ZENITH LAUNCHES A REVOLUTION

Led by the exuberant Jean-Claude Biver, the historic brand is trumpeting a revolution in silicon watchmaking with its experimental Defy Lab

Read on the Telegraph website here

You certainly can’t fault Jean-Claude Biver for a lack of commitment to bombast. Before an audience last month of press and watch industry players, gathered at the Zenith Watches manufacture to witness horology’s latest technical breakthrough, the overlord of LVMH watch brands had the air of a Baptist preacher, bellowing exuberantly into a microphone as he paced the stage.

“It took 342 years to develop!” he screamed. “It took 152 years for Zenith!” [the brand was founded in 1865]. “It took three years for the genius Guy Sèmon – to make the biggest revolution in the art of Swiss watchmaking!” For good measure, the 68-year-old added: “God damn, thank god I didn’t retire when I was 65. Just for this, it was worth going on.”

The 342-year-old orthodoxy being overturned in Zenith’s new watch, the Defy Lab, centres around the work of Christian Huygens, the 17th century Dutch mathematician and scientist who came up with the idea of a spiral hair spring and oscillating balance wheel to regulate the action of a watch movement – the speedy oscillations can still be seen at the heart of any mechanical wristwatch.

The Defy Lab does away with the balance and hairspring, along with the lever escapement whose impulses they control, replacing these with a single component etched from silicon: the Zenith Oscillator. Circular in form, it contains a spindly, complex network of flexing blades and thicker arms. Affixed to a regular Zenith movement, this entire structure oscillates away as a whole – to headache-inducing effect in the 10 open-dial models in which it was unveiled – replacing in one go around 30 components that conventionally require assembling, testing, adjusting and lubricating.

The results are staggering. Accurate to around 0.3 seconds a day, compared to the -4/+6 seconds a day required for “chronometer”-rated watches, it becomes the world’s most accurate mechanical watch. It also exhibits the other benefits of silicon components, including imperviousness to temperature changes and magnetism, and the lack of requirement for oil lubrication.

Of course, it may be pointed out that relying on a singular wonder component, created in a lab by Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE), also does away with a considerable amount of skilled watchmaking – the element, so we are told, that attracts people to luxury watches in the first place.

Biver, however, is never less than resolutely forward-looking, and the wider appetite for Zenith’s new tech – and for futurism in traditional watchmaking – will become clear as the brand rolls out it out in new models next year (the 10 watches on launch were pre-sold one-offs).

Long-term watchophiles will recognised the name Biver mentioned in his speech: Guy Sèmon, a mathematician and former fighter pilot, leads a team previously responsible for several technological breakthroughs at TAG Heuer, though these remained either mere concepts, or collector pieces made in tiny numbers.

Tellingly, Sèmon’s team has now been given a group-wide remit, and rechristened the “LVMH R&D Institute”. In that sense, while launched at Zenith, attached to a famous Zenith movement – the high-frequency El Primero – and named the Zenith Oscillator, the new technology does not come from within Zenith; indeed, the theoretical heavy-lifting was outsourced to Belgium’s Leuven University and Lausanne’s CSEM research institute.

Does this matter? If sales meet LVMH’s hopes, then surely not – you remember who scored, not who supplied the pass. Meanwhile, models for TAG Heuer and Hublot are already being readied. But most remarkably, Biver doubled down on his assertion that this represents the future of watchmaking by announcing an intention to sell the Zenith Oscillator to all-comers within the Swiss watch industry. This, one suspects, is as much a challenge as an invitation.

OH THE BRUTALITY

Embraced in coffee table books and on social media, Brutalism has become an exotic fetish subject for urban aesthetes, with a legacy cleansed of its bleakest failures

Read on the Jackal website here

HAVING a list of your favourite brutalist buildings was once about as culturally acceptable as having a list of your favourite serial killers – weirdo territory, and not the kind of weirdos you wanted to talk to.

But the stark concrete architecture of decrepit sink estates, gruesome office blocks and the Warsaw Pact has become a modern fetish subject. The Royal Academy dedicated an exhibition to it last year. There’ve been the high-profile restorations of landmarks like Salter’s Hall in the City and the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery, once dismissed as a slovenly carbuncle but triumphantly reopened in January as a photogenic modernist miracle.

Almost as monumental are the innumerable, satisfyingly austere books offering moody photography and essays – and even cut-out, pop-up Barbicans (see Zupagrafika’s “Brutal London” volume) – to the coffee tables of urban aesthetes everywhere. And then there’s the Instagram ubiquity – along with flower-decked café facades and cappuccino pours, Brutalism’s eerie abstract geometries have made it an unlikely Insta-phenomenon.

It has become exotic, especially when set against the glassy plutocratic sheen of the buildings changing London’s skyline today. Perhaps this is what makes its reconditioning so catching: I’m sure I used to hate Centrepoint, the rippling tower that stands like a raised middle finger above Tottenham Court Road. But now, its surroundings swept away for Crossrail, it seems suddenly heroic and tantalising. Out comes the phone… *snap*.

John Grindrod is an author who’s been covering the subject for years, and was pointing his camera at modernist tower blocks long before social media changed the game. “People used to get cross, you’d get shouted at by taxi drivers,” he says. “Now it’s as though you’re not allowed not to snap it.”

Grindrod’s new book, How To Love Brutalism, is a lively and illuminating journey not just around the concrete utopias of the post-war build-out, but into the knotty complexities of a style that was conceived in hope, was often absurd and egregiously incompetent, but could also be gutsy and extraordinary. And the dream of social cohesion amid the streets in the sky, Grindrod says, is finding new relevance today.

“Not only are these buildings striking, but what they stood for is so admirable, and people are recognizing that,” Grindrod says. “In that post-war period, if you were a serious name in architecture, social housing was the ultimate job to be given. Today the equivalent architects do shiny apartment blocks for billionaires, and social housing is being swept away.”

Ironically, the same market forces that have swung against the brutalist project are also feeding its cultural rehabilitation. Its bleakest, most problematic examples are being erased, like Elephant & Castle’s recently-demolished landmarks, the Aylesbury and Heygate estates. Wellbeck Street car park, the wondrous multi-story lump off Oxford Street with a pre-fab exoskeleton of cement arrowheads, is next on the list, despite the best efforts of an Insta-powered campaign to save it.

