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Poetry in motion: a visit to Agenhor SA

Disclosure: there is no financial relationship between the #watchnerd and Agenhor SA. I paid for my own travel and accommodation during my visit to Geneva in January 2017. During the visit, I was presented with a jar of Cenovis; I also presented Jean-Marc with a jar of Marmite. It appears that we have a shared love of yeast extracts

The first thing that strikes you when you walk through the door of Agenhor SA‘s headquarters in Meyrin, just a few kilometres from Geneva Airport, is that this small, independent watchmaking company takes two things incredibly seriously: the sustainability of its building; and its intellectual property. The latter is illustrated by stencils of Agenhor’s patented gears^ that pop up all over the place; the former in the immense pride with which the founder describes the premises’ green credentials.

One of Agenhor SA's patents
Figure 1 and 2: Agenhor’s 2003 patent for a Gear protected against overloading (US 7258037 B2)

The building is an example of Jean-Marc Wiederrecht‘s approach to watchmaking and, perhaps, life: always search for the simplest solution**. The north-facing side of the atelier is a straight line of rectangular rooms with large windows that allow the maximum amount of light into the watchmaking areas; the southern wall is a more complicated series of folded spaces, providing shaded terraces and open-plan areas in which the staff can eat, drink or relax. Even temperature control is simple: a ground source heat pump provides warmth in the winter; in the summer, those large windows are opened to allow the cooler night air into the building***. To top it all, 250 square metres of solar cells cover the roof.

One could argue that the entire enterprise is built on the same principle. There is no manufacturing carried out by Agenhor SA, per se. Rather, they work with clients to design solutions (such as specific complications) and produce CAD models of the finished pieces, creating new parts as required, or using existing platforms (such as a perpetual calendar plate seen below). These are then sent to a number of external suppliers who produce the parts through a combination of CNC, LIGA^^ and other techniques.

Agenhor SA's perpetual calendar mechanism
Agenhor AGH-111 Perpetual Calendar plate

Such is the skill of the Agenhor team, that they have done away with the rapid prototyping stage almost completely, preferring to trust their designers (and parts manufacturers) to produce movements / modules that work without having passed through this expensive step. Jean-Marc explained that, with a design that contains at least 300 parts, it’s going to be a lot cheaper to order those parts in batches of a few hundred or more, than in the tens. While it’s likely that a part (or perhaps parts) will need to be modified, it’s still more efficient to reorder a replacement batch of a single part than to have created a handful of prototype movements.

One of these movements has recently been reviewed on Quill and Pad by the ever excellent Ian Skellern. Like Ian, I was shown the AgenGraphe last month and was completely smitten by its combination of innovation and remarkable simplicity. The AgenGraphe is a new chronograph movement that is based on the wonderful annular mechanism that Agenhor patented a few years ago. When I first read about that original patent, I must admit that I didn’t really grasp its potential: why would anyone need a movement with a hole in the middle? However, when the Fabergé Lady Levity, and then the Visionnaire Dual Time Zone were released, it became obvious that there was a lot more to this base movement than I could have imagined. The AgenGraphe takes this idea yet another step further, and could only be realised precisely because the movement is no longer wedded to a centrally-mounted set of hands.

Agenhor SA's AgenClutch mechanism
Agenhor’s amazing AgenClutch mechanism

However, rather than discuss the AgenGraphe, I’d like to talk about something else that lies at the centre of Agenhor’s movements – the AgenPIT regulation device. There are two key components to any modern mechanical watch escapement: an oscillating balance wheel (usually controlled by a spring); and an escape wheel. It is surprising, perhaps, that the detached escape used within most modern watches is based on Thomas Mudge’s lever escapement of 1754, and which he described in Thoughts on the means of improving watches and more particularly those for the use of the sea, in 1765.

Mudge included a thermally compensated version of this device in the watch that was given to Queen Charlotte in 1770, and which is occasionally on display as part of the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle. The video (below) illustrates the oscillating balance wheel, spring, escape and regulating device that control the release of power from the mainspring through to the hands of the watch. Mudge was immensely proud of this piece, allegedly describing it as ‘the most perfect watch that can be worn in the pocket, that was ever made’.

Thomas Mudge – Queen Charlotte’s lever watch. from Royal Collection Trust

Agenhor has a different way of looking at regulation, and arguably one that is far simpler than many modern systems, doing away with the complexities of adjusting the mass of the balance wheel, and focusing instead on the hairspring. You may have seen this device before, but not realised what it does, or why there appears to be a series of padlocks etched in to it (see below).

