iW Magazine
iW Interview

Return to Zero

Bernhard Zwinz talks about his revival of Joseph Thaddeus Winnerl, the legendary 19th century watchmaker who invented the return-to-zero mechanism.

For more than twenty years I have known Bernhard Zwinz as a horological ‘man behind the scenes’ in the Vallée du Joux, well known among insiders for his work on complex movements (assembly, finishing as well as design) for the most prestigious companies and independents in Switzerland and beyond.

Bernhard Zwinz

Introverted, and not often prone to smiling, Bernhard takes watchmaking very seriously indeed; therefore when he contacted me to discuss a special watch project close to his heart, I was all ears, and visited his atelier to learn more and interview him about his project.

Background history

The name Joseph Thaddeus Winnerl will only be recognized by the most erudite of watch nerds, so don’t be surprised if you have never have heard of him before. Names ending in ‘L’ like this are typically Austrian in origin.

Although born in Austria, at a very young age Winnerl left home to study watchmaking as an apprentice, serving among others, Georg Schmidt Fidel in Graz, Urban Jürgensen in Copenhagen and the famed watchmaker Breguet in Paris after his arrival there in 1829. Already by 1832 he had started his own business in Paris producing marine chronometers, precision pocketwatches and clocks.

By 1832, Joseph Thaddeus Winnerl had started his own business in Paris producing marine chronometers, precision pocketwatches and clocks.

He was so renowned that in 1835 Ferdinand Adolph Lange took up learning French in order to live to Paris and apprentice with him. Lange ended up staying at his shop for a period of five years; this is how the ¾ plate, as extensively used by Winnerl, would wind its way into the world of watchmaking in Saxony and become a trademark of Glashütte’s watchmaking tradition.

Later, Winnerl was appointed as watchmaker to the Paris Observatory during the same period. Some of the most important scientific research was being achieved there, such as the accurate calculation of the speed of light, research into magnetism, celestial mechanics and proof of the Earth’s rotation.

Last and not least, his chronometers would guide the French Navy across the globe, right up until the 1970s, and his first experiments with electric timekeeping were instrumental for establishing public timekeeping in Europe.

The inventor

In terms of pure horological exploits, he was a prolific inventor. If you have a chronograph on your wrist today, it is Winnerl who was responsible for one of the most essential mechanical developments found at the heart of every mechanical chronograph - the return to zero mechanism.

Winnerl split seconds mechanism

Among some of the greatest achievements must be his invention in 1831 of the first pocket watch with an independent, stoppable seconds hand. At the time this was a novel idea, and many people did not realize the importance of a seconds hand that could be stopped and restarted at will, which is something we take for granted today. Later, in 1838, he presented a pointer mechanism with two superimposed seconds hands, the direct precursor of the split seconds mechanism for timing two events simultaneously during a single event. Around 1840 he presented a triple split seconds chronograph pocketwatch, the first of its kind ever created.

Bernhard, for many people, the horological history of Winnerl is really unknown. Can you tell me more about how your interest in this 19th century Austrian watchmaker started?

You might say the interest arose naturally after I had one of his ship’s chronometers in my hands, and learned that Winnerl originally also came from a farming family as I did. It surprised me because there are so many parallels with my own personal story. The short version is that, like Winnerl, I am also Austrian and also left my homeland to further and deepen my watchmaking experience ‘where the action was,’ which in my case is Germany and Switzerland.

Marine chronometer by Joseph Thaddeus Winnerl, France, circa 1850

After graduating cum laude from the watchmaking section of the Technical School in Karlstein, Austria, I was really hungry to learn as much as I could about haute horology and complications. These are the kinds of things you have to learn from others and there were no sources for this in Austria at that time.

So, after school I worked with several companies: Roger Dubuis and Vacheron Constantin in Geneva and later Chronoswiss in Munich. The year 2001 was important because that is when I started to work in the Vallée du Joux at Philippe Dufour’s atelier. At the time his wristwatch was really taking off, and I had responsibility for the assembly and finishing of the Simplicity series for a period of three and a half years.

Of course, Winnerl and I gained our watchmaking experience from different sources in different centuries, and finally ended up in different places, but the background, trajectory and tradition of learning and apprenticeship between us is quite similar. Furthermore, Winnerl’s concentration was mainly with the art of timekeeping itself for scientific and nautical purposes and less with the creation of fashionable timepieces.

His work struck me as the purest form of watchmaking. I think I recognized my own tastes and preferences for a similar way of working that made Winnerl’s oeuvre very attractive to me.

What did you do after leaving Philippe Dufour’s atelier?

I thoroughly enjoyed working with Philippe Dufour and it was an incredibly enriching experience, however, I really wanted to work with different types of watches, movement and complications like tourbillons. For that reason I ended up setting up my own workshop, Atelier du Joux, in 2004, and for the last fourteen years now I have been working for other brands such as Greubel Forsey, Moser, Urban Jürgensen, MB&F and MCT.

My workshop is small, but we’re able to cover everything such as movement design, prototyping, finishing, the assembly of tourbillons, repeaters and every kind of complication imaginable, as well as complex repairs and restorations.

