Review: F. P. Journe Centigraphe Souverain
Being a watchmaker is all about battling the laws of physics. Whatever it is you want to do, friction, mass, inertia, gravity, momentum, magnetism, position, movement—it’s all out to get you. Every now and then, however, comes a watchmaker who can seemingly bend these laws to their will to make something that should otherwise be impossible. Meet one of those watchmakers: François-Paul Journe.
If the wish list for the ideal chronograph movement were to be laid out, it would go something like this: fast beat, accurate timing, long power reserve. The fast beat means finer measurements to fractions of a second, the accurate timing makes those measurements exact, and the long power reserve gives the watch enough power to keep on ticking for a usable duration.
But there’s a problem: you can have some of those things, but you can’t have all of them. A fast beat, say ten beats per second—which would allow measurement of a tenth of a second—requires 36,000 beats per hour, a 25% increase from the more standard 28,800 beats per hour—that’s an extra two beats per second.
And each of those beats draws power, unwinding a bit of the mainspring ten times per second rather than eight—meaning a reduction in power reserve of that same 25%. Zenith’s 36,000 vph Striking Tenth, for example, has a power reserve of just 50 hours, and requires a 42mm, 13mm thick case to fit it all in.
But with a greater power reserve, aside from the space requirements, comes another issue: accuracy. As a mainspring unwinds, the less torque it is able to deliver, with the last dregs of power plummeting in precision. The longer the mainspring, the more pronounced the effect, which is why such arrangements are often mechanically limited or split across twin mainsprings.
It’s a pickle. There’s no way it would be possible to build a high accuracy watch with the ability to measure a tenth of a second with at least three days of power reserve … is there?
Apparently, someone forgot to tell François-Paul Journe about the rules of watchmaking, because he went and made the supposedly impossible chronograph anyway, and called it the Centigraphe Souverain.
Where to start with this laws of thermodynamics-defying timepiece? Let’s go with the most controversial feature: the 21,600 vph beat. That’s not ten times per second, that’s not even eight—it’s six. And of course, one second divided into six does not give you tenths of a second.
There is a good reason for the slow beat—this is a slender watch at 40mm in diameter and 10.1mm thick. To fit a chronograph inside requires the deletion of an auto winding weight, making it fully manual—and it’s no good to have a manual watch that needs winding every five minutes.
And so a slow beat extends the power reserve to over three days, a very nice margin between each wind. The chronograph even has a separate gear train, driven directly by the mainspring, isolating it from the escapement to maintain beat accuracy when it’s running.
Problem is that a slow beat is the complete opposite of what’s needed to measure small intervals. Still, the watch is named ‘Centigraphe’; if ‘chronograph’ means ‘time writer’, then Centigraphe means ‘100 writer’. This ups the ante quite considerably, because this F. P. Journe isn’t just claiming to measure a tenth of a second from six beats—it reckons it can measure a hundredth of a second.
So, how on Earth does this watch turn six beats per second into a hundred? Well, there’s a reason F. P. Journe has won seven GPHG awards for its watches, and that’s ingenuity. Where a typical chronograph engages teeth to teeth for a positive drive, the Centigraphe Souverain purposefully allows slip between each of the six engagements to enable a brake lever to ‘catch’ the wheel driving the hand between ticks.
This means that, despite just six impulses, the watch is capable of deriving a more analogue reading at any point in between, defying the laws of physics and making the Centigraphe Souverain achieve the impossible.
Mechanical watchmaking may no longer be a necessity in modern times, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still many problems to solve and puzzles to crack. As this F. P. Journe Centigraphe Souverain demonstrates, even though we’re some half century on from the demise of the mechanical watch, there’s still so much to come.
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