The end of the 1990s saw a tremendous resurgence of interest in mechanical watchmaking. Customer demand is once again directed towards exceptional complications, such as the perpetual calendar and minute repeater. But the focus of attention and interest is now on watches featuring a tourbillon regulator. Let us recall that the tourbillon is not, properly speaking, a complication, but a device for counteracting the effects of gravity. We can understand the interest. Indeed, what watchmaking enthusiast hasn't dreamt of being able to observe the tourbillon's rotation in its cage? In a word, it is magical!
In 1996, Blancpain defined a new standard with its calibre 25, the first movement with tourbillon regulator featuring self-winding with 8 days' power reserve.
The performance of the Tourbillon regulator and its tremendous power reserve of 8 days together create the perfect conditions for chronometric precision. When the mainspring is wound up to capacity, power is delivered at a perfectly constant rate, thereby enabling the regulator to run smoothly. Thanks to the automatic winding mechanism, the movements of the wearer's wrist keep the barrel mainspring at an optimum level of torque and the watch therefore fully wound at all times.
This first aspect might well overshadow the basic function of an 8-day power reserve … that is the luxury of being able to leave your watch in its case, or anywhere else for that matter (for that is the wearer's prerogative), and return to it a week later, fully functional and ready for use, in other words always on time.
12 days from a single barrel!
In 2014, Blancpain revised the model in line with its calibre 242 with self-winding movement and power reserve extended to 12 days. It was not so much the impressive 288 hours of autonomy of the new calibre that caught the editor's eye, but the accuracy of the timepiece encasing the new workshop-crafted movement, the Blancpain Villeret 12-day Tourbillon.
Performance is what is at the heart of the issue. However, Blancpain's real achievement lies in having developed a movement offering superb autonomy and automatic winding, while retaining the ideal proportions.
To deliver a sufficient amount of power, the easiest solution would have been to use two barrels. Yet this would have inevitably meant increasing the size of the calibre. Furthermore, following the creation of Calibre 23, the world's thinnest hand-wound flying tourbillon, unveiled in 1989, the architecture for all Blancpain movements fitted with a tourbillon regulator was classic in design, comprising a single barrel. Even the more recent calibre 2322, housing a tourbillon carrousel, utilises this architecture.
The inclusion of a self-winding mechanism is a matter of practical comfort for the wearer... and one of visual comfort, too, with nothing being allowed to disturb the aesthetic experience. The oscillating weight has been openworked to offer an ample view of the movement. In a further refinement, the weight rotates around the circumference of the movement within the space between the watch case and the sapphire crystal case-back.
The finishes and materials used in calibre 242 reflect the appropriate aura of classicism and modernism evoked by the Blancpain Villeret 12-day Tourbillon. The traditional motifs on the hand-guilloché discs and bridges are punctuated by the angular bevelled wheel-rim design of the ratchet-wheel and barrel decoration. The balance spring and pallet-fork horns in amagnetic silicium stand out from the polished surfaces of the other tourbillon components.
On the dial side, the tourbillon carriage has been enlarged (as in calibre 25 with its flying tourbillon) to leave the remarkable new architecture of the watchmaking components entirely open to admiring glances. Once again, there is no upper bridge on the carriage to obstruct the view. And true enough, the view is spectacular. The balance and the escape-wheel spring into life, while the tourbillon carriage completes a full revolution in 60 seconds, with nothing to impair the spectacle.
Although the calibre 242 is an ideal compromise between performance and aesthetics, these qualities should also be extolled in the finishing adornments. Hence the reason for this study.
With its black Roman numerals set against a white ground, the grand feu enamel dial gracing the Blancpain Villeret 12-day Tourbillon is kept intentionally sober. The seemingly austere design is, in fact, just a ruse to showcase the spectacular display put on by the flying tourbillon. The solidity of the dial's light-absorbing enamel provides the perfect counterpoint to the shimmering light-play of the polished sage leaf-shaped hands and tourbillon components.
An iconic code of the watch cases in the Villeret collection is the double-stepped bezel, a nod to the tourbillon carriage aperture at 12 o'clock. But one of the greatest assets of this watch is undeniably the harmonious proportions achieved with the juxtaposition of the two radii.
The key characteristic of the Blancpain Villeret 12-day Tourbillon remains the quest for comfort. And it is naturally in the wrist-feel that all the advantages of this piece are most in evidence. Firstly, there is the ergonomic design, the discreet dimensions of the calibre 242 being fully showcased in a 42 mm diameter case that is barely 11.65 mm thick. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is the general air of inbred elegance and simplicity that the watch radiates.
So while I have spent some time exploring the different qualities of this timepiece, the advantages are immediately obvious as soon as it's on the wrist. The cut of the alligator skin strap is even suited to extra-small wrists, such as mine… a sufficiently rare fact to warrant a mention! The sight of the tourbillon in action is virtually hypnotic, but despite the open display, the effect is by no means trashy. The hollowed sage leaf-shaped hands stand out in relief, thus giving time-telling a prominent function on the dial. The watch is sufficiently heavy, while the movement of the oscillating mass in no way makes it unpleasant for the wearer.
In a nutshell, the Blancpain Villeret 12-day Tourbillon delivers its promise by successfully combining function and form. We tested the platinum edition on black alligator skin strap, but the piece is also available in 18K red gold teamed with a chocolate brown alligator skin strap. The timepiece is limited to 188 pieces in each version.