Review: You Won’t BELIEVE What This Watch Can Do
Known for its great complications—such as the full-blown perpetual calendar—Patek Philippe is a legend in watchmaking. So, when it introduced its first annual calendar watch in 1996, the industry collectively wiggled a finger in its ear, leant forward and said, “Pardon?” That’s because, where the revered perpetual calendar had a whopping 280 parts, the simpler annual calendar went up to 324—an extra 44 parts. So, what if I told you that this seemingly plain and uninteresting watch could do it with just nine?
A big thanks to the owner of this watch who very kindly loaned it to us for review. If you have a collection of interesting and unusual watches that really stand out, please get in touch at email@example.com.
The Annual Calendar
This is the MIH watch, and I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of it. Sold for fifteen years between 2005 and 2020, it really looks like little other than an indie Kickstarter watch that has nothing more interesting to say than, “I exist.”
So, why does it exist? Well, let’s first go way back to understand why Patek Philippe even bothered with the annual calendar in the first place. Take the perpetual calendar, seemingly different in no more than a single word, yet literal centuries apart in execution. A perpetual calendar offers the user the ability to set the time, date, month, year and leap year and not have to touch it again until the next skipped leap year—that’s in 78 years by the way. The one after that will be in the year 2400.
You can see the advantage. Keep a perpetual calendar wound and the fiddly process of setting it need never be a chore again. By contrast, the annual calendar will happily delineate between months of thirty and thirty-one days, but throw February into the mix and it goes all squiffy. Don’t even both asking it about leap years. Conveniently, both of those things together only net a single change per year—hence the name “annual calendar”.
The two questions I had at this point are: one, why didn’t Patek Philippe bother making an annual calendar before; and two, why did they bother making one at all? The answers are one and the same, really. The perpetual calendar is more complex and impressive, so why bother with the annual—but in 1996, buyers preferred watches that looked simpler and less complicated. The simplified design the annual calendar allowed won the reference 5035 “Watch of the Year” after all.
But this isn’t about Patek Philippe. It’s about the number of parts Patek Philippe needed. It seems crazy to me that a less complicated watch would need significantly more parts, and I’m not the only one to think that. Ludwig Oechslin, watchmaker, theoretical physicist and curator of the Musée International d’Horlogerie—the International Watchmaking Museum—tended to agree.
This wasn’t the first time Ludwig Oechslin had a bone to pick with the watchmaking industry. Since his first piece in 1985, his goal has been one of not just precision and complexity, but also simplicity and reliability. His journey took him to theoretical physics so he could master an understanding of the mathematics that compile our universe—all so he could make the best possible versions of traditional complications.
His technique is to first build complex mathematical models of the complications he wants to create, because from there he can reduce that theory to its simplest form before he commits it to metal. Watchmakers have traditionally worked with trial and error, experimentation—part of the reason Patek Philippe’s annual calendar ended up with more parts and not less.
Let me compound this idea into a practical example with the perpetual calendar. Setting one of these beasts requires multiple hidden pushers and a whole lot of complexity, a solution that, really, is pretty inelegant. IWC’s Kurt Klaus had in 1985 already simplified this problem by allowing the entire watch to be set by the crown—with one fatal flaw. It could only be set forwards and not backwards. You can imagine the kind of problems that can bring.
And so in 1996, Ludwig Oechslin decided to show the world how it was done. Not only did he simplify the movement to make it more reliable by removing all the levers and only using wheels and gears, he introduced the very simple and very necessary ability to set it backwards with the crown as well. A welcome addition to many owners who’d set their watches only half paying attention.
Then, in 2001, he introduced the Freak, a watch that, on the surface, was abominably crazy, but in reality brought great simplicity to the traditional timekeeper. At its heart was a symmetrical escapement that was simpler to make, reduced friction and introduced silicon to watchmaking. It literally changed watchmaking forever. And in 2005, Oechslin decided to do it again.
The MIH Watch
Those Ulysse Nardins, however impressive, lacked one thing: accessibility. If there’s an ultimate goal to making the cleverest movements as simply and reliably as possible, it’s to make them affordable as well. The annual calendar from Patek Philippe cost many tens of thousands—Oechslin had other ideas. It just so happened that the museum had received an incredibly complicated clock it couldn’t afford to restore, and Oechslin seized the opportunity; he would make this watch and use the proceeds towards restoring that clock.
He assembled a crack team of three, including himself, expert watchmaker Paul Gerber and industrial designer Christian Gafner. The watch was to be simple, affordable—yet somehow also incredibly complicated. No hidden pushers, no fragile levers: just wheels and gears, and as few as possible.
This watch is the result. It cost $6,000, which, looking at it, seems a lot—but believe me, it’s not. You’ll have to take my word for it for now because to start we need to talk about the doner movement. Creating one from scratch would have been impossibly expensive, and so a base ETA 7750 was used. Well, but that’s a chronograph, isn’t it? It is.
This watch also has a chronograph. You wouldn’t think it to look at it, but instead of running seconds, you get chronograph seconds in the centre instead. The pusher at two does the honours, starting, stopping and resetting in that order. Yep, it’s a monopusher, and as you might know, monopushers tend to be more prestigious.
But how about the chronograph minutes? A chronograph that can only do one lap of the dial to record a single minute is as useful as a flame-resistant candle. Well, here’s the trick: turn the watch over, and where you’d expect to see the case back you find a window, through which there’s another, smaller dial. Rather than feed the chronograph minutes to the front, the numbers are simply applied right there on the wheel. It’s simple, clever and unexpected—trademark Oechslin.
And the annual calendar? Most watches with this complication have a dial crammed with information—but not this one. Day, month, date, all along in a line. So simple, so elegant—so damn obvious when you think about it. It took Patek Philippe until 2021 to do something similar. And it gets even better, because just inboard of the day are two tiny apertures, set atop one another. If only one is indicated in red, it’s AM; two and it’s PM. Genius.
The real genius, however, comes in the modification of the ETA 7750 to get it here. Nine parts is all it took. Nine. Parts. This comes from the mind of a man who could probably pack the entire duty free into a single suitcase and have room to spare. It’s all contained within a 42mm titanium case of which its estimated no more than 1,500 were ever made. I expect one day it’ll become a museum piece of its very own.
You might be thinking it and yes, the MIH watch has a look and feel about it very similar to the famed independent brand Ochs und Junior, known for its high complications done simply. Well, funnily enough, the year after Ludwig Oechslin devised the MIH watch, he joined forces with Beat Weinmann and Kurt König to found that very brand. If you’d like to see us review one of those, please let us know in the comments below and of course—make sure you’re subscribed!