The Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle didn’t intend letting its fiftieth anniversary slip by unnoticed. In association with the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), the Besançon Observatory and the Haute Ecole-ARC in Le Locle, it is staging the 2009 International Chronometry Competition. The museum’s curator, Cécile Aguillaume, was hoping for fifty entries. But when competitors’ names were announced, in La Chaux-de-Fonds on September 17th, only thirteen watchmakers had signed up, with fourteen watches. The list was given as final until, to everyone’s surprise, the registration deadline was extended to December 31st. A slight hiccup which, says Cécile Aguillaume, is in response to certain brands’ request to register after the initial closing date.
In 1967, a few years before its demise, no fewer than 1,700 watches lined up to take part in the Neuchâtel Observatory competition.
Observatory competitions were once venerable institutions. Since 1790 in Geneva and 1866 in Neuchâtel, companies vied to demonstrate their timepieces’ precision. In Neuchâtel, Ulysse Nardin, Zénith, Omega and Longines regularly squared up. In the 1950s, the competitions became marketing tools. Brands employed teams with the sole purpose of grooming their thoroughbreds for the race. In 1967, a few years before its demise, no fewer than 1,700 watches lined up to take part in the Neuchâtel Observatory competition.
The impact of Japanese brands
This is when the Japanese brand Seiko burst onto the scene, and with it the quartz oscillator. There are still people in Neuchâtel who remember the Japanese delegations that descended on the town for the entire 45-day duration of the tests. Their watches smashed existing records to smithereens even if, in a swell of national pride, first prize went to the Centre Electronique Horloger (forerunner to the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique) for its Bêta 21, in the late Sixties. And yet with perfection only a whisper away, interest in these competitions waned. The last ones were held in Geneva in 1967 and in Neuchâtel in 1972, before quartz turned the industry upside-down.
It would be an understatement to say that Cécile Aguillaume is intent on resurrecting an entire slice of Switzerland’s watchmaking heritage, in what promises to be a super production. The competition will officially begin on May 23rd 2009 with the formal submission of the timepieces to the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle. Competitors must have assembled, adjusted and timed their watches themselves, in-house. Trials will be conducted at the Besançon Observatory, the Bienne office of the COSC, the Haute Ecole-ARC Institut d’Horlogerie et Création in Le Locle, and again at the COSC. In addition to testing precision at different temperatures and in different positions, the watches will be tested for their capacity to withstand shocks and magnetic fields.
The competition is only open to European manufacturers. Were the organisers afraid that international brands might sweep the field? “Not at all. It’s a question of logistics. Opening the competition to the entire world would have meant communicating in Chinese and Japanese, and we don’t have the resources for that.”
Results will be announced in early 2010, following which the watches will go on display as part of a temporary exhibition at the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle, until August 31st. By which time the committee will have decided to organise – or not, as the case may be – a second competition.
The first 13 competitors
The final list of entries will be announced at the end of the year. Thirteen competitors from three countries have so far registered to take part. They are:
Chopard Manufacture SA, Fleurier with the L.U.C. Tourbillon Steel Wings Classic 16/1906, calibre Tourbillon 4 T/F
Le Petit-Fils de L.-U. Chopard & Cie S.A., Geneva with the Tourbillon 1869, calibre L.U.C. 1.02
De Bethune with the Auberson mechanical calibre DB 2005
Doxa SA, Bienne with the Doxa Sub, 11½ 2892 ETA Chronometer
Fabrication de Montres Normandes, Brionne, France with a hand-wound calibre
Manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre, Le Sentier with the Master Tourbillon, calibre 978
Manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre, Le Sentier with the Reverso Gyrotourbillon, calibre 174
François-Paul Journe, Geneva with the Chronomètre Souverain, calibre 1304
Urban Jürgensen SA, Bienne with the P8
Olivier Randin, Vufflens-le-Château with the Christian W et Olivier R, new bidirectional self-winding movement CLARO
Swatch SA, Bienne with the Swatch Diaphane, calibre ETA 2824
Tissot SA, Le Locle with the Tissot Le Locle, calibre ETA 2824-2
Christian Umscheid & Thomas Gneuss, Austria with the ME1, ETA A07.111 base
Kari Voutilainen, Môtiers with the rectangular calibre 27
Article published in BIPH