CZAPEK FAUBOURG DE CRACOVIE L’HEURE BLEUE – AN OWNERSHIP JOURNEY
BY Karl Dennis
Speaking personally, watch collecting is about owning a variety of small and practical works of art, and thence having a degree of understanding of such pieces. The latter I guess is about how they are made and work, and their sometimes fascinating histories. As I get a fair amount of pleasure from these aspects alone, the fiscal side has frankly never really been a motivation. It can though, on occasions, be an inconvenient barrier to desired ownership!
Over the past 10 years in particular, my collecting has thrived, and I now have some 30+ watches of different types, ages, and price points. These range from Pateks, to a Tissot PR 100 birthday gift in 1982 worth at best £20.The collection has evolved over time, usually by occasional part exchanges.
I am in the main governed by looks initially, so do not really subscribe to the “you should not judge a book by its cover” adage, and I apply this to watches and other “art” forms. There is simply no point in owning something that may be rare and expensive but is not attractive! If this aspect has been satisfied – and I concede that it can be subjective – then I guess overall quality and then the complications follow.
At this point, I will admit to being fond of chronographs! I am 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.
I currently have some examples from; IWC, Breitling, Parmigiani, Zenith, Omega and Bell & Ross – so some of the early pioneers are represented. Fairly modern, but of historic note to me are two watches; Zenith’s Pilot Big Date Special with the famous El Primero movement, and a Breitling 1915 Transocean which was offered a few years ago in homage to their first chronograph.
Notwithstanding the fact that I clearly 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 previously, and initially, I contacted their UK agent Andy Good 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. Andy did, however, alert me to the fact 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.
I cannot now quite recall the precise sequence of events, but I had either been back to Andy to express interest, or he coincidentally contacted me. Whatever, the upshot was an invite to The Watchmaker’s Club event in the City in 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 Czepek & 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 was shortlisted in 2018. Quite remarkable!
FAUBOURG DE CRACOVIE
Focusing on the chronograph, there are four versions, all in stainless steel. L’Heure Bleue (a nautical term for the deep blue colour sometimes experienced at twilight for an hour or so), the Dione & Rhea (the two moons of Saturn – same dial but black with white subdials – i.e. two moons), the white Grand Feu (enamel dial by Donze Cadrans with “hidden” Czapek signature), and just off the blocks, the Sockeye (with a bronzy golden dial to emulate the salmon’s eye, and with blue subdials – very nice!). My aesthetic preference was for the first, with a blue dial and fantastic “Resonance” guilloché – a take on the earlier “Ricochet” design by Czapek himself.
At this point I would acknowledge the review Angus Davies did on the Grand Feu 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!
It is not uncommon for features of things in photographs to be a little different in the flesh, and this was so here. A couple of aspects became obvious; a) The watch was more rounded and deep than I had thought and this was exacerbated a little by a box sapphire crystal, and b) I normally favour nice smooth polished case sides, but here recesses have been made. Were these two areas really an issue? Probably not, but I decided to put them to one side for the time being and concentrate on other features.
I will start with the dial which is made by Metalem and 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 Superluminova, as are the hour batons and the solitary number at 12. The second hand is simplistic and sports a red tip.
The stainless steel case is made by AB, and is just fine for me at 41.5mm. The other really clever design feature comprises the pushers, crown and guards spread, which is very streamlined and clean. I happen to prefer “cushion” pushers rather than round buttons, 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 open-worked movement, dominated by a large 24k gold rotor. There is no decoration as such, but the fact that one can see the inner workings pretty well too, all result in an attractive and impressive looking movement.
Turning to the mechanics, I will really try not to get too technical over all this – 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, a date option, and a few others to boot. Vaucher then 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 whir and the latter are firm and precise. There is a very handy 65-hour power reserve – all from one barrel, plus, an unusually hi-beat at 5 Hz (36,000VpH) frequency to yield a good degree of accuracy. All this is channelled 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 as, at some £23,300, it is no impulse buy. 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 event. I was able to see some great watches but moreover, actually talk to the people who have made and/or designed them. To illustrate this, it was good to meet and chat to Don Cochrane at Vertex. I was already aware of the history of Vertex, and Don and I had emailed each other some months earlier about the M100. I had then dithered because I wanted to personally view it. On the day though this aspect was satisfied, and more, so it made all the difference. I therefore left the event with another watch!
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, and moreover a couple of slight doubt areas. Yes, the watch was on the tall side but in reality no more so than a number of other more well-known chronographs. Those case recesses were of great help here, as they are deliberately aesthetic, and on closer inspection do organically flow nicely into the lugs and also between them – a point that I had initially missed. Anyway, they also serve to slim the watch pretty well, plus are an interesting technical achievement in their own right. The milling and sandblasting are all intricacies that I appreciate.
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 head scratching with Harry – that involved all sorts of modification suggestions (most discounted as too disruptive to the design and particularly the dial), including putting a diamond somewhere (no thanks), I suddenly hit on an idea. Rather than just have the red tip on the second hand, why not 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 on a deployment (or deployant if you prefer) clasp, but also obtained a pin buckle to provide an alternative option. Getting watch straps just right is a bit of a labour of love with me!
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.
Well, I am very happy with the watch. The red second hand works very well and the slight initial reservations proved somewhat spurious. 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 all but perfect – for me at least. It is certainly visually different to most existing designs so that is good, plus the quality is there. Yes, some may be a little sniffy that the main components are not made all in-house, but this is no “parts bin” job, just simply quite acceptable établissage. The whole raison d’être of Czapek is to use specialists where required to source the main components, 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.
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!
Czapek website: https://czapek.com