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BOOKREVIEW:J-F Houriet, The Father of Swiss Chronometry (Engli.ed) by JC Sabrier

  • Thread starter Fortunat Mueller-Maerki
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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
Bookreview by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

Jean-Claude Sabrier – Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, The Father of Swiss Chronometry (English edition)

Jacques-Frédéric Houriet – 1743-1830 - The Father of Swiss Chronometry. By Jean-Claude Sabrier. Approximately 340 illustrations, most of them in color. 310x250mm. 227 pages. Published 2006 (1st edition of 1000 copies in English), by Editions Simonin, Neuchâtel (Switzerland) & Editions de la Chatière, Chezard-Saint-Martin (Switzerland), ISBN 978 2 940239 12 2. [Simultaneously published in French (ISBN 978 2 94239 08 5)]. Appendices, Index, Bibliography. Available through horological booksellers or from www.booksimonin.ch for CHF 150 untill July 1, 2007, later CHF 175 (approx. $140).

There are probably few watchmakers around who have been as important in the history of the development of precision timekeepers, who are as unknown to the average horological enthusiast as Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, who lived and worked in Le Locle (Switzerland) from 1743 to 1830. Throughout his life he moved in the shadows of horological giants: In his formative years, Houriet worked as a journeyman for both Julien and Pierre LeRoy in Paris, and became friendly with Ferdinand Berthoud and Antide Janvier. He and his contemporary Abraham-Louis Breguet, born less than 5 years apart, both in the Neuchâtel region of Switzerland, became close collaborators and friends, mainly during Breguet’s exile from Paris, and continued a close working relationship for the rest of their lives. Famous Danish watchmaker Urban Jürgensen not only completed his training in the Houriet workshop in Le Locle, but also married Houriet's daughter, before returning to Copenhagen and horological fame.

The reason why so few people are aware of Houriet and his creative horological genius is that he was at heart an inventor and innovator rather than a marketer and businessman. Very few completed timepieces are known that bear his signature, but his discrete “FH” mark can sometimes be found, hidden under the dial, on the movements of fine watches bearing signatures such as Breguet or Jürgensen. For much of his life he ran a large, busy workshop producing complicated movements to be cased and signed by the horological luminaries of his time. His biggest contribution to horology, however, was as an experimenter in horological science –particularly his work on improving the performance of the balance spring- and as a designer of novel watch calibers, later adopted by others. In the book under review, Sabrier makes a good case that surviving documents suggest that Breguet’s famous ‘montres de souscription” were actually based on a caliber designed and developed by Houriet. Houriet – in spite of living in a small town far from cosmopolitan Paris –was admitted into the French Académie des Sciences in 1814. But until now no monograph had ever been written on this amazing watchmaker. Fortunately, much of his written and instrument output has been preserved, because the State of Neuchâtel acquired it upon his death.

The fact that Houriet was primarily a technical horologist and researcher prevents this book from being an “easy read” biography of Houriet. It is rather an in depth description and analysis of his many technical achievements. Yes, the book does start with a short biographical section of a dozen pages. But the core of the book is taken up with the detailed description of Houriet’s oeuvre. The author, Jean-Claude Sabrier, lives up to his stellar reputation as a methodical and meticulous researcher. He quotes extensively from contemporary documents, such as letters, journals and workshop drawings, and lets the surviving artifacts talk for themselves through clear and large illustrations. The author only adds his own verbiage sparingly to tie the quotes and images into a cohesive narrative.

For example, a 10-page section of the book quotes from Houriet’s detailed shop notes of 1777 describing, how “I was consulted on the means of reducing the number of pieces that compose a watch”, and outlining his chosen solution in great detail; a design that apparently is the precursor to the Breguet Souscription watch.

In the course of his professional life Houriet designed 77 different watch movements (calibres), which he not only carefully described in his notebooks, but for all of which he made careful brass templates detailing the layout of the gear train. All these templates were kept “in the fourth drawer on the left hand side of his workbench”, to be used as patterns by his workmen when an order was received. This set of patterns has survived to the present. While many were for ordinary movements, typical for the time and area, others are for extraordinary timekeepers, such as e.g. FH#64, a template for a tourbillion watch made for Breguet according to his specifications. Nine examples were built by Houriet in 1809 and became Breguet Nos. 2566 - 2572 and 2728 – 2729. Sabrier’s book not only shows all of these templates in a one-to-one scale, including their exact tooth counts, but provides in many cases illustrations of the watches which are based on these designs. Houriet’s “numbers” from 78 to 110 have no surviving caliber patterns and date from the time after 1818, when 75 years old, he gave up his commerical workshop and focused mainly on research and making one of a kind precision pocket chronometers, such as e.g. the one bearing the Hunt & Roskell, London signature, that graces the front cover of the Randall/Good catalog of the chronometer collection of the British Museum.

A fascinating 70-page chapter is devoted to Houriet’s experimental work, mainly his focus on the isochronism of the balance spring, as well as the purpose built specialty measuring and testing instruments that Houriet made for studying isochronism, and machines to produce better, i.e. more even, balance springs. One of the results of these experiments is his invention of the spherical hairspring. Reading Houriet’s research notes and the resulting scholarly paper (which is also reproduced in the Appendix in French in its entirety, together with some of his other essays) it becomes clear that he was a methodical and meticulous experimenter. Houriet seems to have left behind more research notes describing his experiments than any other watchmaker of the era with the exception of Ferdinand Berthoud. His output of bimetallic precision thermometers, and the few precision clocks he built, are described in detail as well. A short chapter on the oeuvre of Houriet’s “pupils”, an index and a bibliography conclude the book.

This book on Houriet is a long overdue addition to the horological literature: This extraordinary watchmaker deserves to be better known. Too many horological collectors – in the opinion of this reviewer - have mainly focused on the high-visibility businesspeople whose name appears on the dial, and have neglected recognizing both the horological geniuses who worked in their workshops, or were their – often anonymous - suppliers. I am under no illusion that this book will become a horological best-seller; studying it is too much work for that to happen. But I consider it a “must-read” for every serious student of pre-industrial European. Jean-Claude Sabrier wrote the kind of book I like to read, presenting the carefully documented and researched facts in a well organized manner, but leaving much of the interpretation and the drawing of conclusions to the reader.

The publishers deserve praise for simultaneously publishing French and English language editions. All too often in the past we have we witnessed worthy horological publications in German or French being virtually ignored in the rest of the world for lack of availability of English editions. At the same time I must add a word of caution: translating is an art and not a science, and inevitably some of the finer nuances get lost in translation. This is particularly so with old texts (like the Houriet notebooks) containing archaic language whose transcription into modern use is open to some interpretation. The French edition of the book retains the ambiguities of Houriet’s original language. I have no specific reason to doubt the quality of the English translation, but by necessity any translation (as would be a transcription into contemporary French) is a half step removed from the original quote. A particularly meticulous horological scholar (if he reads French) may prefer to get the French language edition, whose many quotes more closely reflect Houriet’s time and personal style.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki (Sussex, NJ), March 17, 2007
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