Watches rarely evolve. The opportunity for any development is usually limited to the design process, after which the watch is manufactured and the finished product makes its way to its new owner. That’s usually the end of it.
However, over the course of its 126-year existence, one watch has changed beyond all recognition due, in part, to the whims of an eccentric Swiss millionaire and the skills of two master watchmakers.
Superbia Humanitatis (“Pride of Mankind”), as its most recent custodian has grandly christened it, started life as one of three complicated women’s pocket watches created by Louis-Elisée Piguet in 1892. When it left Piguet’s Le Brassus workshop, the watch boasted small seconds, minute repeater, grande and petite sonnerie and a silence function, and comprised 491 components. Exactly 100 years later, the watch resurfaced at Baselworld, having undergone a complete transformation at the hands of none other than Franck Muller, the self-proclaimed “Master of Complications”. Muller had acquired the watch at an 1989 Antiquorum auction and persuaded Swiss watch collector Willy Ernst Sturzenegger to sponsor its augmentation.
Muller had got into the habit of unveiling “world premieres” each year to show off his prodigious talent. And 1992 was a big year for him, as he was launching his eponymous brand and workshops. He needed something suitably grand to mark the occasion.
Muller took the original Piguet movement and added a perpetual calendar with moonphase, equation of time and 24-hour hand, as well as a retrograde thermometer by means of a module. The Calibre 92, as Muller called it, now had 651 components and was rehoused in a 39mm platinum case with a newly created engine-turned silver dial bearing his name, both of which remain on the watch to this day.
Sturzenegger, who made his fortune in advertising before launching a number of different businesses, took delivery of the watch after it had fulfilled its role at Baselworld. However, he only wore it for a few days before deciding more work was needed. He contacted a number of watchmakers to implement his ideas, but Zürich-based Paul Gerber was the only one prepared to work within the boundaries of his exacting constraints.
Gerber would have to create a flying tourbillon using the movement’s original escapement and also work with the dimensions and layout set out by Muller’s dial and case, to preserve the tone of the striking mechanism.
Gerber took delivery of the watch and set to work while Sturzenegger made the life-changing decision to sell his businesses and property in Switzerland (as well as the majority of his watch collection) and move to Thailand, telling Gerber the weather had become too cold for him. Among the possessions he retained were the watch and a villa in the South of France where he and Gerber would meet up to discuss the project every summer.
This new/old flying tourbillon took Gerber three years to complete, building a working flying tourbillon carriage to carry the original balance wheel and blued-steel hairspring as requested. The watch, now comprising 772 components, was once again shown at Basel. Not only did it represent Gerber’s first attempt at a tourbillon, it was also the smallest flying tourbillon ever created. Gerber also signed and dated the bridges of the movement for the first time, not only with his own name but those of Piguet and Muller too.
Sturzenegger, however, who is now in his eighties, was not done – and his motivation was unconventional to say the least. Despite being the driving force behind one of the more demanding horological commissions in history he wasn’t interested in complications or mechanisms per se. He liked hands. The more the better, something that was born out by the collection he had sold, with each displaying multiple hands and indications.
After much consultation, Gerber and Sturzenegger decided to add a split-second chronograph and power reserve indications for both timekeeping and striking trains. But Gerber’s work would be constrained to the owner’s provisos. Instead of using the modular approach that Muller had in adding his new complications, Gerber would have to work within the limits of the existing platinum case and silver dial. This meant he could add no further width or depth to the movement, but instead would have to carefully plan his added mechanisms within its empty spaces, retro-fitting the movement with what would become an integrated rattrapante chronograph. In truth, Gerber did tinker with the case, producing a new thicker version of the caseback bezel which brought the watch’s total depth to 18.63mm and afforded him an extra sliver of space but, for the most part, he worked with what was available.
Gerber’s first challenge was that no technical drawings or data existed for the movement. So he completely disassembled the movement and used a bench micrometer to measure the most crucial distances on every plate, bridge, bearing, wheel and lever. He fed the resulting data into a CAD programme and developed technical schematics upon which he overlaid the additional mechanisms, designed using the same programme. Gerber used CNC machines to produce the new components which, after testing, were hand-finished.
The split-second chronograph assembly is noticeably thin, Gerber having removed almost all of the height from the columns of his column wheel. The result more closely resembles a flat octagonal nut. In some cases, form also influenced function, as Gerber decided upon a chronograph mechanism with a jumping minutes register because this approach relies on thin levers rather than interlocking wheels, which could more easily be accommodated within the space available.
