Although the independent horological universe has expanded in diversity and scope since the turn of the century, moments of true epiphany in the field remain quite a rarity. While the pursuit of excellence in any aspect of modern watchmaking, be it technical, aesthetic, artisanal, conceptual, or technological, may yield new breakthroughs and benchmarks, a watch ultimately must strike the perfect balance of mechanics, aesthetics, and craftsmanship in relation to price for it to come alive and sing. Today marks the debut of French independent watchmaker Simon Brette, who has introduced a watch that is right on the mark – the Chronomètre Artisans Souscription.
The name Simon Brette might be unfamiliar to most, but the 35-year-old watchmaker has spent a decade behind the scenes at some of the most creative independent watch companies in Switzerland. Right after completing his engineering studies at Haute Ecole Arc Ingénierie in Le Locle, Simon joined Jean-François Mojon’s movement conception and development company Chronode where he spent next five years as a technical constructor working on some of the most ingenious calibres in modern watchmaking. Thereafter, he became a project manager for the avant-garde and now-defunct watch company MCT, where he was responsible for turning the brand’s time display innovations into a reality. He was soon hired by MB&F and was put in charge of overseeing and putting movement concepts into practice from R&D all the way through to production.
But despite his involvement in developing progressive, high-concept movements throughout his career, the Chronomètre Artisans Souscription takes a different approach by featuring a beautifully traditional construction that is both aesthetically original and meticulously designed from the ground up to demonstrate an unbelievable level of hand-finishing. This is because back in 2020, against a backdrop of headlines about independent watchmaking hitting record highs at both retail and resale, Simon noticed that individual artisans within the industry were floundering and made it his mission to safeguard their craft. In 2021, he decided to start a business that is centered on these independent artisans, with himself as the movement designer. The Chronomètre Artisans Souscription is the culmination of skills and crafts from numerous artisans and watchmakers across the industry including the likes of Luc Monnet, who served as a prototypist at Greubel Forsey, Anton Pettersson, a watchmaker who worked on the Greubel Forsey Handmade 1, as well as specialists in decoration and anglage, Barbara Coyon and Nathalie Jean-Louis.
Aptly sized for a watch of this style, the case measures 39mm in diameter and 10.5mm high inclusive of crystal. The subscription series will be produced in zirconium while subsequent production models will be executed in more traditional metals. The watch pictured here is a prototype that is made in titanium. Zirconium is rather uncommon in watchmaking as it is challenging to machine and polish, but it has several advantages. It is significantly lighter than steel, more durable and corrosion-resistant than titanium, and has exceptional hypoallergenic properties.
What’s almost immediately apparent from the get-go is Simon’s acute sense of aesthetics, which is particularly rare among fledgling independents. Consisting of five distinct parts, the case is notably complex, with each lug secured to the case middle via internal screws, allowing for the case to be finished to the same degree as the movement. It features satin-brushed flanks and top surfaces, which are separated by a distinct concave, polished bevel, echoing the most immediately striking elements of the watch, which are the beautifully polished, concave screwheads. An attentive aspect of the design is that the tapered lugs feature two sets of drilled holes that can accommodate both curved as well as straight spring bars, allowing for two distinct strap styles to be used depending on your preference. The slightly oversized crown features the same polished concave surface, and in a nod to his father, a skilled carpenter, embedded in the left side of the caseband is a small, rose gold dovetail insert that was crafted to resemble the joint his father often used in his carpentry work.
With symmetry as the key consideration during its construction, the movement of the watch stands in contrast to the dial, which has been asymmetrically open-worked to reveal the hour wheel in the motion works, the third and fourth wheels as well as the keyless works of his own design on the right. The hour, third and fourth wheels are held in place by beautifully black-polished and rounded titanium bridges. The wheels themselves are remarkably well-finished with wide, polished bevels and sharp internal angles.
To minimize the parallax error and ensure optimal readability of the seconds, the small seconds hand made of blued steel is positioned on the same plane as the frosted sapphire sub-dial. Additionally, contrast is enhanced through a clever use of colours and decoration techniques across the main plate, bridges, wheels, dial and hands to further improve readability. The attention to detail is striking. All three hands are not only mirror-polished and rounded but each has its own hub that is bevelled and polished. The central hour hand is reminiscent of the Urban Jurgensen observatory hand designed by Derek Pratt but has been modified with a pointed tip, featuring an interior angle. While its cross section has a brushed finish, the top surface of the hand’s open section is mirror-polished, offering further evidence of the tremendous level of attention paid to the minutest detail.
