I always take a close look at the longlist of nominated watches for the GPHG awards. It's a fertile ground for new stories; thanks to the awards' entry criteria, you'll often spot an unreleased model from a major brand, and it's mildly interesting to keep an eye on which companies currently think the awards are worth carpet-bombing with entries.

This year, something quite different caught my eye. Entered in the Men's watch category was something from a brand called "Alchemist's Mechanical Healing" - a watch called the Cu29. A time-only watch (the Men's category is limited to non-complicated watches), it resembles a Louis Moinet, Bovet or a Breguet Tradition, in layout: an hours and minutes dial in blue lapis lazuli above a small-seconds dial in the same stone, with what appears to be two barrels visible either side and the escapement positioned at 8 o'clock. Paired with a grained finish to the movement plates, a large domed sapphire crystal and an incongruous stencil font it appears to all the world to be another lively, limited-run attempt to merge 19th, 20th and 21st century watchmaking.

The Mechanical Alchemists Cu29
The Mechanical Alchemists

But reading the description below, some curious details emerged. It claimed to be "the first part of a trilogy of calibers dedicated to the Mechanical Healing". Forget Apple Watches and health trackers: is this the first mechanical watch that can boast healing powers?

What makes the Cu29 different from other watches

The calling card of the Cu29 is its case, which is made from an alloy the Mechanical Alchemists are calling "Cuprum 479". The precise makeup is a secret, however we are told that it consists of 80 per cent copper, with silver and gold in unknown proportions. The word "cuprum" is Latin for copper, and derives from the Greek for Cyprus, since large amounts of the metal were found on the island. This alloy's key feature is that thanks to the presence of silver and gold, it is claimed not to oxidise, so after a few months you won't see it turning green on your wrist.

The brand's basis for claiming that its watch has healing powers lies in the use of this alloy. Behind the convoluted language ("Cuprum’s beneficial qualities for the human organism mark its fundamental difference as a watchmaking material. It is mainly the presence of copper which, due to its composition, exerts positive effects on the body"), this is essentially the same principle employed by pseudo-medicinal copper bracelets, which some people wear for treating arthritis. By bringing copper into contact with the skin, the Mechanical Alchemists claim the watch delivers a whole host of health benefits, citing the unexplained principle of "equilibrium" alongside a long list of copper's functions within the human body. In order to deliver these purported benefits, the watch has been designed with a closed caseback and a large, domed sapphire crystal that shows off the movement's construction in full.

Under the heading "AN INNOVATIVE CONCEPT : MECHANICAL HEALING", the Alchemist's website says that "For the first time, a watch collection has been endowed with these natural properties in order to associate personal well-being and equilibrium with a very exclusive 100% watchmaking manufacture. Copper’s natural properties are transmitted continuously by the case backs of the watches".

Our goal: to create a timepiece that contributes to the body’s well-being while worn on the wrist

It goes on to say that "The aim of this company is create outstanding high-end products based on a unique material which has been proving [sic] to bring energy and well-being for its wearer." The press release reiterates the claim: "Keeping copper in contact with the body via a piece of jewellery or a watch makes it possible to achieve a higher state of equilibrium within the body... Our goal: to create a timepiece that contributes to the body’s well-being while worn on the wrist."

They also claim that "It is sometimes appropriate to combine copper with silver, which acts as a powerful antibacterial, since the synergy between the two mutually increases their effect." The Alchemists have not provided any further explanation or evidence for this claim; silver is a non-essential metal for the human body, and while silver compounds are occasionally used in antibacterial medicines, this is generally seen as out-of-date and relates to the specific application of silver-based medicines to wounds or burns. Silver can have other uses but all relate to specific treatments or medicines, rather than a baseline build-up of silver in the body. Indeed silver is toxic at levels of 50mg/100kg - thankfully, levels you are unlikely to reach via absorption through the skin.

The press release for the Cu29 reveals that the watch will be available with obsidian or jade dials as well as lapis lazuli. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the brand also makes several claims for these that go beyond their natural beauty.

"Each stone has been selected by the Alchemists for its litho-therapeutic benefits when combined with those of the Cuprum found in each Cu29.

Selecting the stones that will adorn the dials of the Cu29 thus represents an opportunity to personalise the timepiece as well as enhance the natural benefits it bestows. The Alchemists have thus worked to create curative combinations by linking the benefits provided by copper with those of the different stones selected for their very specific properties."

