Paul Gerber:

You'd have to be a dwarf.....


Talking about cars you would call it "tuning" or "souped up." In the world of watches it isn't so widespread yet, but with the watch whose rearrangement Paul Gerber has just finished, a new trend might evolve. 

of Timm Delfs

Paul Gerber would give a fortune if he could just turn tiny and creep into his watch to find out if there might be just a little more space inside to enrich the movement by one more function. "His" watch in truth belongs to a collector – who doesn't want to be named here of course – who just can't be satisfied by the fact of being the owner of the most complicated wristwatch in the world. He needs to know that the distance to possible competing watches is big enough to discourage any thought of ever catching up. Paul Gerber in Zürich is the watchmaker who has been making this watch more and more complicated throughout the past few years.

The history of this extraordinary watch doesn't begin a few years ago as one is inclined to think, but in 1892 in the Vallée du Joux. Louis-Elisée Piguet from Le Brassus was renowned for his very complicated and beautifully executed timekeepers. His company, founded in 1858, was continued by his children and is known as "Frédéric Piguet SA" nowadays. However, he doesn't share any family ties with Edward-Auguste Piguet, who in 1875 founded Audemars Piguet together with Jules-Louis Audemars. Towards the end of the century the master watchmaker accomplished three pocket watches with minute repeater and "grande et petite sonnerie" on two chimes. Considering the mechanisms inside he hadn't allowed very large dimensions: the movement measured only 32 millimeters or 14 lines across. It was 8 millimeters thick.

Whereas two of the pocket watches are missing today, the third one unexpectedly surfaced in 1992 when Francesco (aka Franck) Muller presented it as the "world's most complicated wristwatch" at the Basel fair. The undoubtedly talented watchmaker who, at that time, still presented himself humbly, had bought the watch and modified its movement to achieve a world record with it. He added a perpetual calendar with phases of the moon, as well as a 24-hour hand for travelers, to the complications. As an extra, a thermometer was added whose retrograde hand, is driven by a bimetallic strip. Then he fitted the mechanism into a platinum wristwatch case. The module for the calendar made

the movement slightly thicker but left the diameter unaltered.

The watch was bought by a collector who liked Franck Muller's initial idea of adding extra complications to the movement so much that he came to the conviction that there must be a possibility to add even more. In his search for someone who possessed the genius to incorporate further complications, into the already tight space inside the movement, he hit upon Paul Gerber. A tourbillon, the watchmaker's pièce de résistance, that's what he wanted, a flying one, at that. "I had never built one before", Paul Gerber remarks smilingly, thinking back, "but thanks to my experience in miniaturization I took the challenge."

Creeping into the watch is unfortunately not possible: some centimeters of distance remain always to the movement to the displeasure of the artist.
The 14-lines repeating movement of Louis-Elisée Piguet was an incredible complicated mechanism already in the year 1892. More than 100 years later it has been reshaped by several master watch making craftsmen and has been fitted with ever new complications. The creators have immortalized themselves by engraving their names inside the movement and it is significant how the added modifications have meanwhile superimposed the names mutually.

The fact of being supported from one side only makes the flying tourbillon seem detached from the rest of the movement. The view of the delicate mechanism isn't obstructed by any bridge or cock. What was most nerve-wracking to Paul Gerber was the fact that for the incorporation the bottom plate had to be modified. "One little mistake while machining and the plate would have been gone for good, and with it the whole watch."

Even though Paul Gerber planned and tried the tourbillon and its position on the computer he took no risk and built an enlarged model to exclude errors right from the beginning. As the owner had wished, the original compensating balance wheel and its Breguet hairspring were used. Here, too, utmost care had to be taken. The tourbillon's cage Paul Gerber constructed for the movement leaves maximum sight for the balance wheel by holding its upper bearing with the index by two spokes only. Despite the unilateral support made from one single piece, the tourbillon is perfectly balanced.

Until the small lever shown here (enlarged 20 times) had its final form, Gerber had to try out several versions.

Gerber's masterpiece, which was presented at the "Basel 1995," aroused further wishes in his customer. "Wasn't there a possibility to add a chronograph mechanism", he wanted to know. And that's how the watch found its way onto Paul Gerber's table once more. "To be honest, next to all my other projects and orders I don't really have the time for it, but the temptation is just too big," the silent but humorous man has to admit.

He was not content with a simple chronograph mechanism and, anticipating his customer, added a rattrapante with fly-back and a jumping minute counter. Additionally, he equipped the two mainsprings for the movement and the striking mechanism with a power reserve indication. All this, however, wouldn't have been possible without creating a little more space: for the two extra seconds hands from the center, a bridge had to be added, which made the movement only 2.1 mm thicker. This was the right occasion for a new case back with a sapphire glass in whose platinum ring engravings show the  names of the three watchmakers involved in the making of the movement.

