GP 223 Years of History Part 6.1: La Esmeralda – A 19th Century Masterpiece
Girard-Perregaux has been making watch history since 1791, a rich tradition chronicled by luxury-goods writer Nick Foulkes in his expansive account “221 Years of Girard-Perregaux”. The author of beautiful tomes on Bentley, Dunhill, Mikimoto and dandies, he has catalogued some of GP’s most elegant, unusual pieces and greatest innovations. Mr. Foulkes’s history of Girard-Perregaux will return later this spring with the thirteenth installment of this series.
This technical addendum to his sixth installment, however, penned by art historian and author Ariane Maradan, tells the story of La Esmerelda, perhaps the most famous Girard-Perregaux of all time. — The Editors
La Esmeralda: A Technical and Engraver’s Masterpiece
By Ariane Maradan
A WATCHMAKER CALLED CONSTANT
“LA ESMERELDA,” a pocket chronometer created by Constant Girard-Perregaux, founder of the eponymous company, won a gold medal at the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition. Today it is the major exhibit of the Girard-Perregaux Museum collection in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
Constant Othenin-Girard, born in La Chaux-de-Fonds on September 28, 1825, started his career as a watchmaker’s apprentice in the nearby village of La Sagne. He initially went into business in a partnership called Calame-Robert & Girard in 1845 and then from 1852 with his elder brother, Numa, trading as Girard & Co. In 1854, Constant Girard married Marie Perregaux (1831–1912) from a family of watchmakers in Le Locle. Together, in 1856, they established the company in La Chaux-de-Fonds, united under their family names.
Business expanded rapidly, and Girard-Perregaux soon became one of the biggest firms in town. Constant Girard-Perregaux was an early promoter of Swiss watches in America and developed a thriving trade with the continent, setting up sales outlets in a number of cities in North and South America. His representatives in the New World were his brothers-in-law, Henri and Jules Perregaux. The third of Marie’s brothers, François, settled in Yokohama in 1860 and looked after the firm’s Asian interests from there. Constant and Marie’s eldest son, Constant Girard-Gallet, took over the business after the death of his father on June 18, 1903.
A keen and generous man, Constant Girard-Perregaux was active in the social, political and economic life of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he was elected to public office. However, he primarily focused his talents on watchmaking, spending years studying and devising different types of escapement, in particular those in a tourbillon.
The quality and appearance of his escapements and watch calibres would be rewarded at many local, national and international shows and fairs, as well as at Universal Exhibitions. His chronometers even got excellent timing results at the Neuchâtel Observatory. This institution, established in 1858, was also tasked with determining the exact local time and rating the performance of chronometer makers by testing their watches and providing rating certificates. The Observatory also staged prize chronometry competitions.
UNIVERSAL EXHIBITIONS: EVENTS OF GLOBAL IMPACT
Universal exhibitions, the first of which took place in London in 1851, were the technological showcases of the age, enabling participating countries to compare their development at major gatherings. Awarding prizes, medals and other distinctions to the most deserving products, they contributed to the progress of the industrial revolution.
Constructing their venues entailed major urban transformations, where massive structures have survived their temporary purpose. Notable among these is the Eiffel Tower in Paris, erected for the 1889 Universal Exhibition marking the centenary of the French Revolution.
THREE ELEGANT ARROWS IN PARALLEL
It was at the 1867 Universal Exhibition, also held in Paris, that Constant Girard-Perregaux exhibited for the first time a tourbillon pocket chronometer with a specially constructed movement having three straight bridges with pointed ends.
Invented at the start of the nineteenth century, the tourbillon system compensates for rate variations in different vertical positions of the watch movement due to the effects of gravity. It does this by rotating the movement’s regulating organ (balance wheel, balance spring and escapement) usually once a minute in a carriage. Girard-Perregaux incorporated this device in an entirely new structure: the three bridges holding the wheel-train in place are aligned in parallel and redesigned as arrowheads. This innovative idea makes the movement an integral part of the styling, as well as a purely technical component. Girard-Perregaux never stopped making improvements to this model until his emblematic construction, the Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges, won a gold medal at the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition.
On December 15, 1883, meanwhile, Constant Girard-Perregaux filed a patent application with the United States Patent Office to protect his original design for a movement held by three parallel arrow-shaped bridges. (At the time, there was no patent institution in Switzerland.) The patent, No. 14919, was granted three months later, on March 25, 1884. It opened with the following words:
“Be it known that I, Girard Perregaux, of Chaux-de-Fonds, in the canton of Neuchâtel and Republic of Switzerland, have invented and produced a new and original Design for a Watch-Movement, of which the following is a full, clear, and exact description.
My design consists of three parallel bridges, each having a central annular portion, spread-out ends and bar-like portions between said annular portions and ends, and at equal distances apart within the circular outline of the plate or case of the watch-movement. Patent for the three bridges design granted to Girard-Perregaux on March 25, 1884.”
