Confession #1: I have a weakness for watches with the dead seconds complication. I said as much last year when I told someone I could spend the rest of my life staring at this particular mechanism, and then he went and quoted me on the internet. Thanks a lot, bro.
Confession #2: I just spent 15 minutes internally debating whether the dead seconds complication can strictly be considered a complication. The super old-school definition of a complication — which I had drilled into my head when I first started writing about watches, kinda like the multiplication tables when I was seven — is that it must add a distinct point of information for the observer. This is why the tourbillon is kind of an outlier when it comes to this. It doesn’t convey any additional information; it at best increases the accuracy of an existing indication.
I’ve now come to the conclusion that the dead seconds indication should be counted as a discrete unit of information. Why’s that, you ask. You get the same amount of information from a conventional direct-drive seconds indication, don’t you? Just count six (or eight, or occasionally five) little steps of the seconds hand and you’ve got your one-second unit, right?
Right, and you can also count 360 (or 480, or 300) of them and you’ve got a minute. Count 21,600 (or 28,800, or 18,000) of them and you’ve got an hour. You see where I’m going with this? The dead seconds indication is complicated by definition and complicated by construction. I think we can all agree on this part.
Confession #3: I don’t know why it’s called the dead seconds. Someone asked me this during Watches & Wonders, and my immediate response was: “It’s translated from the French — seconde morte.” Why it’s called that in French, I have no idea. I looked it up in Berner’s and that didn’t help either. Maybe it’s to do with the finality of each precise jump of the seconds hand, although that seems a little morbid. I don’t know! I don’t know the answer! (Anyone who knows me even slightly will realise how difficult it is for me to abandon a question without hunting down its answer.)
All right, let’s be brutally honest now. Most of the time, we don’t really know how the innovations in a watch work. We see a feature or component we don’t really understand, are suitably impressed, and go away thinking that there must be something special going on there. This isn’t true all the time, obviously, but we’re usually too intimidated by the technicalities to probe too deeply.
Let me just say once and for all that the new Gyrolab balance deserves every ounce of uncomprehending admiration that comes its way. You see, the majority of people who come across it won’t get how it works. That’s totally fine. I don’t have to understand how a plane works in order to enjoy its functionality. But in any case, here are a few thoughts on the Gyrolab, why it’s shaped the way it is and why it works the way it does.
It’s not an annular balance. It’s not in the shape of a ring, which is the shape that we normally associate with watch balances. Annular balances were important in the past, when personal timepieces (pocket watches, for the most part) stayed in the same position pretty much all day. The shape of the balance, symmetrical about any axis parallel to its plane of oscillation, helped to reduce chronometric errors related to uneven poise. This issue isn’t relevant for wristwatches, because they change position all the time. In a sense, you could say that your wrist kinda does what a tourbillon is supposed to — albeit in an unpredictable, random way.
Different factors are prioritised when designing a wristwatch balance. The ideal, fully efficient balance operates in a vacuum, has virtually all its mass concentrated at its periphery, and has the highest possible inertia in relation to its size. This is what the Gyrolab has accomplished with its highly specific construction. The vacuum part can’t be helped, unfortunately, but the Gyrolab’s profile also helps to minimise air resistance, which was the whole point of the vacuum anyway.
The dead seconds indication — you know what, I’m going to stop calling it this, because I have zero clue about the whys and wherefores of its naming, and anyway the official Jaeger-LeCoultre terminology is true seconds (seconde vraie), which makes so much more sense. The true seconds indication is executed in a way that also shields the balance from chronometric error. Let’s look into this.
If you have a true seconds indication, you kinda want to make a big deal out of it. It looks cool! So you have a massive seconds hand, and you mount it in the middle of the dial, to give it as much room as possible. Now, because it’s so huge, and because it moves only once a second whereas energy is being pulsed to the balance at however many (eight in this instance) times per second, there’s going to be one pulse per second that is weaker than the others, because energy is being siphoned off to move that big seconds hand.
Okay, so this is less cool. You don’t want to do that to your balance, especially not one as awesome as the Gyrolab. So what we have in the Geophysic is a secondary spring that reloads once every second and irons out that little wrinkle in the torque curve that happens once in every eight half-swings of the balance. Think of it as a function-specific remontoir spring.
One thing that does kind of annoy me about the two movements that belong respectively to the Geophysic True Second and the Geophysic Universal Time — I can’t see the true seconds mechanism. I mean, if it works according to the principles of all other true seconds mechanisms I’ve seen, there’s a secondary anchor that releases the seconds wheel once every second, but I guess it’s just not visible.
If I told you how many hours I’ve spent at my desk staring at images and videos of Jaeger-LeCoultre movements, mentally willing them to reveal their secrets, you wouldn’t believe me.
If I told you that all the stuff I just said above doesn’t even come close to what I like most about the new Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic, that’d be pretty hard to believe too, wouldn’t it? I can’t quite believe it myself.
The thing I like best about the Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic True Second and Geophysic Universal Time is that they are built for the smart, critical-thinking watch customer. For the longest time, mechanical watch manufacturers weren’t so hot about the idea of a true seconds indication. They thought people might mistake their watch for a cheap quartz piece. (You shouldn’t be making snap judgements about quartz watches anyway, but that’s another argument for another time.)
The true seconds indication used to be super prestigious, because it approximated the appearance of ultra-accurate, ultra-precise, ultra-massive chronometer clocks that beat once a second and were used as reference timepieces. And then quartz watches came along and turned the tables on us.
With these two watches, Jaeger-LeCoultre is telling us that they believe in their customers, that their customers know the quality of what they’re buying. They believe in the maturity and sophistication of audiences everywhere, their knowledge of a historical complication and their readiness to learn more. They believe in the strength of their expertise and the trust that is placed in their company name. They believe in a watch that can be worn in freedom from the ignorance and mistaken ideas of others. They believe in a time for those of us who love watches and they believe that time is now.
And this makes me happy.