As watch collectors and journalists, we often identify with grand complications and complex mechanics as laudatory efforts which celebrate the highest tiers of high horology. However, given that the best engineers of our day often explain that the best engines and machines are usually the ones which provide simple solutions to complicated tasks, one has to wonder if we have begun to merely celebrate complexity for complexity’s stake? Thankfully, one watchmaker is providing us a sample of what it means to go against all that and do it in a way which is still defined as fine watchmaking. Let’s discover Ludwig Oechslin and the Genius of Simple Complexity.
Ludwig Oechslin and the Genius of Simple Complexity
We have come a long way from the simple stick in sand, sundial method of time telling. From it’s beginning, tracking time was merely achieved by simple observation and comparison against how long it took for an object to complete its motion – we went from the motion of the sun to the movements of sand in an hour glass before we discovered the concentric breathing of weight and spring mechanisms. Today, Ludwig Oechslin practices a similar philosophy of watchmaking as our primitive ancestors did – rather than make watches needlessly complex, Oechslin felt that the distilled essence of watchmaking was in the genius of simplicity.
“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs
It is a common refrain to say that the smartest people are usually the laziest and in recent years, social sciences literally proves the maxim to be true. There is a genius of simple complexity and Oechslin has demonstrated it before at the many points in his career since he began plying his talent, ideas and know-how in the 70s. To anyone who asks, Oechslin is quick to point out that it wasn’t really that he aims for simplicity, it’s that the idea of thinking up complex manual operations in timepieces is abhorrent to him due to inherent laziness. That said, while his most famous works are lauded under that flag of Ulysse Nardin. His genius truly shines at the watchmaking enterprise he founded in 2006 – Ochs & Junior.
Ask any mechanical engineer and they will often extol the virtues of simple mechanics – in reducing the number of components in any mechanism without sacrificing functionality, you enjoy many key advantages namely – ease of repair, less friction and greater energy efficiency. But, in order to do so, foresight and thorough planning of what you wish to accomplish is necessary and that is the virtue of Oechslin’s watchmaking philosophy – superior functionality through superior simplicity.
While somewhat an anti-thesis to the occasionally excessive processes of fine watchmaking today, there’s an elegance to Ludwig Oechslin’s work – a watch calibres with the least possible number of components yet providing a plethora of mechanical complications like calendar indications – A key exemplar is the Ochs & Junior Annual Calendar with a base ETA 2824-2 calibre – a veritable mechanical engineer’s dream – 6 components to a high end watchmaker’s traditional 154 parts for such a complication, Oechslin designed his Ochs & Junior Annual Calendar to use gear trains driving colour coded dots on scales rather than springs and levers pushing pointers and discs. That simplicity makes his annual calendar not just robust but remarkable easy to service given the ubiquity of the 2824 movement and the module attached to it. Then Oechslin followed up with his Ochs & Junior Perpetual Calendar comprising of just 9 additional parts. For any mechanically inclined individual, fewer parts mean fewer interactions between parts and higher reliability.
Making just 20 perpetual calendar a year, the case is manufactured by Peter Cantieni in Hinwil, Switzerland, while the gear system, dial, hands, buckle and crown are manufactured by Helfenstein in Alpnach, Switzerland. Each perpetual calendar is hand-assembled and hand-regulated by Romana Fux at the ochs und junior workshop in Lucerne. Despite its simplicity, are these not hallmarks of fine watchmaking?
Truly, Simplicity is where Genius Lies
Just ask Richard Habring. Decades ago, the rattrapante or split seconds chronograph was celebrated as a high complication on the level of a minute repeater. While under the employ of IWC, Habring conceived of a brilliant innovation – a split seconds chronograph based on a standard 7750. But here’s the twist, most complication modules sit above the movement and under the dial, Habring made the rattrapante module for IWC’s “Doppelchronograph” calibre with the rattrapante mechanism on the bottom plate instead. Indeed, by simplifying construction and architecture of a once costly and hard to produce complication to one with a simplified module using adaptable stock movements, IWC’s calibre 76240 based on the handwound 7750 (specifically the 7760) was what makes the IWC Portugieser Rattrapante such a key milestone in watchmaking history. That said, Habring’s invention is not strictly modular even if most of the components which make the split seconds timing possible is on the bottom of the movement – most of the 7760 internals have been replaced – Its key elements are a stacked twin chronograph wheel with coaxial tubes for the two chrono second hands, and a caliper which stops and releases the leap second wheel. Yet it retains a lot of the 7760’s basic functions including day and date display. Nevertheless, it fundamentally altered the way we produce split seconds chronographs for the masses. It’s a method seen in Habring’s own namesake brand and today, in a similar fashion for Breitling’s new in-house split seconds chronograph. But I digress.
Perhaps it’s historical irony that Oechslin spent years studying social sciences because the 70s was a period of great technological upheaval for the watch industry. With many watchmakers trashing components and machines since so many believed quartz rendered micro-mechanics obsolete, Oechslin only dabbled in engineering arts due to his attraction to mathematics, physics and his penchant for wanting to build things – thus he worked as a watchmaking apprentice out of curiosity where eventually accumulated enough skills to warrant volunteering to restore an 18th century astronomical clock for the Vatican, a job he spent 4 years on and one which became such a defining project he actually made it a subject of his research thesis.
“Curiosity leads to research which you use to express creativity.” – Ludwig Oechslin
Indeed, while many of us celebrate his works like the 1985 Ulysse Nardin Galileo Galilei Astrolabium which shows the positions of the Earth, the sun, the moon and the stars at any time from a designated place; and then later followed up with an anthology of highly complicated astronomical references like the Copernicus Planetarium and the Johannes Kepler Tellurium, Oechslin never failed to remember his devotion for simplicity – like that of the single crown adjusting Perpetual Ludwig, a namesake Ulysse Nardin Perpetual Calendar which allows all the indicators to be adjusted via the single crown and most impressively, allows the date and other perpetual indicators to be adjusted bi-directionally. Today, a few other perpetual calendars are as simple to use, the Ludwig Perpetual (and his subsequent Ochs & Junior Perpetual Calendar) sits in good company with the Lange 1 Perpetual Calender Tourbillon and the Moser Perpetual 1.
We’ve had 11 years since Oechslin started Ochs & Junior, producing affordable yet interesting. Before him, we had men like Richard Harbring simplifying the split-seconds chronograph, how long more before another watchmaking genius democratises the frontiers of watchmaking?