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Review: F. P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain

The oldest watchmakers have been around for centuries. They’ve contributed to the very foundation of what watchmaking is today, without which the industry would not exist in the way it does. Geneva-based watchmaker F.P. Journe, however, has achieved none of those things. It’s a brand that’s only a few decades old, barely out of its teens, that did not exist through the periods of evolution that shifted clocks to pocket watches to wristwatches. So, how has it fixed a hundred-year-old problem that no-one else could?

The year 1999 was one of dramatic change. The Matrix warped minds, Europe forged a single currency and the world prepared for the apocalypse following Y2K. It was also the year François-Paul Journe committed a fourteen-year obsession to paper by founding his very own brand. This, at the time, could have been considered one of the less remarkable things to have happened in 1999, a flight of fancy from a man swept up on the romance of his passion for watchmaking.

There are many times that people have been described as passionate, but in the case of Journe, it’s probably underselling it. When most people are pondering whether they want to be an astronaut, a fighter pilot or a racing driver, Journe ached to become a watchmaker. Where most people, as they get older, let their dreams fade, Journe committed himself to his, entering watchmaking school at the age of just fourteen.

As every college graduate knows, the student life is a poor one, but nevertheless Journe found himself hankering for not just a watch of his own, but a tourbillon. A quick scan of a high-end jewellers window will tell you that a tourbillon is no affordable thing, a complex, delicate instrument that sits at the very top of a manufacturer’s catalogue, often costing tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.

So how was Journe to get one of his own? Well, he’d go and make one, of course. For the price of the raw material, he fashioned a tourbillon pocket watch for himself, every wheel and every screw, guided by the pages of the late George Daniels’ book Watchmaking. You don’t need me to tell you that a graduate that can make his own tourbillon is someone worth keeping an eye on, and it wasn’t long before his exceptional talents were put to work by London jeweller Asprey.

The people at Asprey must have smelt a bargain in this fresh-faced watchmaker, because they didn’t just want a wristwatch or a pocket watch or a table clock—they commissioned a full-on planetarium, complete with a mechanical depiction of the solar system, planets picked out in gold, rubies and diamonds, orbiting the sun in the middle. Imagine that, barely twenty years old, making the most hallowed complications of not just watchmaking, but all of horology.

Word soon spread, and the commissions began to grow. Clocks, pocket watches, wristwatches—in just a few short decades, Journe travelled through a thousand years of timekeeping, devouring the challenges posed to him by inquisitive collectors and big-name watch companies one by one without compromise. Retrograde perpetual calendars, five-second remontoirs, planetary complications—it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.

But up until then, there was one thing Journe had never done: put his name on the dial. And so in 1999, when he unveiled his collection for the very first time and made his watches his own, there were only a handful of people who truly understood what this really meant to watchmaking. To everyone else, this small watchmaker starting off in the land of greats was just a whisper in the wind.

That was several decades ago. Things are different now. Despite producing less than a thousand watches per year, the incredible genius of François-Paul Journe has woven its way through the community until that whisper became a shout. Like a chef that refuses to franchise his restaurant because he wants to stay in the kitchen, Journe continues to stand by the company’s motto, Invenit et Fecit—“He Invented and Made”—personally developing every watch to come out of his Geneva headquarters with the same obsession that drove him when he was just fourteen.

By now I hope that you should realise that François-Paul Journe isn’t a man who does things by halves. He didn’t make himself a simple watch; he made himself a tourbillon. He didn’t build Asprey a clock; he built them a solar system. The F. P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain isn’t just a tourbillon—it’s a personal challenge set by the man himself.

Let me tell you a little something about the tourbillon: in a wristwatch, it’s pretty much useless. The idea was, back in 1795 when it was invented by an idol of Journe’s, Abraham-Louis Breguet, that by slowly rotating the entire escapement—that is, the balance, pallet fork and escape wheel—the effects of gravity could be nullified by exposing the escapement to its forces equally.

Think of it like … an almost empty jar of honey. Tip the jar over and the honey pools in the lowest part of the jar’s side, drawn by gravity. Slowly roll the jar along, however, and the honey will eventually coat the inside evenly because every part of the jar has been exposed to gravity equally.

But what if you stood the jar upright again? The honey would pool in the bottom. If you spin the jar now, of course the honey is just going to stay in the bottom. This is why a wristwatch makes no sense having a tourbillon, because the orientation of the escapement is like that of the upright jar, oblivious to gravity no matter how much you spin it. Back when watches were kept on chains in pockets, however, the escapement was orientated like the jar on its side, and the tourbillon made sense. It’s a problem that’s existed for over a century, since the wristwatch began.

