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Winning Big

Chuang Peck Ming looks at the watch that took home the industry's most coveted prize.
Feb 25, 2017 5:50 AM

The grand winner of the 2016 Grand Prix D' Horlogerie De Geneve (GPHG), the luxury watch industry's equivalent of the Oscars, was a big surprise. It wasn't the watch - a high-precision and gravity-defying tourbillon timepiece. It was the name on it.

Ferdinand Berthoud? Few people, not even among the small community of watch collectors, have heard of the name. You would have to dig deep into the history of horology to identify it.

Even Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Swiss watch-jewellery brand Chopard, was surprised that the Chronometrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB 1 had clinched the "Aiguille D'Or" Grand Prix. And he was the one who submitted the timepiece for the award.

Mr Scheufele came across the Ferdinand Berthoud name in 2000 in the Chopard L U CEUM museum in Fleurier, Switzerland. It was the name of a Swiss national who was granted the "Master Clockmaker" title in Paris in 1753 and served as Horologist-Mechanic to the King of France and the French Navy. He had left behind an exceptionally broad body of work, notably in the field of marine chronometers.

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Mr Scheufele acquired the Ferdinand Berthoud name in 2006, but it was only in 2013 that he finally sat down to do something about giving a new lease of life to the Berthoud heritage and restore the master horologist's name to its former glory. The result after three years was the Berthoud FB 1.

What took them so long - nearly a decade - to launch and complete the project?

"No one was waiting for us to come out with it," Mr Scheufele says. "So we had the luxury of moving at our own pace. It's very important not to put pressure on yourself with a top quality product like this."

While not expecting to win, Mr Scheufele says that he was hoping "to score something or at least be pre-selected" when he put the Berthoud up for a GPHG award. "We're pre-selected in one out of six (categories), in the 'Mechanical Exception' (Watch Prize), and that was already an achievement."

Mr Scheufele says the win proved that he and his team took the right approach. "That is, the way we went about conceiving and designing the watch. There're many ways open to us."

Outwardly, the timepiece is distinguished by an imposing 44mm octagonal case with watertight portholes, reflecting the inspiration of a Berthoud-made marine clock dated 1777 and now kept in the Chopard musuem. Powering the watch is an original mechanical hand-wound movement made up of over 1,120 components, all packed in a modest space of 35.5mm diameter and 8.0mm thick.

The movement features a tourbillon with central seconds, a distinctive pillar-type architecture, an innovative suspended fusee-chain and constant-force regulating system, as well as a mobile cone indicating power reserve. Patents have been filed for each of these features.

Still, because of the current tough market conditions, this may not be a good time to launch the Berthoud - especially a model retailing at a pricey S$310,000. Mr Scheufele disagrees.

The Berthoud FB 1 is aimed at only a tiny segment of the market - 50 pieces in white gold and 50 in rose gold, he says. And given the small production team, Berthoud can produce just around two watches monthly. As for the price, Mr Scheufele says it's fair as it does not cover the research and development costs. "It's a long-term investment."

More importantly, interest in the watch, even before it won the GPHG prize, has been very encouraging. "My concern is to replace the ones sold in a reasonable time," Mr Scheufele says.

Now with the GPHG title, it's going to be a bigger concern as demand picks up. But that's a problem many of Berthoud's rivalry watch brands wish they have.