Sunday, October 25

Review: Independent Rotation – The Ludek Seryn Karel Rotation

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Ludek Seryn Karel Rotation

Ludek Seryn was born on Wednesday, June 14, 1978 in Zábřeh na Moravě, a town in the Olomouc region of the Czech Republic. In his earlier days, he studied watchmaking before expanding his portfolio of artisanal skills with goldsmithing, jewelry, and gem-setting. Today, he has a studio overlooking the picturesque city of Prague. The Carabus, introduced in 2012, was Seryn’s first watch. Seven years later, in 2019, he was inducted into the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI), an association with the mission to perpetuate the art of independent watch and clock-making. Also in 2019, he presented his latest opus at Baselworld: the Karel Rotation.

According to Seryn, the watch took about two and half years to work on in his workshop in Prague’s Vinohrady quarter. The fully functional prototype already has an owner: a Mr. Karel (Karel is Czech for “Charles”). Karel was not just a client, for he had also helped Seryn with the financing and preparation for a small-scale production of the Karel Rotation. And just in case it hasn’t clicked, the watch was indeed named after Mr. Karel.

The story of Mr. Seryn and the Karel Rotation is a comforting one. In today’s large-scale manufacturer-dominated watchmaking landscape, the endeavors of a small independent watchmaker provide much welcome respite. Here, we bring you the details and our thoughts on the new Karel Rotation.

The Case, Dial, and Hands

The case of the Karel Rotation is rendered in white gold – for now, this is the only material it comes in. Measuring 45 mm x 20 mm, the case is formidable in size. Forget about sliding this one under a cuff. The short, downturned lugs do make the watch more wearable but anyone with a wrist on the smaller side will struggle to don the piece with panache. All that said, there is a reason for the case to be so generously proportioned. It is designed to function as sort of a showcase for what’s inside it; note how the case band is made of mineral glass for greater visibility of its contents.

The Karel Rotation is unapologetically large and should likewise be worn with total abandon on the wrist.

True enough, the inside of the watch is something atypical and fascinating. The first thing one notices is the complete lack of a dial which therefore means that the movement is completely exposed for the owner’s viewing pleasure. The Karel Rotation utilises a movement with a rotating base (hence the name). The construct in its entirety resembles a mobile steampunk fortress and is sure to delight the gearheads among us. It makes three full rotations in a day or one every eight hours. All that is indicated by the watch is the time in hours and minutes via two stylised diamond-tipped hands in black. As one would expect, the lack of a dial proper makes reading the time a slight challenge – the hands just get lost in the symphony of wheels and bridges. This tends to happen when the line between timepiece and kinetic sculpture is blurred, which is the case with the Karel Rotation.

A city of gears greets viewers as it slowly rotates around its axis.

The Movement

Driving the Karel Rotation is a movement using the Czech classic calibre Prim 66 as a base. It has a power reserve of 42 hours and operates at a lazy 2.5 Hz frequency. Of the 264 components making up the Karel Rotation, Seryn produced 75% of them without the use of CNC machinery. The other 25% of the components, including the hairspring, mainspring, and bearing jewels were outsourced to specialists. The calibre technically consists of two independent movements that share one mainspring barrel. It is supported on a single shaft, around which everything else revolves like planets around the sun, including the mainspring barrel, plates, automatic winding assembly, and even the hands. Both of its old-school 2.5 Hz balances and their separate gear trains (two escape wheels, two second wheels, two intermediate wheels, and two minute wheels) share a single mainspring barrel. This type of movement construction comes with its unique challenges, as both oscillators must be tuned absolutely perfectly – the dual movements are entirely dependent upon one another.

