With its case cut from a block of sapphire crystal and its highly complex minute-repeater movement composed of over 500 hand-finished parts, the Chopard L.U.C Full Strike Sapphire is an incredible achievement in watchmaking — one that only the most skilled artisans in the world could produce. Its most impressive feature, however, is almost invisible: a thin sapphire gong that uses the watch’s crystal face as a resonator, resulting in an incredibly clear, rich, and ethereal sound. The creation of the world’s first sapphire-cased minute-repeater — one of three new chiming watches from Chopard this year — marks the culmination of a journey that began more than 25 years ago with the founding of L.U.C, Chopard’s in-house movement manufacture by co-president Karl-Friederich Scheufele.
We spoke to Scheufele about the significance of this milestone, the difficulties of creating the world’s first sapphire-case minute repeater, and the importance of preserving traditional watchmaking techniques.
Why was it important to you to invest in in-house movement manufacturing back in the ’90s?
I wanted to establish Chopard as a serious watch brand, and for me, this really would not be possible without an in-house movement. It became clear to me that we were talking about independence, and it’s something I learned early on that it is best to rely on yourself.
How many watchmakers and artisans were there then and how many do you have now?
We looked like a start-up at that time, with one watchmaker and one machine where we would build the parts. We were outsourcing the decoration of the movements, but we quickly concluded that we needed to learn how to decorate movements ourselves. We were five people in the very beginning and today we are more than 220.
What artisans have you brought on most recently?
Recently we added an enamel specialist, so we are now able to produce enamel dials in-house, and he also specializes in miniature painting on enamel. We pay a lot of attention to the safeguarding of craftsmanship in our company.
Why did you choose to focus on chiming watches this year?
Since we introduced the L.U.C Strike One back in 2006, and then the L.U.C Full Strike in 2016 I’ve been fascinated by the fact that a striking watch adds another dimension to watchmaking. Normally it would be reduced to the visual side of things, and you would maybe appreciate the tick-tock of your watch, but other than that there’s no acoustic dimension. I think the effect of a chiming watch is adding something more, and this is very fitting for our 25th anniversary.
How did the violinist and cellist duo Renaud and Gautier Capuçon help with the process?
Renaud played the violin at a small reception presenting the Full Strike in 2017, and we kept on seeing each other after that. He and his brother have a different ear than normal people like me and you, and they were able to give us some advice on fine-tuning the device. In a way, I consider these watches also as instruments, so we learned a lot.
What are some of the challenges of working with sapphire?
Sapphire is contradictory — it is very hard, and yet it can break easily when subjected to a shock. So for the sapphire crystal attached to the gong, you have a solid piece that is milled together with a gong that is very elastic, but also very thin and sensitive. There are only two or three watchmakers at L.U.C who are allowed to work on these watches and they had a difficult time finding the perfect way to house this crystal in its place without breaking something. But once in place, the elasticity of the gong is surprising.
What does that mean for wearability?
I can tell you a story about that. Once, I was putting on the tourbillon prototype and it fell on the floor, but interestingly enough, nothing happened to the crystal gong. Everything was intact, and the watch still worked. It’s the kind of test you wouldn’t want to do to such a watch, of course, but it’s very reassuring. The watch I’m wearing here it’s the prototype of the Full Strike. The piece is now five years old and I have never been particularly careful about it, and it’s running perfectly. So normal wear and tear will not do any harm to even this mechanism.
One of my favourite details is the honeycomb motif on the dial of the L.U.C Strike One. What’s the significance of this pattern?
It’s an age-old technique of guilloche using a machine that is probably 80 years old, and we are only using solid gold dials for this. It’s a small machine, and the operator of the machine, the artisan, has to really know what he’s doing for a dial with such an intricate motif. The motif is a reminder of monsieur Chopard, the founder of the company, who used the beehive as his symbol representing activity and hard work, and that’s why we chose it.
All of these watches have earned the Geneva Seal, which stipulates a very high degree of hand-finishing. What kinds of things does that involve?
The Geneva seal requires finishing which is way above even the most intricate finishing that you would normally find. You have to show constant attention to detail and all the angles must be hand-polished using certain techniques. For example, a certain type of wood must be used to finish off the hand-polishing. So you must multiply the time it takes to finish the movement by five or six. Some parts can take two or three hours to polish and finish, and I believe there are 565 components, so you can imagine that means a lot of time. But when you hold the watch in your hand and you use a loupe there is so much to see that you can’t take your eyes off it.
How long did it take to figure out how to make the case from Sapphire? Was that a difficult process?
We didn’t know how the case would react when we set the sapphire crystal in it, because you must apply a certain amount of pressure to insert the crystal. We had a bezel that broke because of the pressure, so we had to find exactly the right tolerances that would allow us to make it work. There will only be five pieces, and it is certainly the most intricate complication we have ever made — not least because of the case.
What does that achievement mean to you?
I will admit that I’m pretty proud of it. But I’m mostly proud that everyone who worked on this piece really took up the challenge, and we managed together to build something outstanding, which I’m sure will be appreciated for many, many years to come.