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How Louis Moinet invented the chronograph
History & Masterpieces

How Louis Moinet invented the chronograph

Tuesday, 02 April 2013
By Louis Nardin
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Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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4 min read

In a surprise turn of events, an instrument made by the famous watchmaker, a last-minute addition to an auction, has been authenticated as the first ever chronograph.

It isn’t every day that history is rewritten. A compteur de tierces (“thirds timer”) which surfaced at a sale held by Christie’s Geneva in May last year proves that between 1815 and 1816, the celebrated watchmaker Louis Moinet invented and made the first ever chronograph. Even more astonishing, the mechanism runs at a frequency of 30 Hz or 216,000 vibrations/hour to divide time into 1/60th of a second (known as a tierce). Not one but two game-changing revelations for the science of time measurement, and some unprecedented publicity for Ateliers Louis Moinet which placed the winning bid.

Louis Moinet, l’inventeur du chronographe © Les Ateliers Louis Moinet

For astronomical purposes

“As well as being a master watchmaker, Louis Moinet was also an astronomer,” explains Jean-Marie Schaller, chief executive and co-founder of Ateliers Louis Moinet. “He invented this compteur de tierces to provide the precise measurements his astronomical observations required. You can imagine how surprised we were when it actually came to light. Previously, we had only read about it in Moinet’s Traité Général d’Horlogerie.

Moinet’s compteur de tierces, which isn’t a watch because it doesn’t give the time, was owned by a European royal family who, initially, hadn’t considered offering it at auction. However, it found its way into the hands of Arnaud Tellier, the independent expert appointed to value lots for the Christie’s sale. Despite its not being in working order, Tellier spotted this was an interesting piece. However, with just days before the auction, he was unable to go further in his research and resigned himself to setting a modest estimate of between CHF 3,000 and CHF 5,000. On the day of the sale, it sold for a hammer price of CHF 50,000 to Jean-Marie Schaller, after a bidding battle with Arnaud Tellier, acting in his then capacity of director of the Patek Philippe Museum.

Pushers and high frequency

Once restored, this compteur de tierces revealed its secrets. It is indeed the first ever chronograph and, remarkably, even has stop, start and reset functions operated by two pushers. It would be several more years, in 1821, before Nicolas Rieussec delivered his more rustic version of a chronograph that measured intervals by dropping ink on a graduated disc.

The first high-frequency time-measuring instrument.

The frequency of Moinet’s timer surpasses anything else being produced in his day, and wouldn’t be beaten for another century when TAG Heuer produced its Mikrograph 1/100th second chronograph. The committee of experts tasked with evaluating the piece, namely Ludwig Oechslin, curator of the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, his second-in-command Jean-Michel Piguet, Bernard Vuilliomenet, historian of time measurement, François Rolland, watchmaker and restorer, Arnaud Tellier and Romain Réa, also an expert in time measurement, concluded that Moinet’s compteur de tierces was also the first high-frequency time-measuring instrument and had a power reserve of several hours. Indeed, Louis Moinet observes in his notes that the mechanism ran without any problems for 24 hours.

Credentials restored

Beyond the impact this discovery has had on horological history, Jean-Marie Schaller’s determination, not to mention a certain amount of luck, has given the brand unhoped-for legitimacy. Co-founded in 2004 by Schaller and Sébastien Mérillat, Ateliers Louis Moinet intend giving the watchmaker, artist, academic and close friend of Abraham-Louis Breguet his rightful place in history. The brand should shortly be releasing a collection of chronographs.

This whole story also serves as a lesson. Firstly it reminds us that a scientifically authenticated discovery can have far-reaching repercussions. Secondly it underscores the vulnerability of marketing and communication strategies that rely too heavily on a past that is never set in stone. The vintage timepieces and archives that were destroyed by the lorry-load when mechanical watchmaking hit rock-bottom in the 1980s are now reclaiming their place in history.

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