In-Depth: Jacob & Co. Jean Bugatti Tourbillon ChronographBy Cheryl Chia
Jacob & Co.’s foray into watchmaking has unfolded in a really interesting way. It was in 2002 when the company, founded by Jacob Arabo, expanded its business into watchmaking. Its diamond-studded, quartz- driven timepieces soon became a staple on the wrists of stars from Jay-Z and Kanye to David Beckham and Leonardo DiCaprio. But over the last decade, its approach to watchmaking has evolved in a dramatically different light, culminating in madly magnificent mechanical contraptions that, incidentally, also tell time on the wrist. While they continue to garner pop culture acclaim, Jacob & Co.’s over-the-top timepieces have become a curio among watch nuts for their imposing, celebratory mechanics that push complication design in exciting new directions.
The Astronomia Tourbillon and Twin Turbo Furious are classic examples of its horological and aesthetic extravagance. In contrast and in a marked departure, this year’s creation, the Jean Bugatti Tourbillon Chronograph, looks incredibly subdued, while nonetheless harboring some serious technical firepower under the hood. The fruit of its longstanding partnership with Bugatti, the timepiece was created to honor Ettore Bugatti’s eldest son, Jean Bugatti, who was a gifted designer and creator of the unforgettable Type 57SC Atlantic and Type 41 Royale.
Limited to 57 pieces for each variation, the Jacob & Co. Jean Bugatti Tourbillon Chronograph boasts an extremely exotic and technically demanding type of chronograph. Not only is it a high-beat, but it is also a bi-retrograde chronograph that displays the seconds in units and tens, along with a digital jumping minute counter, forming a complex, action-packed daisy chain of events no one had ever attempted in a chronograph. What’s more, it also features a pair of flying tourbillons.
Tourbillon chronographs make up a rather rare genre in modern watchmaking, despite each being a relatively commonplace complication on its own. And there’s a reason for this. A tourbillon is driven on a fixed fourth wheel, doubling as a seconds indicator, while a chronograph is driven off the fourth wheel, which itself displays the running seconds. Another deterrent are the limitations in dial design both complications entail, not to mention the amount of inertia involved. These restrictions, however, permit creativity and variation; almost every tourbillon chronograph on the market, from George Daniels’ chronograph wristwatch to the Bvlgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph, is achieved with unusual solutions in gear arrangement or dial design.
Likewise, the Jacob & Co. Jean Bugatti Tourbillon Chronograph is highly unusual. In fact, its approach is a drastic deviation from all known solutions in this genre. Unlike the rest, the movement was built around an exceedingly power-hungry chronograph — a 5Hz bi-retrograde chronograph with two centrally mounted hands for elapsed seconds and 10 seconds, respectively, as well as a digital jumping 30-minute counter made of sapphire disks. Hence, the chronograph, by necessity, is isolated from the timekeeping function with its own dedicated power source, transmission system and oscillator.
The movement was once again conceived by Le Cercle des Horlogers, the same complication specialist behind the Twin Turbo Furious. Like the latter, it is equipped with a pair of tourbillons displayed in apertures at five and seven o’clock. However, due to space constraints in the center of the movement, there is no differential or clutch spring connecting them. Instead, they are driven independently by separate gear trains and mainspring barrels. Arranged in a linear fashion, one gear train powers the timekeeping hours and minutes on the periphery while the second is simply an exercise in exhibitionism.
As a recap, the basis for a tourbillon in a watch is to nullify the effects of gravity. It houses the balance wheel and escapement in a carriage that rotates on a fixed fourth wheel. Because the oscillator is constantly in a different position, gravitational errors are neutralized while the watch is held in the vertical position. But it should be screamingly obvious that the impetus for the watch’s design stems from sheer showmanship.
Both tourbillons are supported only at their base, without a bridge on its top pivot, giving the impression that it is unfixed and thus “flying.” Their cage design is topped by the Bugatti EB logo in polished steel. Interestingly, both tourbillons sit behind smoked sapphire crystals, which aids in legibility when reading elapsed time on the jumping minute disk.
The fundamental construction of the chronograph differs markedly from any regular chronograph wherein the chronograph mechanism sits on top of the movement’s gear train, which lies on the mainplate. In the Jean Bugatti, the chronograph has its own dedicated gear train built on the same layer. Notably, because of this design, the chronograph mechanism has to be compact and thus, the usual levers of a chronograph are combined to form interconnected, multi- pivot levers. They perform traditional functions within a small confine in a creative and intriguingly convoluted way to accommodate the retrograde mechanisms.
The barrel and gear train are located on the periphery on the right side of the movement and is only released when the chronograph is started. As with a standard chronograph, a brake lever controlled by a column wheel is used when the chronograph is stopped. But while a brake lever stops the chronograph seconds wheel so elapsed time can be read in a regular chronograph, the lever, which is curved and exceptionally long, stops the balance wheel when the brake is applied in the Jean Bugatti.
When the chronograph is started, the column wheel spins, allowing the tip of levers to fall in between or on top of its pillars. During this time, the brake lever is pushed outside of the pillars, releasing the balance wheel. At the same time, as the lever is displaced, it moves a complex multi-part lever known as the “isolator,” which acts as a coupling mechanism. It connects the fourth wheel of the movement to a central pinion for the seconds.
