Chopard Alpine Eagle AscendsBy Wei Koh
Haute monde 1970s was an unabashedly nomadic experience. You could wake up one day in Mustique and the next in Marrakesh. Its glitterati eschewed the permanence of any one home base as it had embraced in the 1950s with New York and in the ’60s with Swinging London. The 1970s effectively fused mid-century café society with the rebellion of the ensuing decade and an altogether new breed of peripatetic hedonism. As if in much needed escapism after a period of radical political upheaval and social change, the ’70s was about carefree libidinousness with a brazen succumbing to one’s carnal impulses as demoiselles and dandies alike took to the dance floors of Regines and Studio 54 in a hedonist trans-global gathering of the tribe.
In the ’70s the watch world was similarly amid upheaval as the Swiss industry reeled from the opening salvos of the quartz crisis that would grow to decimate watchmaking so effectively that before the decade was over, 50,000 people would have lost their jobs. Amid this period of liminality, in order to reflect cultural changes and express a new spirit of freedom, one watch designer began to conceptualise a new category of timepiece that would be equally at home plunging into the swimming pool of the Hotel du Cap, on your wrist guiding a Haston-clad ingénue through the serpentine labyrinth of some sweaty after hours boîte, or holding court in front of your board of directors.
It was a watch that was equally appropriate when you were wearing an evening suit or your birthday suit. It was the integrated sports chic timepiece and its father was a maverick genius named Gérald Genta.
His first overture that ushered in an all-new era for this style of watch as the ultimate symbol of rakish elan was the Royal Oak, designed for Audemars Piguet in 1972. This slim sublime gem of a steel watch characterised by its octagonal bezel and visible white gold screws gained further notoriety with a price tag of 3,300 Swiss Francs, equivalent in those days to the cost of a new Jaguar. And while reactions initially ranged from outrage to perplexation the watch eventually struck its intended mark when it was adopted by Gianni Agnelli and his legion of Italian playboys. Quick to follow up was Girard-Perregaux with its hexagonal bezel, quartz-powered Laureato designed by a Milanese architect. Then came Patek Philippe with its Nautilus in 1976 and IWC with its Ingenieur SL from the same year, both designed by Genta. While the Nautilus went on to wild success, the Ingenieur was always adversely affected by a sort of identity crisis, in that while it looked like a playboy’s watch, it was positioned as an amagnetic scientific watch. That having been said, today vintage Ingenieurs have become desirable cult classics. And I have a particular penchant for the svelte “Skinny Ingenieur” iteration. In 1977 Vacheron Constantin unveiled the 222 designed by then hot upstart Jörg Hysek, and remains to my mind one of the most charming and underrated vintage watches around. In 1979 Yves Piaget designed the delicious Polo which integrated bracelet, case and even dial with the same design.
As the ’70s gave way to the 1980s a then 20-year-old Karl-Friedrich Scheufele became enthused by the idea of his family’s company, Chopard, also entering the world of the integrated bracelet, sports chic watch. His rationale was simple. As a young man who loved motorsports, skiing, sailing and had undoubtedly cut a swathe amongst the hearts of Geneva’s most eligible bachelorettes, he wanted a timepiece that embodied the modern world he was connected to. He wanted a symbol of the future, both of society and of his family’s firm. And so he began to speak to his father about the idea. Karl-Friedrich Senior recalls, “I was not initially enamoured with the idea but I appreciated my son’s passion for the project and eventually he convinced me.”
Says Karl-Friedrich, “I knew that this was exactly the type of watch my generation wanted, something I could wear while skiing but also when I put on a tuxedo.” The resulting watch, named the St Moritz, which in Scheufele’s mind perfectly evoked winter’s alpine equivalent to summer’s Côte d’Azur, was designed, prototyped and put into production in just 18 months, created totally in-house.
Launched in 1980, the St Moritz was arguably the most original timepiece in its category since the Royal Oak in that instead of a faceted bezel, it possessed audacious curving elements to surround the visible screws. Legend has it that when the watch debuted in 1979 in Hong Kong, one of Chopard’s biggest markets, it instantly piqued interest with its dégagé and unconventional charm. When some local dealers expressed doubts that the watch with its funky bezel, exposed screws and slim profile was truly 30 meters water resistant, Scheufele took it off his wrist, dropped it inside of a champagne bucket and retrieved it two hours later to prove it was functioning perfectly. Word spread and by the first day of the 1980 Basel Watch Fair, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele at the tender age of 20 years old had his first bona fide hit on his hands with 1,000 watches ordered. It should be noted that the initial production of Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, which was also 1,000 pieces, took quite a bit longer to sell.
