Nr. 16
an incomplete (hi)story

by Peter Conrad
Đ April 2010

Pictures by Girard-Perregaux


a beauty and a beast


What makes watch enthusiasts tick? What makes us believe? And where exactly is the fascination of watchmaking to be found?

The ingredients may sound familiar:
A young guy in the swiss mountain, a gifted and most skilled watchmaker, picks up a century-old challenge. Equipped with much more talent than technical support, a bunch of old drawings, time and passion our friend revives what seemed lost. With his hands he creates a ticking marvel of complexity, a wonderful watch like few have been seen before.
And finally, after more than a year his work ends up in not just one of the most complex watches to create, but also one that sets a benchmark in many aspects.

not 1791, not 1891

Sounds like one of these brand history stories, of swiss young watchmakers in the 1800īs driven by the quest for precision and resulting in a famous brand name?
In some way it is. Itīs in fact about watchmaking skills and perseverance.

But at the same time, it is not. The history of Girard-Perregaux spans more than 200 years and is full of interesting watches and people. Alas, this part does happen right now. And because watchmaking is more than just a famous name on a watch dial.

Let me jump on a few sober facts:

  • Girard-Perregaux-type polished steel carriage with one-minute tourbillon,
  • pivoted detent escapement with gold spring and compensating bi-metallic Guillaume balance,
  • blued steel hairspring with regulator and anti-tripping device,
  • mainspring barrel with "Maltese Cross" stopwork,
  • typical Girard-Perregaux three gold bridges,
  • full-fire three-part enamel dial with arabic numerals, subsidiary seconds at 3 o'clock and blued steel hands,
  • 18K gold "á Goutte" three-part engine-turned case with crystal display back.

    a beating, dancing heart

    The magical word "TOURBILLON" inspires true enthusiasts dreams - yet the piece weīre going to have a closer look at is so much more. Itīs not a revived ancient movement, "pimped" and dressed up to meet a contemporary desire for nice views. It is a piece with a very unique background and heritage, sure. But itīs first and foremost the testimonial of a greatly talented watchmaker.

    Fast flashback, 110 years ago:
    Upon its first days around 1801, the Tourbillon immediately won collectorīs hearts. It is, without doubt, the most famous invention in the world of watchmaking, of all time. And for many, the breathing and whirling motion represents the most fascinating complication at the same time.
    Fine watchmaking does have a firm place in the swiss alps and since 1791, the brand Girard-Perregaux is one of itīs pillars. Constant Girard-Perregaux himself, starting his career as a maker of chronometer and precision watches, was literally obsessed by Tourbillons. His Tourbillon with three gold Bridges, one of the most famous watches ever, won a gold medal in 1889, just after having his work patented in the US. On march 25th, 1884, the patent no. 14919 filed in USA patent office stating: "Be it known that I, Girard Perregaux of Chaux-de-Fonds, Republic of Switzerland, have invented and produced a new and original Design for a watch-movement, of which the following is a full, clear and exact description: ...In a watch movement the design for a bridge, consisting a bridge having a central annular portion, spread-out ends and bar-like portions between the said annular portions and ends, as shown..."
    The design proved to be one of the most successful watch movement designs ever, in use by Girard-Perregaux ever since. The total number of all historic tourbillon movements between 1801 and 1945 is just impossible to know, but serious estimates do not exceed 600-850 pieces across all makers and brands. Given contemporary production runs of much more than 100 units even for complicated watches by many brands, the figure may explain - true high-end tourbillons used to be a not only fascinating, but also utterly rare species (and for hand-made units, thatīs a fact even today). Within this species, the tourbillon movements by Girard-Perregaux stand out due to their quality and timekeeping results. And they are particularly rare, especially those featuring the unique layout under three golden bridges. Reportedly, not more than 56 pieces were made after 1865 to 1910, while 66 tourbillon watches were submitted to the chronometer trials in this period.

    1884 patent

    Following their original purpose all these have been ultimate precision instruments in a history of outstanding precision watches, like the watch no. 168230 "La Esmeralda". And the results do speak for themselves:
    The brand was awarded with a special prize by the observatory neuchatel in 1872, gold medals in Paris 1865 and 1881 and one movement sucessfully participated in the chronometer trials in 17 following years. In 1892 the watch number 84409 by Girard-Perregaux was awarded with the first prize for a new record of average 22/100 seconds error. Finally, in 1901 the tourbillon under three bridges was excluded from competitions during the Paris world exhibitions, simply because it could not be equalled.
    In total, 13 gold medals during world exhibitions were awarded to Girard-Perregaux.