We’ll be left with the palatable icons – listed, refurbished, revived and camera-ready, to be enjoyed from a safe distance; and a few crumbling, fading eyesores that seem almost whimsical in their rain-stained promise of a brighter tomorrow. Brutalism is history, and everyone will have a list.

HARD CASE: Audemars Piguet’s blacked-out wonder watch

Hundreds of hours of research went creating a black ceramic case worthy of the Royal Oak

Read on the Telegraph website here

It’s a famous story of the Royal Oak that when Audemars Piguet was developing it at the start of the 1970s, so tough and costly were the demands of machining and hand-finishing its complex geometries from stainless steel that prototypes ended up being made more cheaply in gold.

Since the start, the exterior finish of the Royal Oak has been central to its peculiar charm. The alternation between satin-grained and polished surfaces, the minutely precise beveling of every edge and the play of light this engenders would be remarkable enough just on the case – extended to the unique bracelet, in which every link is of a different size, and the finishing becomes practically a complication in its own right.

Small wonder, then, that the first supplier Audemars Piguet worked with to help create a ceramic version reportedly gave up the challenge. The idea of a Royal Oak in all-black ceramic has long been mooted, but the very qualities of ceramic that make it attractive for
a watch case – it’s virtually unscratchable, withstands high temperatures and is resistant to ageing – makes it a nightmare to apply a Royal Oak finish.

It is this that is so startling about the perpetual calendar version Audemars unveiled earlier this year: the graining, polishing, beveling and play of light are all there to such an extent that, despite being all-black, it barely looks like a ceramic watch at all.

“Usually, brands adapt their product to the ceramic material, with simplified construction, round angles, polished finishings without any contrast,” says Chadi Gruber, Audemars Piguet’s head of product development. “We did exactly the opposite: we decided to adapt the ceramic to our Royal Oak codes.”

Which is easily said, but according to Gruber required hundreds of hours of research to develop, and the labour intensity only goes up from there. For instance, while it takes four hours to produce a stainless steel case, for ceramic you can add another 10 hours on top. For the steel bracelet, six hours are needed to machine, polish, hand-finish and assemble it, but in ceramic it takes 30: practically a working week for a single bracelet.

“Numerous operations demanding patience and know-how were required to achieve a uniform, compact and hard material that can then be machined,” says Gruber, who oversaw the development of secretive new methods of hand- finishing ceramic. “The single most difficult obstacle was to align the sharp edges of the bevels, which are present all over the watch – the bezel, case, case-back, every link.”

Perhaps it’s understandable, therefore, that Audemars Piguet is making only 50 examples of the watch. Though given the demand, it’s tempting to imagine what other Royal Oak models might receive the all-black treatment next.

The remarkable AnOrdain

Inside the studio of an unlikely Scottish start-up giving new life to a rare watchmaking tradition

Read on the Telegraph’s website here

From its Kelvingrove atelier, start-up watchmaker anOrdain is offering a modern take on enamel dial watches. “In many ways I probably wasn’t the right person to get involved in this,” admits Lewis Heath, a 35-year-old architecture graduate, whose Glaswegian watchmaking project, anOrdain, is as unlikely as it is cheering.

“I didn’t know much about watches, but I was looking for something that would be distinct, and for ways to get artisans here to adapt what they were already doing to watchmaking.”

Heath’s idea was to set up a workshop, and a start-up watch brand, to master one of horology’s most elevated creative forms: the making of enamel dials in the “grand feu” – or vitreous enamel – tradition.

Such dials have an airy translucence and depth that’s unique to the art form, and can only be realised through hours of delicate handwork that in Switzerland is a long-cherished tradition. In Scotland, no such tradition exists.

Nevertheless, anOrdain, named after a Highland loch where Heath spent his childhood summers, began taking its first orders for watches this autumn, after almost three years of painstaking experimental work.

The timepieces, all with automatic Swiss movements and a clean, graphic style, are a world away from the grand classicism associated with traditional Swiss enamel dials, and also a world away in terms of price, at just £1,050. The dials of the Model 1 series are in jewel-like red, blue or pink enamel tones, as well as milky white or black. A hand-wound Model 2, meanwhile, is already in development.

“I wanted to fuse modern design with something artisanal,” explains Heath. “When you see the colours and richness you can use with enamel, and think how you could mix that with interesting typography and design, I thought you could have something quite special.”

In an old Kelvingrove sandstone building that otherwise houses the Scottish Trades Union Congress, anOrdain occupies a workshop that is both craft atelier and creative studio. Heath co-founded his original business, the audiophile head-phone maker RHA, when architecture was failing to satisfy his creative itch. He has funded anOrdain’s developmental years entirely on savings that he built up while he ran RHA.

Working amid piles of warped and cracked experimental dials and shelves stacked with little vials of coloured enamelling powders, the team includes a full-time watchmaker who assembles each watch, a typographer hired straight out of Glasgow School of Art, a graphic designer and two enamellers, with Heath overseeing.

The enamelling process involves sifting coloured glass powder onto a blank copper dial, firing it in an oven at 800C, then carefully sanding it to perfect flatness. Each dial contains up to eight such layers, and takes a couple of days to make.

“Our lead enameller, Adam [Henderson], was a silversmith and jewellery designer, so he had some knowledge, but it’s the tolerances you need to make this sit in a watch case that are challenging,” says Heath, noting that the 1.2mm dials cannot be even half a millimetre thicker, while the surface must be perfectly flat.

“It can’t be a 10th of a millimetre higher on one side,” he continues. “The challenge is getting to those kinds of tolerances by hand, and that has taken two-and-a-half years to work out.”

The dial markings are also printed on to the enamel in-house, and anOrdain has been able to add in a little more Scottish inspiration here: when the team found that the traditional dial inks were not achieving the desired relief effect, they tracked down and sourced an ink used in the whisky industry for printing on glass.

“We have learned so much, and had to find our own solutions through a process of trial and error, to develop our own techniques,” adds Heath. “This isn’t a Swiss dial made in Britain, it’s its own proposition.”

