Thomas Mercer OBSERVATORY 007 Calibre TM3001 Calendar

The legend of Thomas Mercer, the great English chronometer maker, part 3

At the dawn of the Third Millennium, the wonderful story of this English watchmaker continues unabated, and it does so in the midst of Antarctica. This is a modern adventure where values inherited from the past combine freely with the history of England and the age of conquests.

By Joel Grandjean

This is the third section of a saga dedicated to this English watchmaker who was certified by the Royal Admiralty and was involved in many of the chronometric developments of the British Empire. It’s time to headline Thomas Mercer.

A legendary name in horology

At the start, in 1858, he was merely a gifted manufacturer of chronometers, who had received approval from the Admiralty. It was a seal visible on his timekeepers, whose accuracy had become crucial for the state. Then, there was the flourishing industrial era, the fact that it was a family brand with its own factory, always close to England’s chronometric institutions, be that the Greenwich Observatory, or the many historical treasures that are carefully guarded in the state's museums. Furthermore, the 20th century was strewn with memorable timepieces (cf. part 2 of this saga) and instances tied to the conquest of the air or of an image closely linked to the Royal Navy.

Andrew Winch Andrew Winch, the world's leading yacht designer

Thomas Mercer becomes ultimate luxury

Through its unique timepieces or ultra-limited edition ones, Thomas Mercer embodies the intelligent and coherent rebirth of that link that is lacking in contemporary watchmaking, namely the marine chronometer as a key object of  rare and desirable hyper-luxury. It expresses itself in singular and subtle finishing that underscores a unique historic aspect drawn from the watchmaking arts, or in genuinely contemporary creativity in terms of materials and imagination. Seldom has a big name in watchmaking been so drenched in "Englishness." The two first parts of the Thomas Mercer saga are a compilation of episodes that demonstrate the company’s complete command of chronometry, notably in terms of the mechanisms used to regulate the energy – the escapements, all sorts of micro-mechanical evolutions put in the service of accuracy and cartographical recording while navigating.

Even today, the brand prides itself in maintaining the skills upon which its name was known in the field of pure chronometry. And so it remains a last word in the full-fledged command of the technical details involved in marine chronometry as well as the fundamental aspects of the watchmaker Thomas Mercer himself. For example, it makes it a point of honor to explore the options of the détente escapements or a chain and fusée transmission system, or on the mechanisms assembled onto its dual dials that are so typical of the timepieces that were built to be packed for maritime expeditions.

Thomas Mercer Legacy Thomas Mercer Legacy

On the other hand, staying within its own historic lines, the brand Thomas Mercer is quite prepared to go beyond the confines of the marine chronometer and design and manufacture table clocks that are geared towards decorating more sedentary interiors. Finally, in the decade 1960-1970, the name Thomas Mercer started making its way up to the tip of the luxury pyramid, and so, in 2016, it continues to grow in the high-end segment of the market, particularly thanks to its partnerships with other rare and coveted artisans. For instance, it has joined some famous designers or other well-known companies in the luxury industry. While doing so, the brand is also quick to introduce some of its sparkling history and the stories of its prestigious past. The Antarctic Endurance 2016 expeditionand the timepiece that was along for the ride are evidence.

Thomas Mercer Observatory Thomas Mercer Observatory

Gallery of recent creations

In 2012, Thomas Mercer made headlines with the launch of the Classis, a marine chronometer put together like a work of art conceived to adorn the interior of the most prestigious boats. The brand was quick to make use of the talents of Andrew Winch, the world's leading yacht designer, and David Linley, a man with a golden hand in carpentry. A year later, in 2013, came the Shackleton Epic. It was a commemorative chronometer celebrating the heroic feat of Ernest Shackleton. As for the Legacy chronometer, it came in an all-black version in 2014.

In 2015, Thomas Mercer broke new ground for the brand when it created major watch complications. With the Observatory model, a marine chronometer with fifteen complications, the brand widened its dialogue with precision chronometry by adding some real sophistication. Still in 2015, Thomas Mercer distinguished itself with the launch of the Brittanica, an interior clock regally sewn up in white leather and with blue blood. The first edition of this timekeeper was put on the auction block for charity at the Only Watch in Geneva.