    The Girard-Perregaux tourbillons were produced until the 1910s, then production came to an end. The reasons are subject to many speculations, but it well may be the rise of wrist watches (which Girard-Perregaux also was first to introduce in 1881) in that era played itīs role. Just think of shellac and vinyl discs, in a modern Blu-Ray and MP3-world...
    Anyway, it took another 70 years and until late 1970s that (particularly one of) Girard-Perregaux's watchmakers found himself a special challenge: to create a watch in reminiscence of Constant Girard-Perregaux's prizewinning watch of 1889.
    Just - with only a watch of more than 100 years in hands, things become difficult when all watchmaking expertise and skills had been forgotten in earlier decades. To emphasize, it is said less than 10 swiss watchmakers were capable of creating a hand-made tourbillon in early 1980īs.
    Obviously our challenger was one of them, because after more than 1.500 hours of work, his first piece was presented in 1982 as number 1 of 20 pieces to be produced...

    No. 1 in 1982

    Yet, not all of these came to life then.
    And today, Girard-Perregaux has decided to revive the legend. Despite more than a decade passing since the last piece was made, some components and plans of the brandīs heritage have been safely kept. For the Manufacture to create a new watch, a new reminiscence of the 1889 version, it needs a passionate, skilled new watchmaker. Thankfully, our hero to enter the scenery!
    And today, the fruit of over one year's work by our highly talented watchmaker, a spectacular piece takes us on a journey through time and the fascination of Swiss Haute Horlogerie.


    skills, passion - and patience


    Principles and History

    A closer look - whatīs the sense of a rotating device in a watch movement?
    The reason is seemingly simple - accuracy. Ever since, the most basic watch function is to indicate proper time. But thatīs fairly easier said then done back 200 years. Accurate timekeeping was a "holy grail" for legions of watchmakers and the quest for watch accuracy has been the focus of watchmaking, inspiring technical and manufacturing innovations, as well as new material. The basic function soon became vital, when maritime navigation challenged timepieces; unlike latitude, determining longitude is dependant on highly accurate time.
    Among all threads to proper timekeeping, one still is not possible to overcome still today - gravity was known for negative effect on the rate of timekeeping instruments in vertical positions.
    In order to compensate for this effect, Abraham Louis Breguet in 1801 (patent) replaced static regulating parts in a "carriage" rotating on its axis. The constantly changing vertical position resulted in a highly stable rate and thus accuracy of the watch.

    miniature marvel

    The complex and filigree mechanism became increasingly interesting since mid 19th century, for two main reasons: First, the growing number of international exhibitions, where these miniature mechanisms found a lot of interested audience. And second, an increasing number of world-wide timing competitions to go along these lines.
    The inauguration of the Observatory in Neuchâtel/Switzerland in 1858 marks a period where watchmaking underwent a change from "cottage industry" to forms of industrialization. Being an excellent watchmaker, Constant Girard-Perregaux soon adopted the Tourbillon; at first based on "standard" movements, he had remarkable success: one of his watches, tested at Neuchâtel Observatory in 1867, received an award for a new precision record. Subsequently, it took his competitors 17 years to break it.
    Constant Girard-Perregaux then focused on additional elements in an unique way; the structure of the movement and the design defined by the shape of its parts. After decades of research and development, the perfect shape came to life when he added three gold bridges, the design patented in March 1884. And finally, on September 29th 1889 his Tourbillon with three gold Bridges was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. This way, form and function merged in a way not seen before. Alas, pushing things all the way did have a partially negative effect as well: In 1900, Girard-Perregaux was excluded from competitions, because his Tourbillon was considered impossible to match. But things did have a positive effect too: Instead of judging his watches, Constant Girard-Perregaux was appointed a permanent jury member of the most popular international exhibitions...