How Bollinger used lasers to save its hoard of vintage Champagne

The discovery of a forgotten collection of Bollinger reserve magnums inspired the Champagne house to embark on a mammoth project: to create a bottle archive

Read on the Wired website here

On the edge of the village of Aÿ, in France’s northeastern champagne region, lies a tiny, walled-in field full of raggedy vines planted in a haphazard muddle, in contrast to the neat rows you’d expect in a French vineyard. The random planting isn’t down to carelessness: this is how vineyards used to exist, before the phylloxera bug – a US import that destroys the roots of grape vines – ripped through Europe’s wine regions in the 19th century, necessitating new farming practices. Known as the Clos St Jacques, this field of a few acres somehow survived unscathed, one of just two such plots still remaining – the walls ensure things stay that way. It belongs to Bollinger, the historic champagne house, which produces its rarest and most exclusive fizz, Vieilles Vignes Francaises, exclusively from Clos St Jacques grapes. The clue is in the name: drink that, and you’re tasting champagne produced the old way, right down to the grape itself. History in a glass.

History is an obsession at Bollinger. The company’s CEO, Jerome Philipon, proudly points out that not a single archive record – logging every release, cuvee by cuvee, year by year, since the chateau’s founding in 1829 – is missing. More importantly, the firm, still owned by the Bollinger family, maintains several practices that other houses have long since discarded, including fermentation in old oak barrels, and keeping its reserve champagnes – for blending into its recipes – in magnums. It also passes laser beams through champagne bottles to help analyze the contents – but only, naturally, for its oldest vintages. And these can be very old indeed.

Several metres beneath the Clos St Jacques, and the nearby Chateau Bollinger, run several kilometres of cold, dank cellars – arched tunnels and chambers that long predate Bollinger itself – populated with huge, neat stacks of dust-caked bottles. Wandering among these, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that even with the careful archiving, the odd stockpile was missed or disregarded over the decades. In 2010, an intern wandered into a dark extremity of the cellar complex, and began moving a pile of empty bottles. Behind these, he made a discovery: 600 bottles of old, forgotten champagne, some dating back to 1830 – as old as the champagne house itself. The newest bottle dated to 1921. No Bollinger worker had any recollection of the storing these special vintages, but there they were – possibly hidden out of sight from occupying Germans, or simply left and forgotten between the wars.

Pic: Greg White for Wired

The discovery of this remarkable treasure trove engendered a new and mammoth project: to gather together all the old discarded and ignored bottles throughout the cellars, and to turn them into something useful: a liquid archive of Bollinger winemaking, with as many bottles as possible painstakingly analysed and restored. The result amounts to a collection of some 5,000 bottles, an unparalleled archive of historic champagne making.

“We don’t know exactly why many of these wines were around,” says Gilles Descotes, Bollinger’s chief winemaker, or chef de caves. “Nobody really took notice of a lot of them – these are huge cellars, and stockpiles would get made and later forgotten. We finally had to take action.”

The first task was to identify every one of several thousand bottles, magnums and even jeroboams, decoding mysterious old inscriptions and chalk markings – the bottle from 1830, for instance, was simply marked “CB 14” – and matching these to the thankfully complete archives.

Rather more technical in nature was the job of checking and restoring as many of the champagnes as were found to be worth saving – an analysis that necessitated the introduction of a new laser technique to assess the pressure inside a bottle without opening it.

The ‘restoration’ of an antique champagne essentially means its preservation as a sealed, drinkable wine, and is in some ways an extension of its making process. The pressure in a bottle of bubbly comes from the carbon dioxide created during the secondary fermentation process, which occurs in the bottle with the help of yeast that’s added to the base wine. The by-product is the lees – dead yeast cells that eventually form a sediment in the bottle and need to be removed, or ‘disgorged’, before the champagne is ready. At that point, a final top up of sugar dissolved in wine – known as the dosage – is added, and the permanent cork inserted.

Anyone who’s ever kept a bottle of champagne in too warm a place for a long period will know how a champagne can loose its fizz. Over time, humidity and moisture ensure a natural degradation and shrinking of the cork, allowing leaks and the loss of carbon dioxide – and eventually, a sparkling wine with very little sparkle.

pic: Greg White for Wired

Descotes and his team were aware that, even in the perfect conditions of the Bollinger cellars, the champagnes would have suffered from loss of pressure, while also continuing to age naturally.

Restoration would involve every bottle being newly disgorged, tasted, potentially topped up with a dosage and re-corked with a fresh cork; but this introduced a problem. There are two ways to disgorge a champagne bottle: by hand, involving an ancient and rather theatrical technique whereby the lees explodes out of the neck of the bottle while the degorgeur quickly traps the champagne with his thumb, and prevents oxygen ingress (a skill that only three Bollinger staff have currently mastered, but which is still used for its vintage cuvees); or the industrial method in which the neck of the bottle is frozen in a brine solution, sealing the sediment into an icy plug that’s expelled on opening, while the freezing temperature also subdues the internal pressure and prevents the wine from fizzing out.

“We wanted to disgorge as many bottles as possible the traditional way,” says Descotes. “We don’t want to loose this savoir faire, so it was a good time to train our workers on a very specific thing, to keep this knowledge. But if you don’t have the pressure any more, you can’t do this.”

On the other hand, using the ice method – and for a lack of pressure, extracting the cork and lees with a screw opener ­– came with its own set of risks: the old bottles are thinner and more fragile, and liable to crack under freezing.

Deciding how to open the champagne, therefore, first required knowledge of the pressure inside a bottle. Unable to risk using a traditional aphrometer – a device that inserts a needle sensor through the cork to give a reading – given the potentially weak corks, the Bollinger team turned to an appliance originally developed for the beer industry, which replaced the needle with a laser. This laser aphrometer passes a horizontal beam through the gap between the liquid and the cork in the neck of the bottle, and carbon dioxide in the gap absorbs the laser signal. The strength of the signal delivers a reading as to the quantity of Co2 – and therefore the pressure – in the neck.

“It’s the instrument we always dreamed about, because we wanted to know what happens inside a bottle without opening it,” says Dennis Brunner, Descotes’ deputy who introduced the device. “We found that, on average, after 50 years you’ve lost half of the pressure in the bottle, but there was also intense variation, due to the varying quality of the corks. We know a lot more about the wine aging process thanks to this, and particularly the importance of the cork evolution.”

Pic: Greg White for Wired

To be legally classed as champagne, the region’s sparkling wines must contain a minimum of 3.5 bars of pressure, though most are produced to at least double this. Many of the wine library’s bottles have fallen below the threshold, and some of the 19th century vintages almost to total flatness. However, though they can never be sold as champagne, for Descotes they hold no less fascination or pleasure.

