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When the Chinese watch boom was at its height, manufacturers put any number of traditional motifs on to watch dials to make timepieces attractive to that market. To illustrate the incentive, Swiss watch exports to China went from SFr45m ($47m) in 2000 to SFr1.4bn in 2014.
However, some makers eschewed the manufacture of watches busy with Chinese symbols for something a little more profound. “I was never really in favour of doing special models for a country or something like that,” says Marc Hayek, chief executive of Blancpain. “But at the same time you take the influence from different cultures, and the fascination was learning more about Chinese culture,” he says of the thinking behind Blancpain’s Chinese calendar watch, launched in 2012, which has densely printed Chinese characters around its three subdials.
The idea of making a Chinese calendar watch first arose about a decade ago when he discussed the idea with some friends in Taiwan. Beyond naming its years after animals, the Chinese calendar is lunisolar. That is to say, it is based on the cycle of the moon, or 29.5 days. A year of 12 lunar months works out, therefore, approximately 11 days short of the solar year of 365.24 days.
The western or Gregorian calendar — calibrated around the day — adds its extra day during leap years to make sure that the calendar and the seasons do not get out of sync over time.
By contrast, in the Chinese calendar a leap month must be added. This means that the year is either shorter or (periodically) longer than the solar year, and accounts for the changing date of Chinese new year.
For a calendar watch to function over the long term, a cycle must be found for watchmakers to design a mechanism around. Eventually Mr Hayek’s watchmakers were able to discern a cycle in the Chinese calendar that repeated itself every 60 years. The watch’s key features included the indication of leap months and the signs of the zodiac, the five elements and the 10 celestial stems (an ancient system of counting).
“The combination of the latter with the 12 animals of the zodiac that represent the terrestrial branches follows the 60-year cycle that is central to Chinese culture,” explains the brand. And given that the moonphase is a signature complication of Blancpain, as a maison it is suited to the lunisolar basis of the Chinese calendar.
“It took years to understand what was in there and what was needed and not needed,” says Mr Hayek of the different indications on the watch face. At the start of the project, “I said, ‘OK, let’s see what has been done,’ and then we realised that nothing [similar] exists and I got more passionate, and that is how it really started.”
It is this desire to go where no watchmaker has gone before which motivates such innovations, says Julien Marchenoir, director of heritage and strategy at Vacheron Constantin. “Calendars are traditionally part of astronomical complications, and in recent years when everybody was saying that everything had been invented, a trend in watchmaking began for astronomy . . . [This] fascinates because looking at the sky represents a way to dream again and escape from what is sometimes very hard reality.”
Vacheron Constantin has had its own calendar conundrum, he adds. “The various calendars represent the diversity of our culture and sometimes present a technical challenge like the Jewish calendar of the Reference 57260 we presented at the occasion of our 260th anniversary, as it had never been mechanically reproduced before.”
Indeed, given the development time and the resources of skilled watchmakers needed, the specialised calendar remains a complication that is often linked to commemorative events. In 1989, when it was marking the 150th anniversary of founder Antoni Patek’s first pocket watch, Patek Philippe released the Calibre 89, one of whose complications predicts the notoriously mobile date of Easter. The team dedicated to this watch had worked in secret for almost a decade.
Twenty-five years later for the 175th anniversary, Patek Philippe launched the Grandmaster Chime, an ingenious calendar watch that did not merely display the day, date and month in the traditional visual fashion but, in a watchmaking first, indicated it aurally too. This was a unique combination of two great complications, applying the sound-creation of a minute repeater to the date of a calendar.
While such watches are unlikely to become commercial, they are a demonstration of expertise. As well as providing brand definition and identity, they underline the role of a complicated watch as not merely a luxury item but as an object representing, as Mr Marchenoir puts it, “a technical and cultural interest that says something about who we are and where we come from”.