At the risk of sounding like a broken marine chronometer, I’ve never held much stock in the notion of watches as investment. Still, if nothing else, surges in the secondary market can be useful for assessing the growth in demand for a particular timepiece – even if such datasets only tell half the story. This quantitative aspect of the Chronomètre Bleu’s rise to hypedom (over a relatively brief span of five years) isn’t something I’m going to belabour in our latest ‘Editor’s Pick’; but one can’t help but imagine the feeling of vindication early collectors of this model now feel.
Chatter about unrealised gains aside, the Chronomètre Bleu is a killer entry into the field of high-end indie watchmaking, plain and simple. For many collectors, it will undoubtedly feel like François-Paul’s most ‘accessible’ creation: neither as mechanically inscrutable as the Resonance nor as academically hallowed as the Tourbillon Souverain. Indeed, when development first began (back in 2011) the reported thinking was to introduce something ‘entry-level ’into the brand’s Classique range. And while I’d squarely refute the suggestion that the Chronomètre Bleu is entry-level, it does seem (at least initially) to be deceptively casual, for one of the most fastidious watchmakers of the 20th century.
A most tantalising quantity
Journe’s now-signature marriage of classic aesthetic cues and clever design is something you quickly come to grips with when handling the Chronomètre Bleu. At first, the proportions feel familiar and more than a little conventional. The case is sized at 39mm: a robust, hyper-versatile diameter, fitting comfortably between Journe’s 38mm cases of yesteryear and the current gen of Chronomètre Souverains. Its thickness adds to this wearability: at just 8.6mm, it fits snugly under most cuffs, inevitably inviting comparison with several other thin time-only watches that were made to be worn in the ebb and flow of daily life. Journe could have realised these measurements in stainless steel, slapped in a blue dial and called it a day. Instead, he and his watchmakers opted to flagellate themselves – using one of watchmaking’s most rudimentary templates to explore questions of refinement and simplicity.
In line with Journe’s ethos to craft something that is always inventive, the highly rare, corrosion-resistant element of tantalum was selected for the Chronomètre Bleu case. Bluish-gray in colour, and with much darker tones than 316L steel, it has been a material of continued interest for numerous brands over the years (ranging from Hublot to Audemars Piguet). In truth, its inclusion at all – even in the tracest quantities – amounts to a badge of expertise, as tantalum is notoriously difficult to manipulate – often wearing down the very machines used to cut and shape it. Journe being Journe, the watch escalates things even further, with a case that (despite its composition) is mirror-polished across all external surfaces: just one of the many details that express Journe’s commitment to doing things his way, whilst playing a functional role by signalling the blue theme that continues to play out across the dial.
Brilliant in blue
Blue dials can often be a tiresome trope in the canon of Swiss watch design – their popularity tied up with theories of universality and Pavlovian consumer behaviour. I can’t help but think that’s something Journe and his cohorts considered when creating the Chronomètre Bleu: the dial’s execution never fully embraces contrarian tendencies, but it does go beyond the generic, monotone styles that are all too common in contemporary watchmaking.
At a distance, one of the watch’s strongest visual characteristics is how it exudes reflections. Marketers have a tendency to overstate the dramatic effect environmental lighting can have on a watch, yet here, much of that hyperbole is justified. Journe reps themselves describe the watch as ‘chrome blue’, but the reality is substantially more nuanced: under harsh exposures, the dial assumes a vibrant electric cast (to the point that telling time under direct sunlight can make for the occasional headache), whereas low-light settings reveal a range of navy and ultramarine tones. This extensive variety in everybody’s favourite primary pigment is achieved by using a lacquer-and-polish process. By Journe’s own admission, these techniques need to be performed by hand, multiple times over. If a dial doesn’t meet the stringent QC requirements of the in-house manufacture, they are destroyed then discarded.
This emphasis on shade and colour has also had a significant impact on layout. The dial’s chapter ring and Arabic indexes are printed in an off-white colouration that boosts legibility, with just enough contrast to keep things interesting. Instead of muddying the overall design language with embellishments like date windows or logography, Journe opted to keep only the most essential elements of a classic three-hand dial; and then focus on making those more interesting. The central handset is crafted in the brand’s somewhat quixotic droplet shape, whereas the seconds are moved off the conventional axis altogether – displayed instead within a smaller register between 7 and 8 o’clock. Cannily, Journe manages to preserve the dial’s sense of aesthetic continuity by shrinking the ‘7’ and ‘8’. That in turn gives the sub-seconds valuable square footage to showcase the fine printing and radial guilloché (which function as punctuation points in the dial’s broader execution).
The dial’s openness and apparent simplicity belie just how lavish the business end of the Chronomètre Bleu actually is. Thematically, the combination of a traditional, hand-finished movement and a coolly contemporary time-only display lend the watch something of a split personality. That, as far as I’m concerned, is a good thing. Nailing the balance between ‘past’ and ‘present’ in mechanical watchmaking has always been challenging; yet Journe has managed to craft a timepiece that will resonate (chuckle) strongly with mass audiences, whilst remaining connected to the brand’s uncompromising vision of haute horlogerie.
In the style of various other Journe movements, the calibre 1304 consists of a unique mechanical architecture that is fashioned, in large part, from solid 18k rose gold. I won’t belabour the challenges inherent in working with such a soft, precious metal; but suffice to say, using this much gold in the fabrication of crucial mechanical components is an ambitious gesture that speaks for itself.
Lavish as it may be, the aesthetic here isn’t one that relies on convention to do the heavy lifting. The movement’s construction puts it in the same lane (if only figuratively) as the Chopard L.U.C. or Lange 1 – clean, easy to follow, and beautifully decorated. The largest of the bridges, through which part of the gear train is visible, evokes the minutiae of a circuit board; and is an effective foil to the smaller, more conventionally shaped pieces securing the watch’s regulating organs. (At around 8 o’clock, you can partially make out the escapement.)
Beyond the lustre of rose gold bridge-work, horology buffs are likely to pay attention to the two mainspring barrels – located adjacent to one another in the centre of the movement. ‘Mechanisms in twos’ are a classic motif in Journe’s watchmaking, with the rationale here being that the two mainsprings (working in parallel) will demonstrate consistent amplitude over the life of the Chronomètre Bleu’s power reserve.
Beyond two barrels and a single train wheel, the choice to conceal most of the watch’s internal organs has freed up valuable real estate for showcasing yet another Journe hallmark – finishing. Unlike many of the popular icons in high watchmaking, here there is an effort to show more of the movement’s mainplate: a component that, despite its integralness, is frequently only minimally decorated. Again – going back to one of the central themes in Journe’s watchmaking – what could have been perfunctory, is rendered with extraordinary attention to detail. A small segment of the plate is given the classic ‘snailed’ treatment, though the majority of its surface is dominated by an extravagant barleycorn guilloché that ripples out across the caseback. Oddly enough, it plays into the duality of the Chronomètre Bleu’s persona at-large: balancing a chic blue facade with the eccentricity – dare I even say, soulfulness – of traditional fine watchmaking.
F.P. Journe Chronomètre Bleu
Case material: Tantalum
Movement: Calibre 1304
Functions: Hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds
Frequency: 3 Hz/ 21,600 vph
Power reserve: 56 hours
Strap: Alligator strap with matching pin buckle (signed)
This piece has been sold on Wristcheck. Check out more from F.P. Journe here.