“One of the things this really showed to me is that champagne is one of the best wines to age in the world. With white wine, it’s really difficult to find good ones after 60 or 70 years, but with champagne, even if the effervescence isn’t all there, the wine was really alive. You get such a different wine with complexity and aromas that you don’t usually see.”

This introduces an intriguing prospect: the potential for interest specifically in old champagne, a wine that is traditionally held to be at its best when brand new. To this end, Bollinger tested the water last year by putting a small selection of wines from the 2010 discovery on the auction block at Sotheby’s. A 1914 vintage went for $12,250 – though as Descotes points out, it was the experience of visiting Bollinger and opening and drinking the champagne in situ that was sold, rather than simply the bottle itself.

“People are starting to see old champagnes in a new way, and I think in the next 10 years you will see a lot more old champagnes fetching really high prices – you’re really going into another world in champagne.”

70 years of the Omega Seamaster

A look back at the history of a model that, despite its name, has been associated with almost every type of watch, including some true classics along the way

PDF at the bottom…

“During my diving work, my watch is constantly subjected to the worst conditions: water, oil, sand and mud,” wrote an American diver and photographer, a Mr Kendall, to Omega in 1962. “In spite of this, its accuracy is undefeated and its stainless steel case remains in good condition.”

Kendall, who apparently wasn’t one for the quiet life, went on to explain that he’d recently had to crash-land a damaged seaplane on the ocean, which had promptly sunk. “Several days later, we dived at a depth of 45 meters to look for what was recoverable in the cabin. The only objects still functioning were my underwater cameras and my Seamaster 300, which started to tick again as if nothing had happened.”

This letter, as recorded by the brand’s former museum curator Marco Richon in his doorstop book Omega: A Journey Through Time, could be seen more or less as a manifesto for Seamaster watchmaking. Through the myriad styles, references and watch genres the Seamaster name has encompassed, from hardcore dive watches like Mr Kendall’s to dress watches, funky chronographs, bracelet all-rounders and all manner of curios and classics in between, water resistance, robustness and precision have been the defining characterstics.

“Overall, the evolution of the Seamaster family has always tied into the evolution of customer’s needs,” Raynald Aeschlimann, Omega’s CEO, told QP. “That original ‘all-rounder’ spirit has taken the collection through dressy models, diving models, sailing models and much more. It’s always been a collection for experimentation and pioneering design so it has naturally gone in many different directions.”

Usefully, two contrasting sets of watches being released this year offer neat bookends to the Seamaster story, and show just how broadly the name has been used. On the one hand we have the head-to-toe revamp of the the Diver 300 line: the Bond watch (or the Prince William watch, if you prefer), now upgraded with ceramic dials, laser-engraved wave patterns, prominent helium escape valves and the METAS-certified Master Chronometer movement. It’s the glossiest, most full-bodied and maximalist version yet of what I’d argue has been – thanks in part to 007 – the definitive modern Omega since its introduction 25 years ago. One might well carp about the redundancy of the helium escape valve (for the bazillionth time, you only need it if you’re saturation diving), or the fact that making such a literal mountain of a molehill component is somewhat boorish, given it’s a Rolex invention.

However, Aeschlimann reasons its presence on the watch thus: “We realize that a helium escape valve or bi-directional bezel will only really benefit a very small number of people. But these elements are an essential part of the design spirit. They tell the story of the watch. So we’ve created diving watches, especially the Diver 300M, that work equally well in the ocean or in the office.”

Either way, the reborn Diver 300M completes the wholesale overhaul of the contemporary Seamaster collections, following the recent redesigns and technical upgrades for Planet Ocean, Aqua Terra and PloProf; and the revival of the Railmaster and Seamaster 300 as complete ranges in their own right. The Seamaster collections can now be said to collectively represent what the name was always meant to stand for: the deployment of Omega’s most sophisticated engineering in its most versatile watches.

Having said that, aiming for waterproofness, robustness and precision could seem almost trivial ambitions by today’s watchmaking standards – what credible watch brand would now aspire to anything less, least of all Omega? But when it first appeared in 1948 the Seamaster represented a quantifiable step forward, and the embodiment of these qualities as achievable values in mass-market watchmaking. In other words, you might say it represented for Omega what the Oyster did for Rolex, even if it differed by allowing rather greater stylistic variety – something that could have been seen as a virtue back then, but rather confuses the issue now. Aesthetically, the Seamaster is almost impossible to pin down.

Nevertheless, the other key Seamaster launch this year provides a window back to the Seamaster’s first appearance, and the pre-diver era in which Seamasters would be higher-tech variations on the all-rounder dress watches that Omega was turning out in huge volumes. The Seamaster 1948 limited editions recreate the two original Seamasters, references CK 2577 with central seconds, and the small seconds chronometer version, ref. CK 2518. With 38mm steel cases and an impressive exactitude of detail, these follow last year’s perfectly exact recreations of 1957’s Speedmaster/Railmaster/Seamaster 300 triumvirate. Inside is the contemporary Master Chronometer movement, behind a display caseback. The crystal is engraved, in a somewhat random act of lily gilding, with a picture of a Chris Craft luxury speedboat and a Gloster Meteor aircraft, the RAF’s first jet plane. Would that the watches might herald the return, instead, of the seahorse – or ‘hippocampus’ – logo, inspired by sculptures found on Venetian gondolas, that used to adorn Seamasters as an affirmation of their waterproof qualities; a logo that has mysteriously vanished from modern Omega.

In 1948, the original versions of these watches were the front line in watchmaking. As in other areas, World War II had ushered in a host of technological advances which in Omega’s case had gone into the watches it made for the British military, in particular the highly-engineered “W.W.W.” (Watch Wrist Waterproof – the M.O.D. designation) watches supplied to the RAF in the latter stages of the war. Water-resistance being one of the key requirements (along with high precision, easy servicing and superior robustness), the verification process for these included immersion in water for 72 hours under different pressures and temperatures.

Omega produced almost 26,000 W.W.W. watches, and over 110,000 watches in total for the British military, putting it in a prime position to transfer this engineering to the civilian market, and to shout loudly about it. Instead of snap-back cases, the first Seamasters had screw-down cases that included another innovation that had proven its worth during the war, the O-ring gasket. Deployed successfully everywhere from submarine hulls to aircraft fuel tanks, the rubber O-ring was a far more effective seal than the lead or shellac gaskets found in most watch cases of the era, and along with a reinforced crystal, enabled – like Rolex’s Oyster – a more reliably water resistant watch.

