Atmos clocks - which appeared in 1928 - are 82 years old. At the time of its invention, the Atmos was an amazingly futuristic piece of technology, differing from all other types of clock on the market at that time. It could be described, then as today, as an "almost perpetual movement." Now it is still important as a feat of horological engineering, but it is also a powerful symbol for the contemporary spirit of the age. The fact that it uses a minimal amount of energy to function, and that this energy is supplied by variations in environmental temperature, is wholly in line with the urgently green ethos of contemporary society. Just a one-degree variation in air temperature provides enough energy for two days' operation.
The clock, which has become a Jaeger LeCoultre classic, was actually invented by a Swiss engineer, from Neuchatel: Jean-Léon Reutter (1899-1971). His concept was rather ambitious: to create a clock that could run forever. While he accepted that this could only be attained in the realms of the design, he at least aspired to build a clock that could run for centuries without requiring winding or even any external movement, without suffering wear, and without requiring any form of maintenance. The result was the Atmos concept. He built the clock, and it was exhibited in a Paris shop window. Jacques-David LeCoultre saw it and contacted the designer, inviting him to work with them in order to perfect the revolutionary mechanism. From then on, it has been a stable part of the marque's production.
The heart of the Atmos is a capsule that contains a gas (in Reutter's original, it contained mercury) that expands when the temperature increases, and contracts when it decreases. The movements of the capsule are linked to the movement in order to provide it with the charge necessary to power the clock. Reutter, in order to achieve his ideal of a virtually perpetual, maintenance free movement, designed a movement of incredible elegance, one that runs at very low speeds. The balance is suspended by a thin metal wire, and it turns very slowly, at just one oscillation per minute. That means 14,400 times slower than the balance in a wristwatch. The mechanism is thus built in a way such that no lubrication of the gear trains is required. An idea of the clock's efficiency can be gauged from the fact that 60 million Atmos clocks would be required to reach the amount of electrical energy consumed by a single 15-watt light bulb.
Jaeger LeCoultre's production of the unique model won increasing success. In the 1950s, the Atmos had become the Swiss Federation's official gift for important guests, to the point that it became known as the "Presidents' Clock."
In 2008, the Maison decided to commission work from Australian designer Marc Newson in order to give the clock a new look. They gave him carte blanche to rethink the visual design of the Atmos clock, and Newson developed a futuristic approach that nonetheless complied with the exacting technical requirements linked to a project of this nature. The result was model Atmos 561. Meanwhile, the Swiss marque was continuing its own development of the more complex Atmos 562. When Newson saw the complex mechanism of the second clock, he specifically asked to be able to work on this project as well.
The results are totally different from anything seen before in the world of precision clocks. Both pieces, the Atmos 561 and the Atmos 566, are pure in form, encased in transparent crystal bubbles of generous proportions that enable light to filter into the heart of the movement, enhancing their details with evocative effects.
Colours are restricted to white, silver and blue. Jaeger LeCoultre themselves were amazed at the results that Newson achieved with the second 566 project, which was not just a visual restyling. His design work extended to the movement, with a new balance, new bridges, and dial and hands made entirely in-house. The second project, which acquired the name Atmos Astronomique and the number 566 from the Calibre used, has a very complicated movement in order to power the sky view. Its astronomical capabilities include displaying the difference between real noon time - the moment when the sun reaches its zenith - and official noon time. Its very complication limits the number of pieces that can be manufactured, and in fact just 28 pieces are made for each of the two Atmos 566 variants: with clear crystal glass case, and cobalt blue case. Its functions comprise hours, minutes and seconds, the equation of time, and the night sky with cardinal points and astrological signs. Notwithstanding its complication, the Atmos 566 uses 40 times less energy than a normal watch.
The bubble-shaped cabinet for the 561 and 566 is made by Baccarat. The 566 cabinet is in two versions, clear, and a beautiful ultramarine blue tint, created by means of a precise amount of cobalt, chosen to match the blue used for the sky view and other details of the clock. The blue colour is in itself something of a departure for high horology, in which colour is used only rarely. In order to ensure colour constancy for blue glass required for these 28 clock cases, Baccarat actually manufactured one ton of the glass.
At the presentation held in Milan on 14 April, Newson himself described his work on the Atmos project. "The 566 was more complex than the 561. Superficially there are some similarities, but they are very different in terms of technology and functions. For a designer, it is very interesting, and a lot of fun, to work with such a massive heritage of skill and craftsmanship such as that which exists at Jaeger LeCoultre. I knew that what I wanted to do could be achieved because of the resources of skill that existed at this House.
"It's nice that at this moment in time, an object such as Atmos can exist, and that there are people who want to reinvent it. This clock is somewhat anachronistic in today's digital world, because it is analogical. The Atmos is the ultimate exercise in sustainability. It will live forever."
Jaeger LeCoultre's new products for this year also include a re-edition of the 1930 Atmos. This is a tribute to Jean-Léon Reutter's original invention, and it is a faithful reproduction of the clock with its typically 1930s Art Déco lines.
15 April 2010
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