1889, GLORY IN PARIS
Several accounts of the 1889 Universal Exhibition remark on the exceptional presentation of the Girard-Perregaux showcases. The firm exhibited in Class 26 (the watchmaking section) of Group III (furnishings and accessories). The extracts translated below speak for themselves:
• The exhibition of Mr. Girard-Perregaux, of La Chaux-de-Fonds, made the greatest impression. All the items in it are of artistic distinction, and they are accompanied by many observatory certificates. The watches with skeleton bridges, which reveal the mainspring barrel and the wheels of the escapement, were capable of fascinating the public, which was enraptured by these masterpieces and never tired of admiring the peculiar action of the tourbillon escapements in particular.
• The firm of Girard-Perregaux, of La Chaux-de-Fonds, whose show window is uncontestably one of the finest in the exhibition, presents among other items, two chronometers having movements with pointed bridges, which are its specialty. One has a detent escapement; the other is a tourbillon lever escapement with bridges in gold. Noticeable in the same window are two 14-ligne watches constructed according to the same design with tourbillon escapements. They are masterpieces of delicate workmanship since the lever escapements contained in the tourbillon carriages have the same proportions as those in nine-ligne watches.
• The chronometers shown by the Girard-Perregaux firm are regulated by both spherical and helical Breguet springs. This firm has obtained seven prizes and 60 six-week and one-month rating certificates from the Neuchâtel Observatory over the past 11 years.
• Although it manufactures all kinds of horological items, from the simple watch to the most complicated, the firm of Girard-Perregaux & Ce (gold medal) had on this occasion restricted its presentation to high precision pieces and a few watches for ladies. Especially noticeable among the opulent collection of chronometers in the display window, representing nearly all the calibres specific to this firm, were six chronometers with tourbillon escapements in sizes for men and women.
• The chronometers displayed by Messrs Girard-Perregaux & Ce were accompanied by rating certificates from the Neuchâtel Observatory, many of them recording observations over six weeks in five positions in the oven and icebox, testifying to a high-precision adjustment. We can in particular remark upon the tourbillon chronometer No. 168230, rated during March and April 1889 with results that are worthy of mention. […] Since 1867 this firm has obtained many awards at the exhibitions in which it has taken part, and, since 1875, 12 prizes at the Neuchâtel Observatory competitions. In 1883, Mr. Girard-Perregaux senior was a delegate of the Swiss Confederation at the international exhibition in Amsterdam, where he served as a member of the jury.
AN ENGRAVING LESSON BY A NEUCHÂTEL ARTIST
The engraved decoration covering the massive gold hunters produced by Girard-Perregaux in the latter half of the nineteenth century, mainly for the South American market, was the work of Fritz Kundert and his craftsmen. This engraver had established workshops in La Chaux-de-Fonds capable of every kind of decoration for watch cases, including engraving, engine-turning, enameling, miniatures in enamels and gem setting.
It was thus Kundert, whose monogram k.f. is marked on the inside of one of the covers, who was responsible for the lavish decoration of “La Esmeralda” pocket watch. Attesting to the marvelous skills of one of the most talented engraving artists of the Neuchâtel mountains, the decoration is a true demonstration of the art. Its execution demanded the display of most of the engraving techniques and thereby the use of every kind of graving tool. Kundert reveals his virtuosity in a play of light, excelling in the composition of the themes, the handling of relief and the contrast between brilliant and matte surfaces.
Attentive to the slightest detail, Constant Girard-Perregaux also had the plaques on the traveling cases of his chronometers engraved in copperplate. The Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds has an example engraved in dedication to the watchmaker by Adolphe Dubois, Fritz Kundert’s brother-in-law. Featuring the four seasons represented by four allegorical female figures, the plaque also bears the signature adolphe dubois del et sculpt, as well as the awards and dedication: exposition universelle paris 1855/médaille de 1re classe/dédié à mr const girard perregaux.
Unlike Girard-Perregaux, who did not take part in the 1855 Universal Exhibition, both Dubois and Kundert participated. Among other engravings, he presented the above-mentioned plaque and was awarded a first-class medal. The plaque, belonging to the Girard-Perregaux family, was sold to the MIH in the late 1930s by Constant Girard-Gallet, the son of Constant and Marie Girard-Perregaux.
The auctioneers, Sotheby’s, offered a similar plaque featuring an allegory of the four continents by the same artist in its sale of January 30, 2009 — Important Old Master Paintings, including European Works of Art (Sale N08516, Lot 361).
The importance of the Latin American market to Swiss watchmakers during the second half of the nineteenth century deserves greater recognition. Constant Girard-Perregaux and his watchmaking contemporaries were looking for new markets in which to promote and sell their products. Toward the end of the 1850s, he laid plans to set up an export office in the promising American market. He decided to establish an office in Buenos Aires rather than in New York City to manage the sales of his watches in the entire American continent.
EXCELLENCE IN DEMAND IN LATIN AMERICA
The watchmaker put Henri Perregaux, his wife’s brother, in charge of this mission. Henri left for Argentina in late 1865 and settled in Buenos Aires as the brand’s special representative for North and South America, a mandate later extended to the West Indies. The youngest of the Perregaux sons, Jules, also got involved in developing the family business across the Atlantic. The two brothers were succeeded by the sons of Constant Girard-Perregaux, Maurice and Paul. The company took part in several exhibitions in the New World, including the 1875 International Exhibition in Santiago, Chile, where its pocket chronometers won a first-class medal.