Agenhor SA's AgenPIT (C) mechanism
The AgenPIT regulating device

In the AgenPIT system, the length of the spring remains fixed. Rather than adjust the attachment point / stud, the terminal part of the hairspring is held firmly against a small pin (next to the blue locking screw in Figure 3, which shows the AgenPit system from underneath). The effective length of the hairspring can be shortened or lengthened by turning the black knob. Once the desired length is achieved, it can then be locked back into place (hence the “padlocks”). In addition, the two silver screws allow the entire mechanism to be moved left or right, adjusting the beat.

AgenPIT is, apparently, a very simple mechanism to use, allowing the balance to be regulated quickly and easily. However, it was not without its challenges: feeding the hairspring through the adjusting organ was fairly straightforward, but getting it to grip firmly was far harder. Jean-Marc and his team tried various surfaces, ranging from brushed titanium to rubber polymers, but they couldn’t find a substance with the desired friction. During an offhand conversation about Swiss Army Knives, they chanced upon the solution: a 2-3μm of the same nickel/diamond powder coating that is used in nail files. Interestingly, this discovery was also put to use on the non-slip horizontal AgenClutch.

Agenhor SA's AgenPIT (C) mechanism
Figure 3: AgenPIT (C) Agenhor SA 2017

During our visit, I spent time with Jean-Marc and his son Nicolas, bumping in to his other son Laurent as we toured the workshop. It’s a family business – his wife Catherine has been working at Agenhor since 1996 – and there certainly appears to a very collegiate feel to the company. Staff were remarkably friendly, happily (and proudly) showing us movements upon which they were working. At Agenhor, there is one watchmaker per movement, with a single individual working on the assembly from start to finish. Some may balk at the approach – is it truly manufacture if you only assemble movements from a giant Meccano kit? As Jean-Marc says why not use the best people in the business to do the best job for you?

True watchmaking is a watch, made by a watchmaker.

This is Agenhor’s way, and it works for them and their clients. Last year, the GPHG awarded the Visionnaire DTZ best Travel Watch; in 2015, the Lady Compliquée Peacock won the prize for best High Mechanical. The Slim d’Hermès QP won best Calendar Watch in the same year (see photo above of the movement). This is a successful business producing some of the industry’s most interesting and intelligent complications. The recent announcement of the AgenGraphe takes the business in a new direction: rather than making movements for clients, Agenhor has, for the first time, designed and built a movement with the intention of selling it to watch brands. The first watch using the new AGH-6361 movement will be released at BaselWorld in March; the next in June.

Agenhor SA's Dual Time Zone mechanism
Fabergé Dual Time Zone movement, by Agenhor SA

It is perhaps surprising therefore that there also appears to be plenty of time for fun and frivolity in Meyrin. Whether it’s hiding a peacock and bushel of wheat in the jumping hour mechanism of the Dual Time Zone, or LIGA-ing the image of a girl carrying balloons into a snail cam for Van Cleef and Arpels, there’s a sense of whimsy that runs through the design of these otherwise industrial-looking objects.

Agenhor SA's AgenGraphe mechanism
The “double tulip” spring that keeps the AgenClutch pressed against the chronograph seconds

In reviewing the photos from my recent visit, I’ve also gained a slightly different appreciation of steel. It’s hard not to find beauty in these Agenhor movements, even if they might appear jarring in comparison to an FP Journe, Dufour, AkriviA or Voutilainen.  Even the springs have an organic quality: there’s one, for example, that holds the AgenClutch against the gear driving the chronograph seconds. Jean-Marc describe it as a “double tulip” and it’s probably my favourite part of this remarkable movement.

It seems strange – almost contradictory perhaps- to find floral imagery alongside such precise, micro-mechanical engineering. In an industry that can often appear more focused on the bottom line rather than lines of poetry, it’s reassuring that there are some who still hide beauty in plain sight.

the #watchnerd

This piece was written for Horologium, as part of a joint trip to SIHH 2017. Follow the #teamHorologium hashtag for more combined output.

** “…because things are tough enough already.”

*** In a rather wonderful piece of design that I had not seen before, there are a series of large windows at the edges of the room, covered by a metal grille, In the summer evenings, as the temperature drops, these windows can be opened all over the atelier, letting the cooler night air into the building. The metal grilles are lockable, securing the atelier.

^This patent may have been misreported, with commentators keen to point out Rolex’s use of anti-backlash gears (which was significantly after Wiederrecht’s patent was granted). I was recently made aware of a far earlier patent by Jon Edwards (@Undertheloupe) – “An early patent for playless gear teeth, filed by Antoine Gazda in 1942, to provide “elastic & even transmission of power”

^^ Lithographie, Galvanoformung and Abformung – see a discussion paper here.

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