The Lengths Of Time: La Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud

Extraordinary moment. A watch that transmits all the achievements of Berthoud as the father of French marine chronometer in a brilliantly contemporary timepiece. Karl-Friedrich Scheufele has revived the mythology of one of horology’s most mythical names with beautiful modern eloquence.

Karl-Friedrich Scheufele is better known as the head honcho of Chopard timepieces, but he has now put his weight behind resurrecting another name — that of the legendary maker of sublime marine chronometers, French master watchmaker Ferdinand Berthoud.

It was known in every civilized nation that he who had dominion over the oceans would possess dominion over the world itself. Because previous to the invention of the marine chronometer, man could chart his position in terms of latitude through celestial navigation, but he could not effectively determine longitude. The frustration was that everyone knew the technique by which longitude could be determined. The problem was that no one had created an accurate-enough timepiece that would allow successful calculation at sea. The way to read longitude was simple enough. You set a clock or watch to a reference time, such as that at the port of your departure. Then you calculated the difference between local ship time and that of the Greenwich Meridian to determine your position at sea in terms of longitude. And it was clear that in the early 18th century, as the major nations of the world embarked on colonial expansion, each competing with the others to claim a greater majority of the territories throughout the world, the creation of a watch or clock that could maintain accurate time despite the rigors of being subjected to the constant motion of the sea and the other related shocks and exposure, held the key — so much so that in 1714 the British government offered a prize of GBP20,000 (GBP4 million in today’s currency) to any watchmaker who could deliver a truly accurate marine chronometer.

An attempt to craft the world’s first marine chronometer was first made by the legendary Christiaan Huygens, the man who invented the pendulum clock. But his attempts ultimately failed. Eventually, the British Longitude Prize was claimed by watchmaker John Harrison, who dedicated the vast majority of his life to this achievement and inspired men like Thomas Mudge to follow in his footsteps. But while these men were instrumental to the quickly expanding success of the British colonial efforts, in France there was a watchmaker who had also cracked the Rosetta Code of marine chronometry and his name was Ferdinand Berthoud. And while he may not have been the first to create a watch that was accurate at sea, he is today revered as one of the world’s greatest horological geniuses and the man who very possibly created the finest marine chronometers ever made.

Berthoud was Swiss in origin and born into the watchmaking epicenter of Fleurier in the town of Val-de-Travers. By 1745, he had a thriving business in Paris with a focus on creating the most innovative and technically advanced marine chronometers in existence — so much so that he was appointed clockmaker to the French Navy in 1762, and that to the French King in 1773. It was the King of France Louis Philippe I who insisted that Berthoud visited John Harrison in the spirit of cordial international technical exchange. With Berthoud’s help, France’s fortunes multiplied considerably during the 18th century, but it was far from an easy time. Competition from Spain, Portugal, England and even the United States was fierce. But thanks to strength of its navy, equipped with Berthoud chronometers, France was able to seize vast tracts of land in the Caribbean, North Africa and even India.

Today, whether functional or decorative or both, a Berthoud marine chronometer is considered one of the most desirable works of horological art that any collector can possess. And it was through his collection of Berthoud marine chronometers that Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the co-president of Chopard and the founder of the brand’s technically brilliant in-house manufactured L.U.C division, first began to forge an emotional bond with Ferdinand Berthoud.

The more he observed the watches’ brilliant functionality, the more he dissected the horological language of the watchmaker encoded into the gear wheels and levers of these works of kinetic art, the more Scheufele could feel Berthoud reaching across the vast ocean of time that separated them and calling out to him. Quietly, Scheufele began to investigate the status of the Berthoud brand name, and at the same time, he began to consider how he could connect the extraordinary chronometric values of Ferdinand Berthoud with watch collectors today, should he be given the opportunity to resurrect this fabled name. Then the opportunity arose for Scheufele to acquire the mythical brand and create a modern watch business by channeling its spirit into a new vision of contemporary watchmaking. REVOLUTION had the opportunity to sit down with Scheufele to discuss his vision for bringing one of horology’s most fabled names into the new millennium and beyond.

Ferdinand Berthoud FB-1.1

WEI KOH: It’s funny that every time I interview a watchmaker and I talk about inspirations, invariably, the name Berthoud will come up. Berthoud is particularly interesting to me because of what he was creating technically; there was a functionality to it that people’s lives depended on, in particular, his marine chronometers.

How do you feel about that?