The basic mechanism for a retrograde display consists of a snail cam, a pivoting lever that ends in a rack that drives a wheel on which the retrograde hand is mounted. The lever is constantly in contact with the cam, and as it drops from the highest to the lowest point of the cam, the retrograde occurs. Typically, a retrograde mechanism has a relatively compact design with each component located close to the other. However, and at the risk of sounding redundant, this is a chronograph, and the retrograde action is controlled by the column wheel, necessitating a long and convoluted multi-part lever to perform the very same task.
When the balance is released, the multi-part lever that ends in a rack moves horizontally and is indexed by a snail cam that is constantly driven by the fourth wheel of the movement. The rack lever then comes into contact with the cam, which makes one revolution in 10 seconds. The lever rides along the cam until it reaches the highest point and falls, causing the retrograde action of the seconds hand. Each time the rack lever falls, a finger attached to the tip of the rack advances a 12-point star wheel one tooth forward which in turn advances the 10-second hand.
A second snail cam, mounted on the same pivot as the star wheel, makes one revolution in 60 seconds. A braking force is applied on the star wheel as the snail cam pushes against a small lever, controlled by a stopper spring. The cam rotates against a rack lever that drives a pinion for the 10-seconds hand. When the lever drops off the highest point of the cam, the retrograde motion occurs. At the same time, a counter finger mounted co-axial to the star wheel and snail cam then flips the 30-minute wheel by one position, causing the jump of the sapphire minute disk.
The reset hammer is particularly long and convoluted, consisting of various parts as the column wheel is far from the reset button. As the chronograph is running, the reset hammer is held back and hooked by a lever (reset command). When the chronograph is stopped, the brake lever halts the balance while a locking pin on a spring- loaded safety pawl presses against a notch on a security lever, holding the 60-second rack lever in place. Once the reset button is pushed, the security lever returns to its original position by means of springs. At the same time, the reset command lever releases the hammer, which then falls on the heart cam on the minute wheel, causing the sapphire disk to rotate all the way back to the zero position.
While the minutes rely on a traditional heart cam, the hands can’t be reset on demand as they are retrograde systems that rely on springs to gather sufficient energy to power the backward jump. In order to execute the reset, they slowly continue their course to their final position before making the final retrograde leap.
The three mainspring barrels in the movement are wound collectively by the crown. The barrels for the tourbillons provide a 48-hour power reserve and that of the chronograph is two hours.
While Jacob & Co. may have uncharacteristically exercised some restraint on the front of the watch, the complexity displayed on the back is unabashedly true to form. The entire chronograph mechanism is visible on the caseback above a distinctive bridge in the shape of a cat’s ears. It contrasts vividly against a circular-grained, blacked-out mainplate. Right below is the 5Hz balance wheel, which is flanked by two long springs that govern the retrograde actions.
At 46mm wide and 16mm high, the Jacob & Co. Jean Bugatti Tourbillon Chronograph is by no means a small watch, but given the complexity and nature of the movement, the size of the watch starts to seem perfectly reasonable. Additionally, the beauty of this high-beat, bi-retrograde beast is that it has a deceptively simple, resolutely classic and restrained exterior, making it extremely wearable. It is available in two iterations: a white gold case paired with a vibrant blue dial or a rose gold case with a cream-white dial. The case has short, rounded lugs and is entirely polished, setting the stage for the unique chronograph dial.
Located on the periphery of the dial are two small pointers that indicate the hours and minutes. They run on the same scale but are on different elevations and will overlap as the minute pointer catches up with the hour pointer.
The central chronograph display shows the elapsed seconds in units and tens on two concentric retrograde scales. The seconds is indicated with a shorter hand while the longer hand measures the second’s tens, resulting in a spectacle of whipping retrograde hands whenever the chronograph is actuated. In between the two tourbillons is an aperture that displays the jumping minutes. When in motion, it all makes for one of the most visually dramatic dials seen in chronographs.
Oftentimes, the use of independent trains in a watch might take away some of the intrigue that lies in mechanical coupling. But the chronograph alone presents a satisfyingly complex daisy-chain system that justifies its multi-train architecture. It represents a singular achievement, one that stems from an unstoppable conviction to take complications to their summit in a highly imaginative and genuinely novel way.
Moreover, the movement is accomplished with completely traditional materials and mechanics — levers and springs, snail cams and racks — with nary a silicon or LIGA wheel. In fact, the balance uses a curb-pin regulator, which altogether hammers home the point that this is not an exercise in advancing modern industrial watchmaking but, as with all the other watches the brand makes, a demonstration of sheer, show-stopping mechanics.
Jacob & Co. Jean Bugatti Tourbillon Chronograph
Movement: Manual winding caliber JCFM09; 48-hour power reserve
Functions: Peripheral hours and minutes, twin tourbillons, bi-retrograde chronograph displaying the seconds in units and tens, and digital jumping 30-minute counter
Case: 46mm; 18K white or rose gold; water resistant to 30m
Dial: Blue or cream white; gold-plated chronograph counter appliqués
Strap: Blue or black alligator leather; 18K white or rose gold folding clasp
Price: USD 250,000
Availability: Limited edition of 57 pieces in each reference