For this article I wanted to explore in some greater depth the vintage ways of watchmaking. As any modern horology enthusiast who has been studying this hobby for a while, one may have come across the watchmaker George Daniels CBE.
There is a lot of focus in modern watch press of why his particular method of producing every watch part oneself by hand (or at least using hand tools). It seems there is a particular fascination with producing things “the old fashioned way”, and rightly so. Modern timepieces are luxury items but a large part of this fascination with timepieces, apart from mechanical intrigue, is the perception that items are made (or finished) by hand rather than robots. The soul of the machine.
A modern manufacturer of any form of device will want to reduce costs by machining parts via CNC milling. These parts are then either finished by machine, or in haute horlogerie finished by hand.
Modern timepieces constructed using more time-consuming methods are generally the ones that demand the highest premium. Like a picture drawn on a computer vs an artist painting a watercolour, we appreciate art subjectively and the value of such an item makes an impact in different ways, for different people.
While art is one element that makes this hobby so fascinating, the actual physical construction is another. If you were making a series of watches in the 1800’s, how would one go about such a feat, without modern manufacturing techniques?
CONSTRUCTING EARLY POCKET WATCHES
Early watchmaking (just like in modern times) would involve the manufacture of all parts, such as an escapement or baseplate from sheets of metal but with cutting tools that were operated by hand, or even by foot to drive the cutting tools. An incredible amount of dexterity, and a good eye would be required to make such precision parts that constitute a timepiece that keeps good time.
The trouble is, how do you make another one exactly the same? It would certainly be possible but again a good eye and a lot of well-homed measuring techniques would need to be employed. Timepiece making is ironically, a very time consuming process.
1839 – GEORGES AUGUSTE LESCHOT
Given the challenges of pocket watch construction discussed previously, a perfect storm was brewing for Vacheron Constantin. High standards for production demanded that watchmakers make quality, standardized (where possible) parts from a variety of parts suppliers that didn’t necessarily supply standard blanks. In truth, no two watch movements were the same and so the Vacheron family sought the ability to standardize the manufacture of the movements of their watches into calibers. The subtle difference in the naming convention is that while a movement is the “engine” of a watch, a caliber is a standardized movement that we now know in modern times as having reference numbers, found in many watches.
This would be a very difficult task but has the benefits of increased supply (more watches produced – more profit), easier repair using standard parts, and overall a higher standard of quality. Letters as early as 1827 from Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron indicate that this work to produce watches more economically had started but it took considerable years for this concept to be fulfilled.
Georges Auguste Leschot, who was already a talented watchmaker, was given the opportunity to create fully functional machines and tools that would help to realise this concept of interchangeable parts and higher economies of scale.These parts would need to be both created in different sizes as well as parts that were identical from the one to the next.
After two years, Leschot was able to demonstrate a number of machines to the business and the Pantograph was his crowning achievement. Vacheron was immediately able to reduce the prices of it’s watches and increase production massively. Ultimately Leschot hard work paid off and he was rewarded by becoming an associate of the brand and entitled to a fifth of the profits of Vacheron Constantin instead of a salary. Vacheron Constantin kept these enterprises private from the world until 1844 and will have made a massive step over their competitors of the time.
THE FUTURE OF THE PANTOGRAPH
The device essentially allows the operator to take an object and recreate it either identically or at a larger or smaller size.
If you consider that CNC machining was taking prevalance in the 1960’s; most (if not all) brands up till this point will have been using a pantographic device in their workshop to create watch parts en-masse. They may have been miniaturized, automated and electrified but the concept is still the same.
This is one of the greatest differentiators of Vacheron Constantin in my view, over other brands. While most go wild over the invention of an annual calendar or a rotating bezel, changing how watches are actually made and getting them on to as many wrists as possible is far more important. Bravo, Leschot!
As for the future of the pantograph in watchmaking, there are many watchmaking enthusiasts still using these machines. YouTube has many videos of these in use but I particularly like this demonstration below.