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Frédéric Piguet & The Ultra-Thin Chronograph: Calibre 1180

Having now worked on a few different chronograph movements we had the opportunity to experience a high end mechanical chronograph, the Frédéric Piguet calibre 1180. They first released this ultra-thin hand wound chronograph caliber in 1987. With a total height of just 3.95 millimetres it was, at the time of its release, the thinnest chronograph caliber ever produced. At the time of its release most Swiss manufacturers still had doubts about the future of the mechanical watch, Frédéric Piguet however made the decision to put significant investment into the development of the calibre 1180. It turned out to be a great decision and was soon followed by a number of offspring which included an automatic version and a rattrapante. The calibre achieved much of its success in its automatic guise (FP 1185) and forms the basis for a number of chronograph movements from brands including Breguet, Blancpain, Omega, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet amongst others.

The story of Frédéric Piguet SA began in 1858, under the name of its founder Louis Elisee Piguet. He began his horological career as an apprentice to Henri Golay of Geneva, on his return to Le Brassus to take over the family estate in 1859 he began working alongside his brother, Henri Daniel Piguet. Their small enterprise created sketches and quadratures for the house of Louis Audemars (Future Co-Founder of Audemars Piguet). They later join forces with Ami LeCoultre to manufacture finished watches before parting ways to work independently of each other in 1877.

In 1878 the pocket watch known as ‘La Merveilleuse’ was completed, it was based on the drafts of Louis Elisee Piguet and held the title of the most complicated movement in the world at this time. The development of this movement began in 1874 and boasted 12 complications displayed with the help of 16 hands. The number of hand crafted parts totalled 491 in a movement measuring just 32 millimetres in diameter and 8mm high. A remarkable feat considering the lack of computer aided design and technology that we have access to today. The pocket watch was signed by his friend and companion, LeCoultre-Piguet. It was presented to the public at the World Expo of 1878 in Paris and can be seen today at The International Museum of Watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds. It is difficult to say with exact certainty what the contribution of each watchmaker to this masterpiece was but it widely thought that LeCoultre-Piguet, a split function chronograph specialist, worked mostly alone de to his deafness. This movement went on to inspire the Piguet/Gerber/Muller Ultra Complicated watch which is the most complicated in the world with 1,116 parts.

The LeCoultre-Piguet creation of 1878… Piguet2

The Piguet/Muller/Gerber Ultra Complicated…

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A devastating hurricane destroyed his home and studio in 1890, he subsequently purchased an old mill in Le Brassus and turned it into an apartment and watchmaking facility.  Louis is able to utilise the water source of Brassus to create hydro-electric power enabling production to be mechanised. The facility employed four staff and began production of its first quadrature repeaters in the summer of 1891. A contract dated March 1, 1891 with Audemars Piguet & Cie details the delivery of 400 quadrature repeaters. The contract stated the quadrature should be developed and manufactured exclusively for Audemars Piguet & Cie and should not be sold to other manufacturers. Another interesting detail of the contract stipulated that parts should not bear any mark or signature of Piguet.

The manufacture…

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In 1895 the factory could count on eleven employees and by 1900 that numbered had risen to twenty, where it would remain until the global economic crisis of 1930. Production between 1892 and 1914 consisted of movements housing complications including minute repeaters, perpetual calendars and split second chronographs along with more basic calibre’s. Most of these movements were produced with the help of machines but there are known to be a small number of extremely complicated movements that were produced entirely by hand, these movements were considered to be at the pinnacle of watchmaking not only at Piguet but in the world of complicated watches. The factory produced around 740 movements a year and over the 22 year period 460 of these were classed as complicated movements.

The 136 watch manufacturers and traders, overwhelmingly Swiss , who were the clients of the manufacture demonstrates how watchmaking dominated Switzerland at this time. The eleven manufacturers identified in the Vallée de Joux in 1895 were all customers of Piguet. There were also numerous small businesses that are today almost completely unknown alongside the major brands of today such as Audemars Piguet, Girard Perregaux, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Between 1900 and 1904 Patek Philippe purchased 249 complicated movements from Piguet, around five per month.

A Piguet movement blank…

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The health of Louis began to decline in 1897, it is believed that establishing the new factory and subsequently the many hours and late nights put into developing highly complicated movements contributed to his ill health. In 1905, the factory was bequeathed to his fourth surviving son although Louis held on to ownership of the mechanical drive system and production of electricity that was widely admired for its modernity. The contract also encouraged his son to form a business that will continue with the practices that have been in place since its foundation.

On the 27 June 1924, Louis Elisee Piguet died in hospital at the age of 88. The company became known as ‘The Son of Louis Elisee Piguet’ and continued to produce watch movements in the way its founder had at its very beginning. Gradually specialising in the smallest, thinnest and most complicated Calibers to be used in only the finest timepieces. The company is passed from father to son, taking the name of Frédéric Piguet SA along the way, until the last director from the family, Jacques Piguet (Son of Frédéric). In 1982, Jacques purchased the name of Blancpain alongside Jean-Claude Biver (CEO of Hublot) and began to produce watches containing Piguet calibre’s. In 1992, the Blancpain-Frédéric Piguet company was purchased by the Swatch Group. The Frédéric Piguet movement division was integrated into Blancpain in 2010 to become Manufacture Blancpain and the great name disappeared for good.