Additionally, Omega had the movements to contend with those of the Oyster Perpetual: automatic calibres 30.10 and 28.10, developed in 1942, were sophisticated and robust engines, produced in standard or chronometer versions, with interchangeable components and a frequency of 19,800 vibrations per hour (compared to the more usual 18,000). They belied the fact that Omega had been late to the self-winding party: in the 1920s, as others (notably Rolex) were pressing ahead, Omega’s president Paul-Emile Brandt had proclaimed that “If our clients are too lazy to wind their watches each day, we should stop producing watches!” So much for Brandt’s estimation: Omega would produce 1.3 million of these movements up to 1955, half a million of which were chronometers.

A watch-world newby would be forgiven now for assuming that, given the maritime name and the modern collection, the Seamaster is just a diving/sports label for Omega. But the early generations provide a fascinating contrast, and represent a particularly worthwhile investment for the nascent collector, given that they can still be found for a few hundred quid. Dress watches by today’s standards, at the time their accuracy and resistance to dust and magnetism, besides water, saw them presented as the ultimate watch for any situation. As an Omega ad of 1956 put it, “The Seamaster was deisgned to share with you the zest of high adventure and the stresses and strains that go with it… There is more ruggedness built into the Seamaster than you are ever likely to call for. It feels good, though, to know you can count on the extra stamina and extra precision wchih set the Seamaster apart from other watches.” Sportsmen, airline and navy personnel, golfers, skin-divers, navigators and pilots were listed as the typical Seamaster wearers.

That might apply to versions in steel or gold, hand-wound as well as automatic, the watches characterised in particular by elegant dials featuring pointed applied markers, often interspersed with 12, 3, 6 and 9 numberals. The introduction of Omega’s first automatic calendar in 1952 added further sophistication, while Deluxe versions in 18k gold cases took things up to a higher evels of luxury.

“You can see that they were putting a lot of thought into the models they released, and they were clearly experimenting with different styles,” says the dealer Alex Barter, formerly of Sotheby’s and now of Ludlow’s Black Bough (blackbough.co.uk), who has developed something of a speciality in early Seamasters and their ilk. “The build quality for the time was remarkable too. The movements from the 1940s can be within five seconds a day when serviced, which is remarkable for a non-chronometer from 70 years ago.”

If one wants to understand the benchmark of engineering quality the Seamaster name would quickly become, then consider this: when the company launched the Speedmaster chronograph in 1957 (alongside the Seamaster 300 and the Railmaster), it was the imprimatur of the Seamaster, in the form of the Seahorse logo, that it used to affirm its rugged capabilities. The logo appeared on the back of early Speedies and in catalogues, while one 1959 catalogue even classes the Speedmaster as a Seamaster:

“As a member of the Seamaster family, the Speedmaster has the same triple-sealed, high pressure proof case as the rugged Seamaster sports watches, waterproof even at 200 feet below the surface.”

Incidentally, while they may not share the Speedy’s mystique or style, Seamaster chronographs from the same era (refs CK 14.360 or 14.364), bearing the same legendary hand-wound calibre 321 and all the benefits of Seamaster construction, must represent some of the finest value in the ever-exploding vintage chronograph market, going for under £5,000. Through all its styles, families, variations and revisions, the Seamaster has always represented an awful lot of watch for the price, and it continues to, whether you’re buying vintage or new.

Norman Foster profile

“I’m like a hamster on a treadmill. I’m always moving, I never stop.” 
Talking to the architect about Instagram, Steve Jobs, Apple Park and designing an exhibition for Cartier 

Read on the Telegraph website here

For a literal snapshot of the life of Norman Foster, you have only to look at Instagram, which the 81-year-old joined in January. Here, he can be found cycling down the walkway that spirals around the glass dome he created for Berlin’s Reichstag building; demonstrating an airport design to Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto; trying his hand at watchmaking at the Swiss workshops of Cartier; or – just to rub in the sense of underachievement his 40,000 followers must surely suffer – competing in a cross-country skiing marathon in the Swiss Alps (“45 minutes faster than last year”, his caption proudly notes).

It was the architect’s 15-year-old son, Eduardo, who chivvied him into taking to social media. “He pointed out there were so many people out there pretending to be me anyway, that I should probably just do it,” Foster explains. “I confess to being old fashioned about these things, but I’m fascinated by discovering it.”

Cyber impersonation is one of the quirkier corollaries of life as one of the world’s true architectural superstars, and Foster counts himself fortunate to have teenage children – he also has an 18-year-old daughter, Paola, with his third wife, Spanish art curator Elena Ochoa-Foster, whom he married in 1996 – to lead him through social media’s rigmaroles. 

There’s little else old-fashioned about him. From the work his practice takes on, recently winning an award from NASA for a scheme to 3D-print dwellings on Mars, for instance, to a punishing lifestyle that means he rarely spends more than two or three days in one place, his energy is, he says, directed permanently forwards. 

Dressed elegantly in the international uniform of architects – black polo neck and slacks – and fidgeting constantly in his chair as he warms to his themes, he seems far younger than his 81 years. Having seen off both bowel cancer and a heart attack, his energy is remarkable.

“I’m like a hamster on a treadmill,” he says cheerfully. “I’m always moving, I never stop – I couldn’t.”

Foster, the creative force behind such burnished British landmarks as the Gherkin, Sage Gateshead and the Millenium Bridge, has left an unprecedented imprint around the world; his hits including the majestic Milau Viaduct in southern France, the geometric eruption of New York’s Hearst Tower, and Hong Kong’s airport, a project that involved flattening a mountain and creating an island bigger than Heathrow. 

He seems to think, live and work on the grandest of scales. Concepts and visions – on infrastructure, planning densities, on turning landfill into energy – tumble from him as though from a tap; ask him about his lunch, and he’ll be onto the wealth-spreading potential of connectivity in no time.

Even his formal title, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, has a sense of the wide-screen, conjuring the riverside vista that’s home to his firm’s cavernous Battersea offices. When we meet there, however, it’s to discuss something that for once involves design at the smaller scale: an exhibition highlighting the evolution of iconic wristwatch designs from Cartier, which Foster has curated and designed, and opens at London’s Design Museum on Thursday. 