    All in all, Girard-Perregaux registered 57 Tourbillons with the Observatory of Neuchâtel of which 24 were equipped with three gold Bridges. Four won prizes, the last in 1911, eight years after Constant Girard-Perregaux’s death.
    It took almost 70 years and several generations of watchmakers to revive the Tourbillon at the height of the Swiss watch crisis, when mechanical watchmaking faced a siege by quartz watches. At that time, Girard-Perregaux started a production run of 20 Tourbillon watches, to commemorate both traditional swiss watchmaking skills and the original Tourbillon with three gold Bridges of 1889.
    But almost everything required to create such a piece seemed lost; for the watchmaker in charge, it was necessary to discover long-forgotten manufacturing skills and watch elements that had vanished. In 1982, after almost 1,500 hours of work, the first piece emerged and attracted the highest of praise.


    a beautiful face


    Technical Features

    The basic desire for this new "1889" Tourbillon was to bring a historic legend back to life. The vision: a watch with all the "bells and whistles", all watchmaking highlights just like Constant Girard-Perregaux did more than 100 years ago.
    While some rough components and construction plans were still available, it still needed over one year commitment by a single watchmaker. Matthieu had to discover forgotten skills, techniques and expertise to do things like they were did then. Which means, first of all with his skilled hands, to achieve the same level of perfection. And having seen the pictures above, needless to say our young (26!) watchmaking hero mastered all challenges!

    not 1889, but 2010

    TOURBILLON CAGE WITH BI-METALLIC GUILLAUME BALANCE The shape of the Tourbillon cage is a hallmark for those "in the know". Girard-Perregaux ranks among the Haute Horlogerie brands with the richest tradition and greatest legitimacy in creating Tourbillons. At the same time, the lyre-shaped tourbillon cage is unique to the brand, being a direct heritage of Constant Girard-Perregaux since about 1880. This Tourbillon carriage consists of 92 components, most measuring not more than a few 1/10 of a mm. Keeping in mind this is a hand-made piece, imagination has not to fly to guess the skills and patience required in its creation, applying a multitude of finishes, assembly and setting.
    Adjusting the bi-metallic Guillaume balance took several weeks of work, due to the complex structure and material. First step is cutting the balance rim, then adjustments follow until the rim is perfectly round and flat. Adjustments for temperature and balancing required long practical tests, because only this way perfect balanced (in other words: a most accurate and stable rate) can be achieved. All is done by gold compensation screws, which are tightened and loosened as needed. The result - the balance maintains a perfect equilibrium regardless of temperature variations which usually cause expansions/contractions of the rim. The same goes for the balance spring, which is apt of temperature variations as well and here compensated for resulting rate errors by means of the bi-metallic Guillaume balance. Thatīs, in short, the same solution found in highest quality watches of Constant Girard-Perregauxīs days. Finally, the balance rim: as apparent, two different materials come to play. The Guillaume balance consists of two parts; the outer rim is made of brass, the inner rim of anibal (an alloy of steel and nickel) and steel. The cutting allows the rim to open under decreasing temperatures, or to close when temperature rises. This will modify itīs moment of inertia, which will compensate for variations due to expansion of the balance spring.

    the cage

    PIVOTED DETENT ESCAPEMENT Like so often, more than one road leads to Rome (or Neuchatel). In search of accuracy watchmakers found new and different construction to regulate the "beating" of a watch (to be exact: escapements). One of them, at the same time the construction probably most often found in the most accurate precision watches, is a so-called "detent" escapement. The detent delivered a considerable improvement in accuracy. It is not only a lubrication-free escapement (and this without modern high-tech materials, since 130 years ago!!). But it is a so-called "mono-impulse" escapement; unlike the classic "tick-tack" of a swiss lever escapement, only one impulse ("tick") is delivered to the balance. The effect is possible to recognise even without looking at the movement: the characteristic sound with a loud "tick" is followed by a "tock" (which is caused by the spring to move back). But thereīs a downside as well; the detent escapement is exceptionally demanding to produce, requires more time for adjustments and is likewise sensitive to impacts. Yet it did proof itself, which was reason enough for Constant Girard-Perregaux to integrate these in many of his watches. No surprise, a traditional piece like this is equipped with a so-called pivoted detent escapement in an unique shape of Girard-Perregaux. The detent is mounted on pivots and a hairspring, attached to the stud, holds the detent in position, slightly resisting its release. In addition, a counterweight ensures perfect balance of the detent.
    Just a few figures which may explain the difficulties of doing these pieces: The 1982 unit featured a "locking" stone in the detent measuring only 0.04 mm, held by a steel lining of only 0.07mm. The rectangular section of the detent measures, at its thinner end, only 0.2mm in heigth and 0.1mm in width. And needless to say - all needs to be made and finished by hand.
    A side note: For more visual impressions of how a pivoted or spring detent escapement (or "chronometer escapement") works, pictures and graphics by David Penney can can be found at and on (under "Theory").

