In the watchmaking industry, there are few iconic names. Contemporary ones like Philippe Dufour or François-Paul Journe, but mainly some old but highly famous names like Abraham-Louis Breguet. Another one might be slightly less known but his working life also conducted to true innovations and several masterpieces: Ferdinand Berthoud. This long-time forgotten name is about to live again, as Chopard Group (that owns it for a few years now) just decided to resurrect the concept and the production of watches branded “Ferdinand Berthoud”, with an impressive first timepiece, the Chronomètre FB1. Overview.
When it comes to the use of old names in modern watchmaking, we tend to be, at first, skeptical. We’ve seen so many interesting names, praised by vintage watches collectors, dug up from the past with results that tend to be… debatable. Using a famous name or brand, just for marketing reasons, with cheap quartz watches is, unfortunately, quite common. However, from time to time, famous old names are used with great care and printed on the dial of interesting watches. Take for example Pierre Jaquet-Droz, resurrected by Swatch Group with the modern Jaquet Droz watches. Same goes for John Arnold, a name that undergoes a new life with the complicated and superbly finished Arnold and Son watches. This could also work for Breguet, which Swatch Group totally redeveloped since its buy-back in 1999 (even if the brand was not dead and was in the hands of Chaumet during the 1970s and the 1980s).
With these examples in mind, we are in front of two situations: historical names too often used by indelicate people with no respect of traditions and history or, a few success that show the importance of being faithful to a rich past. This is why, when Choaprd Group announced the re-birth of a great name such as Ferdinand Berthoud, we were full of doubts – and this, even if we have a huge respect for the production of Chopard and especially the L.U.C collection. It could well be a total success or a pure fail. But that’s going to be the second part of this article, when we’ll have a closer look at the Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 Chronomètre. First, we need to understand who was Berthoud and what are his achievements.
A look at the history of Ferdinand Berthoud
Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) really became famous in 1753, when he officially earned the title of Master Clockmaker – probably the pinnacle of his career. Ferdinand Berthoud was born in Val-de-Travers (in the actual Neuchâtel canton, Switzerland) but he quickly moved to Paris, France, at the age of 18, to study clockmaking and horology. After several years of training and scholarship, he was recognize as a truly talented watchmaker. in 1752, he presented to the Academy a longcase equation clock, considered highly ingenious. This was the starting point of his career as a researcher. At the age of 26, in 1753, the French King ordered that he be named a maître (master), a title that allowed him to open his own workshop in Paris.
In 1754, Ferdinand Berthoud once again submitted his inventions to the Academy. One was his first marine clock project. The others, examined and approved by the academics, were also equation systems. Berthoud had clear intentions. Not only he wanted to be an inventor and a watchmaker but he also had the desire to be a scientist with the wish to transmit his ideas. He wrote several essays, treatises and books, with some being some having a popularization wish (like L’Art de conduire et de régler les pendules et les montres. A l’usage de ceux qui n’ont aucune connaissance d’horlogerie – The art of operating and adjusting clocks and watches. To be used by those with no knowledge of watchmaking).
Alongside this scholar and research life, Ferdinand Berthoud also continued to create clocks and pocket watches. He created several Marine Clocks (marine chronometers N° 6 and N° 8) that achieved in measuring longitudes to within less than half a degree, on board of several French boats. After successful sea trials of the marine chronometers N° 6 and N° 8, Ferdinand Berthoud was commissioned as “Horloger Mécanicien du Roi et de la Marine” – Horologist-mechanic to the King and the Navy – and received a royal command for 20 marine chronometers for the French admiralty.
Marine clock M.M. n° 6, dated 1777 and kept in the Chopard L.U.CEUM museum in Fleurier (that you can see on the photo above) was the staring point for the resurrection of the name “Ferdinand Berthoud” and a great source of inspiration for the further collection to come (and for the Chronomètre FB1). This renewal of the name is the initiative of Chopard’s co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, who acquired the name in 2006. However, it took some time to the team of Chopard Group to launch this name again, as the Scheufele family (owner of Chopard since 1963) wanted to stay close to the original spirit and to respect the history and heritage of such a name. With the new collection, the goal was to imagine the watches that Berthoud could have conceived in 2015 and not to recreate the same clocks / watches again. However, such a speech is quite usual – we’ve heard so many brands saying that they introduce a collection that an old name could have created with modern tools or as if the person was still alive… The questions are first to see what the new Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 looks like and then to know if it is worthy of the name that hides behind the brand?
