Report about a talk by Dr. Ludwig Oechslin about
‚Ethic and Philosophy of the restauration of watches'

On September 28th, 2002 I had the chance to attend a conference hosted by the Swiss Watch Collectors Association ‚Chronometrophilia', held in Bern. Among the attendants were Thomas Prescher, a skillful master watchmaker (more in the tourbillon section at the end of this report) and Bernhard Zwinz, also master watchmaker who works with ‚Mr. Simplicite' Philippe Dufour. Several Talks were given on electric and wooden clocks, tourbillons and, this especially caught my attention, on ‚Ethic and Philosophy of the restauration of watches'. The latter one was given by Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, former creative head of Ulysse-Nardin and now director of the ‚International Watch Museum' in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.

I took the freedom to report here a summary of his talk as well as to present three impressive pocket watch tourbillons a tourbillon collector and a innovative watchmaker brought along (at the end of the report). Please note that Dr. Oechslin gave his talk in German. Since English is not my native tongue please be indulgent with any mistake I eventually made. And please excuse also the pics I took, I was sitting directly next to Dr. Oechslin in a small and over-crowded room, therefore the viewing angle was not the best, and I could not move in the room. Enough for the fore-word, here we go:

(i) What is a historically valuable object?
Any object can be defined to be of historical value because of his

A. material
B. form and appearance
C. function

Here, physical, aesthetical and functional aspects merge into a historical object that either tells a certain story or bears witness to something. Since all objects are prone to abrasion, wear or degradation, humankind has the duty to conserve them for future generations. So the first question to answer is: What to conserve?

(ii) Restauration or Conservation?
This is the second important decision to make: Back up the current condition (conservation) or bring back the original status (restauration)?

This question is more important that it seems on the first view. Fact is, that any alterations are normally not reversible. Oechslin gave some guidelines for a decision of what to do: Is the object meant to tell history (conservation) or is he meant to testify a specific historical time (restauration)? What are the adequate measures to achive the selected aim? What is the relationship of the object with respect to all the other artifacts of the collection? What are the means of communication of the collection (watches: running or not, in show cases, video presentations, internet?)? Oechslin believes that an integrated theory, consisting of research and communication, has to be set up for each individual case since there is no generally admitted answer. Also, any decision reflects the morale of a society and a single person.

(iii) Practical consequences?
The decision to restaurate or to conservate of course has its consequences for the work to do. For example, a prized pocket watch is the object of a comming restauration or conservation. The restaurator wants of course to restore the function of the clockwork. Therfore he will certainly exchange defective parts or make even new ones from scratch. Afterwards the watch will tell about the function. The conservator wants to keep the watch in its current state. He ‚just' wants to stop or slow down the destruction process. He would not exchange any parts, but will keep the patina. Most likely the watch will not work afterwards, but it will tell the story of her history. In any case, some aspects will be excluded: In the first one history, in the latter one the function. This is the reason why any owner of such an object has the ethical duty to make a well founded decision.
Dr. Oechslin gave the example of an astronomical clock of the Vatican in Rome that he conserved some fifteen years ago (he wrote a book about this: Die Farnesianische Uhr, Studi e Testi, Vatican 1982). He tried to preserve the history of the clock and did not look to the function (when he tested it he was surpised it worked!). The watch is still not used. The very same watch was restored in the twenties of the last century by the well known watchmaker Haussmann in Rome. Back then they repaired and completed an astronomical function that never worked before. This means that they altered the clock by modifying it. Oechslin stated that the opinion today is not to do it. This again demonstrates the importance of the owner: This was simply done because the Pope wanted it!
With the audience it was vividly discussed if there are reasonable compromises: to restore the function but not to use it to avoid wearout. Oechslin replied that this is not a solution since even the modern lubricants age to fast. He suggested to run only very good, rugged clockworks. Another suggestion was to make videotapes and animations from the working clockwork to show them to the public. Dr. Oechslin believes that only matter (read: metal, wood, enamel, etc.) can tell history and ambiance. Copies he said are are a favourable alternative, but often too expensive, so they drop out as solution.

(iv) Exemplary tourbillons

At the end of this extremely impressive talk he once again stressed the role of private collectors. He is quite disappointed that ‚thanks' to private collectors the prices for important watches are sky-rocketing so that in the end no museum can afford to buy them. He said that a collector should balance well private and public interests. Now here are the tourbillons I pledged at the beginning: First here of course the watch of Dr. Oechslin himself: the Ulysse-Nardin FREAK (who would anticipate something else?):

Then, to stay with Ulysse-Nardin, a UN marine chronometer with tourbillon avec remontoir d'egalite, achieved with 2 escapements within (!) the tourbillon cage, which you can see on the left part of the enlarged pic:

Next, before we leave the historical pieces, a school-tourbillon made in the watch school of St. Imier by an unknown student. The watch is based obviously upon a tourbillon watch by Girard-Perregaux:
And last but not least an impressive piece by a master watchmaker, Thomas Prescher. You see a ‚tourbillon' rotating not only horizontally, but also vertically in respect to the movement platine: a 2-achsle flying tourbillon! Additonally, this piece also features a remontoir d'egalite, constructed in the tourbillon's cage. Prescher's watch is a prototype inspired by the work of Randall and Godd (see: Horological Journal April 1983, Alte Uhren 4/1979). The watch is driven by an UNITAS power train, but escapement and balance stem from an IWC Cal. 97. The pinion driving the tourbillon's swing is taken from the keyless works of an other watch:

Mr. Prescher worked together with no one else than Mr. Richard Daners whom some of you might know. Daners is the maker of the angled tourbillons, inspired by the work or Walter Prendel. You can read more on Prendel's work here.
I'm very fascinated by this masterpiece and I'm happy that Mr. Prescher invited me to his workshop to give me the opportunity to write a report. I think we all can look forward to another exciting rising star on the watchmaking sky!

Magnus Bosse © October 2002 Last update 10 December 2006
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