    detent and gold spring

    ANTI-TRIPPING SAFETY PIN In order to minimize disturbing effects by shocks, the escapement features a highly uncommon safety system: an anti-tripping pin placed on the hairspring. Tripping in chronometer escapements occurs by excess of amplitude and results in the escapement to unlock the escape wheel a second time during an impulsing vibration. Basically, such will cause two teeth of the escape wheel to move and the seconds hand to jump by two seconds. This of course is anything else than accurate.
    To avoid such errors, a steel pin is crafted from a solid steel bar and fastened on the hairspring. The pin works as a limiter; another counterpart on the balance rim will block the balance arm and prevents from "jumping" any release interval.
    But - because the pin measures merely 1.85 mm in length and 0.07 mm in diameter, itīs easy to imagine the difficulty of creating, positioning and fixing it with great accuracy.

    old drawing - new result

    BARREL WITH "MALTESE CROSS" STOPWORK It is long know decreasing energy supply is a major challenge for highly accurate timekeepers. The mainspring does release itīs energy not in linear, but a energy (or torque) is substantially higher when the watch is fully wound up. The effect of changing power supply is the amplitude of the balance (the amount it will swing back and forth) not to be constant either. And because the balance greatly influences timekeeping, this will affect the watch rate. As a countermeasure, the range of use of the barrel spring is limited by a satellite-gear construction. This will act as a stopwork. The "Maltese Cross" allows for energy release of the mainspring, but not the first and last coils. This way, the range of spring power release is optimized and equal. On a side effect, long-term performance is improved at the same time.


    a rich body



    Irresistible beauty - the sum of details that make it unique. Each component masterly finished and decorated by craftsmen, each an expert in his field. This extends to parts, such as the dial side of the main plate, which only watchmakers will ever see.

    body shot

    The nickel silver main plate canīt hide itīs purpose; the iconic architecture of the three bridges layout of gear train and barrel is instantly recognisable. The plate is a meticulous guilloche work, featuring a snail finish of spiral grooves.


    The bridges undoubtly account for much of the movementīs visual impression. Being central parts, every attention is spend to achieve an exceptional finish, which represents over one month of work. For each of them!
    The bridges are polished, all edges and recesses are hand-chamferred and hand-bevelled. In particular, the four inverse corners between arm and arrow are difficult to achieve: The rounded finish of the bridge arms is impossible to do by machine work. The difficulty is to obtain a domed surface in an arc, rather than a flat surface. This highly uncommon finish requires exceptional dexterity and concentration to obtain a perfectly regular semi-circle over the entire length. Any imperfection would be immediately made visible by reflected light.
    The fact three bridges have to be perfectly equal, with an uniform and parallel surface structure, adds to the challenge.
    Another sign of highest quality, which adds to the beauty of the movement, is a large screw-in gold setting mounted in the center of each bridge. These hold the jewels; these held by two thin steel washers, rather than being directly touched by screws as usual. The result is an even more refined look on close view. And of course settings, washers and screw heads are mirror-polished.

    Every component is finished and decorated with the same care, regardless if visible after assembly - a sign of excellence.

    the result of hours and hours of manual work

    SETTING AND ASSEMBLY Prior to assembly each of the movement's 249 components has to be corrected by hand. This requires a lot of time. And manual precision is essential while adjusting all components, ensuring perfect fit and operation.
    An unusual way to do so is a double assembly: the watch undergoes a first "rough" assembly, before components receive their final decoration. This way, it is possible to validate proper functionality. As soon as all functions are checked, a complete disassembly takes place. All parts are decorated, followed by another assembly.
    Exactly this stage is a crucial moment, due to the delicate parts: a wrong move, one damaged component and the work of hundreds of hours is lost. A telling example: the screws fixing the bridges are treated by wooden pegs rather than conventional metal screwdrivers that might result in a scratch.

    In addition, the watch is prepared for an optimal accuracy. A lot of time and tests goes into finding a constant rate as possible, in every position and at every temperature. Alas, the nature of the beast is such that any change might influence a different parameter; therefore it all needs to be done with great care.

    main plate, dial side

    CHRONOMETER CERTIFICATION Following historic roots, this Tourbillon with three gold Bridges underwent severe tests by an independent external organization and was awarded a Chronometer certificate by Switzerlandsīs official COSC.
    The tests span a period of 15 days, where the movement was timed in 5 positions (6, 3 & 9 o'clock, dial up and dial down) under three different temperatures (8°, 23° and 38°C).
    Particularly focussed timing results are average rate, average rate variation, differences for each position and temperatures, which are measured to strict criteria.
    The Tourbillon with three gold Bridges passed with flying colours and obtained outstanding results:
    over the 15 days, the mean daily rate variation was not more than 0.1s/d.
    Most spectacular is the variation of rate per 1° centigrade: 0.03s/d/ °C!
    This is a major achievement - especially keeping in mind the the use of a bi-metallic balance.

