The 20th anniversary of Parmigiani Fleurier rolled around just last year (the company was founded in 1996). Anniversaries for watch companies can be a very mixed bag (for a while there in the mid-2000s it seemed like some companies were hell-bent on celebrating every year as the one year anniversary of the previous year) and while sometimes you get really interesting stuff, you can also get watches clearly designed with no real enthusiasm, with merely cosmetic variations. However, for its 20th anniversary, Parmigiani Fleurier pulled out all the stops and introduced something genuinely attention-worthy: a brand new, in-house rattrapante (split-seconds) chronograph movement, in a brand new watch. That movement is the caliber PF361 and the watch is the Tonda Chronor Anniversaire.
The Chronor Anniversaire reminds me of a conversation I had with Cartier’s Carole Forestier some years ago. I was visiting the company’s manufacturing center in Le Locle, and over the course of a presentation about the company’s tourbillons I happened to wonder aloud just how technically difficult a tourbillon was compared to other complications. Carole gave me a rather severe look and said, in no uncertain terms, that in her view the tourbillon was trivially easy in comparison to designing a really good chronograph movement.
I think about that conversation every time a really new, integrated chronograph movement comes out, and if you stop and think about it, such things are really pretty rare. An all-new chronograph movement comes along a lot less often than just about any other kind of watch I can think of; and I think it says something about how genuinely challenging they are to create, that the chronograph was the last of the major complications to be developed, and that the automatic chronograph didn’t appear until 1969.
While it’s fashionable in some circles to look down on the Valjoux series of automatic movements, the truth is developing chronographs can be prohibitively expensive, as well as quite technically challenging. The caliber PF361 is all the more remarkable for being a rattrapante chronograph. The rattrapante, or split-seconds chronograph, is one in which you can time two separate intervals; the classic example is the lap time of two different horses, or cars, or greyhounds, or what have you.
The classic rattrapante has at its heart a very fussy mechanism that allows the seconds hands to split. The two chronograph hands are superimposed, and when you start the chronograph, they run together so it looks like there’s only one hand. When you push the split button (in the Chronor Anniversaire, the split button is co-axial with the crown) two jaws land on a wheel which carries the split hand, freezing it in position. The split hand is mounted on a pipe and the long pivot for the other seconds hand runs through its center. If you push the split button again, the jaws open, and a ruby roller mounted on a spring loaded lever presses against a heart shaped cam on the split seconds hand pipe. The cam turns under this pressure until the roller comes to rest in the lowest point of the cam, which corresponds to the position in which both hands are superimposed – the hands are now "un-split" so to speak.
The mechanism is not so much complex in terms of parts (a minute repeater has a lot more moving bits) but it is complex in terms of precision and adjustment. Donald de Carle, in Complicated Watches And Their Repair, says, "The split seconds mechanism must be light in action and therefore it is delicate." He goes on to discuss the great pains that have to be taken to ensure the hands are precisely lined up, as well as warning against a number of possible mistakes in servicing that can cause a rattrapante chronograph to malfunction. For good reason vintage rattrapante chronographs are avidly collected and although, like most complications, it’s possible now to produce them industrially, they’re still widely respected by watch enthusiasts – and new integrated rattrapante chronograph movements come along very rarely indeed.
While Parmigiani deserves a pretty major round of applause for the technical achievement, you can break new ground technically until the cows come home but if you aren’t making something that tugs heartstrings, a watch is a tough sell. Therefore it does not hurt that the caliber PF361 is drop-dead gorgeous. This is a 13 1/2 ligne (30.6mm) x 8.5mm movement, made of 18k rose gold; it’s a column-wheel controlled, vertical clutch rattrapante chronograph, with pierced, beveled, and engraved bridges (obviously). Though very traditional in appearance, technically it’s quite modern, running at 36,000 vph. There’s a 65-hour power reserve and the finishing’s just first rate – in gold, this is a lushly beautiful mechanism, with such a plethora of knockout anglage it flirts with almost being too much. If you’re looking for pure horological eye candy PF361 is right up there.
For me there’s only one potential gotcha: a two-tailed hand in a running seconds, or chronograph, sub-register usually seems a little affected to me. It does here too, but less so than usual; I’m not sure why but maybe it’s because the rest of the dial is very clean, uncluttered, and generally devoid of extraneous ornamentation.
I think Parmigiani Fleurier was wise to leave the dial fairly austere; the only decorative flourishes other than the two-tailed running seconds subregister (which manages to come across more instrumental than decorative, in any event) are the pyramidal hour indexes, which, though they add a little sparkle, are still pretty restrained. The case, likewise, is beautifully made and has the svelte, biomorphic lines characteristic of the Tonda line, but this is overall very much a business in the front, party in the back kind of watch, which given the incredible movement aesthetics really seems like the right way to go. And one lovely additional stealth-luxury touch is the dial material; it’s grand feu enamel – you can get it in blue or white and while white grand feu enamel has a traditionalist charm that never gets old, the "royal blue" (Parmigiani’s term for the formulation used for this watch) is, in this case I think, the way to go.
The watch will be a limited edition of 25 pieces, priced at $135,000. In the United States it is available exclusively at Le Studio Parmigiani Fleurier in the Miami Design District. This is obviously a top-shelf showpiece both in terms of finish and in terms of price but I think it’d be great to see some version of this movement in more conventional watchmaking materials; in a different iteration at a more approachable price, it could really be an anchor product for the Tonda collection. In the meantime, it’s a great way to celebrate turning 20.
The Tonda Chronor Anniversaire: case, 42.10mm x 14.6mm; white gold, water resistance 30 meters. Movement, caliber PF361, 18k rose gold, hand wound, with 65-hour power reserve; large date, column wheel vertical clutch rattrapante chronograph with pierced, beveled bridges and mainplate; running at 36,000 vph (and hence, a 1/10 second chronograph). Available with a white or blue dial grand feu enamel dial. Strap by Hermès in black or "Etruscan."