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Zenith meets Breguet: the Chronometers of Thomas Engel

  1. John Chris

    John Chris Il Duca de Luca Oct 26, 2013

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    Professor Thomas Engel is a German scientist whose research into plastics and polymers earned him Germany’s Diesel Medal for innovation. Better known recipients include the celebrated rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. I have assumed that Prof. Engel still lives, as I have found no indication to the contrary on the internet. If so, he would be 86.

    Unlike the late Herr Dr. von Braun, however, Herr Prof. Engel was entirely self-taught (ein autodidakt), having studied neither physics nor chemistry. At 18 or 19 he emerged from the American POW camp at Ingolstadt to wash dishes, drive taxis, and work in a furniture factory and in construction, before beginning to experiment on his own with polyethylene and polymerization, a subject on which he had read widely after being introduced to it during his detention. Over his career he obtained some 120 patents in the field.

    But organic chemistry was not his only passion. Through friends in England, he was introduced to, and fell in love with, the art of watchmaking. In particular, he became enamored of the work of Abraham Louis Breguet of Paris (1747-1823), possibly the greatest watchmaker of all time (to coin a phrase). Many would omit the word “possibly”.

    In addition to collecting watches from Breguet (any produced after the Master’s death being unworthy of a Breguet collector’s interest in Engel’s view, doubtlessly including the current production from the Swatch Group under the same name), Engel also collected watchmaking tools from the 18th and 19th centuries of the sort used by Breguet himself.

    As one might expect from so accomplished an autodidact, Engel proceeded to produce pocket watches, styling his output “Chronometrie Classique en homage à A. L. Breguet - Montres De Haut Précision”. In doing so, he incorporated the designs and employed the methods of the Master. These have become known as “Engel Breguets”. To power them, Engel turned to Zenith.

    In his classic work on the House of Zenith, Herr Manfred Rössler described this connection, noting that in the ’50s, Engel discovered at Zenith in Le Locle (how is unclear) some 25 19-ligne cal. 68 movements, which he then proposed to use in the production of pocket watches for Zenith. These movements had originally been produced in the ’20s for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

    The resulting success, Rössler reported, led Engel to turn to Zenith’s 50mm cal. 5011K movement as the ébauche for his own Engel Breguets, of which he produced approximately 30. The 5011K, of course, was Zenith’s competition-designed chronometer movement that established the world observatory record for accuracy in the pre-quartz era. Rössler tells us that Zenith produced 5,400 of these movements between 1960 and 2002, including 2,300 shipped to Ulysse Nardin for use in marine chronometers.

    Parenthetically, Engel also designed the dials for Zenith’s own 60mm pocket watch version of the 5011K, which was cased in silver. I do not know how many of these Zenith produced. The number was not high. The case of my own example, from c. 1990, is engraved (not stamped) “No. 184”. Curiously, another example recently offered for sale on eBay, with moon phase, did not have an engraved case number (confirmed to me by the seller). Zenith seems to have produced these pocket watches (as distinct from the competition and air/marine chronometer versions of the 5011K) sporadically over the years, with plenty of movements left over to power the recently-introduced and massive 57.5mm Montre D’Aéronef Type 20 wristwatch.

    In his book, published in 2008, Rössler noted the unfortunate loss of Engel’s records, due to theft. Thereafter, Rössler carried out more research, which he published in German in June of 2011: Thomas Engel: Taschenuhr-Chronometer Im Stile Breguets (‘Pocket watch chronometers in the style of Breguet’). I found this very valuable resource on-line at <watchtime.net> and have only an execrable Google translation to assist me in reading it. The translation, understandably perhaps, suggests that an angel made these watches. Alas, no; it was Engel.

    In this article, Rössler explains that Engel designed a prototype for Zenith using the cal. 68, with dials in the style of Breguet. This led to the production by Zenith of 75 (not 25 as Rössler had previously reported) 50mm cal. 68 gold-cased pocket watches with three dial variants (25 each) by Engel. I have yet to come across any offered for sale, but several are illustrated in the article.

    These were followed in the late ’70s-mid ’80s by Engel’s own production of about 30 chronometers in the style of Breguet, all measuring 56.5mm and cased in 18k gold with a little copper added to warm the colour – a practice employed by Abraham Louis Breguet. Regrettably, like Breguet himself, Engel used numbers other than sequentially (odd for a scientist, and rather missing the point of numbers), which has led to considerable confusion given the lack of records.