If it seems an unlikely diversion, it did to Foster, too, when Cartier approached him – until his research took him in intriguing directions. He found himself captivated by the creative hotbed of early-20th century Paris, from which the Parisian jeweller’s original, ground-breaking designs emerged. It was a world populated by the kind of visionaries Foster naturally lionises: Gustave Eiffel, Louis Cartier and the glamorous early aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, for whom Cartier created the world’s first wristwatch in 1907. 

“This kind of transition period fascinates me, and I rather enjoyed the chance to rummage through history,” Foster says, casting his gaze over an expansive diagram of 20th century design that he assembled for the task; watches, it seems, became one more jumping-off point for his unfettered curiosity. “There are sections on the influence of the city, the nobility of making and craftsmanship. For me, there’s no conflict in going right down to the scale of a watch – I’m equally obsessed by a door handle, something you can touch, as I am about an internal space or a building. It’s the curiosity around how something works.” 

It was in another great transition period, that of post-war Britain, that Norman Foster’s enquiring spirit was first galvanized – in Manchester, the city that today occupies the headlines for the most tragic of reasons, but for which architecture proved a most powerful symbol of defiance when it was last targeted by terrorists, 21 years ago. 

His father worked for the local engineering powerhouse, Metropolitan-Vickers and, fascinated by architecture from a young age, Lord Foster would borrow books about buildings from the school library; to this day, he is never without his sketchbook. 

At 16, he left school and took a job as a clerk at Manchester Town Hall, taking off through the city on his bicycle in his free time. “I absorbed architecture in my lunch breaks by travelling around Manchester,” he says, citing the modernist slab of Kendal’s department store (now House of Fraser) as an old favourite. “It was a stimulating time. It was a period of austerity, but also of extraordinary achievements and optimism. You had the early days of the jet aircraft, the Comet, the Vulcan bomber, the transition from steam to diesel, the Festival of Britain in 1951.”

Foster served as a radar technician in the RAF for his National Service, before gaining an architecture diploma, funded “by a combination of manual work and scholarships”. What would the young lad from Manchester have made of the spectacular career that followed – his latest distinction being receiving the Freedom of the City of London, presented at a private ceremony last month. He hesitates. “I find looking back very difficult,” he says. “I just feel more comfortable looking forward.” 

He’s even set up a Madrid-based not-for-profit, the Norman Foster Foundation, for that purpose. “Its mission is anticipating the future, breaking down barriers between disciplines in a quest to improve life,” he says.

Nowhere in Foster’s work is that lofty ambition more noticeably realised than in one of the most significant new buildings in the world: Apple’s fantastical new workspace, that has been gradually opening in Cupertino, California, during the spring. 

In Foster’s office, a detailed model of the new Apple Park sprawls across several tables. At its heart stands an enormous circular spaceship of a building, just four storeys tall, which will house 16,000 employees, while opening them out onto a verdant Californian landscape. Built at a rumoured cost of $5 billion, it might be seen as something of a crowning glory for Foster – and his ideal that “a workspace should be about a lifestyle, not about work” – were it not for his insistence that the vision is that of Steve Jobs, more than it is his. 

“It’s kind of utopian,” Foster says of this low-rise pleasure park (his term), where exterior and interior elide. “Steve’s idea of a meeting was to go for a walk, and there’s five miles of trails for hiking and cycling. It harks back to Capability Brown, and to the Californian landscape of the past – what Steve called the fruit bowl of his youth.”

Even the Cartier exhibition has inspired an adventure in innovation and design: adapting the Design Museum’s un-promising meeting rooms as an exhibition space has prompted the invention of a new style of self-powered, modular display for assembling anywhere. 

“It’s totally autonomous, flexible and unlimited in its possibilities,” he beams, and he might be describing any of his vast projects, rather than a display case for a watch. 

The Day of the Jackal

As Edward Fox turned 80, I dusted down the VHS and gorged on the glorious turn of the original Jackal for the magazine named after him

Read on The Jackal website here

“Edward Fox has charm,” announces the singer of the obscure Manchester punk band, Smack, on their bizarrely magnificent 1979 non-hit, Edward Fox (seriously, give it a listen). “Not the sticky transatlantic variety, nor the hammy continental strain,” he continues drily over a spiky guitar riff, “but rather a uniquely English charm of old houndstooth jackets, unobtrusive courtesy and a complete lack of condescension.”

On the subject of the original Jackal, who turns 80 today, who are we to disagree? It’s that glinting, congenial English charm, in fact, that makes Fox’s definitive role so startlingly compelling, and highly worth revisiting.

There’s something cornflakeish about The Day of the Jackal movie, as it happens – you may well have forgotten just how very good it is. The set-up – as conceived by Frederick Forsyth in his hit novel – is spectacularly simple, and has all the elements of a straight-ahead boy’s own caper: as Fox’s anonymous hitman plans the assassination of the French president, Charles de Gaulle, security forces attempt desperately to hunt him down. But it’s a far, far stranger – and more effective – proposition than that even suggests.

After all, de Gaulle managed to remain very much un-assasinated – which means it’s a story whose outcome we know from the start: the Jackal must fail in his mission. Instead, Fred Zinnemann, the director who’d previously made the Western nailbiter, High Noon, layers on the suspense with a clinical fascination in the Jackal’s process – including, of course, the creation of the weirdest, niftiest sniper rifle ever seen – contrasting his stealthy movements across Europe with the groaning, bureaucratic machinations of those on his tail. There’s barely even a soundtrack: it’s less a caper, more a documentary, as coldly effective as its protagionist.

But it’s also thoroughly intoxicating, and that’s largely because of Fox. We would say so, of course, but he’s surely cinema’s most stylish killer ever – and that includes the one with the license to kill. In his perfectly cut fawn suit, twill slacks and pressed shirts, matched with a procession of glorious cravats, he is the very essence of assured, officer-class English style. Bond is a mere contender by comparison – and the Jackal’s soft-top, white Aston Martin, whizzing across southern Europe, is quite the match for 007’s vehicles too.

As the Jackal, Edward Fox is perfectly inscrutable, fiendishly clever, but also likeable – it’s that poised English charm, of course. He’ll have you, without breaking a sweat or thinking twice, but you’d still quite like to buy him a drink.

Fifty shades of beige

How, and more importantly why, has beige gone from being the dullest colour on the planet to a style staple and, moreover, a way of life?

