Purnell Escape II
Purnell. The brand you probably don’t know of, but need to. Previously known by privileged connoisseurs as “Cecil Purnell”, the brand has taken a new direction with Maurizio Mazzocchi as the C.E.O since October 2019, in charge of developing the brand above and beyond its private collector’s circle.
Purnell was unofficially founded during World War I when the brand’s namesake, Cecil Purnell, was injured on the battlefield. While recovering, he taught himself watchmaking and subsequently became fascinated by Abraham-Louis Breguet and the invention he patented in 1801: the tourbillon. Cecil Purnell repaired watches as an amateur watchmaker for the rest of his life and instilled his passion for the tourbillon into his grandson, Jonathan Purnell, who ardently watched his grandfather while he worked. Cecil Purnell always emphasized the tourbillon as an elite mechanism, leading Jonathan to develop a profound respect for it as well.
Jonathan Purnell began his career in horology buying and selling watches in 1977. In 2006, Purnell decided to follow his dream and, together with industry professional Stéphane Valsamides, founded Cecil Purnell SA (later shortened to Purnell) in the Swiss Jura mountains to honor his grandfather and his beloved mechanism, the tourbillon. From the brand’s inception, every timepiece created has included a tourbillon, and the use of it has remained the driving philosophy behind Purnell to date. In 2009, after three years of development, Purnell launched its first caliber developed fully in-house, the CP3000, and transferred the company’s operations to Geneva, Switzerland.
Over the past fifteen years, Purnell has created 13 tourbillon calibers and sold more than 700 timepieces, winning numerous awards and accolades along the way. As fate would have it, Purnell in 2016 started to collaborate with Eric Coudray, best known for his work on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first Gyrotourbillon watch. Through this partnership, one of the world’s fastest triple axis tourbillons – christened the “Spherion” by Coudray himself – was born, and along with it, the Purnell Escape I in 2017.
In 2019, the first prototype watches for the Escape II – the successor of the Escape I with double the Spherions – were ready and a global launch this year is being touted. Here, we take a look at one of the most impressive tourbillon watches we’ve ever seen and offer you our thoughts – this is the Purnell Escape II.
The Case, Dial, and Hands
The case of the new Purnell Escape II is currently available in three different materials: 18K rose gold, grade 5 titanium, and black DLC-coated grade 5 titanium. It measures a whopping 48 mm in diameter and 19 mm in thickness. The Escape II is clearly not a watch you can (or would want to) slide under a dress cuff. According to Jonathan Purnell, the case takes inspiration from the Colosseum with the arches on the flanks/lugs, the high walls, and the concentric shape. The specially shaped crystal that allows the owner to have unimpeded view of the twin tourbillons is fashioned out of a single block of crystal; this took Purnell well over a year and a half to develop. There is also a small window at the 9 o’clock side of the case that offers even more movement visibility.
There isn’t much of a dial proper to speak of as it is mostly openworked. All that is left are the skeletonised hour and minute sub-dial as well as the power reserve display. The hour, minute, and power reserve markers are simple in design and simply printed; they can, however, be customised to a client’s desired colour. The arrow-style hands for the time and power reserve display are also skeletonised so that even less of the movement is obstructed. In terms of legibility, the Escape II doesn’t score highly – no surprises there. That said, it isn’t too bad, as there are many more watches out there with far worse legibility.
And that about covers the dial and hands. The rest of what you see through the sapphire crystal is, in fact, the skeletonised movement of the watch starring twin tri-axial tourbillons at 6 o’clock called Spherions.
Driving the Escape II is the 386-part, 67-jewel Calibre CP03. The movement operates at a stately 3 Hz beat rate and has an expected below average power reserve of 32 hours. Why expected? Because there is not one, but two power-hungry Spherions to feed witin the calibre.
So what exactly are these Spherions? A Spherion is, in short, a high velocity triple axis tourbillon. It is composed of three cages made of titanium: the inner cage containing the balance wheel rotates once in 8 seconds, the secondary cage rotates once in 16 seconds, while the outer cage rotates in only 30 seconds. A single Spherion weighs under 0.8 g. Having two Spherions in the Escape II instead of the one in the Escape I isn’t merely a duplication process – it required a reconstruction of the calibre. Thanks to an ingenious differential system, the two cages rotate in-sync, but at opposite directions. The energy flow regulation of the Spherion is undoubtedly a challenge as its unique mechanism requires a lot of power, as we have alluded to previously. The movement has six mainsprings assembled in four barrels aligned in parallel, whereby four are superimposed within two barrels.
