OK, we’ve found the perfect watch for an eccentric but jaded billionaire…Luke Benedictus
You know that people-watching game that you sometimes play. The one where you speculate – ideally with a partner – on the complex inner lives of total strangers. That middle-aged man at the bar, for example, knocking back his fourth scotch. Is he celebrating a day of deal-sealing triumph? Or trying to blot out the frustrations of a testing afternoon? His expensive suit is crumpled that makes him look a little beleaguered. As if he’s adjusting to the fallout of his second divorce. But what went wrong in his last marriage? Did his (much younger) trophy wife finally discover his dark secret… Ten minutes later you’ve invented a complex backstory of this unknowing gentleman’s colourful life that includes his early promise, broken dreams and that mildly disturbing thing he likes to do in the bedroom.
Recently, I went to a watch showing at Monards in Melbourne that became a variation on this game. We were shown a watch that was both magnificent and utterly baffling. Who, we asked ourselves, would ever buy such a thing? And that’s when the imaginary backstories began to unspool. “He’s a rich guy, sure. But someone has made a comment about his watch that’s given him a real chip on his shoulder,” was one suggestion.
The watch in question is from Glashütte Original. An inspection of the dial reveals the elegant face of a classic dress watch presented in a rose-gold case on a brown leather strap . The quiet sheen of the dial comes from it having been fashioned in solid gold and subsequently silverplated by friction. The filigree baton-style hands are also in rose gold and contribute to a look of hushed understatement. But the twist comes when you noticed that the case is a little thicker than an elevated dress watch of such refinement usually is, with a height of 11.6 mm. Peer closer at the seconds display, which is positioned at 6 o’clock, and you’ll discover the horological punchline. In capital letters is the word “tourbillon”. For this watch is the Glashütte Alfred Helwig Tourbillon 1920, a watch with a flying tourbillon hidden on the reverse of the movement.
To appreciate why a hidden tourbillon is such a perverse thing to do in the modern era, let’s have a quick recap on the complication. During the era of the pocket watch, Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon around 1795. The reason for this innovation was more accurate timekeeping. Pocket watches usually were positioned either vertically in a pocket or horizontal on a table. But gravity messed with the timekeeping mechanisms of the balance wheel and hairspring to affect the precision. Breguet’s response was to created a cage that held all the timekeeping components. The cage rotated in a circle, thereby preventing gravity from pulling the spring too far one way or the other. Suffice to say, this is all very technically complicated stuff.
But it’s also kind of pointless these days. As watchmaker extraordinaire Roger Smith said in this Hodinkee interview: “A tourbillon has no practical purpose within modern horology… Today, the industry all use mono metallic balances which do not move once poised in the factory or workshop, and so for practical purposes relegates the tourbillon to the history books. Where a tourbillon does have a role today, is when a watchmaker is wanting to show off their skill, artistry and flare for miniaturized mechanics and to stand out from the crowd. I would still put one in a watch.”
And there you have it. In the here and now, a tourbillon is now something to enjoy for its visual and technical artistry. But what the Glashütte Alfred Helwig Tourbillon 1920 does is to deliberately hide this from view. So what exactly is the point of having it? I suppose you could make the argument that it provides historic veracity – the watch is a modern remake of the the Flying Tourbillon developed in Glashütte in 1920. At the time, a tourbillon was still used as a means of improving accuracy, but to show it would have been seen as rather gauche, as well as spoiling the clean lines of the dial.
By hiding its showstopping complication, the Glashütte Alfred Helwig Tourbillon 1920 takes the stealth-wealth flex to the next level. It’s a bit like having a gold watch coated in pvd so no one can see the precious metal. Or burying all your money in a hole in the desert and then refusing to mark the spot. Yet I’m totally entranced by this watch nonetheless. Who would buy it? A jaded billionaire? A horological psychopath with serious privacy issues? I’ll let you concoct your own back story. But when you do so, remember the epigraph to The Godfather: “behind every fortune is a crime”.