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The recent discovery of a hitherto unknown timepiece is rewriting the history of watch development. It turned out to be the first ever chronograph, although its maker, Louis Moinet, called it a “compteur de tierces.” According to hallmarks on the dust cover, the chronograph was started in 1815 and completed the following year.
This remarkable instrument of an entirely original design is evidently the work of a genius well ahead of his time. It measures events to the sixtieth of a second (known in those days as a “third” or tierce in French), indicated by a central hand. The elapsed seconds and minutes are recorded on separate subdials, and the hours on a 24-hour dial.
The stop, start and reset functions for the central hand are controlled by two buttons which qualifies it as a chronograph in the modern sense, although the term was coined much later. The return-to-zero function was revolutionary for the time. Until today, this invention had been thought to date from Adolphe Nicole’s patent of 1862.
In the 19th century, watchmakers sought to increase the precision with which they could measure time by increasing the frequency of their watches. By 1820 the generally accepted limit was time measurement to the tenth of a second.
Moinet’s compteur de tierces (“thirds timer”) was thus by far the most precise instrument of its period, measuring time six times more closely than the norm. Moinet’s division of time into sixtieths of a second is another historical achievement that places him among the great contributors to modern watchmaking.
The chronograph’s balance beats at 216,000 vibrations an hour or at the then unimaginable frequency of 30Hz. To put that into perspective, the usual balance frequency in a modern wristwatch is 28,800 v/h or 4Hz. Louis Moinet is thus the father of high-frequency time measurement, although it was not until exactly a century later that a watch was made to beat his record.
Setting the sights on the stars
Moinet made the timer for an astronomical transit instrument, originally mounted for use at sea, that he had adapted to track the movement of heavenly bodies from the land. According to a letter he wrote in 1823, “I came to Paris in 1815 with the sole purpose of devising and making a compteur de tierces. The difficult and seldom attempted realisation of this instrument of a new construction, has achieved my purpose most satisfactorily.”
Why did Moinet need such high frequency? He was timing the passage of stars, planets and even planetary moons. A frequency of 216,000 v/h imparted 60 vibrations a second, thus dividing the second into sixtieths. He made the compteur initially to set the precise distance between the crosshairs in his telescope, as he describes in his 1848 Traité d’Horlogerie:
“This invention came to me during my observations in the following circumstances. I had acquired a small mobile quadrant by the famous Borda (maker of the entire circle). This instrument, of excellent English manufacture, was balanced on rubies, and by an ingenious system of counterweights was supposed by its maker to be preserved by its own inertia from the motion of the ship, and to provide at sea observations almost as exact as those obtained on land. But the project was not successful. Having acquired the instrument for another purpose, I added, for terrestrial observations, an azimuth circle graduated in minutes with a vernier by the late Fortin, two intersecting levels, a polished mobile axis and a three-footed stand with levelling screws and a scale etc. However the scope’s narrow field of vision put the reticule lines very close together, and it was to remedy this inconvenience of failing to see a line, that I thought up the compteur de tierces, which worked very well by giving me a precise distance between the reticule lines.” (*)
Moinet’s compteur had to function for at least 24 hours at an energy-hungry frequency to time successive transits of a star. To minimise energy consumption his escapement ran on oiled rubies. He reported that it had worked very well for a prolonged period.
The modest watchmaker
The greatest men are often the most modest and such was Louis Moinet, an academic, who shared his research with fellow horologists, rather than a businessman in pursuit of profit. His peers regarded him as one of the greatest horologists of all time. Monsieur Delmas, vice president of the Paris chronometry society had this to say about him: “He was everywhere, at all the discussions just as when he was president of the chronometry society: precise, clear, indulgent, enlightening and encouraging the weak, giving advice to all without self regard, spreading light without ulterior motive…” (From the Panthéon Biographique Universel, 1853).
Today it’s an honour to pay tribute to a great man whose motto was “The essential thing is never to depart from what is true.”
(*) The first person singular is used in this translation. Moinet usually wrote in the first person plural.
- Full plates between four pillars, barrel and fusee
- Ruby and steel cylinder escapement
- Foliot balance with platinum adjustment weights
- 30-tooth escape-wheel
- Flat balance spring with seven coils
- Six pierced ruby bearings with endstones making a total of 13 jewels with the ruby cylinder
- Made in gilt and frosted brass
- 216,000 vibrations an hour, 30Hz
- Diameter 57.7mm
- Height: 9mm
- Signed on the upper plate: Louis Moinet
- More than 30 hours
- State of wind indicator visible through an aperture in the dust cover
- Silver with a rim around the bezel and caseback
- Bezel with a bayonet fixture
- Hinged dust cover, locked by a threaded stud
- Four-part semi-bassine case with flat caseband
- Four hallmarks on the dust cover: 1. Association des Orfèvres de Paris (goldsmith’s guild); 2. Master’s mark; 3. Second rooster (Ag 900); 4. Guarantee No 815.
