In the world of watchmaking, Dr. Bernard Cheong is a respected authority. In the world of watch collecting, the good doctor is as divisive as he is respected. Today, the latest owner of the Louis Moinet Memoris tells us why his new acquisition is going to join the ranks of legendary chronographs like the Zenith El Primero.
Legendary Chronograph in the making: Louis Moinet Memoris
When he invented the ‘compteur de tierces’ 200 years ago, Louis Moinet’s invention didn’t even tell time, instead, it was a watch designed purely as a chronograph to time elapsed periods between events. At Baselworld 2015, the recently revived Louis Moinet unveiled the Memoris, an integrated chronograph watch with timekeeping as a complication. That is to say, for the first time, the Chronograph takes the fore while time-display, is relegated to a secondary purpose.
This distinction with the Louis Moinet Memoris chronograph will become clear as Dr. Bernard Cheong takes us through his watch purchase decision making process and fully qualifies that Louis Moinet has really taken ‘a completely different approach to watchmaking’.
Your credentials as a watch collector are known, what was the deciding factor in acquiring the Louis Moinet Memoris chronograph?
I do not hold shares in any of the big conglomerates and I’m among the last of the collectors to not engage in the buying and trading of watches; watches I deem worthy stay in my personal collection. For the Louis Moinet Memoris chronograph, it’s pricey but when you factor in the level of craft, it’s comparatively affordable.
I purposely pick the brands with small leverage and put my money there as a statement of support. But I’m just a drop in an ocean that is the watch industry, it doesn’t make a difference to anyone else but the brand I support. That’s why I picked the Louis Moinet Memoris, it’s worthy of mention and acquisition.
So, does provenance of a brand like Louis Moinet being the inventor of the chronograph, factor into the equation?
It doesn’t matter to me because I’m not strong on history. Furthermore, a lot of the history is poorly documented and ultimately, it tends to become advertorial. The bad parts of history are left out while only the good parts are left in, this is not exactly the right way to go.
So you look at a watch purely for its physical attributes? Finishing, inventiveness, craft?
I look for its relevance in today’s context.
How would you define relevance? What would you define are the good qualities in the Louis Moinet Memoris?
Louis Moinet has utilised the best technology of what is available today. They didn’t go into the past and dig up old machines. While there is value in that, like what Greubel Forsey does, that makes the watch multiples more expensive. Louis Moinet didn’t do that, they did the opposite.
Lange and Patek are about traditional crafts but Louis Moinet to me is about what you can do with the best available technology. They didn’t make another quartz or spring drive watch, they chose to make a totally mechanical timepiece and every component inside the Memoris makes the best of CNC capability. From injection molding to 3D printing, that brings the costs down and makes it available for the consumer.
It’s like a guy who buys the Canon 1D over a Leica. No doubt, the Leica will last forever and there will always be a new Canon 1D model but for this snapshot of time, the Canon can do everything the Leica can at a lower price.
In terms of a collector’s journey, you’re obviously at a veteran level so how does a novice weigh attributes like artisanship, craft and history?
Assembly. It’s the last frontier yet to be conquered. A watch is the sum of hundreds of parts and it can be considered the world’s smallest jigsaw puzzle. You need a good guy who can solve the jigsaw puzzle. There are two types of watchmakers- watchmakers who make watches and equally important, watchmakers who are skilled assemblers.
So, in terms of skill, where does Louis Moinet rank?
The Memoris is the best example and so I put my money behind it. You need heck of a lot of skill to assemble the Louis Moinet Memoris (Editor’s note: 302 components, 60 of which relate solely to the chronograph) without scratching or breaking any of the components. Just consider that in one of the Lange assembly classes, most can’t even put a simple screw or jewel in, rare is the individual who can put together the Memoris.
The holy grail chronograph for many is the Lange Datograph or the Double-split, where does Louis Moinet Memoris sit?
The RM004 and the Datograph stands shoulder to shoulder in terms of level of finishing. the problem is that novice collector lacks the exposure to discern just how much CNC and computer work is involved. But, fact remains that you cannot do without machines; Or you can do without, but pay Greubel Forsey price points. This is precisely why Robert left after making the Lange Pour Le Merite Tourbillon, he wanted to make watches as a purist. Richard Mille and Lange have complete different approaches to watchmaking. Louis Moinet follows a process closer to Richard Mille.