KARL-FRIEDRICH SCHEUFELE: He was more than a watchmaker — he was somewhat of a scientist. He had broad interests, and as you said, he was very keen on precision, and being able to capture time perfectly well over a long period, which was essential for the GPS functions at the time.

Yes, for longitude! I know you have a Berthoud in your collection that inspired the watch you’ve created. But let’s go back a little bit to the beginning of your story with Berthoud. How did you first hear about Berthoud, what fascinated you and how eventually did you end up acquiring the maison?

It was a bit like finding one piece of the puzzle at one point and then you kind of open a book, and then you go through all the pages, and then you noticed that you’ve made a discovery. When I set about putting together the museum collection that we have, the collection of antique watches which actually my great-grandfather started, I really wanted to expand it and to fi nd a way of showing it. It was at that time that I came across Berthoud, and I discovered that this genius watchmaker was actually born around the corner from Fleurier, and I purchased my fi rst Berthoud chronometer.

Chronomètre FB 1 in Rose Gold
Chronomètre FB 1 in Rose Gold

Was this the watch that inspired the FB 1?

It was not that particular one, it was a simpler one. After the first one, a number of other pieces followed. We have about 10 very interesting pieces, and most of all, a lot of literature followed as well. He wrote a number of books about watchmaking that turned out to be fascinating to look at and read through, and that really gave me the inspiration of wanting to revive that name and render homage. Basically, the last thing that happened was, I came across someone who had actually registered the name, and at one point, he was interested to revive it. I would say that luckily he didn’t. As far as I know, he was like: “Well, I’ll probably buy some ETA movements, and you know…”

It’s definitely a good thing that he didn’t.

I persuaded him to sell us the name, which he did. That was back in 2006, and for quite awhile I just kept everything in a drawer, not knowing exactly how to tackle the project. But then when everything started, everything naturally fell into place.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that there is no sharing of technical resources or intellectual cross-pollination between L.U.C and Berthoud. Now, over the last decade and more, you’ve had some extraordinary technical advances at L.U.C. Why not use L.U.C as an idea factory or technical think-tank for Berthoud? Why was it important to separate them?

I really wanted to give the Berthoud project its own identity. It’s very difficult for someone who has been working on the L.U.C project to completely switch, and to forget about everything we ever knew about movement making, because he’s been thinking about L.U.C movements for some time.

For me, it was extremely important that a Berthoud watch needed its own visual and technical identity. Also, in terms of the visual architecture of the movement, it is something completely different and very much inspired by the movements that Berthoud made.

I was very impressed to see that even the spokes of the gear wheels are very much like the spokes of the gear wheels you would see in the clocks by Berthoud.

The overall idea was to say what Berthoud would have done if he were to make a wristwatch today. We also didn’t want to do something that was only reminiscent of Berthoud. It had to be an object of today.

The Calibre FB-T.FC
The Calibre FB-T.FC

I see that you’ve used modern materials like titanium for the movement and the tourbillon cage, for example. You’ve used sapphire in a very innovative way and you’ve got ceramic in your watch as well. Can you tell me about the technical team that was behind this watch?

It’s an in-house team. We had a limited collaboration with someone outside of our team. The other thing I wanted was that no one should know about the project in its early stages. A lot of things up to a point were made undercover. Even within our company, within Chopard, the project was just called project P.

Why P?

We decided to call it P — like Paul, you know. Very few people within Chopard knew about the project, and in the very beginning, we had one or two outside people working on it. But 80 percent of the movement was conceived, designed and built in-house.

Were the external watchmakers there specially for the chain and fusée mechanism?

The chain was one of the technical feats. But every Ferdinand Berthoud watch has to be a chronometer.

The fusée and chain transmission
The fusée and chain transmission

I want to talk to you about this as well. You’ve got a watch that is a tourbillon, and you’ve got it COSC certified even though it’s 3Hz, and it’s got a huge central seconds hand. Tell me why it was important for you to create a tourbillon that is a chronometer?

The word chronometer is in the company’s name. Being in the company’s name, you cannot afford not to have a chronometer, cannot afford not to have chronometer certifi cation. That being said, we decided to have, as you noticed very well, a 3Hz vibration, but it’s not the easiest one to have if you want to make a chronometer.

No, because in L.U.C, which is COSC certifi ed as well, it is 4Hz and that makes a big difference.

We really wanted the owners of the watch to see what was happening in the movement, and with a 3Hz movement, it’s more of a sight, more of an experience.

It’s also probably a nice compromise between the even slower vibrational speeds of the original marine chronometers and the needs of a contemporary wristwatch. What was the most challenging part of this project?