Interestingly, the Calibre CP03 utilises the rare Potter escapement which was abandoned in the 1950s due to its ineffecient production process. The Potter escapement allows for a higher rotational speed whilst maintaining precision. Admittedly, it is a pleasure to see a vintage escapement brought back to life in present day watchmaking and for more than just nostalgia.
Finissage on the Calibre CP03 is impressive; of note are the brightly coloured cages of the two Spherions. According to Purnell, they are customisable by clients via a variety of methods, including anodizing, hydrographics and applied lacquer. There are also two visible barrel covers that have been finely engraved with Purnell’s watchmaking philosophy – this is reminiscent of what Greubel Forsey has done in the past. The Calibre CP03 is also skeletonised, so not only does it weigh just 15.7 g, it also looks contemporary, which is fitting for a movement with two speedy tri-axial tourbillons.
The Competitive Landscape
There are no two ways about it – the Purnell Escape II is one of the coolest tourbillon-themed watches ever made to date. Just purely based on looks, with a striking outer cage that resembles the Globe of Death (think notorious motorcycle circus/carnival stunt), the Spherion deserves all the adoration it gets. The mechanics behind the Calibre CP03 is, of course, even more impressive. Indeed, when it comes to multi-axis tourbillons, you can always count on Eric Coudray to deliver. The fact that there are two high velocity tri-axial tourbillons spinning in a watch is not to be taken lightly; it is a watchmaking feat that happens to be a whole lot of fun to look at.
Now, tourbillon watches tend to command a rich premium in the market (whether or not this is justified is a story for another day) and you can bet that the avant-garde Escape II – with two novel Spherions – is not going to be cheap. Prices for the Escape II starts from an eye-watering CHF425,000; the watches will be individually numbered and limited to 20 pieces per reference (18K rose gold, titanium, and DLC-coated titanium).
Up until the end of the year, the Spherion was indeed the fastest tri-axial tourbillon in existence. An interesting turn of events took place in December last year when MB&F introduced the Thunderdome, a watch with an even faster tri-axial tourbillon designed by – you guessed it – Eric Coudray. While the cages of the Spherion rotates at 8 s/16 s/30 s, in the MB&F Thunderdome, the cages of its tri-axial tourbillon go at 8 s/12 s/20 s. Kari Voutilainen himself was also a co-designer of the watch and it is clear as day that his contributions include the guilloched base dial and movement finissage. The result of this all-star collaboration is a truly spectacular, exceedingly well-finished tri-axial tourbillon watch that was met with universal approval from press and community alike. The Thunderdome – priced at USD280,000 – is limited to 33 pieces in platinum and 10 pieces in tantalum for The Hour Glass.
If spinning Globes of Death just aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger, look no further than the Jacob & Co Twin Turbo Furious. At first glance, the watch is very reminiscent of the Purnell Escape II: both watches are fitted with two tri-axial tourbillons at the 6 o’clock position, both watches display the hours and minutes, and both watches are designed with a ‘window’ at 6 o’clock for an unimpeded view of the tourbillons. Upon closer inspection, one will realise that these two watches are fairly different. For one, the tourbillon cages on the Twin Turbo Furious rotate slower at 24 seconds, 8 seconds, and 30 seconds in each of the three axes. This means they don’t consume as much power and provide as much visual thrill to the observer. But, as if to make up for it, the Twin Turbo Furious is fitted with not just any minute repeater mechanism, but a decimal repeater. Just for good measure, the Calibre JCFM05 that drives the watch also features a monopusher chronograph. The Twin Turbo Furious is priced at just over half a million Swiss Francs.
The Purnell Escape II may not have the fastest tri-axial tourbillons anymore, but it still is the watch with the fastest double tri-axial tourbillons. This is not an achievement to be scoffed at. Not only is it a challenge to synchronise both high velocity Spherions, it takes some ingenuity as well to be able to provide enough energy to the mechanism. The aesthetics of the Escape II are also up to expectations. The Spherion genuinely is the best looking multi-axis tourbillon in the market currently. It will be interesting to see where Purnell goes from here. Do they go for more Spherions? How will they solve the energy needs of such a movement? Will they come up with a new type of tourbillon? These are questions only a tourbillon-focused manufacturer can answer – over to you, Purnell.