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Jewels Where You’d Least Expect Them… in a Watch Movement

There is something equally gratifying in things that happen unexpectedly and in finding something where you least expect it. Think of finding that treasured item you thought lost or reaching into a coat pocket to pull out a twenty dollar note. Yes, the nicest things are often those which are totally unexpected and that was indeed the case when many years ago I opened an exquisite gold 18th century verge pocketwatch. Whilst routinely inspecting the intricately pierced and engraved masked cock, to my amazement I found a diamond endstone in there, elegantly set in a polished steel setting. I still recall that startling instant in time, yes, a diamond, amongst all those small and sophisticated mechanical components that go to make up a spring wound watch movement; how unexpected, how delightful. But what was a diamond doing embedded in a micromechanical engine, of all places?   

Auguste Victor Louis Verneuil (1856-1913)

We are all quite accustomed to seeing gem-setting on dials, bezels, or cases, either added for aesthetic appeal or to enhance value. However, jewels that are set within a movement serve an important functional purpose. This practice was first introduced in the early 1700s when Swiss watchmaking brothers Peter and Jacob Debaufre and their partner Nicolas Fatio introduced jewel bearings into their watch movements and received an English patent for the concept. 

If we think of a mechanical watch as a machine, it will house a number of moving metallic parts, all of which grind and rub in harmony to perform a function. Over time, this friction leads to metal wear and tear adversely affecting the performance of a watch’s functioning life. The challenge of the early period in watchmaking was to find a substance harder than these metal parts to place at the vital pivot points in order to reduce metal-on-metal fatigue, enhance accuracy, and in turn reduce the amount of energy needed to keep the watch in continuous motion. 

The answer lay in minerals, and precious ones at that, stones like diamonds, sapphires, and rubies were not only harder than metal, they were also less abrasive and slicker which meant they protected vulnerable areas whilst encouraging a smoother, less-damaging process. It was quite a breakthrough for early horology and further to their utilitarian function, the use of natural gemstones added to the cost and exclusivity of the timepiece itself. There was even a practice in the early 1900s known as ‘up-jeweling’, where watch manufacturers would intentionally increase their jewel counts to make their watch seem more prestigious.

A sketch of an early furnace used by Auguste Victor Louis Verneuil to synthesise rubies using the Verneuil process.

Inevitably, as time progressed and technology allowed, innovations were introduced to lower costs of incorporating real gemstones in watch movements. Most significant was that of French chemist Auguste Verneuil who invented a process of making synthetic gemstones which made it more affordable to incorporate jewels into watch movements. Verneuil’s discovery soon spread to the whole Swiss watch industry and became a key element of movement construction.

Today, the standard use of synthetic rubies and sapphires is de rigueur not only for cost-efficiency and convenience but it is also regarded as an ethical choice by manufacturers. The standard jewelled movement uses approximately 17 jewels for basic mechanical watches. A typical fully jewelled time-only watch has two cap jewels, two pivot jewels and an impulse jewel for the balance wheel, two pivot jewels and two pallet jewels for the pallet fork, and two pivot jewels each for the escape, fourth, third, and centre wheels. The more functions that a watch has, the more complex the machinery will need to be in order to accommodate all of those functions. More complications equals more jewels, in fact up to a whopping 242 jewels, all of which are functional, found in Vacheron Constantin’s reference 57260 with 52 complications.

However, a word of caution, a bedecked movement does not necessarily equate to a better or more inherently valuable watch. Where once the number of jewels may have reflected a movement’s quality or complexity, that is not the case today. In today’s market many lower grade movements incorporate several plastic parts which sit alongside an excessive and totally unnecessary number of jewels. It may hold true in the world of jewels as it does with watches that quantity doesn’t always equate to quality, still, for many an enthusiast, stumbling across these hidden gems buried in a movement makes for a thrilling moment.     

By Patricia Kontos, Senior Timepieces Specialist

Top Image: A. Lange & Sohne Lange 1 a fine 18ct gold wristwatch with date and power reserve, circa 2000. Sold for $21,250

April 2024