I was on the panel with Gunther Blumlein which set the price for the Datograph in 1998. He asked me if it could sell at $38,000 and I felt that it couldn’t because comparative to other chronographs on the market like Rolex Daytona, it was too high priced. But I was wrong! [laughs]
What were you thinking it could be sold at?
All other chronographs with the exception of highly sentimental brands like Patek, were selling for around low five figures. A solid gold Offshore chronograph was just $18k in those days. A Datograph was double for something for a watch you couldn’t bathe with but I was wrong.
So, are you saying that Louis Moinet is the Lange of our era?
I’m saying that if people understand it, it would be the first of many “new Langes” to come. Not just from Louis Moinet but other independent watchmakers. I support the Louis Moinet Memoris because to me, it would be like going back to 1998 and discovering an alternate timeline where the Lange Datograph wasn’t fully sold out.
You know what would happen? No one would make expensive watches anymore, everyone will go back to your run-of-the-mill watches where the most innovative thing would be the Lange 1. No one would dare to go higher than that.
How innovative would you say the Louis Moinet Memoris is compared to other legendary chronographs on the market?
Once you know the principles of the chronograph, you will understand that when it comes to chronograph movement architecture, the drive train is always built a certain way because it’s the most efficient way to take stored energy from the mainspring barrel, turn it into kinetic energy to drive the balance and the functions. Thus, the hardest thing is to make something this functional, beautiful.
When you examine the chronograph, Louis Moinet made many fantastic artistic embellishments to the Memoris. To put the column-wheel at 12 o’clock is probably one of the most difficult things a watchmaker could do. In fact, for most, it would be more trouble than it’s worth. By taking the most crucial part of the chronograph calibre and making it centre-stage, Louis Moinet is making sure your attention is fully commanded by the column-wheel. Technically speaking, to move the column wheel from 12 o’clock without losing too much leverage and making the watch too thick, it is very impressive. Till today, I have no clue how they did it.
Whoever the ‘joker’ is for making this (Editor’s Note: Concepto), thought like tourbillon makers. The old-school tourbillons were in odd positions between 7 and 8 o’clock. It’s an ideal position in terms of engineering without compromise of mechanical efficiency but this guy went out of his way to go for beauty and symmetry. The symmetry of the column wheel is balanced by the time-telling dial at 6 o’clock. You can’t ask for more in a chronograph than the Louis Moinet Memoris, no one has done this before and it takes a lot of balls to do it without malfunction.
When you say the watch doesn’t malfunction, what do you mean? It takes a fairly long time to know for sure if a watch movement is robust doesn’t it?
I once asked on my blog that if a watch spoils, will it run fast or slow? The answer is that it runs fast, never slow. It’s physics. As an engineering principle, the watch is a simple thing taking stored potential energy and turning it into kinetic energy, essentially controlling all the power in the spring without allow it to expend itself all at once. If anything goes wrong, a watch just runs faster and faster. One warped tooth on a gear disc will mean skipping that tooth and this skipping adds to much faster time over a period.
Till today, my Louis Moinet Memoris has yet to run fast.
Has the Memoris become your daily beater yet?
Not yet because it’s far too precious but this isn’t an indictment on its robustness. It’s about my sense of balance of the watch because as you know, a watch can swing and knock unto objects if you’re not yet familiar with how it wears and swings around the wrist. Till then, each potential knock or ding is scary. So far, no rate variance but truth is all watches (even the best ones) will gain a bit of time.
How then does a novice collector weigh the financial investment for a piece like this? He would considering that for six figures, he could buy something else from a more well-known brand or are you so evolved as a collector that it no longer matters?
Of course it matters but the Memoris is totally unique. No one has been so ballsy short of Max Busser. Louis Moinet probably planned for how the watch looks like first before making the watch itself. The Memoris chronograph is born from this sort of thinking, they made something without knowing first how to make it.
Was everything developed in-house at Louis Moinet?
The movement and calibre design is exclusive to Louis Moinet. It’s completely original without copying or modifying some base model.