Thomas Mercer Classis Thomas Mercer Classis

The Brittanica emerged from a collaboration with the English designer Jake Phipps and the art of leather according to Foglizzo. It illustrates perfectly how the brand is opening up to handcrafts of the another kind. These partnerships are producing very evident aesthetic achievements that involve some major names in English design, men like Andrew Winch. This has produced happy combinations with the leaders in “para-horological” art, like David Linley, a.k.a. David Albert Charles Armstrong-Jones, Viscount Linley, a furnituremaker and a veritable master of interior design. He is also related to the British royals.

The Antarctic Endurance 2016 expedition

in 2016, Thomas Mercer reconnected with the Admiralty, which was so much a part of its history. Once upon a time – actually, 100 years ago, to be precise – there was an expedition. It was led by Ernest Shackelton, and featured a shipwreck in the frozen waters of Antarctica and the incredible survival of an entire crew thanks to some of the men, who embarked in a little whaling boat named the James Caird for an 800-nautical-mile crossing of the Southern Ocean, including a stint across Cape Horn. Never in marine history had a vessel of such small size been part of such a heroic act. On board was an instrument to measure time made by Thomas Mercer. Its accuracy allowed the captain and his crew to steer their way from Elephant Island to the shores of South Georgia, where they were able to organize the rescue of the other men left behind. (Read part 1 of our saga).

So, what event would best celebrate the memory of Thomas Mercer and the company’s long ties to the Royal Navy, than the Antarctic Endurance 2016. Under the patronage of HRH Prince Philippe, Duke of Edinburgh, this contemporary expedition recalled Shackelton's feat. It is also a two-year program of research on team dynamics and performance. It certainly deserved a unique piece designed and manufactured by the brand Thomas Mercer. The result: a marine chronometer whose transparency, offers a view of the gear wheels and recalls the immense spaces and the extreme conditions of the first expeditions and the systems used back then to locate oneself at sea.

Thomas Mercer Brittanica Thomas Mercer Brittanica

Royal homage to Thomas Mercer's accuracy

The modern version of this adventure was organized by the Royal Navy for a handful of Her Majesty's sailors from January to February 2016. It is proof that the history of Thomas Mercer has genuinely entered into the realm of legend. The expedition included a six-week phase of at sea dedicated entirely to history. It was a daring act, the kind that the world's mariners and those with a passion for the Austral Ocean think of when imagining the great historic crossings in magnificent solitude under the great firmament. It's what the six chosen sailors, men and women in their fifth year of a military career, were able to relive under the command of Tim Winter and major Tony Lancashire.

On January 20, 2016, they left Port Stanley in the Falklands, on the mono-hull Xplore, a vessel made by the Devonport shipyards which is known for its high performance results at races and for its navigability.  The aim was to  reach the eastern coast of the Antarctic peninsula after crossing the Weddell Sea. A number of scientific activities were performed for environmental and hydrographic research.  Following this preliminary leg of the expedition, and having transited across Elephant Island, the team set sail for King Haakon Bay of South Georgia Island and the southern Sandwich Islands. They also climbed the slopes above Stromness, an ancient whaling station on the northern side of South Georgia. On February 28, 2016, the boat returned to its point of departure, Port Stanley.

Thomas Mercer Antarctic Endurance Thomas Mercer Antarctic Endurance

Marine chronometers for extreme conditions

The Xplore is a 20.42-meter sailing yacht built of a special, highly robust alloy excellent for use in the upper latitudes and places where access to the coast is difficult.  Similarly, the Antarctic Endurance marine chronometer by Thomas Mercer is a distillate of highest technology designed to boldly defy the most extreme conditions. The brand delved into the treasure trove of its heritage and into its broad and specific skills in order to make this exceptional timepiece.

It went all the way back to the journey made by the Icelandic trawler of Franck Mercer in 1910, an expedition aimed at testing  one of the company's Horological Machines  in some particularly turbulent situations. After three weeks of tests in different positions, Mercer managed to design an unheard-of shock-absorbing system capable of enduring the most violent and sudden shocks. Thomas Mercer, the brand, has now rebuilt this system and used it in the Antarctic Endurance 2016. The structure makes use of a stainless-steel frame that embraces openworked panels of smoked eucalyptus wood.

Front picture: Thomas Mercer Observatory 007 Calibre TM3001 Calendar close up

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By Joel GrandjeanEditor-in-Chief
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Among the master watchmakers that current ventures are reviving is the English chronometer maker Thomas Mercer, whose legacy is of incomparable richness. An...