By Michael Thompson
Outside of the small ateliers, few Swiss watchmaking manufacturers can still point to a founding member or a family member whose name matches the name on the company’s building.
And wisely, the esteemed family members at most of these companies are in many cases still involved in a few aspects of what might be called an extended-family business.
When in late 2011 Roger Dubuis, the watchmaker, rejoined the Richemont-owned firm that has made his name synonymous with Geneva Seal-quality tourbillons, longtime brand followers rejoiced. Roger Dubuis the brand was in the middle of a restructuring, and when Mr. Dubuis himself re-joined the company as an ambassador, fervent admirers of his strict adherence to Geneva Seal standards breathed a sigh of relief.
It was Dubuis who, when he co-founded the company in 1995, insisted that all Roger Dubuis calibers adhere to the labor-intensive Geneva Seal requirements. It was a rule he instituted after years at other firms and noting inconsistent qualities among supplied calibers.
When he returned to the firm in 2011, Dubuis remarked, “I am both happy and moved to be back at the heart of the firm I gave everything to, from my passion, to my name and to support the revival of this remarkable house.”
At his firm’s house fully 160 of the 250 employees are watchmakers, says CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué, the former Montblanc executive who took the helm at Roger Dubuis in late 2011. It was Pontroué who announced Dubuis’ return to the company.
Ambassador Dubuis has traveled the globe, visiting several countries (including the United States) for the very first time during the past year. But in addition to recalling his experiences as a company founder, Dubuis has also spent a great deal of time with the company’s current head of movement development Gregory Bruttin.
And Bruttin has been busy. On the cover of this issue is the Roger Dubuis Quatuor, the newest and possibly the most technically challenging model to emerge from Roger Dubuis, a firm already known for tackling virtually all manner of complicated timepieces.
Well versed in the manufacture of double tourbillons, Roger Dubuis began to consider doubling the precision of its designs almost immediately after designing its first double flying tourbillon with a single differential in 2005, reports Claude Vuillemez, the Roger Dubuis chief operating officer who oversees the company’s watchmaking direction.
But as the many years that have elapsed may indicate, there were more than a few technical hurdles involved.
“We went to four balances with the Quatuor, which totally negates the effect of gravity,” he explains. “To do so with four balances, four escapements and four hairsprings, we needed four times the usual energy.”
Bruttin, who designed the firm’s famed double tourbillon, was up to the task. He knew he wanted to retain the use of a sole, linked energy source rather than add multiple mainsprings to an already complex gear train. This required a series of very strong gears to connect to the two linked and powerful mainsprings that took years to develop, explains Vuillemez.
“Each escapement uses as much as 60% to 70% of the energy it receives, and with four on this watch, the prime energy has to be huge,” he explains. “Thus to use a huge energy source you also need strong gears to handle the high torque. Everything had to be oversized to account for that.”
He adds it took years of research to develop the know-how to balance the energy between these super-gears and the differentials, which are not unlike what lies below the stick shift on an automobile.
“In the double tourbillon we had one differential, and on this model we have five differentials,” he says. Three of the differentials link the balances in the gear train, one in the center and the two others on the balance staffs, providing an average of the positions for even greater accuracy. The fourth differential controls the power-reserve transmission, while the fifth connects the rewinding stem and the two parallel barrels.
Each differential is a complex set of twenty-nine smaller components. “The power needed is much greater for each of them because we also have them set at a 45-degree angle, and there are five of them, not one, on the watch,” adds Vuillemez.
The power reserve indication is another of the many technical advances on the Quatuor.
“We have a patent pending on how we display it here,” says Vuillemez. “The indicator is on one of the two barrels. It turns with the barrel, as does the hand, so when the barrel empties, the hand will move to one side. You read on one of the two sectors how much power is left.”
Roger Dubuis also has patented three other technical designs on the Quatuor: the balance designs, the micro rotor concept (a Roger Dubuis specialty) and the resonance technique that is the key to the watch’s precision.
“The four balances are in harmony–they tune themselves,” he explains. “When one moves faster, the gear stops it and then gives its energy to the other side, and when one pair goes faster, the micro gears share the power. The time set is the time calculated by the engineering, not the time calculated by the watchmaker. Once each of the four escapements is set perfectly, no one needs to touch it. It stays precise.”
The four carefully positioned sprung balances essentially work in pairs to compensate immediately for the rate variations caused by the changes in position. What the tourbillon achieves over the course of a minute, the Excalibur Quatuor achieves instantly.
The result of four whirring 4 Hz escapements is a 16 Hz beehive-like hum, deemed “beautiful music” by both Vuillemez and Pontroué.
“This watch is a good summary of all our brand values,” says Pontroué. “We say often that we have to create the incredible, and this is a good example of how our design team can push boundaries of what exists in watchmaking. It’s about the knowledge of our people.”
Despite the obvious stare-inducing nature of its unusual dial and case, the Quatuor is not a show piece, he insists, but rather a design based on technical virtuosity, much in keeping with a brand co-founded by a master watchmaker.
“We could have turned the brand into something more design-oriented,” admits Pontroué. “But our company is a balance, and the watchmakers developed this product. It doesn’t come from a marketing briefing, and it doesn’t come from design sketches.”
The Quatuor, which debuts at the 2013 SIHH, will sell for 350,000 Swiss francs; eighty-eight will be made and this year’s production of six units has already been pre-sold, according to Pontroué. Next year he expects Roger Dubuis to make twenty-eight, and production will conclude in its third year.
He adds that Roger Dubuis will focus on the firm’s Excalibur collection this year, with several debut pieces already in pre-release, including a new 42 mm model and an unusual Knights of the Round table edition, both of which we’ve pictured here.
International Watch will review all the 2013 Roger Dubuis models in the April issue.