A closer look at the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1
At first sight, the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 is properly surprising. An octagonal shape, a large diameter, a blend of antique and modern design clues. However, the initiative behind it is slightly more complex and quite well thought. Of course, there is some designer’s work or some marketing behind the watch (the reality is simple: they have to be sold…) but not only. It transpires that Chopard Group – in fact Mister Scheufele and a small dedicated team – took the time to conceive something coherent and appropriate – and the result is a complex watch, with a nice (to say the least) movement and some interesting features.
Let’s first talk about this design – why this large octagonal case with a round dial? As stamped with the name Berthoud on the dial, this Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 clearly had to be inspired by Marine chronometers (this is the case for the movement and the display) as well as Marine in general (for the overall idea and the design). Two inspirations can be seen. The first one seems natural (and already head at PP or AP, not to name them…): portholes (the openings on the sides of a military ship). The second one is more subtle but directly refers to the work of Berthoud. The FB1 is inspired by the marine chronometers developed by the Swiss master-watchmaker, and in particular their gimbal suspension system typical of ship’s chronometers, where the movement-container is hold in place by an anti-shock / anti-move device that had (depending on the clocks) a round or an octagonal shape.
In the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1, the movement and the dial are first cased in a central waterproof container. Then, several modules are added, like two screwed-on gold elements on the flanks and pieces in the middle of the lugs, to result in this octagonal shape. These octagonal add-on sides open onto four lateral sapphire portholes (you have the second inspiration now) that allow a view on several parts of the movement.
The Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 measures a large 44mm x 13mm. It is available in two editions, one in 18k pink gold, with black dial and black ceramic inserts between the lugs or in 18k white gold, with ruthenium grey dial and titanium inserts between the lugs. Despite the dimensions, the FB1 is easy on the wrist and never felt huge or intrusive while I had it with me. The integration of the lugs and the placement of the strap helps to balance it on the wrist. The second surprising aspect is the fact that this octagonal shape becomes secondary once on the wrist, as the round bezel predominates. It is certainly a bold and unusual watch, with a huge presence and some character, but on the other hand it remains subtle enough.
Moving to the display now. The Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 features 3 distinct indications (with two of them having a special technical importance). The focus is clearly made on the second hand, which proudly takes place, alone, in the middle of the dial. Don’t forget that the inspiration is marine clocks and thus precision, explaining the need for an oversized second hand and smaller hours and minutes indications, both placed in an off-centered sub-dial at 12. This combination of an oversized second hand and smaller time indication is common in marine-themed watches. The brushed dial finally shows a third indication: the power reserve (and like the second hand, it hides an interesting technical feature). This indicator is directly engraved on the main plate of the movement.
The hands are, depending on the edition chose, made in pink gold (on the pink gold / black edition) or blued (on the white gold / titanium edition). All are using traditional Ferdinand Berthoud shapes, with arrows and long counterweights, but in a more modern approach. All the inscriptions on the dial are printed or engraved with the same original font – quite an elegant one to be true. The inner flange that displays the second is made of sapphire crystal and sports antique-like graduations, where the numerals are separated with a line (like most of the marine chronometers).
As said before, two of these indications are linked to interesting mechanical features, which leads us to the important part: the movement, in the name of the FB-T.FC calibre. This calibre is far from being a simple one, as it features several complications and chronometric devices, like a constant force “flying” fusée-chain, a tourbillon, a directly driven second hand, a innovative power reserve and a specific architecture, blending old-school construction with modern technology.
The entire FB-T.FC calibre comprises 1,120 components (most of them are in the chain) within a 35.50 mm diameter and a reasonable 8 mm thickness. It shows a specific design called “pillar construction” (something used in antique clock and that is still used by a few German manufactures). Instead of having plates and bridges machined with hollows to support the mechanical elements (like the barrels, the gear train or the different wheels), the main plate and the bridges are here flat and separated by titanium pillars securing the bridges to the main-plate. The moving parts of the movement are placed in-between these two flat plates, ensuring a solid and durable construction. Then, you can see the warm color of the bridges, that are made of maillechort – also called German silver, even if it is not made of silver – again a blast from the past, as most of the movements are now made in rhodium-plated brass.
