Monday, May 10, 2021

Apprentice Corner - Andrew restoring a Charles Leon Guinand Rattrapante

The rattrapante, which roughly translated from French means to catch up or recapture, is a rare and exceedingly expensive type of chronograph. Also known as a split seconds chronograph, the rattrapante is not to be confused with a ‘flyback’ chronograph, which merely allows the user to restart the counters without having to stop them. Generally, the rattrapante design calls for two column wheels activated by separate pushers. The chrono is started, stopped, and reset by the standard two pusher (or single pusher) system we all know and love, whilst a third pusher usually at eleven o’clock lies dormant. In addition to this, the centre sweep seconds hand of the chronograph has another hand (often unfathomably thin) superimposed beneath it in such a way that it cannot be seen. When the chronograph is started, both the sweep hands move as one and it is nigh impossible to tell that two hands even exist. Until of course the split seconds pusher is depressed. This action stops the lower (some modern versions stop the upper) hand whilst the other hand continues; thus ‘splitting’ the hands. The same pusher can then be pressed again to reset the hand back to its native position, hidden away beneath the main sweep hand. As such, the hand appears to rapidly ‘catch up’. This could allow a person to stop the split at the end of a lap to record that time, whilst the other hand continues to time the whole race. Or for timing individual artillery firings in a military array. They are extremely difficult to manufacture, even with modern machinery, and to see one in action is truly quite mesmerising.

The first pocket watch with a stoppable seconds hand was invented in 1831 by Joseph Thaddaeus Winnerl (master to one Ferdinand A. Lange – founder of A. Lange & Sohne) however it wasn’t until seven years later did Mr. Winnerl add a superimposed hand that could be split and resynchronised, to his design. This complication could not be reset to zero until 1844 with the invention of the heart shaped cam thanks to Adolph Nicole, though it took no less than eighteen years for the two developments to be manufactured together in watches. Then in 1880, Auguste Baud enriched the chronograph by adding a minute counter. As such, the chronograph, aside from materials and efficiency advancements, really has not changed since.

Split second timepieces were first used for recording race horse lap times (surprise, surprise), but the military industry really fuelled their manufacture. One such manufacturer founded in 1865 in the little Swiss town of Les Brenets, was Guinand. The company was run by brothers Julien-Alcide and Charles Leon Guinand as the two master watchmakers saw the opportunity that existed to be one of the first companies to produce stopwatches and chronographs en masse. They would go on to supply chronographs to the military forces of Britain, France, Italy, and Germany amongst others. After the first ‘Great Depression’ in the 1870’s, the young company was put under enough stress so as to lose Julien-Alcide and see Charles Leon take on sole management. However he dug his heels in, developed a newer chronograph on his own, and sought to add to it some of the nifty new chrono features coming out of Germany mentioned above.

The very first split seconds chronograph with minute counter had only just been invented a year prior to Guinand mass producing them in 1881. An absolutely amazing feat of engineering and manufacturing in, financially, the worst environment the world had ever experienced. Even today, only a handful of brands possess the ability to make rattrapante watches and fewer still would dare to undertake the task of making more than a few. All of this making C. L. Guinand that much more prominent. After the turn of the century and the addition of tachymeter scales, Guinand was more popular around the world for timing devices than our humble Omega is today with the Speedmaster. By the end of World War II and while being led by Georges-Henri, Charles Leon’s son, Guinand was a synonym for rattrapante. So much so, that they were one of very few brands to make it through the quartz crisis a few decades later.
Then some years later in 2020, a lowly watchmaker’s apprentice in Sydney, had compiled enough experience to be allowed the chance to respectfully overhaul a C. L. Guinand, Le Locle, rattrapante stopwatch. This stopwatch may be placed in very the early 1900s however, another development by the aforementioned Auguste Baud in 1880 might state otherwise. As well as adding the minute counter, he also relocated the split seconds mechanism from under the dial to the case back side of the mechanism. A feature that this particular stopwatch does not possess. Safe to say it’s from the turn of the nineteenth century-ish. To speak about its use would be to say it does not contain precious metal, nor is it a decimal counter (counts to 10 and 100 seconds rather than 60) so we may rule out military and scientific commissions. More likely this was used to time race type events, however almost anyone back then and today could benefit from a proper chronometer grade mechanical stopwatch. Need I suggest the ability to ensure meetings stay on track?

Thanks to the high grade hand craftsmanship of Guinand, the stopwatch needed only a clean, re-lubrication, and tune. Largely easier said than done. Short of reading about them I had only up until this point seen a single vintage WWII rattrapante pocket watch and a single modern rattrapante wristwatch (at the boutique of none other than A. Lange & Sohne, king of the triple split seconds). However this was an extremely complex movement, masterfully designed to be completely serviceable and adjustable. All whilst looking suspiciously similar to the Minerva and Lemania parents of the Speedmaster that were developed several years after Guinand was a force to be reckoned with. You may be wearing a derivative of Mr. Guinand’s chronograph right now... All of this making the task to overhaul a little more familiar for me.

In any case, here we have the stopwatch itself. Completely overhauled and ready for the next artillery forward observer, Caulfield Cup spectator, or schedule filled solicitor, to make good use of this fantastic example of the driving force behind today’s modern mechanical stopwatches, chronographs, and triple split second flyback marvels of horology.


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