One of the most challenging parts was to master the chronometry, the chain itself, and also the tensions within the movement. You have a lightness — if you look at the columns, everything is very transparent, very open — yet at the same time, it had to be very solid.

Does pillar architecture mean that the baseplate is suspended by pillars?

Yes, you have a baseplate, some top plates and some parts, as if they were suspended somehow.

So it’s the train that is being suspended then?

We have some parts that are only fi xed on the baseplate; they’re not held on top, which is another technical feat.

What is the technical reason for only mounting them on the bottom?

We really wanted the owner to see and experience his entire watch, so to speak, and not cover up everything, which is so interesting to look at. When you turn the watch over, you have a wonderful view of not only the tourbillon, but also some other parts.

View of the Chronomètre FB 1 from the underside
View of the Chronomètre FB 1 from the underside

I noticed that you even made a power reserve from a suspended cone, which was inspired by George Daniels. Can you tell us a little about why you decided to do this?

This technique goes back to Berthoud; we found it also in his history, which was another nice challenge to integrate — really fascinating. At the same time, the dial remains clean, and if you look at his chronometers, they still remain very simple, not loud, and the idea was, when you look at the Berthoud, you know that it is something spectacular, but at the same time, it remains discreet.

Can you explain why it was important for you to have a direct-drive seconds hand?

The direct-drive seconds hand is really a must in chronometer making; you don’t have any disturbance, you exclude any play in the wheels, which means that your seconds are really beating as it should. The seconds hand itself is a feat because it is extremely thin and long, and extremely well balanced. It’s really stunning-looking, and reminiscent of the hand you’d fi nd on a marine chronometer.

Why did you decide to make an octagonal case? 

We were looking at the cases of different marine chronometers, because most of them came in a square case. But a number of them came in octagonal cases… and we thought it was a recognizable and interesting shape. The octagonal shape is quite subdued, and with the watch being rather large, fi ts extremely well on the wrist.

We can transition a little bit into some of the contemporary materials that you used; I’ve noticed that you’ve used some titanium and ceramic. Does this stem from your philosophy to imagine what Ferdinand Berthoud would use were he alive today?

I believe that he would probably use whatever interesting materials that he had that were available, as he did in the past, and use those that were best suited for whatever purpose, and in this case, for the purpose of holding the bracelet, for example, and not adding weight to the case, it is well achieved.

How many of them will you make?

There will be 50 in rose gold, and 50 in white gold, to start with. Of course, we won’t stop there, and we will certainly expand on this movement and obviously introduce some other models, but definitely, a Berthoud will remain a very exclusive watch.

For you, what distinguishes a Berthoud watch in one sentence?

For me, it’s the essence of precision watchmaking — a revival of precision watchmaking in a very concentrated package.

Well, looking at the watch and the images that you have created, and reading about what you have achieved, I think that you have beautifully communicated the spirit of Berthoud: the technical authenticity of it being a tourbillon, what with a central seconds hand that is COSC certified, and with the lower vibrational speed as an homage to the marine chronometers of the past.

I love the pillar architecture, and I think it’s great that you’ve integrated a suspended cone power reserve from Daniels. The chain and fusée is also a wonderful homage to the clock you have in your collection. I think you’ve done a phenomenal job.

People have asked me, why do we need another brand? Why do we need to revive another watchmaker? I thought a lot about all these points, and I said, this watchmaker in particular should not be forgotten. At the same time, it’s a big responsibility to capture the essence of what he was about, and to communicate it to people who may or may not have heard of him. At the same time, we didn’t want to get completely lost in history.

I think that’s important, and one of the most impressive things about it is that it’s got that tension between the past and the future, and therefore creates something that is unique for today.

For future models, I really want to cultivate that sprit. It’s great to have such a history, but at the same time, we are making watches for today, and that’s our mission and our passion.


Caliber FB-T.FC manual-winding movement; 21,600vph (3Hz); 53-hour power reserve; chronometer-certified by COSC


18K white gold and titanium; 44mm; water-resistant to 30m; screw-lock crown in 18K white gold with 18K-rose gold medallion OR

18K rose gold and black ceramic; 44mm; water-resistant to 30m; screw-lock crown in 18K rose gold with black ceramic medallion


Vertical satin-finished ruthenium dial with cutout center; 18K blued gold hour, minute and power-reserve hands; blued bronze seconds hand OR

Vertical satin-finished black dial with cutout center; 18K-gold hour, minute and power-reserve hands; bronze seconds hand

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top