The movement as seen through the sapphire crystal case back

Interestingly, the calibre cannot be wound manually; it uses a sapphire crystal oscillating weight with a heavy platinum segment occupying half of the periphery of the transparent disk. Setting the time is done by a leveraging mechanism, using a key Seryn crafted at the 12 o’clock position where there is a corrector with a triangular profile (the client is able to choose the shape according to his/her wishes). Moving the corrector to the right and into its first position pushes the minutes forward, while in the second position they can be set backward. Shifting the key to the left in the corrector slot moves the hours forward or backward. All this is wonderfully observable from the front due to the skeletonised nature of the movement and non-existent dial – the charcoal black lever shaped like a “devil’s tail” moves the visible central gear with 12 teeth.

The finissage on the calibre is indeed well-executed. The top surface of the plates are circular grained and their edges beveled and polished. The screw heads have been polished while the wheels are also circular grained. Even though a quarter of the parts are outsourced, Seryn hand-polishes and bevels them to the high standard he thought his watch deserves.

The Competitive Landscape

Handmade watches by independent watchmakers are truly unicorns in this modern age. The notion that a single watchmaker would design and build your timepiece from scratch is mind-boggling. Of course, this is only possible if it is a small-scale production, or with huge financial backing. Oftentimes, it’s the former, not the latter. As such, the prices for these unicorn watches are often exorbitant. Pricing for the Ludek Seryn Karel Rotation starts at an eye-watering EUR200,000 – that’s 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar money for anyone keeping tabs. Whether one thinks the watch is worth its price tag is down to what one values in watchmaking and to what extent. If the idea that the watch is constructed by a lone watchmaker, 75% CNC machine-free, then hand-assembled and -finished by said watchmaker tickles your fancy, then you might feel that the ransom is justified. The Karel Rotation is more than that of course; it also boasts interesting mechanics that allow the movement to rotate.

The Karel Rotation is not a watch you’d want to hide under your sleeves – not that you could anyway.

Another independently made timepiece that has interesting mechanics is none other than the GPHG-winning Genus GNS 1. If this doesn’t sound like a feat, know that the GNS 1 is also Genus’ first ever watch. What won the GNS 1 the Mechanical Exception watch prize at GPHG 2019 is how it displays time. In short, the watch displays the hours on the periphery of the ‘dial’, the precise minutes using a rotating wheel, and the tens of minutes with a centipede-like construct that crawls in a figure-of-eight pattern. The watch is also superlatively finished with plenty of polished bevels, sensuous curves, and acute angles. The watch is priced at CHF148,000 (excl. VAT), making it a less expensive alternative to the Karel Rotation. The only gripe that one might have against the GNS 1 is how unintuitive and difficult time-reading is. This happens, again, when a watch is more kinetic sculpture than timepiece.

The Genus GNS 1

For a less unorthodox but still contemporary independent timepiece, look no further than the Greubel Forsey Signature 1. Much like the Karel Rotation and the GNS 1, the Signature 1 only tells the time (though vastly more legible). Its partially openworked dial design reveals the glory that is its movement. The main attraction of the watch is the majestically enormous balance and its bridge. The general architecture of the movement is fairly interesting as well though not to the extreme of the GNS 1 or Karel Rotation. Where the Signature 1 really shines is in finissage. Greubel Forsey is famed for dishing out some of the best finishing in the industry, going far above and beyond the minimal requirements of traditional quality seals like the Hallmark of Geneva; this standard is also applied to the Signature 1. The Signature 1 is produced in limited quantities and most of them would have been accounted for. The retail price of the Signature 1 starts at under USD200,000, placing it between the GNS 1 and Karel Rotation.

One of the main highlights of SIHH 2016: the Greubel Forsey Signature 1.

Final Thoughts

If you ever wanted a thoroughly handmade mechanical timepiece with an exposed movement that rotates, this is your chance. Of course, first you’ll need to be able to drop two hundred grand on a whim. Us mere mortals can only stand aside and admire – such is the world of high-end independent watchmaking. Now that Mr. Seryn is a member of AHCI, it will be interesting to where his talents take him – and Czech watchmaking – to next.

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