Supreme style on the wrist, supreme precision on board ship
Precise scientific requirements can often create objects with a unique fascination and a sort of high-tech beauty that comes from eliminating excess detail and enhancing ease of use. A good expression of this is the new timepiece set launched by Montblanc in June this year. The set consists of a wristwatch chronograph, and a large navigational clock, with a marble stand and cardanic suspension, making it ideal both for use in the home or office, and on board ship. The watch and clock reflect the need for absolute precision and reliability when sailing the oceans, when the only geographical references available are the horizon, the sun and the stars, and the exact time.
A fascinating high-precision watch
The watch, whose complete name is Montblanc Régulateur Nautique Wristwatch Chronograph, is a truly beautiful instrument that at first sight looks rather complex, even though it was designed and built for practicality. The denomination "Régulateur" is a reference to late 19th-early 20th century pendulum clocks that stood in harbourmasters' offices and that were used to regulate other timepieces, in particular the ships' portable chronometers that were synchronized by captains in the office just before departing. In fact, for dead reckoning at sea, navigators needed to know their local time, and the time at their harbour of departure.
The watch's fascination derives in part from its dial design, with eight indicators built into the dial. There is a central minute hand, while hours are shown on a separate subdial at the 12 position. This was to ensure that seconds would be perfectly visible at all times, and never covered by the hour hand. Other indications provided are home and local time, day and night display, chronograph, 30-minute counter, small seconds, and power reserve. In addition, the dial is pierced so that parts of the movement below can be seen.
Local and home time are shown on the subdial at 12 o'clock, with a skeletonized hour-hand within the smaller circle for local time, and another hour-hand for the home time. So when the wearer is in the home time-zone, the two hour hands coincide. When the user changes time zone, it is sufficient to press the button at the 10 o'clock position to reset the local hour-hand.
The chronograph has a large central elapsed-seconds hand, and a counter for 30 elapsed minutes at the 3 position. The workmanship is superb: levers are hand-crafted, carefully hand-abraded under a powerful lens to a tolerance of a hundredth of a millimetre. The 2.5 Hertz hairspring provides an accuracy of elapsed intervals to one-fifth of a second. Chronograph start, stop and zero-return functions are all operated sequentially by a button in the crown.
The power reserve is rather different when compared to most other mechanical watches. A navigational time-piece has to be kept within the so-called 'winding zone,' which runs from maximum power to a minimum below which the watch still keeps running, but the minimal power remaining is not sufficient for optimum accuracy. So there are two hands, one showing the power reserve within the winding zone, during which the second, red, hand is concealed below the first. Once power has dropped outside the winding zone, the red hand appears, providing a visual reminder that the watch should be wound as soon as possible.
This superb movement is housed in a gold case, 43.5 millimetres in diameter, with antireflective crystal. The case back has a transparent sapphire crystal to reveal the movement. The red gold version has a dark brown alligator strap and a red-pronged buckle, while the white gold case has a marine blue leather strap and a white gold clasp.
A navigational clock, for the ocean or for dreams
The other part of the set is the Montblanc Régulateur Nautique Navigational clock, which was built to be suited for use on a private yacht, but which is also stunning in a home. Ninety-three centimetres high, 56 centimetres in diameter and weighing 120 kilogrammes, it is an imposing object, with a base of granite, and a frame of brass, aluminium and carbon fibre. The clock remains exactly horizontal at all times by means of the gimbals, which retain it motionless even when the ship is heeling at up to 27 degrees. Angle of heel is ingeniously marked by means of a scale below the chronometer.
The clock at the centre is superbly crafted in steel, brass and ruby, while there is a smaller gimbals built into one of the supports, so that the watch can be stored there when its owner isn't wearing it.
The clock's dial is even more effective as a navigational instrument than the wristwatch, primarily because the dial provides more space. So there are indications of three time zones: time in harbour of departure, time at port of destination, and current local time. Power-reserve and winding-zone indications are combined, as in the watch. There is a 24-hour scale on the world-time clock, with 24 harbour names, which can be personalized for the owner. The unit has its own evocative blue LED lighting. The movement is superbly crafted by the Erwin Sattler clock manufactory, with gold-plated gears individually finished and polished. The large barrel and mainspring provides 360 hours' reserve, with a fuseau system ensuring constant energy transmission.
This navigational clock is not just a precision timepiece: it is a true work of art which, when in a room on dry land, evokes the dream of steering the bows of a ship towards the infinite horizon. It forms the perfect set with the wristwatch. Only sixteen sets will be manufactured, eight with red gold watches, eight with white gold. They are available from Montblanc boutiques from June 2012.
When precision time was a matter of life or death
Before the days of radar and GPS, ships on the ocean had to determine their position using just the horizon, the sun and stars, and the time. Mistakes, or inaccurate timepieces, caused countless tragedies, with ships running aground onto rocks or reefs. This is why the precision of timepieces improved so dramatically in the age of sea voyages, from the early 18th century on. To determine a ship's position, a navigator has to find its latitude and longitude. For the former, a sextant is sufficient. For longitude, the navigator has to wait for local noon, which is when the sun is at its highest elevation (determined using a sextant). At this instant, he reads the time at the harbour of departure on his chronometer (this is why captains synchronized their timepieces in the harbour office). The difference between midday and the time on the chronometer provides a direct indication of the longitude distance from the home port. The intersection of the latitude and longitude provides the exact position.
You may ask, is all this necessary today, when we have quartz, electronics and GPS? There are three answers. The first is that astronomical navigation is a wonderful way of returning to the romance and adventure of the sea voyages of the past. Second, many sailors would feel uneasy about entrusting their lives purely to electronics. Third, today's technology has not really changed in terms of principle. Each satellite in the Galileo GPS system is equipped with four Swiss-made atomic clocks, with an accuracy of one second every one million years. The system is the same: all that has changed is precision.