Why you have only now started now with Winnerl after all of those experiences?

It was a process that I did not want to rush in any way…. It began with researching Winnerl’s history and patents, cataloguing existing timepieces. As my curiosity increased I tried designing the first movement, and even some movements planned for the future, that could also have been created by Winnerl. I wanted the first movement to be something he would be proud of were he alive today.

Bernhard Zwinz’s first Winnerl, with red gold case

Therefore I decided to make it a completely new movement. I designed all the drawings and calculations myself embedding as much of Winnerl’s ideas in the watch as possible. The parts were all made to my precise specifications, mostly by Andreas Strehler, who is a good friend of mine.

This first Winnerl wristwatch is truly a ship’s chronometer for the wrist, inside and out, and in fact it is the first wristwatch movement of its kind incorporating a unique balance wheel design taken directly from Winnerl’s chronometer No. 80.

Zwinz's new watch features a bowl-shaped balance inspired by this Winnerl chronometer No. 80.

Despite being more than 175 years old, this chronometer number keeps better time than any quartz watch, with just a cleaning and oiling. The austere, seemingly simple design was perfectly executed, with exceptional craftsmanship in every detail. My personal feeling is that if Winnerl – a no-nonsense kind of guy - were here today, and was suddenly introduced to the wristwatch form, he would likely start off making wristwatches with direct inspiration based on his ship’s chronometers. Such a small, and highly accurate timekeeper like that would have been unknown in his day, and a kind of marvel.

If Winnerl was so well known and acknowledged in his day, why is he not more well known today?

I think there are a number of reasons behind that. Many collectors today do not realize that watchmakers in previous centuries often had to make a choice between pure watchmaking for specialized nautical or scientific applications, or creating timepieces for the public, dependent upon their professional or economic needs.

In very rare cases, you might find specialized and public watchmaking being created by one workshop or individual. A typical example of pure watchmaking everyone today might know is perhaps John Harrison; he mainly only made clocks as tools, such as chronometers for finding the longitude at sea, along with a few regular pocket watches for himself and an acquaintance or two.

Breguet represents the exactly opposite extreme: almost all of his watches were created for his numerous, very rich private clientele and aristocrats, concerned mainly with exclusivity or status – despite Breguet’s inventivity and horological improvements.

Very few pocketwatches by Winnerl survive, and those that do are rather sober, keeping to the idea of a ‘tool watch’ with the primary focus of timekeeping. This is because the majority of his watchmaking centered on marine chronometers, many of which were made specifically for the French Navy or for observatory and scientific applications. So, you can really say Winnerl was what I would call ‘the watchmaker’s watchmaker’. As I mentioned, this also forms another part of my attraction to his timepieces and inventions.

How will you be introducing these watches to the public?

I will be working online with the introduction as well as via personal contacts. So far it is amazing as the three special founder’s watches to start the project, as shown on the Winnerl website, are all sold and under construction as we speak. The regular serial production model, which will only begin after the delivery of these three unique examples, already is being ordered by some collectors, so I have every reason to feel encouraged!

In any case, I plan the regular series production to be rather small, and already have the technical drawings almost completed for three future models as well. All of these things took much time for me plan on my own, so I am really happy we can start this new stage of slowly releasing the first watches.

Wearing a New Winnerl

I was lucky to be able to wear Bernhard Zwinz’s prototype of the very first Winnerl model for an afternoon, and my first clear reaction is that this is a wristwatch for serious watch collectors where every detail is subjugated to the clarity of reading the time and exact timekeeping.

You see this in little and unusual details like the fact that the hands are deliberately poised very close to the dial in order to avoid refractive discrepancies in the reading of hands and dial. Exactly like a ship’s chronometer, the seconds are prominently located at 12:00 for accurate observations.

Caseback view of the Winnerl 601 by Bernhard Zwinz, showing the three-quarter plate

On the back of the watch, the ¾ plate visually shocks any eye accustomed to regular Swiss movements - until you realize that this massive structure ensures total stability and purity in the transmission of energy in the going train.

And last but not least is the novel, bowl-shaped Winnerl balance construction that allows for an exceptionally fine regulation of the watch’s timing, also directly taken from a Winnerl ship’s chronometer. Typical for Bernhard’s attention to details, the clasp of the watch is also a unique design that lies perfectly flat on the wrist.

The novel, bowl-shaped Winnerl balance construction that allows for an exceptionally fine regulation of the watch’s timing, directly taken from a Winnerl ship’s chronometer copy

A vegetarian, Bernhard Zwinz is offering alternative materials for the strap as well that are fully in line with its classic case profile. (Being myself a meat-lover, I considered his attention to this to be rather over the top, but after he showed me a film how the skins for straps are obtained, I too was convinced of his idealistic concept!)

With Bernhard Zwinz’s incredible thoroughbred watchmaking history, you know this is an extremely unique watch where every tiny detail has been obsessed over, coupled together with an historical pedigree. Therefore, I think it is clear that this is undeniably a watch destined for the wrists of watch lovers who want to enlarge their collection with a timepiece able to bring something new to the table, without having to resort to colors, carbon and crazy dial layouts in order to get noticed.

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