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June 22, 2024

Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité, The New Wonder By Luca Soprana

Luca Soprana has always accustomed us to surprise. That’s how he is made. Extremely empathetic and self-ironic, normality bores him; and mediocrity and banality are his bitter enemies. At Ateliers 7h38, his workshop in Vaumarcus, in the canton of Neuchâtel, absolute excellence is a daily challenge that doesn’t allow any shortcut; and his approach to high-end mechanical watchmaking is primarily philosophical. Then again, before he even had access to watchmaking’s “Major League,” when he was only a young student at the University of Bologna, he naturally switched between his faculty’s rigorous economics courses and the lectures on the meaning of life held at the utterly famous Dams. He was surrounded by outstanding professors and students, in an atmosphere of great intellectual vitality, among tortellini, Sangiovese, Umberto Eco and existentialist philosophy, and used to listen to the music of CCCP and Skiantos – the unforgettable demential punk group, led by the late Freak Antoni.

Luca Soprana
Luca Soprana

Thankfully, since “his” incredible Astronomy (which, of course, in Geneva’s registry belongs to Jacob & Co.), Luca Soprana has gained international recognition in the world of collectors – to read his story let us refer you here – but despite all he has done in recent years, with this new creation, once again, he just left everyone speechless. But let’s take one step at a time…

WHO WAS DEREK PRATT ?

Let us then begin by knowing the figure of Derek Pratt (1938-2009) better. For Soprana, in a nutshell, “He is simply the greatest of all modern watchmakers.” The greatest of them all is English (from Orpington, in the endless suburbs of London), he studied at the National College of Horology but did not graduate (that was in the mid-1950s). He then moved to Switzerland in ’65 and created his own independent watchmaking business in ’72, soon establishing a long-term partnership with Peter Baumberger – first a collector and then the owner of the Urban Jürgensen brand – to makemarvelous super-complicated pocket watches; personally crafting cases and guilloché dials of the highest standard, experimenting with escapements and technical solutions, and creating the only existing re-edition of a cornerstone of horology: the H4 by John Harrison (1693-1776).

Derek Pratt
Pratt constructing the guilloché on a dial, courtesy of Peter Baumberger in Derek Pratt: Watchmaker (BHI, 2012).

Pratt is an accomplished watchmaker (in the manner of Abraham-Louis Breguet). In the sense that he knows how to do everything by hand as well as with the historical machinery accumulated in his Solothurn atelier: from the movement, even the most complicated, to the dial (with an unparalleled mastery for guilloché), including the case, with the classic techniques of 20th-century pocket watches. And he is a phenomenon in the restoration of antique pocket watch complications (such as Potter’s High Speed Tourbillon). He is also a friend and collaborator of the great master George Daniels who, it is little known, he helped in creating the Co-Axial escapement (particularly the double escape wheel) that, as everybody knows, was later acquired with intelligent foresight by Omega.

HIS LEGACY: THE REMONTOIR D’ÉGALITÉ

Derek Pratt’s eternal fame in the world of hands is mainly due to the remontoir tourbillon. And to the fact that he was able to make the 1997 Double-Wheel Tourbillon Remontoir work – a pocket watch tourbillon with a double remontoir escapement based on the enhancement of two of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s inventions: the double-wheel escapement and the tourbillon. How itworks is explained more in detail by Luca Soprana: “The double-wheel escapement had been used by Breguet, and more recently by Daniels, in order to have two wheel trains with different gear ratios on watches that indicated two different types of time. One wheel train on one dial indicated sidereal time, while the other indicated universal time on the dial right beside.”

Tourbillon Movement made by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen
The movement of an open face tourbillon made by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen, courtesy of Christie’s & A Collected Man

That said, Luca adds, “Derek had the ingenuity to use this solution on a tourbillon which had only one wheel train but two escapement wheels. In fact, these two wheels, activated by a single fixed tourbillon wheel with inward-facing teeth, turn in opposite directions, thus ensuring their activation. To avoid interaction problems between the wheel pinions (which operate alternately) and the fixed wheel, the pinion itself interacts with a spiral spring; when one gives impetus, the other recoils one tooth, using a remontoir system. This remontoir provides the escapement with a constant force which is charged and released with each impulse of the balance wheel. Thus, this mechanism allows to achieve greater precision due to the stability of the amplitude. We shouldn’t forget either that the double-wheel escapement does not require lubrication.”

THE LAST EFFORTS: FROM THE OVAL TO THE TOURBILLON-FREE REMONTOIR

The collaboration with his friend Baumberger continued over the years and lasted until 2009, when Derek succumbed to a long illness, leaving behind a working prototype of his last project: the Oval watch, later finished by Kari Voutilainen. 