- Silvered and frosted metal, signed Louis Moinet
- Three subdials on the face:
- Top left: 60-minute counter
- Top right: 60-second counter
- Bottom centre: 24-hour counter
- Slender, counterpoised centre hand for the 60ths of a second
- Two identical hands for the seconds and minutes counters
- An open-tip hand for the hours
- All the hands are in blued steel
- At 12 o’clock: button to start and stop the chronograph
- At 11 o’clock: button to return the 1/60 seconds hand to zero.
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Louis Moinet was born in Bourges in 1768. Acknowledged as a naturally gifted pupil, he consistently won first prize in all his secondary school competitions. While still a child, he developed a passion for watchmaking and spent all his free time with a master-watchmaker. An Italian painter also gave him private drawing lessons.
By the time he was of 20, Louis Moinet dreamed constantly of Italy, the classic land of fine arts. He left France for the city of Rome, where he lived for five years, studying architecture, sculpture and painting. He became acquainted with members of the Académie de France, which encompassed some of the finest artists of the times.
He then moved from Rome to Florence, where he learned the art of fine stone engraving in a workshop placed at his disposal by Count Manfredini, Minister of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He also did several paintings there.
Upon returning to Paris, he was appointed Professor of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, in the Louvre. He became a member of several scholarly and artistic societies, and cooperated with eminent artists such as the astronomer Lalande, the bronzier Thomire, and Robert-Houdin, the skilled automaton-maker who is considered as the “renovator of magical art”.
In parallel, he pursued his theoretical and practical study of horology, the art for which he already nurtured a passion. He renewed contact with his former teacher, and the student quickly became the master.
Watchmaking occupied his entire time from 1800 onwards. He spent long periods in Switzerland, from the Jura mountains to the Joux valley. He met many famous watchmakers there, including Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, and acquired his horological tools and instruments.
Louis Moinet was appointed President of the Société Chronométrique de Paris, whose membership included some of the greatest talents of the era, and whose avowed purpose was “the development and encouragement of watchmaking, one of the finest sciences of the human mind”. Within this setting, he cultivated ties with his fellow members including Louis Berthoud, Antide Janvier, Louis-Frédéric Perrelet, Joseph Winnerl, as well as Vulliamy, who served as the King’s Watchmaker in London.
The work of Louis Moinet
Louis Moinet worked closely with the great Abraham-Louis Breguet, over a period of many years, acting in the capacity of close friend, confidant and intimate advisor. The two men shared the same passion for the art of horology.
In the course of his career, Louis Moinet created some extraordinary clocks for such eminent figures of his era as Napoleon Bonaparte; American presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe; King George IV of England; Ernest Augustus, Prince of Hanover; Maria Amalia, Queen of the French; Joachim Murat, King of Naples; Marshal Ney, along with many crowned heads the length and breadth of Europe.
There are some extraordinary stories behind these clocks, crafted in cooperation with the famous bronzier, Thomire. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, United States ambassador in Paris and third US president, asked Louis Moinet to make him a clock based on his three criteria for a work of art: beauty, durability and utility. One can well imagine that he really loved his clock, since it accompanied him during his two White House terms of office and indeed until his last breath.
The one belonging to James Monroe is one of the original objects adorning the White House as it now stands. It was purchased in Paris in 1817, along with other decorative objects, in order to adorn the White House that had been burned down by the English in 1814, and then rebuilt by architect James Hoban. A large proportion of this original furniture has been lost over the years, and only a handful of these witnesses to the past remain, including the famous “Minerva” clock by Moinet and Thomire.
As for the Napoleon clock, it was made in 1806. Equipped with an eight-day movement, it displays the hours, minutes and date. Its grand originality stems from an exceptional mechanism displaying the moon phases inside the day hand, by means of a tiny ivory ball. Moreover, Napoleon and Josephine are crowned Emperor and Empress as soon as the music box is started. To achieve this, an ingenious mechanism physically places the imperial crown on their heads.
Today, these masterpieces are preserved in major European museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the Château de Versailles or the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, as well as in the United States in Jefferson’s Monticello museum and even in the White House.