It was a time of prosperity, and Latin America was a goldmine. However, this did not entail producing large numbers of watches, for Swiss timepieces were expensive and therefore meant for a limited number of customers who were as demanding as they were wealthy. Constant Girard-Perregaux expressed his creativity both technically, as with his unequalled Tourbillon model with Three Gold Bridges, and stylistically, as exemplified by the exceptional decoration of the cases and dials of his hunting-cased watches. The cases were richly engraved, with their inside surfaces often entirely engine-turned, while the dials were mostly adorned with fine floral motifs in applied gold, conceived especially for the Latin American taste.
The Latin Americans were above all attracted by the masterpiece of the Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges. Most of the pieces made at that time found buyers on that continent, including the celebrated “La Esmeralda” pocket chronometer.
LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS TO MEXICO, And BACK.
The inscription engraved on the dust cover of “La Esmeralda” tells us that it was sent to the Hauser, Zivy & Co. agency. This firm, with a presence in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Mexico City and Paris, was founded by Messrs Hauser and Zivy. They were the owners in the late nineteenth century of the luxury store La Esmeralda, in Mexico City, which sold fine Swiss watches, jewelry, musical boxes and other decorative and artistic items.
Constructed between 1890 and 1892, the magnificent premises of the La Esmeralda store was one of the first iron buildings in Mexico. It was also one of the first private buildings to feature a clock on its façade. You can still see the ciphers of the partners, hz, on the many medallions decorating the storefront. A mix of Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical styles, the building is one of the highlights of the European-inspired architecture so popular at that time in the Mexican capital.
The Graef family, whose head, Otto, acquired Girard-Perregaux at the end of the 1920s, has seen three generations in control of the company. Its heritage was especially proclaimed with the arrival of the third generation, which undertook historical research and began to collect some of the timepieces today shown at the Villa Marguerite, which houses the Girard-Perregaux Museum. In the late 1960s, Jean-Edouard Friedrich, who married into the third generation of Graefs, acquired “La Esmeralda” watch from a descendant of President Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915) while on a trip to Mexico. The head of state, who ran Mexico from 1876 to 1911 — an era of economic growth and modernization known as the Porfiriato — was supposed to be the lucky owner of the watch for a number of years. It is today the star of the Girard-Perregaux Museum’s permanent collection.
Hunting case in pink gold (diameter 56 mm, height 18.6 mm), lavishly engraved, inscribed on one side with the monogram, “CG”, referring to Constant Girard, and on the other decorated with three galloping horses on an engine-turned background in a cartouche.
The inside covers bear the hallmarks, Helvetia, K18, the individual number 168230 (the two last numerals being repeated) and the monogram “K.F” in a cartouche for the engraver, Fritz Kundert.
The outside of the dust cover is engraved with “CHRONOMETRE TOURBILLON/La Esmeralda/Hauser, Zivy & Co/Mexico-Paris”. The inside is also hallmarked Helvetia, K18 and displays the entire individual number.
In white, fired enamel, painted with Arabic numerals with a subsidiary dial for the seconds at 6 o’clock.
Thin Stuart-style hours and minutes hands and small seconds hand in blued and polished steel.
Bolt to set the hands.
Held by three parallel chamfered and rounded off bridges with arrowhead points ; jewels in screw-held gold bushings.
One-minute tourbillon, 21,600 vibrations an hour, carriage constructed of 92 parts cut fine, chamfered and polished, with a pivoted detent escapement and a passing spring in gold.
Bimetallic compensation balance, with poising screws in gold.
Breguet-type balance-spring with a Phillips terminal curve, fitted with an anti-tripping safety dart.
All the wheels in gold, chamfered and polished.
Engine-turned baseplate and barrel, engraved respectively “DÉPOSÉ” and “Girard Perregaux/* PATENTED */MARCH 25th 1884”.
32-hours power reserve.
- GP 222 Years of History Part 1: THE INTRODUCTION
- GP 222 Years of History Part 2: LUXURY IN MINIATURE
- GP 222 Years of History Part 3: BAUTTE & THE ART OF RETAIL
- GP 222 Years of History Part 4: LARGER THAN LIFE
- GP 222 Years of History Part 5: THE EXPOSITION
- GP 222 Years of History Part 6: ACHIEVING IMMORTALITY
- GP 222 Years of History Part 7: SIMPLICITY & BEAUTY
- GP 222 Years of History Part 8: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
- GP 222 Years of History Part 9: RISE OF THE DIGITAL ERA
- GP 222 Years of History Part 10: THE DECLINE & THE RENAISSANCE
- GP 222 Years of History Part 11: THE FUTURE
- GP 222 Years of History Part 12: HISTORY CONTINUES IN 2012
COMING LATER THIS SPRING
GP 222 YEARS OF HISTORY PART 13: NEW TIMES