Given that everybody carries a mobile phone, which also keeps time, you'd think maybe the wristwatch might have run its race as a relevant accessory in the 21st century. Not so! Roughly one person in five on planet earth still buys a watch each year and Swiss watches, which account for only 2% of volume but more than half the value of the worldwide watch market, will have a record year in 2011.
The watch industry's origins in 16th Century Switzerland when John Calvin's Reformation banned jewelery. This meant that the wristwatch, at that time a state-of-the-art technological masterpiece, became the only decorative object a male was permitted to wear. Swiss goldsmiths and jewelers of the time turned their hand to horological science and they have been creating exquisite objects of ever-increasing complexity ever since.
Heading on for 500 years later, the watch still only masquerades as a timepiece, for it remains the primary form of male adornment, and like so many social protocols that have endured long past their raison d'etre, shows no sign of changing any time soon. Given the competitive nature of testosterone, watches have also come to display power and wealth among the elite.
Take these two watches from Rebellion for example. The watch on the right is a Rebellion REB-5, which sells for 189,000 swiss francs (US$196,000) and it's hard not to take someone seriously if they're wearing one. The one on the left is unique. It's the Rebellion Black Diamond REB-5 and the person who buys it will have parted with 890,000 Swiss francs (US$928,500). It is the point at which jewelery and horology meet.
The watch is special mainly because it is one of the finest examples yet produced of a scientifically excellent horology melded with the jewelers craft.
We've included some fine detail close-ups of the face of the Black Diamond to highlight just how special the watch is. It's workings may be identical to the limited edition (12 only) REB-5 at right, but the entire case had to be rebuilt to allow for the setting of the gems.
The mounting technique employed in the design was developed by Van Cleef & Arpels for setting precious stones without any of the claws showing. Without any metal to obscure any part of the 307 diamonds on the case (24.05ct) and 12 diamonds in the crown (1.02ct), the jewels appear free, and not surprisingly, this brings them to life.
This "invisible" setting was not without its cost. In order to apply this exacting jeweller's technique, the stones had to be cut with extreme precision and set using minimum tolerances. The setters worked under microscopes, much like micro-surgeons. Each stone was selected based on its Top Wesselton quality and its IF to VVS clarity, then individually shaped according to its position.
Rebellion collaborated with setting workshop Bunter SA so the very best craftsmen and specialists worked on the watch. All told, the programming of the machines and tools, cutting of the diamonds, visual inspection of each part, setting, assembly and adjustment consumed just under 1,000 man hours.
While the diamonds and craftsmanship have added three quarters of a million dollars to the "base" REB-5, it is the mechanicals of the watch which will provide the most fascination.
The tourbillon was invented around 1795, by Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet from an earlier idea by the English chronometer maker John Arnold and improves the accuracy of a watch by countering the effects of gravity on the oscillator. It does this by mounting the escapement and balance wheel in a rotating cage in order to negate the effect of gravity when the timepiece and hence, the escapement, is rotated.
The REB-5 goes one step further than the "standard" tourbillon – it should be noted that the tourbillion is in itself, a display of watchmaking virtuosity – by using twin mainspring winding barrels so that the rotating of the cage every sixty seconds, does not diminish the power reserves of the watch unduly. Whereas most tourbillion watches relatively short power reserve, the REB-5 has seven days of power! The movement was developed specifically for Rebellion by renowned Swiss master watchmaker, Laurent Besse.
The REB-5 dispenses with a traditional dial, using the open movement to offer full visual access to the intricate working of the usually hidden micro-mechanics. Turn the over-size crown and you can see the twin mainspring barrels winding, while a window on the side of the case ensures that the pulsing heart of the watch, the animated tourbillon and oscillator, can be fully appreciated.
Turning the watch over reveals an equally open back with the tourbillon, the two mainspring barrels, the wheel train and the winding and time-setting mechanisms all visible.
The detail is remarkable. The screw heads use the brand's helice logo, the mainspring barrels are engineered to resemble the brake disks and wheels of a sports car and the hands are open-cut so as as not to obscure any feature from sight.
For a company little more than three years old, Rebellion has certainly carved a name for itself at the extreme high end of watchmaking remarkably quickly. The REB-5 is already a classic, a testimony to the design talent of Eric Giroud. Unlike some Swiss watchmakers which now have their tourbillons manufactured in China, Rebellion does all its design and manufacture in Switzerland.
Only 12 REB-5 watches are produced each year and can be had in Red gold, titanium or black DLC titanium black alligator leather straps with double folding buckle.
There have been two diamond models of the REB-5 produced – a full (white) diamond and the black diamond, identical except for the color of the white gold 18 K cases.
In summary, I'm not sure what I found most astonishing in researching this article. The REB-5 is an extraordinary piece without the diamonds, yet with the craftsmanship involved in setting over 300 rare gems with what is essentially a press fit, it represents an astonishing feat.
The cost of a wristwatch approaching a million dollars is probably what will get the most attention. A number of people I mentioned it to commented that it was obscene that a watch could cost that much. One pointed out that you can purchase one of every model in the Porsche range and still have a half million dollars change, while another commented that you can buy entire islands for less. Still, at the extreme elite end of the jewelery and watch markets, a million dollar wristwatch is not without its precedents.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing for me at the end of the day, is that the religious reformation might still be having such a dramatic effect on the current day dress protocols for men.