The Mechanical Alchemists Cu29
The Mechanical Alchemists

According to the Mechanical Alchemists, the addition of obsidian "helps protect, and promotes spirituality", while the lapis lazuli is able to "promote creativity, improve concentration, and instil wisdom. Lapis lazuli is also reputed to help alleviate allergies and skin problems." As for the jade: "this age-old combination is considered a source of prosperity, compassion, optimism and tolerance."

At least these claims are less specifically health-related; they should serve as a handy red flag that the rest of the brand's claims deserve scrutiny. We approached the Mechanical Alchemists, asking for evidence supporting the many alleged benefits of their watch. I was answered by CEO Fabrice Thueler, and began a slightly surreal conversation. But first, let's establish the facts.

A bit about copper and its place in the human body

The body does need copper for several important functions, as the press release states:

"In its natural state, copper is a component in many proteins and enzymes found within the human body. As a trace metal, approximately 100 mg is present within an adult body. Copper is essential in the formation of collagen, a protein found in bones, skin and connective tissue. It is a major catalyst in the formation of red blood cells. Present in numerous enzymes, it participates in the metabolism of proteins and lipids, and keeps the myelin sheathes around nerve fibres in good condition. It helps maintain the body’s immune defences and promotes fertility. It may also prevent certain types of arrhythmia thanks to its metabolic action."

Copper Rods
Copper rods
Chris Hall

The claims about fertility and arrhythmia are not entirely solid; there is one study that implied a potential link between low copper plasma levels and human female fertility (and one in cows), and no studies that I could find that support a link between low copper levels and arrhythmia, but the rest checks out. We do need copper. Furthermore, there have been recent studies that indicate that adults in the USA, EU and UK don't get enough copper in our daily diets. It is worth stressing, however, that we only need trace amounts of copper (around a milligram per day), and a number of sources, including the NHS, Harvard Medical School and the British Nutrition Foundation, state that a healthy balanced diet will provide adequate amounts of copper. Copper deficiency is extremely rare.

You can also read more about the role of copper in the human body here, and its use as a medicine here.

Who are the Alchemists? The businessman, the watchmaker and the magnetic healer

Given all we now know about the brand, you might think some clue to its genesis would come from the people behind it. And you'd be right. The Mechanical Alchemists are Hervé Schluchter, Fabrice Thueler and Denis Vipret. Schluchter and Thueler are watch industry veterans; the former has long stints at Bovet (then Dimier) and COSC on his CV while Thueler runs a parts business called Swiss Finest SA, supplying screws and gears to the industry.

Hervé Schluchter is the watchmaker responsible for the Cu29, and he looks to have done a superb job. According to Thueler, Schluchter was taken on by none other than Philippe Dufour and trained by the master in the arts of hand-finishing. (This explains the description of the watch on the GPHG website as "assented by Philippe Dufour".) While we haven't seen the watch up close, it looks to have all the hallmarks of haute horlogerie finishing.

It's the third member of this brand that sheds a little more light on proceedings. Denis Vipret is not a watchmaker, designer, engineer, materials scientist, marketeer or craftsman. He is a self-described "magnetizer/healer" - a man who makes a living running "healing" sessions where he uses his hands, and the power of magnetism contained within them, to treat visitors. What he treats them for is not explained on his website, but the nature of his "seances" and their distant removal from science is revealed somewhat in the terms and conditions. Believers in the power of copper bracelets often refer to their magnetism as the source of their healing powers, so it seems like the pseudo-science dots are joining up. (Copper isn't magnetic; try picking up a penny with a fridge magnet if you aren't convinced). Mr Vipret also sells a range of expensive herbal remedies and supplements.

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The Mechanical Alchemists

When asked why a watch company needs to employ someone who claims to heal people with his hands, Mr Thueler replied that Vipret was the one to devise the precise recipe for the copper alloy, to avoid oxidation. "Denis Vipret is a magnetizer, and it is with the magnetize from Denis that we found the recipe to avoid oxidation on our raw material, it is for this reason that our raw material is less oxidable than 18 carat gold."