PDF at the bottom, or read on The Jackal’s website here

We’re living in a universe of beige. Don’t take my word for it, take that of the astronomers Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry who, back in 2002, analysed over 200,000 galaxies and determined that their combined light amounted pretty much to the colour of your dad’s chinos. Or as they called it, Cosmic Latte.

And well they might, for if there’s one thing we know about beige it’s that no one wants to call it by its name. Beige, as a word and as a descriptor, out-greys even grey for sheer drab, formless, nothingy neutrality. But ‘fawn’? Oh, bang on the money for your new suit this spring, and you can pair it with a taupe trench coat once it’s too warm for your camel overcoat. Or consider ‘toast’ (brown presumably, wholemeal or otherwise) – selected by New York’s mighty-sounding Pantone Color Institute as a key fashionable shade this past Fall. Just add Marmite.

However many recherché beige variants we identify and label – and there are over 30 in the Farrow & Ball catalogue alone – there can never be enough, because right now it’s everywhere. The apologetic colour of the cosmos has crept through our most stylish earthly surrounds like knotweed, spreading its mollifying tastefulness across modern life. It’s invading our restaurants and workspaces; it’s in the clothes we wear and the things we buy. It’s modern branding dynamite.

‘Colour trends go in cycles – 20 years ago you’d run a million miles from beige, because it was a ’70s colour, but it’s being reinvented,’ says Stephen Westland, Professor of Colour Science at the University of Leeds. ‘Beige is nostalgic – it’s calming, traditional and slightly old-fashioned,’ he explains. ‘It’s a very uncolourful colour.’

Well, yes. What, then, does it say of us that the era’s most fashionable tone is barely a colour at all? Let us examine a few of its primary habitats.

Coffee culture 

There is perhaps no greater symbol of the Age of Beige than the milk foam ripple of the perfectly poured, not-so-cosmic latte; it puts the mug into smug as the inescapable mainstay of Instagram’s most beige format, the overhead still-life, or #flatlay.

But coffee is beige in an almost profound way. It’s not simply the colour, it’s what it has come to represent – our quest to be soothed and reassured. No wonder exposed natural wood, old furniture and other ‘as found’ materials form the blueprint for the coffee shop. It’s a retreat from the scariness, noise and amped-up pressures of a world in tumult; a world that we inhale, in full colour saturation, through our digital lives.

‘Our screens are incredibly colourful and intimidating, and stressful,’ says Westland. ‘In the 1980s and ’90s, it was very different, we craved colour and you saw it everywhere, but now we have too much of it in a different way. Beige is nostalgic, and we’re looking backwards much more, to when things seemed simpler, less stressful, and less ashy, too.’

Coffee culture, in all its mindful beigeness, represents our safe space. And no surprise, perhaps, that it’s also coming to represent our work culture, too – the shared workspaces of the modern, flexi-hours gig-economy are essentially coffee shops with added furniture budgets. Which leads us to our next point…

Design

If beige is the antidote to digital overload, then small wonder Apple is deeply in on it – Regent Street’s Apple store is an all-enveloping cloud of ecru marble that almost distracts you from the fact that visiting the Genius Bar is roughly as relaxing as Victoria Station during a Southern Rail meltdown.

Beige has become strong currency in luxury interiors, too – the recently opened Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch, for instance, is a glossy, monotone haze of cream and grey, between acres of polished, light brown wood. It’s gorgeous, of course – calming and deeply tasteful, but ever so slightly tepid, too, like weak tea. A description, I’d suggest, one could extend to our mid-century furniture fixation, from the Nordic classics of Skandium to West Elm’s tranquilising loveliness: even when there’s colour, the overall effect is beige. Just look at Aquavit, the most beautiful restaurant to have opened in London in years and a rich, sunlit domain of caramel beige.

‘It’s not offensive, far from it – it’s inoffensive and that’s the point,’ says Tony Chambers, Brand and Content Director of design bible Wallpaper*, who also identifies digital stress as the engendering force behind our modern beige-out. ‘People are scared to say or do anything controversial or tasteless, things are judged so quickly and brutally. This manifests itself very clearly in design.’

And not just at the macro level: next time you pour yourself a bowl of Dorset Cereals, or pick from any number of products offering similarly Waitrose-endorsed beigeness, consider what that packaging tells you this product really is. Rustic, sentimental, mindful – a haven from vulgarity, and reassuringly premium. Because let’s make no bones about it, beige culture is a superlatively middle-class phenomenon.

Style

The retro workwear movement, with its coal shoveller-meets-WWII squaddie aesthetic, has been rumbling along for long enough now to have got beige – rough-hewn, crumpled, textural, khaki – successfully reclaimed from country-club Alan Partridge types. The style is the de facto uniform of a certain class of Kinfolk-clutching, WeWorking beigestronaut, of a type equally found managing FinTech start-ups as running spoon-whittling workshops (and probably both).

But beige, along with more full-bodied browns, has been taking over in high fashion, too. From the baggy beige suits of E Tautz to the coastal cool of Brunello Cucinelli, via Fendi – who clad every single model for its Fall ’18 show in it – the fash set is properly getting its beige on.

‘There’s an easy blandness to it that’s quite comforting, and we’re certainly seeing a lot of it right now,’ says Stephen Doig, men’s style editor for the Daily Telegraph. ‘Designers are experimenting with how to make the suit relevant once you’ve exhausted navy, black and grey. Beige is a natural evolution and quite a safe entry point, but there are some showing how to do it in a more interesting way.’

There does appear to be light – or rather, primary colours – at the end of the taupe tunnel. ‘There’s a reason that Gucci sells through the roof with its technicolour, maximalist aesthetic. There’s a rising tide of resistance,’ says Doig.

On the corner of Carnaby Street is a pub. A big, easy-on-the-eye kind of a place, painted in uniform shades of gastro-grey and cream, including the sign for its name: O’Neill’s. Yes, the JD Wetherspoon of Irish theme pubs, a place of Guinness hats, St Paddy’s Day vomit and – formerly – crap faux-Celtic lettering. It’s been politely beiged-over. When the zeitgeist has been taken to your local Irish pub, you may think it’s time the zeitgeist girded its loins and moved on.

‘People want to hunker down, and opt for a kind of safeness and niceness, and it’s being rolled out to saturation point, no question,’ says Wallpaper*’s Chambers. ‘We need things to slap us around the face and wake us up. We need to get our swagger back.’

