I will admit to being fond of chronographs! I am though not alone in this penchant, and I think to be fair most men have a weakness for this particular genre, with their dials, buttons and so on. OK, like most folks I barely use the stopwatch feature, but back in the day – say the Thirties through to the Seventies, athletes, aviators, astronauts, and motorsport participants really did need this practical function. Notwithstanding the fact that I have some very nice chronographs, I was interested in maybe just one more. Moreover, if I could include a chronometer rating as well, so much the better!
Czapek had come across my radar a year or two ago, and I contacted them for information. However, I was not really interested in their first watch, the Quai des Bergues. This was for no other reason than it did not have a date feature – something I prefer and in fact need these days. It is a lovely watch though, and the dial design harks back to Czapek’s pocket watches. It became apparent though that a new chronograph, the Faubourg de Cracovie (named after the location of Czapek’s boutique in Warsaw), would be appearing in or around March 2018. A lull ensued, but I then saw the watch reviewed in the August edition of QP magazine, when James Buttery passed favourable comment. I was particularly taken with one of the two versions covered, L’Heure Bleue (The Blue Hour) which at first glance seemed to tick most of my boxes.
Further to my enquiry I was invited by Czapek to The Watchmaker’s Club event in the City last November, and L’Heure Bleue would be part of the show!
In the intervening couple of months I did some more research into Francois Czapek – both the man and the more recent company. I will not go over all this much as others have done so more eloquently and indeed Czapek’s own website is very insightful. However, it is clear that Czapek was a very good clock and watch maker, and I suppose it is a pity that his six-year partnership with Antoine Norbert de Patek ended. Czapek carried on, starting his own company in 1845, and but for his sudden and inexplicable disappearance in 1869, who knows what his ultimate legacy would have been.
The resurrection and launch of Czapek & Cie as a company again in 2015 is also interesting, being the first Swiss watch firm to have crowdfunded themselves into existence – at least at the haute horlogerie level. The three main instigators of the enterprise were; Xavier De Roquemaurel (CEO), Harry Guhl (Chairman) and Sebastien Fallonier (watch maker). Bearing in mind only some four years have passed, it is impressive to note that sufficient capital was raised in order to design and produce three watch models. Also, that the Quai des Bergues picked up the Public Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve in 2016, and the Faubourg de Cracovie L’Heure Bleue is shortlisted for 2019. Quite remarkable!
Focusing on the chronograph, there are now a few dial finish versions and all in stainless steel. However, L’Heure Bleue (a nautical term for the deep blue colour sometimes experienced at twilight for an hour or so) launched in 2018, was the one that most appealed. The deep blue dial has a fantastic “Resonance” guilloché – a take on the earlier “Ricochet” design by Czapek himself, and is simply a tour de force. That said, a more recent 2019 dial colour, Sockeye (emulating the golden bronze eye of that salmon), with blue minute and hour sub dials, is also very compelling.
At this point I would acknowledge the review Angus Davies did on the Grand Feu dial version last Spring, via his Escapement web magazine. The description and photos were very interesting and fuelled my interest further.
The day of The Watchmaker Club event had arrived, and I immediately homed in on the Czapek stand where I met Xavier, Andy, and Jane who helps with PR. Finally, I could get my hands on the watch!
I will start with the dial (made by Metalem) which is of truly exceptional quality. Scrutiny under a loupe is essential as the guilloché really does seem to move and swirl. It is just like the ripples after dropping a pebble in water – hence the “Resonance” moniker. It is a play on shadow and light, so, moving the watch a little this way and that changes the visual effect. The dial base is made of an alloy of gold, silver, palladium and platinum and this is to; a) get the precise hardness suitable for the engraving process and thereby leaving sharp edges and, b) provide a suitable cathode for the dial colouring process which is done by galvanoplastie (a kind of electroplating), again to leave the engraving as defined as possible.
The three sub dials – minutes at 3, seconds at 6, and hours at 9, are very neatly positioned. The date window is also at 6, and is of a sensible and legible size. The hands, rhodium plated, are slim and end with fine arrows filled with Super LumiNova, as are the hour batons and the solitary number at 12. The second hand is simplistic and sports a red tip (see later on for modification of this).
The stainless steel case (made by ABProduct), is just fine for me at 41.5mm. One interesting feature are the sides of the case which have milled recesses, the insides of which have been slightly roughed by sandblasting. The effect of this is to “slim” the overall height of the watch. The other really clever design feature comprises the pushers/crown/ guards spread, which is very streamlined and clean. I happen to prefer “cushion” pushers rather than “pump” types, which on some watches can protrude too much and just look a bit odd. The case back is of an exhibition variety and the view at first glance reveals a mainly gunmetal-looking and open-worked movement, dominated by a large 22k gold rotor. There is no decoration as such, but the fact that one can see the inner workings pretty clearly, all result in an attractive and impressive looking movement.