A New Generation
OK, let’s jump cut to present day. In the ensuing 40 years in the watch industry, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele’s achievements have been nothing less than astounding. And he has become synonymous with genuine, authentic technical innovation and achievement, underscored by an old world gentlemanly charm. In 1996 he launched the company’s first in-house movement, a Geneva Seal, COSC-certified, micro-rotor masterpiece, the caliber 1.96 which won multiple awards. He subsequently created the world’s first wristwatch with four barrels and eight days of power reserve, the world’s first 4Hz, COSC-certified tourbillon, the first vertical clutch automatic chronograph with precise jumping minute counter and zero reset seconds, the first perpetual calendar with orbital moon phase display, the first triple certified watch (Geneval Seal, COSC and Qualité Fleurier), the first 8Hz watch produced in series, and the first minute repeater to use sapphire crystal gongs. He’s been the only person to be sitting on the Geneva Grand Prix’s jury as a result of winning the previous year for his brand Ferdinand Berthoud, while a watch from Chopard was being evaluated for the top prize. Ever the gentleman, Scheufele excused himself during this process so as not to affect the vote. But amusingly, the genesis of Chopard’s latest collection, the Alpine Eagle, started not with him, but with an idea that came from his 20-year-old son Karl-Fritz, in a wonderful moment of history repeating itself.
It should be noted that Karl-Fritz is a smart, dynamic and clearly sensible young man. He is currently enrolled in the famous École Hôtelière de Lausanne which his father considers one of the best management schools in the world. During an internship at one of London’s famous men’s magazines (not The Rake), Karl-Fritz was disconcerted by the fact that the staff’s focus revolved around when in the early afternoon they could acceptably start consuming their gin and tonics and quickly decided that editorial life was not for him. He had however become vastly enamored with the watch that his father had created 40 years before. Says Karl-Fritz, “It was almost a series of coincidences that I saw this watch on various different people’s wrists in the company. And we had one retailer who kept asking when are we going to re-launch the St Moritz. As a result, I started to think about the idea of creating an integrated bracelet sports watch that took inspiration from my father’s watch. The only problem was that my father was not convinced.”
Says Karl-Friedrich with a chuckle, “For me certain things belong to a specific time in life. The St Moritz was very much part of my early life at Chopard and a project very close to my heart. But sometimes when you are close to something, you prefer not to revisit it.” Yet it was not lost on Karl-Fritz that for his generation and for the modern consumer at large, the integrated bracelet sports watch has become the single most dominant category and two models in particular, the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ultra-Thin, have become the world’s most sought-after watches (omitting of course sports Rolexes which should be considered in a category by themselves).
And though he didn’t tell Karl-Fritz, it was probably not lost on his ever-savvy father that the majority of companies that have tried to create viable alternatives to these two models had all fallen short of the mark. Indeed, for the past few decades, despite seemingly tireless new attempts to break into this category, no single brand has managed to create a true viable alternative to either the Royal Oak 15202 ST or the Nautilus 5711. Their status remains unassailable. At the same time the global alignment of taste, combined with the massive hunger for these two models, has created an international shortage that means secondary prices far exceed their retail prices and the waiting list for both stretch interminably into infinity. Note that this is not a criticism on my part; in fact, I respect both Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet for consciously not responding to sky-high demand and increasing production volumes. It is however very clear that there is a huge opportunity for anyone that could successfully enter this world as a strong competitor to the iconic Nautilus and Royal Oak. But treading this path comes with huge risk, because in each past instance, everyone and anyone who’s tried to make a run at this goal has come up glaringly and embarrassingly short.
But all this did not weigh heavy on Karl-Fritz’s mind. He simply wanted Chopard to create a great watch. And he soon found two willing accomplices in his grandfather and his aunt Caroline Scheufele, who both loved the idea. Says Caroline, “We could see there was a clear demand for this type of watch and interestingly, we saw the secondary prices of the vintage St Moritz pieces rise quite significantly in recent years. So we took it upon ourselves to design a watch that would be its successor. Finally when we were happy with the result we asked Karl-Fritz to present it to his father.”
Says Karl-Friedrich, “When they showed me the watch I was astonished. I think that you can tell immediately if a watch will speak to you and it immediately connected with me. I knew that it would take some refinement and I said to my son, ‘OK let’s proceed with this watch but only on the condition that we only launch when all of us are convinced it is absolutely 100 percent perfect.’”
Says Karl-Fritz, “Of course I could only agree.”
The Eagle has Landed
What is important to understand is that in addition to being an accomplished watch designer, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele is also an extremely passionate watch collector. He explains, “I knew all the watches in this category and I knew that every detail of the watch had to be just perfect.” What neither he or his son would realise was that the refinement process would take almost three years.