That’s one of the challenges Journe set himself with the creation of the calibre 1519 for this Tourbillon Souverain, to make the tourbillon functional. And if you can’t change the way wristwatches are worn and kept when they’re not worn, then what do you do? You tip the jar on its side. Now, for this Tourbillon Souverain, set in amongst the Clous de Paris guilloche dial, the tourbillon is set vertically, so when it’s worn on the wrist or left on the side, the balance is fighting gravity and the tourbillon compensates for it.

Now, you’re well within your rights to suggest that this is simply a case of inventing a problem to be fixed for the sake of it, and perhaps that’s what the company’s motto is alluding—but pushing technology and skill and capability is exactly what F. P. Journe is all about. Why take the easy route if you can go the difficult? Why settle for sensible if you can push for preposterous? Building a car that goes 1,000mph doesn’t solve any problems, yet the supersonic vehicle Bloodhound is very much a thing. Space tourism doesn’t answer any fundamental questions, yet Virgin Galactic ebbs ever closer to its maiden trip. It’s a curiosity that’s innate to humanity, and in François-Paul Journe, it’s turned up to eleven.

And that’s barely the start of it. In watchmaking terms, a tourbillon cage is a heavy brute and a huge demand on torque—so Journe took the watch a step further with the inclusion of a remointoir d’egalité—that is, a constant force mechanism.

Like the tourbillon, the mainspring, a watch’s power source, is also subject to imbalanced forces, but with the mainspring, its imbalances are its own doing. When this mainspring is freshly and fully wound to its peak eighty hours, its tightly packed coils can produce an immense amount of force—but as it becomes unwound, that force decreases, causing the watch to lose accuracy. This is especially evident on a watch with a tourbillon, which demands more torque to run in the first place—more so when it’s actually having to fight gravity like it does in the vertical arrangement found in the Tourbillon Souverain, and especially so when the tourbillon runs at twice normal speed just so it looks even cooler. There’s even an angled mirror around the tourbillon reflecting light in so you can see it better.

So what Journe has done is to equalise the force whether the spring is full or near-empty, with a device that takes inspiration from some of the earliest clocks ever made. These water clocks, built some two-and-a-half-thousand years ago, operated with a flow of water that slowly filled a cup until it was full. When it was, the weight of the water would tip the cup, advancing the clock, emptying and reseting for the water to flow into it again. The same happens here with the Tourbillon Souverain, but instead of with water, its with torque. The spring in the constant force mechanism resists the build from the mainspring until it becomes too much, only then giving way and allowing the display to advance.

But this got Journe thinking. He could have hung his hat up at this point and congratulated himself on a job well done, but as we’ve come to discover, the itch of a challenge is too much for him to resist. His thinking was this: if this watch houses one of watchmaking’s most complex mechanisms, the tourbillon, whose sole purpose is to improve accuracy in all positions, and a remontoire d’egalité, whose sole purpose is to improve accuracy at all states of wind, then why not also include a function reserved only for the most precise of clocks as well?

Back when accurate timekeeping was not commonplace, towns would adjust their clocks to precision instruments found only in local observatories. These very precise clocks, called regulators, where designed not for casual reading, but the precise setting of smaller devices that could be returned to their towns of origin and used to sync the town’s clocks. Hours, minutes and seconds were separated onto different dials, with the seconds adding a peculiar, but incredibly helpful function when it comes to setting the time: the seconde morte, or dead seconds.

The seconds on these regulators would tick once per second—like a modern quartz, but not for reasons of energy conservation—making it easier to sync time across to the portable clocks. What Journe figured was that if he already had the constant force mechanism pooling energy at fixed intervals, he may as well calibrate it to do so once per second, making the second hand tick over the Grand Feu enamel sub-dial just like the grand old regulators did in their day.

F. P. Journe may not have centuries of heritage, may not have a name that defined the industry—but what he does have is the ability to make up for all of that and more. He’s obsessive, he’s unforgiving, he’s relentless—and that’s exactly what you’d expect from the genius behind the brand that has become one of the most desirable in the world in such a short space of time. His career may be short, but his work spans many lifetimes of horology, the Tourbillon Souverain taking inspiration from clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches all in one design. So how do you fix a one-hundred-year-old problem? By understanding a thousand years of solutions.

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