Somewhere around this point the wish must have arisen in Paul Gerber to be able to see the movement from an insect's perspective. For the chronograph a column wheel and the levers had to be inserted, which are responsible for the functions of start, stop, reset and fly-back, operated by the pushers, and the rattrapante, operated by the button in the middle of the crown. "The levers have the most adventurous shapes because the distance from the pushers to the column-wheel and the reset-hearts could only be bridged with deviations," Paul Gerber laughs whilst he places a selection of tiny levers on the table that didn't fulfill their function because they were either too weak or touched somewhere.

To operate the pincers that stop the rattrapante-hand at command, Gerber devised an elegant solution in the form of a hexagonal wheel that looks like a nut. The insides of the pincers press against its sides and are opened as the wheel turns by a twelfth of a circle.

A further benchmark presented itself in the making of the two tiny tubes that were necessary to slide the seconds’ hand and the rattrapante hand through the middle axis of the minute hand. "Since tubes with the necessary diameter and thickness were not available, I had to turn them myself on the lathe. You can hardly imagine how long I experimented until I had drilled my first straight hole through one of them!" Now the watch is lying on the table only waiting for the casemaker to fit the pushers in the right places. Then the owner will be able to collect it, please himself with the new gadgets and marvel at the spectacle beneath the transparent back, before new wishes arise. The question remains: What is there that hasn't been incorporated yet?
The two spring houses for the movement and the chimes have power reserve indications of their own.
The Person:       Paul Gerber

Paul Gerber reflects the one thing one normally expects from a watchmaker: he is calmness personified. The 51-year old from Bern has been living in Albisrieden near Zurich since 1976 where he installed a small workshop in the cellar of his house in a green area. "Laboratory" would probably be the better term because despite the scarceness of space, meticulous cleanliness and order are imperative. No sign of facings are to be seen on the floor, as is the custom in other workshops. Paul Gerber immediately puts on his white frock as he enters the room, which by the architect had been intended for the washing machine.

Next door is the alchemist's room, this is where gold and rhodium plating is done. And, because inside a watch, room is scarce, watchmakers usually don't need much of it either. So it's no wonder that apart from Paul Gerber there are two more people working in the lab. His apprentice, Simone Hirzel, is in her third year at the watchmaker's school in Solothurn. She and the watchmaker, Martin Schiess, help him to accomplish the orders that should not be forgotten next to the "Louis-Elisée-Piguet." Gerber's wife, Ruth, looks after the office work. It was for her that he left his hometown of Bern and moved to Zurich. Where, in 1976, he took over a watch shop. After a while the learned watchmaker didn't find satisfaction behind the shop counter.


It was the inside of the watch that was his passion. Since he didn't fancy working as an employee, Gerber decided to become self-employed. He was already able to offer exclusivity: in 1977 he had started to construct miniature pendulum clocks. In 1989, the year in which he joined the AHCI, the Academy of independent watchmakers, one of his constructions even made it into the Guinness Book Of World Records. The miniature clockwork, of the world's smallest wood-geared clock that is weight-driven, features a cow's tail pendulum in front of the dial and a verge escapement. It measures a mere 2.2 centimeters in height. As a gag, Gerber built in two eyes that stare out of the watchcase and move once in a minute. The wooden miniatures still belong to Gerber's economic basis, as one can easily see looking at a wall where half a dozen mini-pendulums are swinging nervously in time.

Thanks to a "pendulette mystérieuse" that he constructed with and for Gerd Dorschfeld, he achieved recognition with Fabergé, the manufacturer, for whom he has been constructing complicated desk clocks with musical boxes since 1996.

One year later he integrated a clearly audible alarm mechanism into a 7750 ETA Valjoux movement for Fortis, in Grenchen, without making the watch much bigger.


For the Mystérieuse of Gerd Dorschfeldt, Gerber has created an 8-days movement which was strong enough to turn the sapphire glass disks which were fixed at the periphery only.


But, isn't there a brand "Paul Gerber?" Of course there is: in 1996 the master watchmaker presented two novelties under his own name in Basel: a pendulette (desk-clock) with a movement constructed and manufactured by himself and a wristwatch featuring a large retrograde seconds-indication at six 'o clock. The unusual display, whose function might be compared a little provocatively to a windscreen wiper, moves, within a minute, over the segment of a circle only to fly back immediately and begin its way anew. The module is built onto a hand-winding Peseux caliber 7001 and is integrated elegantly into the lower part of the movement-ring. In 1999 Paul Gerber launched the "Retro Twin" which is equipped with an automatic winder. He wasn't content with a simple oscillating mass, so he incorporated two of them: they have ball bearings and are coupled virtually friction-free by an intermediate wheel. Of course Paul Gerber owes the know-how for building it to his first modification of the "Louis-Elisée-Piguet."  In order to prevent the masses from touching each other, and still have them as big as possible, Paul Gerber calculated their profile with the computer. The watches differ only in the execution of their dials. Whereas the Retro features a white dial in enamel optics, the Retro Twin's is guilloché and rhodium-plated. In the same year Gerber topped his line with a refined version of his Pendulette. It now features a large flying tourbillon. 
The two synchronously swinging automatic winder oscillating masses and the retrograde hand for the seconds - the constructions of Paul Gerber almost always have a look of playful effortlessness.

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