So what’s the Alpine Eagle like? After almost 50 years, has a brand finally succeeded in fielding a genuine bona fide alternative to the Royal Oak and the Nautilus? Well yes… and no. No, because at just a tick over CHF 12,000 for a steel watch, the Alpine Eagle is less than half the price of either of the other watches and thus not really designed to compete in the same category. But yes for one rather significant reason. It’s interesting, but after a period from 2000-2010 when the watch consumer seemed fixated on movements and brands pulled out all the stops to create in-house calibers and vastly complex calibers, the ensuing decade seems to be primarily preoccupied with aesthetics. Meaning that the consumer today asks himself first and foremost: does the watch look good? He or she asks, “When I put it on my wrist do endorphins flood my blood stream and decimate my impulse control causing me to reach into my wallet and purchase it?” So the question is, when you place the Alpine Eagle on your wrist and turn it to face you, does your inner emotional matrix suddenly flood with unbridled desire? Is it really that good? The answer to the question is an unequivocal yes.
Is the design derivative of Genta’s creations? Only in the sense that every integrated bracelet watch, including Rolex’s wonderful Oysterquartz, will appear to have a genetic connection to Gérald Genta. But beyond that, with each passing moment on your wrist, the Alpine Eagle just gets better and better.
The size is just perfect, both on my wrist and also on Caroline Scheufele’s diminutive wrist (she wears the large version) as she points out to me, thanks to a bracelet that conforms to even the smallest dimensions. The design features a round bezel with eight visible screws placed in pairs at north, east, south and west, as with the original St Moritz. The case has visible ears which act on the right side as a crown protector. But it’s the dial of the Alpine Eagle that is arrestingly stunning. Designed with a printed swirling pattern that’s meant to evoke the iris of an eagle, it is immediately as recognisably distinct as the Royal Oak’s petite tapisserie or the Nautilus’s horizontal striped pattern, and yet, it is wholly and utterly original. This wonderfully dynamic dial is counterpointed by applied Roman indexes framed in white gold, made from a new kind of Luminova that is 30 percent brighter and degrades far slower over time. Says Scheufele, “With this watch we wanted to bring multiple levels of technical innovation and worked hard with our suppliers to achieve this.” The profile of the watch is wonderfully slim thanks to the COSC-certified in-house 01.01-C calibre that beats inside it. (The smaller model uses a 09.01-C calibre that’s also being certified by the COSC.)
Let’s pause here to say I am aware the last time a watch journalist went out on a limb to say that a viable alternative to the Nautilus and Royal Oak had been launched by another brand, he was ridiculed, vilified and basically euphemistically tarred, feathered and run out of town like an old-timer carpet bagger caught trying to flog snake oil.
So I get the fact that people get real sensitive about the subject. But I’ll go on record that the Alpine Eagle is the single best new integrated sports chic bracelet watch to be created since 1976, and I’ll stake my reputation as a watch journalist on this. In fact, I’ll go as far as to challenge you to go to your local retailer or Chopard boutique to try one on. My preference is for the slate grey dial model, but the blue dial is highly appealing as well. And if you don’t think the watch is at the very least, really good, I’ll buy you a Negroni. I’ll add to that: if you don’t feel that the asking price of the watch, replete with in-house movement and all-new special steel at 12,000-odd Swiss Francs, makes it a great value, I’ll buy you a second Negroni. But if you think as I do, that it’s epic, then Negroni purchasing can be reciprocal — even better if it is to celebrate your new purchase.
Wait back up a second. Did I say all-new special steel? Ah, good you were paying attention. One of my favourite things about Chopard has been its pioneering approach to bringing ethics into jewellery and watchmaking. With Fairmined gold, Chopard introduced us for the first time to gold that is mined responsibly to positively impact the people and environment related to its production, and sold with a guaranteed fair price. With the Alpine Eagle, the brand has also brought two important ethical elements to bear. The first is that the steel used for the watch is the first instance in which recycled steel has been used in Swiss high watchmaking. 70 percent of the steel comes from recycled steel and as a result of the material being forged twice, it has a cleaner purer white color. In addition, it features a much higher surface hardness of 225 Vickers relative to normal stainless steel’s 150 Vickers, making for a much more resilient watch.
Says Karl-Fritz, “For my generation it is incredibly important that any luxury object is impacting the climate, the environment and the global arena in a positive way. The ethics behind a watch or the brand that makes it are incredibly important.” Furthermore, the watch takes its name from a bird that was plentiful and indigenous to Switzerland but became extinct. Through a special programme Chopard supports, the Alpine Eagle will be reintroduced into the wild. Which adds another sociological implication related to the Alpine Eagle beyond all this. And that is as follows. Today when someone wears a 5711 or 15202 ST it comes with a certain baggage, as it means that he or she is well off enough to spend the big premium to purchase one of these. Conversely, the Alpine Eagle has been created to be an alternative which is great looking, incredible on the wrist and a symbol of understated charm and ethical thought, which are synonymous with Chopard and the Scheufele family.
Am I saying that it will replace these other two watches? Of course not, but we might find more and more young people looking for an alternative which is first a great watch, and second a reflection of their ethics. And we may find many 5711 and 15202 ST owners buying one and leaving their other watches at home in certain circumstances where it’s better to be discreet. Either way, it wouldn’t be possible if the Alpine Eagle wasn’t irrefutably a damnably awesome timepiece. Which it most certainly is.