From here my conversation - over email - with Fabrice Thueler became stranger and stranger. The more I pressed for answers, the happier and more jovial he seemed to become. "I like your questions!" - but the claims got wilder and the proof remained wanting. Apparently this first watch is only the beginning, and focusses on the horological prowess passed down from Mr Dufour; coming in 2020, the brand's second and third models will "have special healing 'tools'" and take this idea to the next level.

I asked several times for proof of the healing powers claimed on behalf of this watch: any scientific studies, reports or accreditations from relevant public health authorities. With no apparent sense of ill will or defensiveness, Mr Thueler seemed nonetheless evasive, claiming variously that I could only truly understand the benefits after a visit in person, and later that although many supporting articles do exist, it would be better for me to seek them out for myself. The closest we got to a basis in fact for the Alchemist's claims was that "people around the world [have worn] copper jewellery for 4,000 years". Of course, the fact that lots of people have been doing something for a long time doesn't mean it comes with any actual, provable science behind it.

Perhaps the most incredible claim came after a few more emails back and forth: if I was still unconvinced of the merits of the watch, I could rely on the seal of approval of one of Switzerland's largest teaching hospitals. The Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV in French) is one of five university hospitals in Switzerland, and has been described by Newsweek as the best in the country (and ninth overall in the entire world). Mr Thueler told me that the Alchemists "work with the CHUV... the doctors validated our healing tools for the second watch."

This was a big claim, and if true, would put a serious dent in my scepticism. Could it be that leading doctors and researchers had decided there were in fact credible benefits to wearing a mostly copper watch, maybe with some rare stones inside? I contacted the CHUV press office to find out. This is their reply in full:

"Sorry, nobody at the CHUV seems to have ever heard from this [sic]. If something new appears, I will let you know immediately."

I put this to Fabrice Thueler, asking if he could name the doctors who had validated their work. He responded that "We spend a lot of time with the CHUV. [At] the next press conference it will be possible for you to speak with the doctors!"

The watch itself; what's real, and interesting

Away from the extremely questionable science and faith healing, there are actually a couple of interesting and notable features to this watch. I can't say that I would recommend you buy one, but they are worth highlighting nonetheless.

The Mechanical Alchemists Cu29
The Mechanical Alchemists

Firstly, it uses a cylindrical hairspring - something pioneered by Jaeger-LeCoultre and rarely seen elsewhere. Together with the unusual case construction and movement layout, this makes for a good deal of visual spectacle. The brand says the watch is entirely hand-finished with black polishing, bevelling and engraving throughout. It also says that the finishing is carried out by each watchmaker, following a one-man-one-watch production line, rather than a separate team of specialists, which is a remarkably old-school approach.

Conclusion

If the Alchemists had just decided to make a high-end watch, encompassing a few neat and new ideas, give it a lofty price tag and submit it to the GPHG, it would have been fine. But the fact that the trio behind this watch felt the need to dress it up with unscientific claims and market it with the language of quacks inherently makes you question everything else about it. The price, which while expensive for a time-only watch isn't particularly shocking in its own right, starts to look a bit more questionable if it relates to the watch's alleged healing properties. However you dress up this magical alloy, the undeniable fact is that at 80 per cent copper, it's essentially one of the cheapest watch cases on the market. And no matter how impressive the finishing, two hundred thousand francs is a huge sum; more than a time-only piece from Voutilainen, Roger Smith, FP Journe or Greubel Forsey.

Some will say that a fool and his money are easily parted, and that if the world's rich want to spend their wealth on watches that they think will improve their health, who's to stop them? But regardless of what little harm it may do, it feels wrong to let such outlandish claims go unchallenged. To see it given such a platform at the GPHG is worrying too; the much-heralded "Oscars of the watch world" needs to think more carefully about its reputation. A spokesperson for the GPHG said that "The GPHG is open to all watch creations and trusts the choice of the jury. As you know this is the jury that decides the preselected watches and not the GPHG organisation."

Of course, in the jury's infinite wisdom the Cu29 made it through from the longlist to the shortlist, so it will benefit from the legitimacy conferred by a night at Geneva's Theatre du Léman alongside the great and the good of the watch world. I hope the jury takes a closer look at the Alchemist's claims in the meantime, and that the GPHG considers a more rigorous screening process in the future.

Finally, if you are worried about your copper intake, I can save you a couple of hundred grand.


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