As a maker of precision instruments, Louis Moinet was involved in maritime, astronomical and civilian horology. This ingenious craftsman perfected various techniques in these fields and developed several important new improvements. His major achievement is of course the compteur de tierces of 1816, which makes him the inventor of what became known as the chronograph. This instrument could time events to the sixtieth of a second (known then as a “third”), had a balance frequency of 216,000 vibrations an hour and could be reset to zero. Louis Moinet is thus the father of high-frequency time measurement, although it was not until exactly a century later that a watch was made to beat his record.
The work of Louis Moinet also includes alarm watches, regulators and astronomical watches. As the inventor of unprecedented concepts, he devised some truly astonishing mechanisms. For example, several of his pocket-watch calibres boasted unusual arrangements of the components (such as with the whole set of gears built around the same pinion). Moreover, it invented a toothed mainspring that improved the rating of the watch – a spring he poetically described as being a “half-ripe cherry red” colour when fired in the kiln. He also developed a new balance-cock that facilitated winding. After tireless efforts, he created a mobile balance-spring stud so as to poise the balance correctly without needing to dismantle anything. Finally, he slotted, rounded and hand-finished the gear trains of his marine chronometers in order to ensure their precision, according to the principles he laid out in his learned Traité d’Horlogerie or watchmaking treatise.
Dedicated to excellence and extremely modest by nature, Louis Moinet was driven by the ambition to advance his Art rather than a desire for commercial profit – which is why he freely shared his ingenious ideas with his fellow watchmakers.
The famous Traité d’Horlogerie
Louis Moinet is in particularly renowned for his famous Traité d’Horlogerie, published in 1848 and widely reputed to be the finest book on horology of the century. Comprising descriptions of the finest watchmaking techniques, it was appreciated by the great watchmakers of his era such as Frodsham, Perrelet, Saunier and Winnerl, as well as by several other scholars and connoisseurs such as HRH Prince Alexander of Orange – all of whom appear on the list of the numerous subscribers to a book that was reprinted three times and circulated as far afield as Russia.
Louis Moinet devoted twenty years of his life to writing this two-volume treatise, which remains highly sought after to this day. It contains in particular a practical and universal method for gears that follow scientific principles duly modified by their application.
The work of Louis Moinet consisted in giving life and soul to matter. Acknowledged by his peers as a good-hearted man of outstanding intellect, he died in Paris on May 21st 1853, at the age of 85.
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The Ateliers Louis Moinet are at Saint-Blaise near Neuchâtel in the heart of Switzerland’s watchmaking area. This independent company was established about 15 years ago by Jean-Marie Schaller with the aim of producing watches in the spirit of Louis Moinet: a blend of art and technology.
Although Louis Moinet was an eminent horologist of the 19th century, his work has been largely forgotten. However, recent research has brought to light some of the masterpieces of the past, which are kept in the museum section at Saint-Blaise. These treasures include decorative clocks, complicated pocket-watches, a timer and original documents of the period as well as different editions of Moinet’s 1848 Traité d’Horlogerie.
The company aims to “restore Louis Moinet to his rightful place at the top of the watchmaking pantheon.” The Ateliers Louis Moinet specialise in limited editions and unique pieces of distinctive design.
Several patents have been filed, notably for the unique 10-second retrograde mechanism in the TEMPOGRAPH model.
A patent has also been sought for the lever-activated chronograph featured in the JULES VERNE Instrument I. A second patent covers the crown protecting device, particularly useful for simplifying after-sales service.
The MECANOGRAPH is fitted with a self-winding chronometer-certified movement with a rotor pivoting on ceramic ball bearings to improve winding efficiency.
JULES VERNE Instrument III is a single-button chronograph that displays its functions with an original indicator.
The Louis Moinet style
Through its rich heritage, Louis Moinet expresses a unique brand identity: the time is indicated by “Gouttes de Rosée” (dewdrop) hands, on a dial adorned with “Côtes du Jura”®.
The signature features of the Louis Moinet case consist in its upper bezel secured with screws; its unique interchangeable crown tube system for which a patent has been filed; and the “champagne-cork” style chronograph pushers.
To ensure a novel and distinctive chronograph read-off in the GEOGRAPH model, its two counters are set with genuine watch jewels made using the Verneuil process, polished on both sides and featuring a special split-level construction.
Mechanical Art in Limited Editions
Each watch tells its own story… which explains why the mechanical art of Louis Moinet can only be expressed in limited editions.
Louis Moinet has manufactured works of art for kings, heads of state and other dignitaries. The message conveyed today has not changed over the years: Louis Moinet watches are designed for the important people of our time. A Louis Moinet watch remains a rare object: annual production does not exceed 1,000 watches.
Published by WatchMundi