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Review: Magnum Opus – The Alchemists Cu29

by Frank Chuo on June 11, 2019
Overview
Brand

The Alchemists CU29

Complication / Type of Watch

Time only display with power reserve and function selector
Cylindrical hairspring in the balance

Recommended Retail Price

From CHF 198,800 before taxes. Base price is for lapis lazuli and black jade dial options.
Other dial options available with an upcharge, including a grand feu enamel dial for + CHF 18,500. Options to engrave the watch is also available with an upcharge.

Alchemists Cu29

There’s a new kid on the block and boy is he eccentric. Alchemists was founded by three gentlemen of diverse backgrounds: Hervé Schlüchter, former CEO of Dimier (now Bovet); Fabrice Thüler, founder of Swiss Finest SA; and Denis Vipret, the man who created the recipe for the unique case material for the brand’s inaugural watch, the Cu29. The concept behind the Cu29 has all to do with what the manufacturer terms “mechanical healing”. The idea was to create a timepiece that contributes to the body’s well-being while worn on the wrist. We told you the new kid’s quirky, but behind that eccentricity is some serious watchmaking as well. Here, we bring you the details and our thoughts on Alchemists’ debut timepiece, the Cu29.

The Case, Dial, and Hands

The main selling point of the Cu29 (what really differentiates it from other watches) is in the case, or rather, what it is made of. Reminiscent of rose gold, the case of the Cu29 is crafted in a proprietary alloy called Cuprum (CUPRUM 479 in full). While we do know that it is a meld of copper, gold and silver, the exact ratio of each element – except for the fact that copper is the dominant metal (>80%) – is kept a secret. The alloy requires no surface treatment and displays remarkable oxidative stability; it is more stable than classic 18k gold. The chemical properties of Cuprum isn’t what the manufacturer is strictly trying to sell here, however. Rather, it is its purported health benefits.

Copper plays numerous important roles in maintaining bodily function, including the formation of collagen and erythrocytes, as well as the enzymatic metabolism of proteins and lipids. The idea is that keeping copper in contact with the body via a piece of jewellery or watch would allow its (beneficial) properties to be transmitted to the wearer, at least according to Alchemists. If this sounds too good to be true, well, it probably is. The notion is protoscientific at best (the brand name should offer an inkling) and, to put bluntly, serves more as a marketing pitch.

The exterior of the Cu29 is rather unique, with a case made of a patented alloy, lacking a middle portion, and fitted with an almost hemispherical crystal.

Fortunately, what makes the Cu29 so fascinating isn’t just its curious health claims, but also its design, build and finish. Back to the case, its design boldly resembles that of a showcase. Having no bezel, the watch face is afforded maximum real estate and visibility. To accentuate the three-dimensionality of its contents, the sapphire crystal used by Alchemists is a specially engineered. Nearly hemispherical in structure, the crystal is even more voluminous than that of its vintage box-form forefather. Interestingly, if you look to the side, you’ll see that the crown tube pierces through the crystal rather than the case middle in a typical watch. That’s because there is no case middle. At a sizeable 44.00 mm in diameter and 15.40 mm in height, the Cu29 is absolutely not designed to be discreet, and sliding it under a cuff is out of the question.

And yet, why would anyone wish to hide the Cu29 from sight? The Cu29 is endowed with a beautiful visage comprising the movement and two sub-dials. Customers will have a choice between three semi-precious stones for the material of the dial: obsidian, lapis lazuli, or jade. Again, Alchemists claim that these individual stones, in combination with the Cuprum case, imbue selective therapeutic/spiritual benefits to the wearer. Unless one subscribes to the beliefs of the New Age movement, these claims will indeed seem dubious. What is not dubious, however, is how gorgeous the semi-precious stone dials are. The specimen that we have photographed features lapis lazuli dials with inky white print. While the hour hand is rendered in red, the minute and second hands are done in white.

The hours, minutes and seconds are marked by white, printed Arabic numerals.

Everything else that isn’t dial is part of the movement. The visibility of the movement is excellent thanks to the dome-like crystal of the Cu29. Its sheer depth and architecture is breathtaking, a sight for sore eyes.

The Movement

Christened the Calibre 003, Alchemists’ very first movement has 362 parts, 51 jewels, and is hand-wound. It has a decent power reserve of 72 hours when fully wound, and operates at a traditional 3 Hz beat rate. The 100% in-house Calibre 003 is front-loaded, meaning that most of the movement is visible on the dial-side while the back side consists of plates – essentially an inverted movement. It makes sense, then, that the Cu29 has a solid case back since there wouldn’t be much to see at the back. (Having a crystal case back instead of a solid, Cuprum case back would also render the brand’s contact-dependent “mechanical healing” pitch moot).

