbillon, the detent escapement, the first practical marine chronometers, and on and on; this is also the era in horological history that gave us exotica like the pocket watch with ruby-set balance beating once per second (which is either a philosophical statement, or a practical joke) in the Sandoz Collection – and an oval pocket watch, with telescoping hands, by the English watchmakers Vardon and Stedman. A more carping, critical, or more basically practical person might say something like “Why not just make a round watch?”, but to Vardon and Stedman (at least, for one bright, shining, devil-may-care moment in the otherwise staid annals of British horology) watchmaking wasn’t about why, it was about why not.
The Pantographe is the same basic idea, but in a modern wristwatch, with a movement that has an eight-day power reserve. The movement is an important one for Parmigiani Fleurier; it’s basically caliber PF110 (which was originally created for the Kalpa Hebdomadaire family of watches, launched in 1999). With the module for the pantograph hands though, it’s caliber PF111. The name is taken from that of a drafting tool consisting of cross-linked mechanical arms, which was used to scale up or scale down drawings; the arms of a pantograph look very similar to the telescoping hands of the Pantographe watch.
The hands themselves are made of blued aluminum; one of the challenges in designing them was making sure that the hour and minute hands would never be too close in length to each other (the better to ensure legibility of the watch irrespective of the time).
Caliber PF111 was a big deal when it first came out in the late 1990s, when week long power reserves in wristwatches were not exactly thick on the ground, and it’s still pretty technically and visually impressive today. The movement has two barrels, running in series; and it’s 13 x 10 1/2 lignes, or about 29.3mm x 23.6mm. It’s also one of very few shaped (i.e. non-round) hand-wound movements out there; the watchmaking industry has not put a great deal of energy into the development of high grade hand-wound movements in recent decades, for the same pragmatic reason that most watches are round: they’re easier to sell. The absence of a rotor and a bridge for an automatic winding train means that despite the long power reserve, caliber PF111 isn’t terribly thick, at just 4.9mm. The vaguely floral lines of the bridges give it a slightly ornate feel that’s a great foil to the more technical properties of the movement.
It’s a very clever and charming complication, and none the worse for having been thought of 116 years ago in England. The only downside, really, is that you want to see the hands telescope in real time, which, given the slowness with which they move, is not really possible (though you do get a nice little show when you set the watch). However, maybe it’s modern tastes and a modern sense of time that would raise that as an objection – perhaps the whole point is to see a stately, gradual change in the dimensions of the hands over time.
The appeal of this watch is very different from – well, anything from anyone else, I suppose. An oval case can seem a bit of an affectation, or at least an eccentricity, especially when anything deviating from roundness can be a death sentence to the commercial prospects of a watch, but the combination of the oval case and telescoping hands makes sense, albeit in an entirely tautological fashion.
It reminds me a little of what John Gardner wrote about Nabokov’s Pale Fire – it’s a jewel that shines entirely by its own light (to paraphrase a bit). Overall, the Parmigiani Pantographe is a very intellectually and emotionally appealing watch that embodies the delight that the inventors of the pantograph hands must have felt at their own ingenuity, a century and more ago.
The Parmigiani Fleurier Pantographe as shown here in red gold is priced at $55,000 (there is also a white gold version).
Case, 45mm x 37.6mm x 12mm; water resistance 30m. Dial, white lacquer finish; “Pantograph” hands. Movement, caliber PF111, hand-wound, Eight-day power reserve running in 28 jewels at 21,600 vph. Strap by Hermès in indigo blue alligator.