Turning to the calibre, as I am no mechanical guru I will really try not to get too technical – but there are certain aspects that are prerequisite and need some explanation. Naturally, and first off, I want a really good quality movement. In this case it is the integrated chronograph calibre made by Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier. This was developed over some 6 years and initial incarnations were first used in sister company Parmigiani’s split second Tondor Chronor and then their Kalpagraph. It is a versatile movement – for example catering for either automatic or hand- wound requirements, and date options. Vaucher released the movement on a more commercial basis in January 2018, with Czapek’s chronograph being the first recipient. The Czapek version (SXH3) has various and specific modifications, including the bridge finishing (in anthracite) and rotor design. The movement is COSC chronometer certified.
On a practical level, the crown and pushers work well. The former has a lovely silky action with a slight whirr and the latter are firm and precise. There is a very handy 65-hour power reserve – all from one barrel, plus, a hi-beat at 5 Hz (36,000 VpH) frequency to yield a good degree of accuracy. This later aspect is unusual in a chronograph as it can sap energy, but in this case above-average power has been maintained. All is channelled and withheld via 315 components and helped along by 42 jewels. Enough? OK, maybe not for buffs, so; the movement also sports a column wheel, vertical clutch and linear hammer, plus, there are sandblasted and diamond polished bridges. Lastly, water resistance is to 50m. This chronograph movement is quite possibly the best currently available, so that all just about does it for me!
Many people were interested in the pieces on the Czapek stand and it was getting on into the evening when I found myself on my own with Xavier. He peered at me benevolently and asked me if would buy the watch. I laughed and said probably, but I wanted to ponder further and if possible view again. After all, with the price at £22,300 it is no impulse purchase. He beamed and said he would take my details and earmark me number 3/18! Czapek were attending the QP Salon a couple of weeks later, as was I, so that seemed the opportunity to reprise. However, the blue dial may not be there as it had another engagement. Quel dommage!
At this juncture, I would just say that I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Watchmaker Club event. I was able to see some great watches but, moreover, actually talk to the people who have made and/or designed them.
The QP Salon duly arrived, and again I made my way to the Czapek stand. This time Harry Guhl was there and so was the blue watch. Xavier had really wanted me to see it again! It was opportune meeting Harry as he has a design background, so he took me through some of these aspects.
At this point I felt more than confident to make a decision and therefore placed my order. However, there was but one last aspect. As Czapek were only making 18 pieces of this version it will of course be pretty rare, but I was keen to see if I could make mine unique. After quite a bit of pondering with Harry I suddenly hit on an idea. Rather than just have the red tip on the second hand, why not go all red? Eureka! Harry was enthusiastic as it was a fairly simple task and could work well. I also got him to assure me that that no other L’Heure Bleue would have this feature! Finally, I chose a matt navy-blue alligator strap (by Camille Fournet – Paris) on a deployment (or deployant if you prefer) clasp, but also obtained a pin buckle to provide a alternative flexibility.
Czapek make the watches to order and some 6 weeks later it was ready. I actually picked it up from Jane in London in mid-January.
As mentioned earlier, another dial colour version that I found very interesting is the Sockeye. It is a most unusual golden bronze hue with two sub dials and hands in blue. The main indexes and that 12 differ slightly too as they are edged in blue. The overall effect is striking and I feel pretty unique. The guilloché design is the same as L’Heuer Bleue as are other aspects. Again, only 18 pieces will be made.
Well, I am very happy with the watch and that red second hand works well. It does however demonstrate the importance of viewing and handling a piece in person, and if possible, discussing with someone close to the design process.
I am not one for undue hyperbole, but this watch is almost perfect – for me at least. It is rare, exciting and attractive and certainly visually different to most existing designs. Yes, some may be a little sniffy as the main components are not made all in-house. However, this is no “parts bin” job – just simply quite acceptable établissage. The whole raison d’être of Czapek is to use top specialists where required, but then assemble and finish in their workshop so that the final product is of excellent quality. As Xavier described to me only a few weeks ago “we are a bit like a symphony, where we are the composer, the conductor, and some of the musicians. However, the very best instrumentalists, the soloists, are brought in” I think that is a very good analogy.
All the above said, few watches are 100% perfect. If I was being a little picky, the deployment mechanism could be a little slimmer. Also, the strap could do with having one or two more holes to provide more adjustment flexibility – particularly on the larger length size. The six offered seems minimal (and less than all other watches I have) and would of course be an easy fix. I am still experimenting between the deployment and pin buckles, but the overall strap “package” is nonetheless beautifully made and suits the watch perfectly.
I was trying to think of one word to describe the overall impression of L’Heure Bleue, and the one that keeps surfacing is imperious. The design is strong and the blue colours have a certain regal heritage. Needless to say, my “red” second hand reinforces all this!
Although of course I bought L’Heure Bleue for my own pleasure, it is nice when other people approve, and to date this has been unanimous. I would therefore end by suggesting that Czapek’s watches should pique your collecting interest, as I really must not feed my addiction further. Mmm that Sockeye – no, stop it!
Words: Karl Dennis.
Photos: Courtesy of Czapek/Karl Dennis