The view of the solid case back.

The first thing that grabs your attention in the Calibre 003 is its balance, located at the 8 o’clock position. It features a blued cylindrical hairspring that is simply mesmerising to watch in action. The symmetry of the twin barrels linked in parallel also provide a visual spectacle during winding, where one can see each spring of the suspended moustache-shaped pawl wind with each click of the ratchet.

Time-telling aside, the movement has two other functions: power reserve, and function selector. The power reserve is indicated by a cursor moving along a peripheral gear bar located between 10 and 11 o’clock. Meanwhile, the function selector, located on the opposite side between 2 and 3 o’clock, indicates whether the crown is set to W (wind) or S (set).

Cylindrical hairsprings are a rare sight in horology. The most prominent user of such a hairspring is Jaeger-LeCoultre, who have also gone on to develop a spherical hairspring.

From a finishing and decorative perspective, the Calibre 003 scores top points. The entire movement is hand-finished, with polished chamfers and screw heads, flame-blued screws, and beveled wheels, among other things. The power reserve and selector displays are made of black polished steel and adorned with lacquered engraving. Meanwhile, the double barrels are beveled and engraved by hand. What’s fascinating is that Alchemists has no finishing workshop; the watchmaker him- or herself does all the hand-finishing, just like in the good ol’ days. Only a handful of watchmakers today are still capable of both assembling and finishing a watch manually. In the end, each Alchemists creation will be the child of a single watchmaker, from its assembly and adjusting, to its final finishes.

The Competitive Landscape

The Cu29 is a truly distinctive timepiece. While its design vaguely resembles that of Bovet timepieces (one of the Alchemists founding member was CEO of Dimier, after all), other things about the Cu29 put it in a unique position. For one, it is the first high-end timepiece ever to be marketed as beneficial to the wearer’s well-being. Its lack of a case middle and all-enveloping sapphire crystal is – to the best of our knowledge – a first, as well as a shining example of design ingenuity. The inverted layout of the movement, coupled with opulent finishing, is also an uncommon sight in watchmaking. To top it all off, every Cu29 will be born of the blood, sweat, and tears of a single watchmaker, something watch connoisseurs will appreciate greatly. The question, however, is if all this is worth its price tag of CHF 198,800, bearing in mind that the Cu29 is, functionally, just a time-only watch with a power reserve display and a function selector.

The Cu29 looks stunning on the wrist and is sure to command awe.

One fair, certainly less costly alternative that deserves consideration is the relatively new Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet-One. Similar to the Cu29, the hours and minutes are displayed on a sub-dial located at 12 o’clock, with the seconds sub-dial under it. While the Jaquet Droz is encased by a case middle and a bezel (albeit a thin one), its focus on a skeletonised and transparent design leaves the movement very exposed. Indeed, the movement has been skeletonised to leave only what’s necessary while the sub-dials are made of sapphire crystal for transparency. The Grande Seconde Skelet-One is obviously not as well finished as the Cu29, but that’s okay. That’s because it (this gold version) “only” costs CHF34,600.

The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet-One
The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet-One in rose gold.

But when it comes to inverted movements, there is none more iconic than the Glashütte Original PanoInverse. Introduced in 2008, the PanoInverse features two (openworked) sub-dials set on a three-quarter plate. Like in the Cu29, the larger sub-dial displays the hours and minutes, while the smaller sub-dial just below displays the seconds. Everything else on the face of the watch is part of the movement, which was designed to be inverted. Normally only visible through an exhibition case back, the tell tale elements of a German movement, including the hand-engraved balance cocks, the three quarter plate, the Glashütte ribbing, and the gold chatons, can be seen through the front crystal instead. Again, the watch doesn’t come close to the Cu29 in terms of finissage, but at a price of SGD16,700 (or CHF12,300), can you really complain? The PanoInverse is a watch you either love or hate because of its polarising design. Regardless, it more-than-serves its role as an accessible option for those who dig the inverted movement look.

The PanoInverse in stainless steel.

Final Thoughts

While its health claims are borderline occult, the design, engineering and finishing of the Cu29 is to be applauded. The Cu29 is independent watchmaking at its best, a magnum opus if you will. That said, its pricing will cause most collectors to wince, especially when the brand is so new that it has no track record to speak of yet. There is no doubting the excellence of the Cu29, but whether or not it will be a commercial success, only time will tell.

Editor’s Note: Edited at 7pm SGT on 12 June 2019 to revise prices. The prices are revised based on an email received from The Alchemists.

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