We were first introduced to the F.P. Journe Astronomic Souveraine when the company released details about the unique piece they were offering at the Only Watch Auction. The prototype piece, known as the Astronomic Blue, had Journe’s signature tantalum case and blue dial fitted with a shocking orange strap. It ended up fetching a handsome CHF 1.8 million at the Only Watch auction, far exceeding its estimate of CHF 300,000 to 600,000.
We thought it did amazingly — it ranked as one of the most expensive independent watches ever to be sold at auction — but not François-Paul Journe himself. When we met him in Hong Kong just before he jetted off to Dubai, he quipped, “The hammer went down too fast. It could have gone higher.”
Journe was in Hong Kong for a brief sojourn to present the production version, the Astronomic Souveraine, to close friends and long-time collectors. A grand complication in steel, with tourbillon and minute repeater, the Astronomic Souveraine had 18 functions and astronomical complications devoted to the contemplation of the stars. It was the most complicated timepiece F.P. Journe had ever created and truly a feat for an independent watchmaker.
But Journe tells us he didn’t set out to create the most complicated timepiece in his portfolio. In fact, the inspiration for the Astronomic Souveraine didn’t even come from him. It was his son, Charles, who inspired the timepiece, with a sketch he did in 2004 that featured a curved aperture on the dial to indicate the sun’s path.
“While I was on my way back to Geneva from the Montreux Jazz Festival, [my son] was staying at my mother’s. He calls me and says that he drew a watch. I told him, ‘That’s great! You’ll show it to me.’ He was around 14 or 15 years old,” Journe recalls.
“When I get to my mum’s house, I asked where is the watch he has drawn and he replies that he threw it away because he thought it was stupid to think that he could draw watches like me, so he threw it away. I go to the bin and find the drawing crumpled behind it. I put it in my pocket and didn’t talk to him about it for years.”
He didn’t forget about the sketch though. Journe says, “[My son] had drawn the aperture with the sun inside which I used as my starting point for the design. At first it wasn’t supposed to be this watch, it was supposed to be a simpler watch because when I started drawing it, it was in 2005-2006, I had just released the Grande Sonnerie. It wasn’t my goal to already replace it at that time.
Much later, Journe went back to an earlier creation, an astronomical pocket watch that he had created for a collector of scientific objects in 1987, to form the base of the watch that became the Astronomic Souveraine. That pocket watch had a unique tourbillon that indicated mean time and sidereal time, as well as equation of time, a full calendar and the power reserve.
Like the pocket watch, the Astronomic Souveraine also has a dual-dial configuration that works out pretty well for a design of this stature. It was versatile enough so that elegance, readability and comfort were not sacrificed when the watch was so extremely complex. The watch is made up of 758 components, but it doesn’t look that way. Housing the 18K rose gold calibre 1619, the case measures 44mm in diameter and is only 13.8mm thick.
On the dial, the sub-dials are beautifully embellished with clou de Paris decoration, and the moon that appears in the moon phase indication is traced from a NASA photograph to an extreme likeness. The civil time, normal time as we know it, can be read at 3 o’clock, with the blue hand indicating a second time zone. At 9 o’clock the sidereal time dial is shown, which is time measured from the rotation of the Earth relative to stars instead of the sun. The mean time seconds are shown on the disc just below it. The central hand shows the minutes, while the power reserve indication can be read at 6 o’clock, at an optimal 40 hours.
And above, at 12 o’clock, is the aperture that inspired it all, showing the sunrise and sunset. On the reverse side is the equation of time and a full annual calendar displaying all the signs of the zodiac. It is also on this side that the tourbillon can be viewed.
Journe says he’s stationed two of his watchmakers on this particular watch in his manufacture. Understandable then, that the Astronomic Souveraine is going to be extremely limited in number, not more than four to five pieces will be made in the next year.
Movement: Manual-winding Calibre 1619 in 18K rose gold; hours, minutes, seconds; second time zone; sidereal time; equation of time; moon phase indication; tourbillon with remontoir d’egalité; power reserve of 40 hours with indication; annual calendar; sunrise and sunset indication
Case: 44mm x 13.8mm stainless steel; sapphire case back