So does it matter to you whether it’s a manufacture movement? It seems that “being in-house” is a short-cut for many collectors to decide if something is worth their while.
There was a time when it mattered.This was 20-30 years ago when Lange was revived. It mattered because it was a different era. It was a period of time where watchmaking was about making cases more waterproof and dials more colourful, but Lange changed all of that by bringing the movement to the forefront and this led to a conversation where people were asking if the best practices of Lange were being done at all the other brands. This led to the opening of Pandora’s box.
Now even the most basic collector should be able to look at a movement and understand its shared architecture, he too will have to make a decision of value based on how easily Chinese watchmakers can mimic a similar movement. Then the question is, how much does a movement really cost? Looking at the Memoris, copying something of this level is impossible.
So for you, it doesn’t matter if the sum of its parts were all made in-house as long as it was excellently assembled?
For this time and era? Yes. There is a danger where if we are stuck in the mindset of the movement being all that matters, we would just go down the pathway of movement finishing. This will make watch collecting very exclusive. Suddenly, it would be a world of only Lamborghini collectors, I really don’t wish for this to happen.
Many brands may want this to be a Lamborghini only environment but I want all walks of life to participate because even the street hawker understands the value of a BMW, would you not want to sell him one? The watch world should evolve to create a better conversation about watches and watchmaking. It enriches everyone as a result when there’s greater dialogue.
It sounds like the watch world should evolve beyond the brand and focus on the functional aesthetics and inventiveness of the watch?
And how it’s made. There must be better understanding of the manufacturing process of the watch in each time period when it was at the fore-front of available engineering technology. Otherwise, we would be faced with a situation where a watch can spoil and nobody would know how to fix it versus a malfunctioning car which any decent mechanic can fix. As a historical point of reference, watchmaking actually opened frontiers for many other industries and so it’s important for a student who respects history, art and engineering to understand watch collecting and understanding the watchmaking philosophies of the different eras.
What sort of due diligence did you do before you acquired this piece?
I only adopted a wait and see approach to see what he else he would do because i wasn’t interested in a watch with a fossil dial. This is one of the important watches in Louis Moinet aside from the Tempograph.
The Louis Moinet Tempograph too employs technologies which no other watch company has done. It’s hard to make a watch where the materials look dense but is actually quite lightweight.
Psychologically speaking, a lot of value is placed on the heft of a solid watch but the Tempograph is incredibly lightweight because of injection molded parts. Richard Mille pioneered the way for many brands to create an “affordable Richard Mille”. I consider Louis Moinet one of the earlier adopters of technology introduced by Richard Mille.
In terms of finishing to mirror polishing, can you rate the Louis Moinet Memoris from 1 to 10?
You can’t. Because different materials require different treatments to bring out its best and shine. Most of these things are made of brass and stainless steel and then coated. It’s a matter of choice and cost restrictions for the watchmaker. With the Memoris, they didn’t go overboard with “cost no object” type of finishing and slap on a crazy price tag, they decided like Rolex and Patek to make small compromises to provide a product which is perfect for its price point. The Memoris is fairly valued – you can wear it like a Panerai and in 5 years, baring a war or some eco-catastrophe, you’re not going to lose much money if any.
Would you say that the Memoris will join the ranks of legendary chronographs like the El Primero?
There’s a good chance. Watches will be the jewels of the future and the Memoris, is one of the few modern chronographs alongside the Montblanc’s Nicolas Rieussec chronograph that would join the ranks of the El Primero.
Do you believe the current owners of the brand are doing the Louis Moinet name justice by not re-issuing heritage inspired pieces?
You have to ask yourself, what exactly are you re-issuing? Intellectual property and the ideas behind it or the vintage products which previously existed? If you were to re-issue vintage products, you aren’t doing anything new but to re-issue the ideas and philosophy which drove a brand, you create something new yet completely authentic to the ethos of Louis Moinet and they found it in the Memoris.
Louis Moinet has made a huge investment in this, that’s ballsy and they deserve to be rewarded. The big stable brands don’t need your $100,000; by helping Louis Moinet, you’re growing the industry and creating new economies which previously didn’t exist.