    In his article, Rössler has tracked down and identified most of this output. No. 25, said by Rössler to have been produced in 1979, is now in my collection. Rössler does not give a source for the stated production date; it is a little earlier than several with lower numbers.

    For his own pieces, Engel modified the Zenith cal. 5011 movements, producing 19 known tourbillon versions (Engel cal. 5011T; Breguet, of course, invented the tourbillon) and 9 known chronometer versions (Engel cal. 5011K, “Type Concours Observatoire”), all signed with his name on both dial and movement. No. 25 is one of the Type Concours Observatoire. It is one of three with the same dial configuration (shared with No. 8 and No. 26), but as was the case with Breguet’s watches, no two of Engel’s are exactly alike.

    In his article, Rössler identifies an additional 10 pieces signed Zenith, cased in gold with dials by Engel, but with standard movements (8 with cal. 62, and 2 with cal. 5011K), plus one early version, c. 1974, using an IWC cal. 97 movement signed “Ths. Engel No. 10”.

    Shown below for comparison are: the standard Zenith cal. 5011K movement, from my Zenith No. 184; the dial and movement of Engel No. 8 (c. 1980; photos from Antiquorum); and the dial, movement and case of Engel No. 25.

    With respect to the movements, you will note that Engel divided the wheel bridge and altered the balance bridge as compared to Zenith’s original, and modified the fine regulation. With No. 25 (but not No. 8), he also reduced the size of the barrel bridge. (Forgive me if my terminology is incorrect. I am no watchmaker, and I lack the expertise to understand the purpose of these modifications; any insight would be welcome.) There are no doubt other less visible refinements, probably including the mainspring as a spare is provided and the power reserve is greater than the standard 5011K. Not surprisingly, his watches all achieved chronometer certification at the Neuchâtel Observatory.

    It was Breguet who invented shockproofing, and shock absorbers are fitted to the escape wheel pivots as well as the balance. There is, of course, a monometallic self-compensating Breguet hairspring, which I believe is standard to the 5011K.

    Turning to the dials, they are very much in the style of Breguet. Breguet was not the first to move from enamel to metal dials, but he was the first to use guilloché decoration, employed here beautifully by Engel. There is a 48+ hour power reserve Up/Down indicator (mine wound down in 52¼ hours; the standard 5011K winds down in 47½), a temperature gauge marked from 0° to 30°C, a subsidiary seconds dial at 6, and a days of the week subdial at 3. (Never trust auction catalogs; some idiot at one of the major auction houses once mistook the temperature gauge for the power reserve indicator, and so recorded the power reserve as 30 hours instead of the actual 48+. Heaven knows what this person thought the Up/Down indicator was for. Through sheer laziness, this error has been perpetuated in every catalog description of these watches since - a scandalous lack of attention to detail.)

    Note the difference in sub-dial size between No. 8 and No. 25, and the difference in the angle of the temperature gauge (a better-balanced arrangement in No. 25).

    Like Breguet, Engel used Breguet hands (gold, with spares in blued steel), Roman numerals, and point marks on the minute ring and seconds subdial (the latter marked differently as between No. 8 and No. 25). He housed his watches in wooden boxes each containing the spare mainspring and the extra set of hands (illustrated).

    Engel also wrote a book on the life and work of Breguet: A.L. Breguet, Watchmaker to Kings, subtitled Thoughts on Time (Lucerne, 1994) – illustrated below, including a photo of Engel’s own spectacular No. 17, c. 1981, with tourbillon and tact complications. He is an honorary member of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (the London watch and clockmakers’ guild established in 1631, and the world’s oldest surviving horological institution). His watches are remarkably elegant pieces with their Breguet DNA, but with souped-up versions of Zenith’s finest chronometer movement, probably more accurate than anything the Master produced.

