Sabrier, JC: The self-winding watch, 18th - 21st century, 308 pp, 252 ill (many with several parts), 2011, Paris: Editions Cercle d’Art.

Quality: Poor.

Jean-Claude Sabrier is a highly regarded writer and, in the view of some, “one of the world’s foremost horological experts”. In this context his book is likely to be considered as the “bible” on self-winding watches, replacing Jaquet & Chapuis’ 1956 book “The history of the self-winding watch” and its 1952 first edition “La montre automatique ancienne”. Given this, the author has the responsibility to ensure his work is comprehensive and above criticism. Unfortunately it is not, and I seriously fear that future students of horology will gain an incorrect and unsatisfactory knowledge of the subject.

I have elsewhere pointed out that I try to review books in the context of the author’s stated aims. Sometimes no aims are specified, but other books suggest, in a preface or an introduction, what we should expect. Then it is possible to compare the results with the author’s ambitions. In this case we have a preface by Jean-Claude Biver (C.E.O. of Hublot) to guide us. He states, in part, “Today historians and researchers favor a more rigorous and methodical approach. ... Jean-Claude Sabrier’s book is destined to become an essential and indispensable tool for all collectors, scholars, historians, and dealers.”

Viewing this book in this context, it is poor.

There are three major problems with Sabrier’s writing.

First, he is a chronicler and not an historian. As a chronicler he simply presents information (although often not in chronological order). In contrast, an historian must also analyse and interpret the information to provide a credible explanation of events. Sabrier does not do this. He does indirectly imply some things, but without any supporting arguments to justify his inferences.

Second, an essential requirement of both chroniclers and historians is that they present all the evidence, either directly or through appropriate references. This is necessary to ensure that interpretations by either the author or the reader are based on a fair and comprehensive understanding. But Sabrier does not present all the evidence. Instead he picks out those bits that suit his purpose and ignores the anything embarrassing. And, except for Jaquet & Chapuis and a few early documents, the book is devoid of references. It is as if Sabrier is the first person to write on the subject since the 1950s. This is absurd, if only because of Joseph Flores. Hate him or like him, Flores has made a substantial contribution to the history of self-winding watches and he cannot be ignored. But Sabrier manages to pretend that Flores does not exist!

And third, the book is concerned with the design of a particular aspect of watches, the self-winding mechanism, which is highly technical. But, with the exception of quotes from Breguet’s notes, Sabrier ignores design, limiting himself to a few obscure diagrams and some superficial, and often equally obscure, comments. The obvious example is the distinction between watches with a centrally mounted rotor and those with a pendulum-like weight pivoting at the edge of the movement, which are conceptually different. Sabrier glosses over this and so glosses over very important design principles.

There is one area in which I am sure Sabrier is an expert with vastly more knowledge than myself. That area is watch identification. As Biver also notes in his preface: “It was ... necessary to determine the true origin of the watches that were sold. ... In most cases (Sabrier) was able to establish the workshop where the watch was made; if not, he at least determined the watch’s geographical origin.” But Sabrier presents information on origins as facts, without any details and often without dating the watches, and makes no attempt to teach the reader how to recognise the features of watches which enable locations to be determined. It appears he does not want to share his expertise with others.

It is likely that Biver is right, and future researchers will rely on this book. In which case progress in the history of watchmaking will be set back by many years. Despite serious faults, the books of Jaquet & Chapuis and Flores remain the best and most important books on self-winding watches.
If the reader wants a coffee-table book, full of excellent photographs, and ignores the text, then the book might be worth owning. So I expect the average collector and the dealer may well find it a useful addition to their library. But if you are serious about horology then treat it with skepticism and great care.