On November 9th, 2019 in Geneva, F.P. Journe donated for the second time a completely new and unique grand complication watch for the charity auction, OnlyWatch. Not only would it be one of the top selling lots of the auction—hammering for CHF 1.8 million—but also the most complicated wristwatch he’s made to date. That record breaking timepiece is the Astronomic Blue, and was the prototype for the F.P. Journe Astronomic Souveraine. Shortly after the auction, Journe is quoted saying, “the notion of (a) prototype implies there will be a finished piece”, and the Astronomic Souveraine was added to the brand’s offering just one day after the auction. The production version appeared with only a few minor differences: a steel case, a white gold dial, and and a finished movement, in contrast to its predecessor’s tantalum case, blue chrome dial, and unfinished, raw movement.
Journe has always been a lover of complications, and especially astronomical ones. One of his earlier commissioned works from 1987 was a pocket watch with planetarium. The piece would serve as the inspiration for the Astronomic—a unique tourbillon watch displaying both mean & sidereal time as well as the equation of time, full calendar, and more. Interestingly, the first part of this puzzle dates back to over 15 years, coming from a crumpled up, thrown out sketch from his son Charles, who imagined a large aperture at the top of the dial for the path of the sun. Journe would spend six years attempting to create a watch around this complication before ultimately landing on the idea for the Astronomic; talk about pulling a thread and seeing where it goes.
There was an era almost a century ago when steel watches came into fashion, in part due to manufacturing techniques improving enough to craft precision steel parts effectively, and partly due to the Wall Street market crash of 1929, where precious metal watches were no longer in high demand. In modern times, we’ve come full circle where the vast majority of complicated and expensive watches have always been made in precious metals such as gold or platinum, and the rarest of high complication watches in the world are cased in steel. Even Journe isn’t one to use steel frequently, and his magnum opus wears it proudly.
If you’re familiar with Journe’s work, then you’re probably aware of why he has so many diehard enthusiasts and collectors in his corner. The brand’s body of work has such a distinct aesthetic, and one that pays proper homage to the traditional methods of the industry without seeming the least bit derivative. As complicated as the Astronomic is, it still holds true to Journe’s design language with a clean and legible display of complications on both sides of its case. The symmetrical dial is reminiscent of one of his popular Resonance model, with dueling subdials housing different times, though these subdials flank a central minute hand, and a long day/night aperture at 12 o’clock. This aperture has mechanical shutters that retract and expand to indicate longer and shorter days. The dial at the three o’clock tells the mean solar (civil) time with a gold hand, and a second time zone in blue. The dial at the nine o’clock is the sidereal time, which calculates the time based on star placement instead of the sun. No part of this timepiece is simple, so below the sidereal time is a natural dead-beat seconds display paralleled by a realistic moonphase, traced from a NASA photograph and a perfectly balanced by the power reserve below both.
But wait, there’s more! Flip over the Astronomic for the equation of time at 10 o’clock, displaying longer and shorter days. This is nestled in the peripherally displayed annual calendar with signs of the zodiac, all of which is housed in a 44mm case with an astoundingly and relatively short height of 13.7mm.
Now for the part you’ve been waiting for—the Astronomic has a completely new in-house manually wound movement known as the caliber 1619. Made of 18k rose gold, the movement includes 10 new patents, 758 parts, and 18 complications that are all entirely accessible and set via the crown. A pair of mainspring barrels deliver a 40-hour power reserve to drive it all.
Thus far all of our focus has been on the indications that can be read, but there’s still the matter of its most challenging complications: the minute repeater, which chimes the time on demand when the slide on the left side of the watch is activated. Minute repeaters on their own are the pinnacle of fine watchmaking, but having one combined with so many other complications is an extremely rare occurrence. Perhaps the icing on the cake for this piece, you’ll note a 60-second tourbillon on the backside of the piece, paired with another signature complication from Journe—a remontoir d’égalité, a a form of constant force mechanism that distributes the power necessary to run this mechanical marvel while still keeping it’s accuracy at an acceptable level.
Versus The Competition
As you can imagine, there isn’t much that can compare with a mega grand complication from one of the most famous watchmakers alive today. The closest that comes to mind that could rival the Astronomic would be Patek Philippe’s previous top watch—the SkyMoon Tourbillon with 12 complications, or its successor, the Grandmaster Chime with 20 complications. More complications doesn’t necessarily mean a better watch, and the GMC might seem a bit simpler watch due to its overlap in complication types, but Patek’s pinnacle timepiece is still legendary in its own right. The GMC has a more complex chiming system, combining a grande and petite sonnerie, a minute repeater, strikework mode, and even an alarm. Point for Patek. The second comparison would be Patek’s instantaneous perpetual calendar in contrast to Journe opting for an annual calendar on his masterpiece. Second points for Patek.
These two comparisons might make the Astronomic seem second fiddle, but the GMC wouldn’t be my first choice if I could have any watch in the world. While incredibly impressive in terms of innovation and historical significance, the Grandmaster Chime is a whopping 47.7mm in diameter and over 16mm in height, which is a far cry from being a comfortable size for most collectors. If you’re in the market for either of these watches, I’d hope you choose the watch you could fall in love with every time you see it rather than one acquired for bragging rights alone.
This horological marvel isn’t for the faint of heart but maybe for the romantic who is enchanted by what technical feats man is capable of. You should know that this watch takes four months to complete a single piece which means only two to three pieces come out of the workshop per year. At the end of its run, there won’t be more than a handful in existence, so if you’re capable of owning this grail, I would not hesitate to get your hands on this historically important piece of horology.
The late George Daniel’s once said that one of the greatest pitfalls of very complicated watches is their ability to look like gas meters and he’s right—it’s extremely difficult to combine both the technical prowess of many grand complications with the style and sophistication of a legible, aesthetically pleasing layout for the wearer to enjoy. Journe did the unthinkable and did just that.