    John Chris, ©2013

    Standard 5011K movement in Zenith Pocket Watch:

    IMG_1219a.jpg

    Engel No. 8 (photo from Antiquorum, 2012):
    No.8a.jpg

    Engel No. 25 movement:

    IMG_3650.jpg

    More of Engel No. 25

    IMG_3646.jpg IMG_3648.jpg IMG_3649.jpg IMG_3651.jpg IMG_3652.jpg IMG_3653.jpg

    And the Professor's book:

    IMG_3655.jpg IMG_3657.jpg
    IMG_3656.jpg


    And Engel No. 17:

    IMG_3658.jpg
     
    IMG_1219.jpg
  2. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Oct 26, 2013

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    Nice to see you back in the scrum, Chris. No. 25 was an epic find on your part and this is a terrific write up - best I've seen on Dr. Engel and his watches, not excepting Roessler.
     
  3. Stewart H

    Stewart H Honorary NJ Resident Oct 27, 2013

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    Lou has said it all, Chris.

    Beautiful watches and a superb write up..
     
  4. shaun hk

    shaun hk Fairy nuffer Oct 27, 2013

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    Thanks for taking the time on this great write up and pictures, and Thomas Engel is one amazing man!
     
  5. MMMD

    MMMD unaffiliated curmudgeonly absurdist & polyologist Oct 27, 2013

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    Outstanding work, Chris. Thank you.
     
  6. John Chris

    John Chris Il Duca de Luca Oct 27, 2013

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    Thanks gentlemen. It's nice to share this with a knowledgeable and appreciative bunch. The watch is massive and a huge pleasure to hold. Cheers.
     
  7. SpikiSpikester

    SpikiSpikester @ ΩF Staff Member Nov 3, 2013

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    Only just got round to reading this. It's a great piece of work - thanks for sharing it with us.
     
  8. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Nov 16, 2013

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  9. ulackfocus

    ulackfocus What're u lookin' at? Nov 16, 2013

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  10. Mothra

    Mothra Nov 16, 2013

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    ::popcorn:: This is going to be good...
     
  11. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Nov 16, 2013

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    You'd better be living in the Taj Mahal at the end of this remodeling - it's cost you dozens of watches.
     
  12. ulackfocus

    ulackfocus What're u lookin' at? Nov 16, 2013

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    No, it will not be a dilemma at all. I've sworn the finish the house, and THEN all bets are off on what ends up on my wrist - or in my pocket. I've already got my repeater / chronograph.



    I know! Luckily none of them are one of a kinders. The lone area of satisfaction I've had is the relatively less expensive Longines pick-ups I've been able to make to fill missing caliber slots in my collection. There were a couple nice Piaget 12P micro rotors that found homes other than NJ during this phase that I didn't even post about. :( Geezus, I could have had my Breguet 5197BB and at least 3 or 4 great vintage pieces the last few months.

    First modern watch I buy after the house is complete is gonna be a new Reverso Classique. I already talked with my AD about it. I owe it to myself. It's my destiny as both Steves (cicindela and N2FHL) have said.
     
  13. Hijak

    Hijak Nov 16, 2013

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    Dennis this Reverso will be that Quartz one you like right.;)
     
  14. ulackfocus

    ulackfocus What're u lookin' at? Nov 16, 2013

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    :cautious:
     
  15. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Nov 16, 2013

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    It has to be. Couldn't budget for the gold-plated bathroom fixtures and the leopard print wallpaper and a mechanical one.:D
     
  16. ulackfocus

    ulackfocus What're u lookin' at? Nov 16, 2013

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    Okay, where's the smiley that gives the single finger NJ Turnpike Salute?
     
  17. MMMD

    MMMD unaffiliated curmudgeonly absurdist & polyologist Nov 16, 2013

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    This infamous watch should be referred to only obliquely as the "Reverso of Fortune." The Q word is so hurtful.
     
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  18. ulackfocus

    ulackfocus What're u lookin' at? Nov 16, 2013

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    More like Reverso of Misfortune, but yours is smoother and rolls off the tongue.
     
  19. Hijak

    Hijak Nov 16, 2013

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    I'll remember this for next time.;)
     
  20. cicindela

    cicindela Steve @ ΩF Staff Member Nov 17, 2013

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    Actually this only happens when you are visited by the fellow known only as, The Embarrassed Squirrel of Misfortune.
    3618d8b26e37a408de868c9d528c3ebe.jpg

    Joisey is swarming with them.
     
    Hijak likes this.