Couldn’t agree more.

Franc Exchanges

The removal of the cap on the Swiss franc was a catastrophe for the country’s watchmakers, but one enterprising CEO found a way of gaining the upper hand…  

PDF at the bottom…

The symbolism was entirely accidental, but it was nevertheless hard to resist: looming outside the luxuriant merry-go-round that is Geneva’s Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), the watch trade show that takes place each January, were several large billboards showing a picture of the Titanic sailing towards its iceberg against a fiery sunset. These were advertising a forthcoming exhibition at Palexpo, the SIHH venue, but given the grim faces on many watch business insiders that week, you’d have been forgiven for thinking there was another meaning.

Welcome in the SIHH…

The reason: four days before the start of the SIHH, the watch industry – and indeed Swiss industry in general – was hit amidships by an iceberg of its own, put in its way by the Swiss National Bank. The sudden, unexpected removal of the cap that had for three years kept the Swiss Franc pegged to the struggling Euro sent Switzerland’s currency soaring, while the Euro plunged. Currency exchanges collapsed into insolvency; Nick Hayek, president of Swatch Group (owner of Breguet, Omega and Longines among others) described the decision as a “tsunami” unleashed on Switzerland’s export industry. One watch company CEO I spoke to likened it to being “punched in the stomach, stabbed in the back and having your legs kicked out from under you, all at once.” Within days, brands including Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Patek Philippe raised their prices in the Eurozone.

Edouard Meylan, the 38-year-old CEO and owner (with his family) of boutique watchmaker H Moser & Cie, reacted in time-honoured style: by writing a letter. He penned an open missive to Thomas Jordan, president of the SNB, spelling out with measured sarcasm the potential consequences of the move for a company like his, which with 55 employees making just 1,000 watches a year, markets itself under the tagline Very Rare. “Let me make my appeal clear to you, on behalf of the many small and mid-size businesses that employ so many Swiss people,” he wrote. “I trust you have a strong plan that will help all of us make it through with you over the long term. Because otherwise, along with many other wonderful Swiss creations, H. Moser watches may just have become very, very, very rare.”

Should any such plan have materialised, it probably wouldn’t work as well as Meylan’s. His letter went viral. The H Moser brand has become more visible than it ever was, and demand for its watches has leapt. “We’ve definitely felt that what was a problem may have turned into an opportunity,” Meylan says. “February was actually the best month ever for us in terms of sell-out.”

Nevertheless, Meylan is still scathing of the Bank’s decision – even though, as he admits, the currency cap was a false situation that at some point would always need to be alleviated. However, the timing of the announcement, and the lack of any kind of warning or attempt to prepare the market, left a particularly bad taste. Whereas other potential threats to the watch industry – economic problems in Russia and China, the advent of the smart watch – are uncontrollable, this felt like an attack from within.

“Like every issue you need time to adapt and to stabilize, and the way they did it created a lot of uncertainty,” Meylan says. “It’s a loss of trust in certain institutions. They take decisions considering speculators rather than entrepreneurs and industries. At the end of the day we’re talking jobs here, not guys speculating on currencies.”

Meylan, the scion of a family whose watchmaking roots go back generations, is a passionate and inventive entrepreneur in a luxury industry beset by staid, conservative thinking. With an MBA from Wharton under his belt followed by a few years nursing a start-up in the luxury tech sector and managing a watch distributor in the Far East, in 2012 he joined forces with his father – Georges-Henri, a legendary former CEO of Audemars Piguet – plus two siblings, to acquire H Moser & Cie. A historic marque producing beautifully understated, technically innovative watches, it had been revived by a descendant of its 19th century founder, Heinrich Moser, but was struggling to turn brilliant horological ideas into profit.

Meylan is proud to state that 90% of an H Moser watch is created in Switzerland. It’s a far higher quotient than for many brands that state “Swiss Made” on the dial, for which the benchmark was recently raised from 50% to 60%, in an effort protect Swiss craft from the flood of cheaper parts from the Far East. (Even with certain relatively big brands, don’t assume that the crown, hands or even the case itself were forged in a Swiss workshop.) Nevertheless, Meylan suggests that Swiss Made, and the eco-system of independent workshops and suppliers that support it, is a strength in trying times.

“The best chance we have in the watch industry is Swiss Made – it protects us in a way, because we’re all in the same boat,” he says. “I’ve seen some of our suppliers working very hard indeed to get their costs down since January [since a strong Swiss Franc makes for cheaper imported parts from the Far East], and since almost all of our parts come from Switzerland, that’s good for us.”

Since the dramas of January the Euro has regained some value against the Franc, and despite the long faces sales were reported to be relatively strong at the SIHH. Indeed, there are greater storms the watch industry is facing. The collapse of the Russian market has seriously impacted many brands at the very high end, while China’s recent cutting of its economic growth target will be further cause for consternation – China accounts for a good quarter of the global market for Swiss watches, but business has slowed there considerably in the past two years.

Amid ever choppier waters for the watch market, what no one knows is the impact the Apple Watch, and its smart watch brethren, will have. The year’s other big watch fair, Baselworld in March, saw a scramble from several major brands to jump aboard the wearable tech bandwagon.

Meylan, though, has his own thoughts on the subject. In early March H Moser & Cie announced the coming of a smart watch of its own; this turned out cheekily to be a new version of the minimalist masterpiece that put the brand on the map originally, the Endeavour Perpetual Calendar – a watch that, as the brand pointed out, is as smart as they come. Meylan has little truck with those blinking in Apple’s headlights and rushing out smart-ish Swiss watches.

“It’s really an opportunity ­– there’s a huge generation of people right now who read the time on their phone, and to colonise their wrist with a smart watch is the first step to haute horlogerie. I’m going to buy an Apple Watch – it’s a great tool. But we don’t produce tools, – we produce emotion.”

One rather sobering thought, though.  Switzerland’s nightmare decade, the1970s – when Japan’s cheap electronic timepieces overran the market for Swiss watches – had one serious aggravating factor. Switzerland’s biggest market then was the USA, and in 197X the dollar collapsed, just as Japan’s new-fangled quartz watches proliferated. What’s referred to in Switzerland today as the Quartz Crisis was not merely a revolution in wrist technology: it was a currency crisis too. Remind you of anything?