    24 March 2010: success, certified

    CASING The hunter-style case of solid pink gold features a secret mechanism to operate the dial side cover. A push-piece located in the crown opens the cover, allowing for easy and immediate time reading.
    The movement itself is covered by by two gold covers: both the outer and inner cover feature rich engravings, reminding of the piece's heritage. All of this exceptional engraving work is done by hand; a special challenge is the text, which makes use of three different fonts and three different text sizes.
    In the tradition of classic Girard-Perregaux pocket watches the dial is a full-fire three-part white enamel dial with Breguet-style arabic numerals. A "chemin de fer" or "railway" minuterie rounds up the beautiful design.
    The small seconds at 6 o'clock rests on a separate, overlay sub-dial, which again features a "railway" track. A nice detail, in the style of historic pocket watches the “60” is marked in red colour.
    The white enamel is perfectly matched by long Breguet-style blued steel hands.
    But thatīs not all, and the rest is pure imagination: Girard-Perregaux offers an absolute unique piece, for which the case can be personalised according to the customer's desires. Each case cover can be decorated to the ownerīs wishes, with different finishes, engravings or guilloche work.


    inner value



  • Movement

    • Movement dimensions
      • Diameter: 45.00 mm
      • Height: 10.00 mm
    • Number of components
      • Complete movement: 249 components
      • Tourbillon cage: 92 components
      • Jewelling: 20 jewels
    • Power reserve: 32 hours (locked by Maltese Cross stopwork)
    • Barrel: Nickel silver drum with guilloche and hand-engraved finish, with 5N pink galvanic coating in the engraving
    • Escapement: Pivoted detent with gold spring; hand-honed, bevelled and drawn out; rounded-off arms and bevelled counterpoise with polished sink, hand-honed gold escapement wheel, rounded-off arms
    • Balance: Bimetal Guillaume compensator with anti-tripping pin, 16 gold compensation screws - 2 gold setting screws
    • Frequency: 21,600 vibrations/hour (3 Hz)
    • Balance spring: Breguet with anti-tripping safety pin, Phillips end shake
    • Main plate: Nickel silver, hand snailing, polished corners, circular-grained and bevelled recesses
    • Bridges: Three gold arrow-shaped bridges; bevelled, rounded-off and hand-polished (inspection under 10x magnifier), 3 gold settings held by screw-in washers
    • Gear train: Gold wheel plates, bevelled and mirror-polished on both faces, pinions with polished wing faces and stems, wings polished on wooden wheel, burnished pivots, with polished and domed pivot ends
    • Tourbillon: One rotation per minute, Upper and lower cages bevelled and mirror-polished on both faces, cage balanced with 2 gold screws, escapement bridge, wheel bridge and detent bridge bevelled and polished A/R hand engraved
    • Screws: Heads bevelled and mirror-polished, Screw ends polished and domed
    • Steel parts: Drawn out and bevelled
    • Indications: Hour and minute, small seconds at 6 o'clock
    • Certification: COSC Chronometer

  • Exterior

    • Case materials and finishes
      • Hunter case: Pink gold, Bolt mechanism enabling time setting (at 4.30 on the dial side of the bezel), secret mechanism actuated by the coaxial push-piece on the crown for opening the dial side cover
      • Hand engraving on the inner cover
    • Case dimensions
      • Diameter: 60 mm
      • Height: 20 mm
    • Crown: Gold, fluted, with built-in coaxial push-piece for opening the time cover
    • Dial: White enamel on copper base with enamel painted Arabic numerals, overlaid enamel small seconds counter at 6 o'clock
    • Hands: Breguet-style blued steel hour and minute, blued steel small seconds





    The "Tourbillon under three golden Bridges" is a statement of craftmanship and science. It is an admirable achievement by many aspect: Creating numerous microscopically small components, mostly by hand, is an outstanding work. The finish, assembly and regulation of the watch from scratch, especially with such an unconventional escapement, is a challenge. And itīs well in line with traditions and values of Girard-Perregaux that span more than 210 years, with major chapters in the records of fine tourbillon watches since then.


    Itīs a great pleasure to see all this is still today alive and held high in the ateliers at La Chaux-De-Fonds, where the Valley of Dreams brings up Three Golden Bridges.

    With sincere thanks to Girard-Perregaux and particularly, Matthieu.