Urban Jürgensen Ovale Tourbillon Pocket Watch
Urban Jürgensen Ovale Tourbillon Pocket Watch, courtesy of SJX & A Collected Man

The last efforts of his career, as mentioned earlier, he devoted them to making a “replica” of Harrison’s legendary H4 marine chronometer, a “huge watch” (13 centimeters in diameter and 1.45 kilograms in weight) with a constant-force escapement and double barrel. So accurate that, on a ship in the middle of the ocean, it could allow to calculate longitude from the Greenwich meridian with pretty good approximation. This replica was later to be completed by Frodsham in London.

Derek Pratt H4 John Harrison Replica
Derek Pratt H4 John Harrison Replica
Derek Pratt H4 John Harrison Replica
The engraving on the finished H4 replica reading “Derek Pratt A.D. 2004 – Charles Frodsham & Co A.D. 2014, images all courtesy of Charles Frodsham & Co, London & A Collected Man

Finally, around 2008, he began research to be able to use his beloved “Reuleaux cam remontoir” on a static (non-tourbillon) escapement. This was to prove that such a mechanism is equally effective on a traditional Swiss anchor escapement.

Derek Pratt Reuleaux System
The Reuleaux system, courtesy of Derek Pratt: Watchmaker (BHI, 2012) & A Collected Man

Luca once again explains the extremely high level of criticality of the undertaking: “With this escapement-barrel system on a wristwatch in which the power of the barrel is markedly lower, the ‘balance’ of the remontoir is markedly more delicate since the forces at play are minimum.”

WHERE DEREK PRATT ENDS, LUCA SOPRANA TAKES OVER

But what brings Derek and Luca together? First, a mutual esteem since they met. Soprana recalls the rest: “Derek is my myth. In his overall work he was the greatest, creating a mechanism style that managed to perfectly combine the two watchmaking traditions I hold most dear: the English and the Swiss traditions of the 20th century! He was also a greatly humble man, always true to himself. He was George Daniels’ discreet collaborator, often solving together among the most complex theorems of watchmaking. Independent watchmakers, as we conceive them today, did not exist in his day. Philippe Dufour – another great friend who made sure that the wristwatch would be made – was just starting. No doubt Derek was a great forerunner of truly independent watchmaking! 

Derek Pratt

“In 2009, Stewart Lesemann, one of the watchmakers working with me today, developed an initial prototype inspired by Derek Pratt’s chronometer principles. In 2014, with the approval of Jenny Haller, Pratt’s wife, I took over the project and completely redesigned the caliber with the remontoir d’égalité and the two flying barrels in the motor barrel configuration, where the barrel axis is integrated with the axis, while the transmission gearing is integrated with the shaft. The philosophical approach is exemplary, philologically faithful to Derek’s initial design. And the result is the first wristwatch by Derek Pratt, who in his lifetime had devoted himself only to creating pocket watches.”

Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité
Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité
Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité

Pratt’s original idea was to prove that his remontoir d’égalité system would work equally well on a tourbillon escapement and on a “static” one. Thus this watch is a practical demonstration of the accuracy of his idea. “I am very pleased with the result,” Luca concludes, “and I am also really happy to have had the opportunity to complete what Derek would have done if health problems had not stopped him. Above all, I am proud for the opportunity to legitimize Derek’s reputation in the eyes of the general public. In fact, despite being one of the outstanding master watchmakers of recent decades, Pratt is often forgotten, partly because, I repeat, he was a greatly humble person who never pursued fame.”

Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité
Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité
Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité

FROM TECHNICAL SPECS TO SALES: PERPÉTUEL GALLERY’S MERIT

In detail, the technical specifications are the following: a 316L steel case, 41.64 mm in diameter by 12.6 mm thick, with sapphire crystal on both sides and polished bezel and lugs with the case middle sides brushed vertically. The dial is in a salmon shade with applied oriental Arabic numerals (also called Indo-Arabic or Indo-Persian numerals) in stainless steel. Small seconds are at seven o’clock. The movement, hand-wound, with 216 components, travels at 18,000 A/h and is named Caliber DP07. And of course it is designed, built, manufactured and assembled in the Ateliers7h38 workshop in Vaumarcus. Its diameter is 37.8 mm, while the power reserve is up to 38 hours. As mentioned, it is a Remontoir d’égalité with deadbeat seconds (the hand remains motionless, as if dead, until the entire second has elapsed) and free-sprung balance with 4 adjustment screws.

Derek Pratt Remontoir d'Égalité

If Luca Soprana, with his Ateliers7h38, was able to bring Derek Pratt’s extraordinary legacy to life, it is thanks to Perpétuel Gallery: an absolute reference for independent watchmaking enthusiasts throughout the Middle East, owned by the equally passionate Hamdan AlHudaidi. Unfortunately, this extraordinary timepiece has been fastened on the wrists of only 7 lucky connoisseurs. The price list was 98,000 Swiss francs (excluding tax). “Was” because, inevitably, they sold out instantly. But we can expect a next edition – and who knows perhaps another one after that – given the pressing demands of Perpétuel Gallery’s important clientele; while we wait for the “philosopher” Luca Soprana to come up with something else that will leave us speechless once again!

By Michele Mengoli