When Kate Middleton walked up the aisle to take the hand of her Prince in marriage last year, her dress was praised for the simplicity of its lace bodice and skirt. Although the Royal wedding gown was created in Hampton Court, it was hand-crafted using the traditional technique of Carrickmacross lace-making which originated in County Monaghan during the 1800's, just one of a number of cottage industries introduced here in Ireland.
When the potato crops failed and the Great Famine ensued, County Monaghan was particularly badly affected, but there would be little or no aid for the poverty-stricken population. Lace-making became a vital source of income without which many families would not have survived. Yet only a generation after the Famine, this highly specialised hand-craft technique had fallen out of favour, and when industrialisation brought with it the ability to roll off yards of lace in mere moments, would have been lost forever had it not been for the commitment of a few stubborn individuals.
- So what's this got to do with watchmaking? Nothing. Everything.
Mechanical watchmaking has overcome so many obstacles that the cessation in its growth caused by the onset of quartz was merely a brief pause and an opportunity to consolidate. Those intermittent years however also gave birth to computers and a generation who use them to play and to create. The same technology which has transformed our daily lives has had a profound effect on the business of making watches. Components which were once created in the workshop are now machined, and the materials used to create these components often begin life in laboratory conditions. This progress has given birth to super-fast oscillating rates, calibres which need little or no servicing (.. so we're told..) and watches which will continue to keep time even when worn while serving a tennis ball across a court at well over 100mph, while weighing in at roughly the same weight as a handful of sugar. The developments made, even in this century so far are astounding, it's brilliant and we want more.
Thankfully we also want more of what went before too, and just like the stubborn vanguards of lace-making in Ireland some individuals in the watch industry are prepared to throw themselves heart and soul into projects which aim to preserve traditional watchmaking skills. Today I will focus on one such endeavor, Le Garde Temps, Naissance d'une Montre - a horological adventure so generously all-encompassing that it's not just for watchmakers, you're invited along too.
The project was launched last year with the aim of producing a tourbillon watch from start to finish using only traditional watchmaking tools. One watchmaker would complete the task, overseen by the individuals who had originally instigated the plan. Using new media methods, each stage of the two year enterprise is being documented and shared as and when it occurs, allowing for interaction, in-put and comments along the way from those inspired by the twists and turns of this unique, unscripted event - no wonder they have termed it "An Adventure".
So often in life we find that those who are viewed with the most reverence in their chosen field are also the most humble and the most willing to use their experiences to give a little back. Philippe Dufour, Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel - some of the best in the business, bring to this project their experiences, their knowledge and their passion for the preservation of the art of horlogerie, resulting in what may be the finest and richest pool of watchmaking knowledge - ever.
To assist in the program, they have gathered a small but carefully chosen support team and of course their "apprentice", Michel Boulanger, who was chosen for his affinity with the projects purpose, his experience in the restoration of vintage clocks and watches and perhaps most important of all for his commitment to the sharing of knowledge as he is an established teacher of watchmaking in Paris. Michel has only ever made individual components before and not a complete watch. From the beginning the postings on the Naissance d'une Montre blog have been so candid regarding Michel's excitement about the adventure and his nervousness at working with Philippe that this account has become an absorbing one, and as this project is not without its frustrations Michel has, I imagine gained the empathy of students of watchmaking all around the world.
If you haven't yet joined in this adventure, you can still catch up via the postings of M. Nicolas Maillechort, the projects charming and informative "virtual blogger".
By now Michel must be getting used to being viewed through a lens while he works because this initiative is based on visual learning rather than copy book study. All aspects of digital media have been employed including an illuminating Facebook page which is regularly updated with photos, videos and illustrations as well as Nicolas Maillechort's blog posts.
Those involved in Le Garde Temps, Naissance d'une Montre have quite rightly been called "Vanguards of Traditional Watchmaking", but the process by which these ancient skills are being shared with the public using social media methods adds a new twist to the project, where new meets old for a common cause - perhaps not the intention, but surely the outcome.
Many thanks to Marc, part of the Le Garde Temps team for his assistance and kind use of the images.