The hand-setting mechanism, consisting of the setting lever, clutch lever, and detent spring, has been cleverly refined into a single mechanism that is visible through the opening on the right. While it is the most rudimentary part of every watch, here it has been finished to a remarkable degree. The levers and springs have been black-polished with bevelled edges and a sharp inward angle while the screws, which are also concave and polished, are embedded in gold chatons. The intermediate wheel next to it also features a large, black-polished concave screw.
The dial itself is made of solid red gold and showcases a magnificent textural mosaic pattern, which Simon has likened to dragon scales. It was executed by Yasmina Anti, an independent engraver based in the village of Le Pont in the Vallee de Joux. The way in which the irregular, three-dimensional surface of the dial reflects light is quite unlike anything in person. It is bordered by an opaline chapter ring with five-minute numerals and a recessed frosted sapphire ring with minute markers.
Visible through the sapphire case back, the beautifully constructed movement features two parallel barrels which offer a three-day power reserve and replicates the formula adopted in marine or observatory chronometers to obtain balance power by incorporating an extra-large balance wheel that has a traditional beat rate of 18,000 bph, or 2.5Hz. The movement was designed such that the escape wheel appears to be mysteriously disconnected from the gear train. While the center wheel is visible between the barrels, the rest of the going train before the escape wheel are hidden beneath the base plate, enabling them to be exposed on the dial. Notably, it features an in-line, or sideways lever escapement that is more commonly adopted in tourbillons as a space-saving measure. The lever and escape wheel are supported at both ends of an elaborate C-shaped bridge with black-polished steel caps. For precise time-setting, it also incorporates a hacking mechanism that stops the balance wheel with an S-shaped brake lever when the crown is pulled out.
Held in place by a black-polished and rounded titanium bridge, the balance wheel is free-sprung, featuring four turnable weights with a cut-out design such that one end is heavier, enabling inertia to be increased or decreased by pointing the heavier end outwards or inwards respectively. The overcoil hairspring is attached to a traditional kidney-shaped stud piton that has also been black polished and bevelled on its edges like the rest of the movement.
The base plate and three-quarter bridge are made in ruthenium-treated brass and feature a finely frosted finish, enabling greater contrast with the black-polished steel parts. Echoing the layout of the barrels, the three-quarter bridge is beautifully shaped to create four interior angles. The jewels for the centre wheel and balance staff sit deeply within mirror-polished gold chatons while the screws, like those on the front, are concave and mirror-polished. But perhaps the most distinctive and unusual features are the crown and ratchet wheels which feature wolf’s teeth, an anachronistic but appealing detail rarely found in modern movements. Particularly attractive is the crown wheel which is equipped with a pair of integrated, winding click springs that resemble those found in grande sonneries. The crown wheel is designed with internal teeth that is locked by these springs, serving as the winding click. The ratchet wheels themselves are strikingly finished with a brushed surface followed by a deep polished recess.
Ultimately, what the Chronomètre Artisans Souscription does exceptionally well is demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between movement design and finishing, emphasizing the importance of each in elevating the other to the level of art. As a debut watch, it is deeply impressive. As you might have guessed from the name, the Chronomètre Artisans Souscription is sold on a subscription basis. It is limited to 12 pieces with a price tag of CHF 50,000 and at the time of writing, all of which have already been spoken for. A production version will be unveiled at the end of the year. The fact that the watch pictured here is a prototype and is already so remarkable reinforces the point that Simon is one to watch.
Movement: Hand-wound caliber SBCA; power reserve of 72 hours; 2.5Hz or 18,000vph
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds
Case: 39mm x 10.5mm; Zirconium
Dial: 5N Red gold; engraved by hand; flame-blued hands
Strap: Textured calfskin and a folding clasp, as well as one with a tang buckle
Price: CHF 50,000 before taxes
Availability: 12 pieces, all allocated