The existing layout of hands on the dial also had to be respected. Any new hands would have to be mounted on existing axes and have new indices added, or the existing scale be made to serve dual purposes, as was the case with the small seconds subdial. Gerber paired it with the newly added 60-minute chronograph counter with both hands cleverly making
use of the same 60 indices scale.
To accommodate both the central seconds hand and corresponding split-second hand, the central axis had to be drilled out to allow for these two new axes, one within the other. Drilling such a small diameter hole through such a comparatively long length was a test of even Gerber’s skill.
“It was like taking a 300-year-old house and putting in an elevator without changing the structure of the building,” says Gerber, who also admits that he took on the project without knowing what he was getting into.
Gerber’s exacting measurements would also help him overcome another challenge presented by the unique nature of the watch. As the watch was now one of a kind – its two siblings having been lost to time – mistakes were simply not an option. Should Gerber drill out the mainplate in the wrong position, the movement would be irredeemably damaged. To avoid such catastrophic damage, the watchmaker first created 1:1 replicas of the mainplate and bridges. Although not much to look at, the unfinished duplicates were used to prove that Gerber’s designs would work.
This stage of the watch’s development took him the next decade to complete, during which time the watch would be rechristened with a new, distinctly aristocratic name.
In 1995, Sturzenegger paid a quarter of a million pounds for the feudal Earldom of Arran, which had its seat at the ruins of Lochranza Castle, and came with 1,000 acres of farmland on the Scottish island, which he never lived in, preferring Thailand’s tropical climate. The title had, since the 15th century, been in the family of Lady Jean Fforde, who sold it to pay for central heating and essential repairs to her residence.
However, Sturzenegger didn’t get exactly what he wanted from this purchase. As the title was feudal, he was twice denied the official right to style himself as Earl of Arran, and then feudal titles were abolished altogether in Scotland in 2000. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Sturzenegger from adopting the title Lord_Arran as an online nom de plume for his activity on watch forums and slowly the watch came to be referred to as the “Lord Arran”.
The finished watch now consisted of an astonishing 1,116 components, which, in January 2005, saw it enter The Guinness Book of Records as the most complicated watch in the world in terms of numbers of parts. Today, Patek Philippe’s Grandmaster Chime and Franck Muller’s Aeternitas Mega boast a greater number of components, with 1,366 and 1,483 respectively, but Gerber maintains that, even today, no other unique piece can compete.
The same year, Sturzenegger asked Gerber if he knew anyone who would be interested in buying the watch. Gerber put him in touch with fellow client Ralph Graf. Incredibly, Sturzenegger had not held nor even seen the watch in person since handing it over to Gerber 13 years earlier. Gerber doesn’t know how much was paid, but reveals that while the watch was in his care it was insured for 5m CHF (£3.8m today).
Whereas Sturzenegger had focused on advancing the mechanical complications of the watch, the new owner’s fresh eyes quickly realised that the decoration of the mechanism did not do justice to such a rarefied timepiece.
Gerber completely disassembled the movement — again! — and, with Graf, reviewed the existing finish of each component to decide how they might best be improved. The pair decided the bolts used to attach levers within the chronograph mechanism would have a new uniform set of nuts created in a single size regardless of the bolt’s diameter. The ornate nuts, which took on the appearance of throwing stars, then had anglage applied as a finishing touch.
Most delicate of all was the original steel and brass balance wheel still swinging away inside the flying tourbillon. Rather than risk damaging the fragile component by exposing it to machine polishing, decades of tarnish were instead removed using sticks of elder pith, the spongy corewood of the elder tree.
Months of such work finally brought the epic watchmaking project to a close. A custom leather strap with a newly created white gold pin buckle inscribed with the names Piguet, Muller and Gerber was added and the finished timepiece was housed inside a bespoke oak presentation box.
In total, Gerber spent some 23 years working on the watch, which has almost certainly had more hours devoted to its construction than any other ever made. Gerber describes the feeling of being finished as, “very good. It’s like a huge stone has fallen off your back. It’s been such a massive part of my life.”
It might not feature the highest number of complications any more and it might not be the most expensive watch in history – despite almost certainly being worth millions of pounds – but the unlikely story of Superbia Humanitatis’ development has earned it a place at horology’s top table
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.