The first time I laid eyes on the Girard-Perregaux Vintage 1945 Jackpot Tourbillon, it made me laugh out loud. It was my first appointment on the first day of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in 2007 and I had not heard so much as a whisper about it from any other journalists.
In those not-so-long-ago days, the SIHH followed on the heels of Basel World. We had already seen some crazy watches but this was the first watch to bring a smile to my (by then) very weary face.
All too often, haute horlogerie brands take their watches all too seriously, with corporate marketing types and watchmakers alike giving deadpan presentations of the most ordinary timepieces. When the late great Luigi Macaluso introduced me to the watchmaker who would present the Jackpot Tourbillon to me, he promised it would make me smile. He was of course underselling the experience. At that very moment, no one could have known how important this watch would become.
Today, in 2012, the Jackpot Tourbillon is recognized as one of the most important watches of the last decade of watchmaking, indeed right from the start of the contemporary era of watchmaking in 2001. In this watch, we see the shadow of Jean Dunand, Maitres du Temps and Christophe Claret and the entire phenomenon of displays on rollers. Before we get down to brass tacks here, take a moment to get a good look at the watch.
An Object of its Time
First of all, yes that is indeed a slot machine at 12 o’clock, forming a deliriously appropriate counterweight to the tourbillon at 6 o’clock. Collectors of course will know that this slot machine actually works and was unprecedented at the time of the Jackpot Tourbillon’s debut.
In 2007, this is the part that provoked my attack of the giggles because to see it in action is to realize what a hoot haute horlogerie can really be. The Jackpot Tourbillon might well be the first fine watchmaking piece whose makers were both completely self-aware of its own excess of exuberance and completely honest about it. Once again, it is worth bearing in mind that this watch thrust itself onto the world stage in a time before Lehman Brothers became a household name across the planet.
Turning to its aesthetics once more, there is no context to the images here but this is a big watch. The Vintage 1945 is a mostly square proposition so even at 36 x 36mm it has a bigger presence on the wrist than a round watch of the same diameter. Measuring 43 x 43.95mm and being 17.3mm thick, the Jackpot Tourbillon is in a class of its own, with a suitably large caliber, measuring 38.6 x 32.6mm. When we take a look through the caseback, the movement reveals how contextually lovely it is to have a shaped calibre that suits its case so well.
So, this is a big watch with big aspirations, arriving at the very height of big watches with bigger aspirations. Now that times have changed and restraint is all the rage, this novelty from Girard-Perregaux is in danger of looking irrelevant. For some commentators, dismissing the Jackpot Tourbillon would merely be on offhand gesture but I suggest that these individuals have no sense of humor and do not appreciate the technical complexity of the watch. to be blunt, any watch that dares to mix a little fun with the serious business of chronometric excellence deserves serious consideration.
Take a Chance on This
Of course, a watch that effectively debuts a new complication takes not only chutzpah and a sense of humor, it also requires a lot of skill and know-how. This was how Macaluso described the watch: “This watch is not a toy. This is a very serious watch and is an extreme expression of watchmaking skill, and watchmaking art. We did it for these reasons. It was a great challenge for our watchmakers to reduce the size (of the slot machine) and it took five years to develop. For sure, it has a funny side because it is related to a fun function but it is also a very serious, totally integrated watch.”
Indeed, “integrated” speaks volumes about this watch, especially the manner in which its more than 500 components have been brought together by sheer micromechanical ingenuity.
This aside though, the chance aspect of the Jackpot Tourbillon also intrigues us. Girard-Perregaux stumbled to fact that Charles A. Fey had invented the original slot machine in 1895. The reducing of size Macaluso talked about is related to the miniaturization of the slot machine mechanics to fit it in a wristwatch case. The watchmakers of Girard-Perregaux (and attendant external specialists) worked diligently to create a precise replica of the original slot machine – the Liberty Bell – that would be an integrated part of the overall timekeeping movement. The final caliber, GPFAY08, actually merges the slot machine mechanism with the timekeeping engine, without upsetting the incredible 96 hours of power reserve.
This is how it works: activating the handle on the side of the case sets the rollers off. This handle, very much like the ‘arm’ of the so-called one-armed bandit, fits over the crown in an admirable integrated (that word again) design choice. Each of the gold rollers has five symbols lacquered on and stops spinning randomly on one possible symbol. As this happens, a hammer strikes a gong, creating a chiming effect similar to a casino’s slot machine. There are 125 combinations of symbols but only represents the jackpot: three Liberty Bells in a row.
As one might guess, the movement here is somewhat like that of a striking watch. The arm functions as the all-or-nothing system that arms the slot machine and the chiming mechanism. You have to pull the arm all the way down to start the rollers off because it is connected to a rack, which must reach its highest point to start the rollers turning before sliding back down. The rack and the arm have equal and opposite reactions. When the rack has traveled two-thirds of the way back to its starting point, it pulls the brakes on the rollers one-by-one, synchronically activating the striking mechanism.
This action, which defines the unique value of the Jackpot Tourbillon, is as smooth as can be. There is just the right amount of resistance behind the arm to give that odd sense of satisfaction when pulling it. In this way, it is actually quite a bit like the casino slot machine it celebrates. It is also relatively addictive; in our time with the watch, we never managed to get the Liberty Bells jackpot or even three-in-a-row (as the pictures attest) but we had a lot fun trying to get the rollers into just the right position for the shots. It is of course helpful that slot machine part of the watch operates via its own dedicated barrel so we didn’t have to worry about rate and amplitude problems.
A quick word then about the hollowed-out rollers and the symbols: as mentioned earlier, the slot machine part of the watch is a reproduction of Charles Fey’s original slot machine. The symbols on the rollers here are exact representations of the symbols Fey used. There are suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, horseshoes and, finally, the bells. Fey’s machine was called the Liberty Bell because it was a tribute to US independence in its day. The historical Liberty Bell is an actual bell in Philadelphia and of course played its part in the declaration of independence.
In the end, the watch does everything we expect from a high watchmaking piece. It pays tribute to history and is true to its own traditions and those of watchmaking in general. In addition, this watch is fabulously and obviously over-engineered. The exhibition caseback view shows all of this off, alongside the prime position for the tourbillon dial-side. This visual feast of technical finesse caps a fine performance involving shape (the case and the movement), volume and feel (the case and the arm) and sound (the striking mechanism). Clearly, nothing has been left to chance.
By Ashok Soman
Photography by EK Yap
Courtesy Luxury Insider
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