The finish of the movement, as well as the overall design, is made with great care. The layout is balanced and symmetrical, with the fusée and the barrel on the top and the tourbillon cage in the lower-half. All the parts are finished by hand, with polished beveled angles, straight graining, perlage on the main-plate or black polished steel parts (look at the super-sharp arrow-like bridge of the tourbillon). The cage of the tourbillon is also impressive, as very opened and light, as well as very large.
Let’s get into the details:
- the fusée-chain
The use of a fusée-chain is not usual in our modern era. Only a few watches are coming with this type of complicated and delicate mechanism. It requires a conic fusée, around which a chain is wrapped. In the case of the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1, the chain measures 28cm and comprises 474 steel links and 316 pins, all finished and assembled by hands. The advantage of a fusée-chain is to provide (theoretically) a constant force to the gear train, as the barrel delivers its torque with a greater linearity compared to a classical barrel. The barrel itself is linked to the Maltese cross stopwork device that serves to limit the number of winding turns of the mainspring and to ensure pre-determined, constant-force transmission during the letting down process. The movement boasts a power reserve of 53 hours.
In the case of the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1, this fusée-chain is quite specific as its a flying one – suspended to be true. Just like a flying tourbillon that is only hold on one side of the movement, the barrel and the fusée are not enclosed between two bridges but only fixed to the movement on the main-plate, creating a interesting view when looking at the movement and saving some space.
- A one-minute tourbillon and the directly-driven second hand
On the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1, the tourbillon is hold in a titanium cage and beats at a rather slow 3hz frequency. It is equipped with a variable-inertia balance, with anti-magnetic self-compensating balance spring. The balance features 4 inertia-blocks in gold for a micrometric adjustment of its amplitude. The main specificity is that this tourbillon directly drives the second hand, not by the gear-train but with a single coaxial wheel in the centre of the movement.
- An interesting power-reserve mechanism
On the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1, the power reserve is quite unusual and inspired by a mechanism developed by the famous British watchmaker Georges Daniels (the inventor of the coaxial escapement). This mechanism, directly linked to the barrel by a driving wheel, uses the winding and letting down motion of the mainspring to make a truncated cone move up and down along an arbor secured to the mainplate. A mobile arm tipped with a roller jewel serves as a feeler-spindle in measuring the motion of the cone and transmitting the movement’s power-reserve level to the dedicated hand.
This beautiful and really complex movement is furthermore certified chronometer by COSC and assembled by a small dedicated team of highly trained watchmaker in Fleurier (previously part of the L.U.C Chopard team).
After a closer view, it is difficult not to look at the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 as a very impressive watch, both for its design, both bold and restrained at the same time, and for its movement, technical, extremely well finished and mechanically interesting. No doubt to have, we’re in front of very Haute Horlogerie, a (big) step further compared to the watches made by Chopard Group with the L.U.C Collection (that are already quite impressive). Quality-wise, the Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 is stupendous. From my point of view, it is a design success and I loved to have it on my wrist – something that remains subjective, and everyone will have his own opinion. Technically, it’s impressive, even if Chopard could have pushed a bit more by having the Quality Fleurier certification (I’m critical here, I know…).
However, if there’s no doubt about the watch itself, remains the big question about the right to have a name such as Ferdinand Berthoud on the dial. Does this FB1 is worthy of the legacy, heritage and history of this great watch-master. Well, if the watch in question would have been powered by an ETA movement, my answer would have been directly NO… which is not the case here. It’s always difficult to imagine if someone would agree on a production based on his name but separated by more than 2 centuries. If we take a look at Berthoud and his path for precision, the beauty of the movements made, the inventiveness and now comparing it the actual Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1, I would say that, yes, this watch (and I hope the collection to come) are in the vein of the name printed on the dial. The work made by Chopard Group and Karl-Friedrich Scheufele is impressive, the watch is impressive and the whole idea is impressive (and coherent with the spirit and heritage of Berthoud). For me, it’s a successful first attempt.
The Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 is a limited edition of 2 times 50 pieces (for each edition) and it is priced at 220,000 Euros. ferdinandberthoud.com.