Anyway, enough about the history of the great movement manufacturer, lets get back to the Calibre 1180. Previously I have covered the 7750 and L688.2 chronograph movement, the former using a cam system and the latter a column wheel. The column wheel is often the default choice for a high quality chronograph and the 1180 doesn’t disappoint. The movement has 29 jewels and a frequency of 21, 600 BPH. It differs from the L688.2 that I previously covered in that it utilises a vertical clutch system. Normally the centre chronograph wheel is driven by the fourth wheel via an intermediate pinion/wheel but only when the chronograph is running. The centre chronograph wheel in the 1180 is constantly driven by the escape wheel pinion whether it is running or not.

The vertical clutch has a pinion running through its centre, when the chronograph isn’t running the clutch is held together but when the chronograph is running, the clutch is allowed to separate and the pinion is able to turn. This system allows the wheels to be in mesh constantly, the clutch engages or disengages the mechanism as required. Usually amplitude is lost on a traditional chronograph when the chronograph is started due to the increased friction caused by having to drive the chronograph wheels. Due to the wheels being constantly driven when a vertical clutch is used, amplitude often increases when the chronograph is started because the friction of the clutch is released. The starting and stopping of the chronograph hands is also a lot smoother, a regular chronograph puts the moving intermediate wheel/pinion into mesh with the stationary chronograph centre wheel which causes the hand to jump slightly.

The 1180 integrates the clutch lever arms and the brakes. This allows stopping and braking functions to be perfectly co-ordinated. The centre chronograph wheel has a bevelled clutch rim. When the chronograph is stopped, the clutch lever arms lift the chronograph centre wheel off clutch face that lies beneath, the clutch face itself is attached to the pinion that carries the heart cam and central chronograph hand. When the chronograph is started, the clutch lever arms lower the centre wheel that is constantly driven by the escape wheel pinion onto the clutch face and the centre hand and heart cam start to rotate. The clutch lever arms release the brake once again in a co-ordinated fashion. It is a well designed and expertly engineered system that also looks aesthetically pleasing.

The chronograph system…

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WOSTEP had a batch of 1180’s produced specifically for the 3000 hour training program complete with cases, WOSTEP branded dials and Omega Speedmaster Broad Arrow style hands. It would be these that we would get to grips with for the next week or two. During training its important to physically see the systems that we learn the theory behind, in order to fully understand them. Having previously covered the theory of the vertical clutch I was looking forward to getting my hands on the real thing! I will now take you through some of the disassembly and subsequent re-assembly of the movement. Please note that some of the steps are not necessarily in the normal order as I didn’t have the opportunity to take a full set of photographs in one go.

The WOSTEP FP Calibre 1180…

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The WOSTEP watch as we received it…

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The final exams were now only a couple of months away so now was the time to start honing our skills not only in servicing the movement but also our initial inspection, fault finding, removing/fitting the hands and casing the watch up.  This would not only be important for the exam but also for our future as watchmakers. Having completed the initial checks, checking all functions and aesthetics, the first step is to uncase the watch in preparation for removing the dial and hands.

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With the dial and hands out of the way, we can now remove the calendar disc.

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The calendar work and motion work are revealed.

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The collection of parts so far.

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The calendar work and motion work are removed. The movement is then turned over so the balance and pallets can be taken out.

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Three quarter plate bridge can now be removed to reveal the chronograph mechanism in all its glory. Its unusual for a chronograph to have just one bridge for the majority of mechanism but the systems employed by the 1180 allow this. Notice the return spring for the reset pusher, and the jumpers for the hour & minute counters are neatly fitted into recesses on the bridge.

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We can then remove the minute counter wheel, minute counter driving wheel, hour counter driving wheel, seconds wheel and hour counter wheel.

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The clutch lever arms/brakes and the hammers are now visible in more detail. You can see how the reset hammer slides across the movement when the pusher is pressed, its faces contacting the heart cams of the central chronograph wheel and the hour & minute counter wheels.

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The reset hammer, reset hammer lever, clutch yoke and clutch lever are removed.

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Finally the remaining parts including the gear train and keyless work can be removed in preparation for cleaning.

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Now lets go through the reassembly in slightly more detail. Beginning with the winding stem, winding pinion and sliding pinion.

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Followed by the correction lever and assembled rocking ban.

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Next the yoke and yoke spring can be put into place.

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The setting lever and setting lever jumper.

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Finally the keyless cover can be fitted.

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The movement can turned over in preparation for fitting the barrel and gear train. You will see the intermediate wheel already in place.

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The barrel is put into position.

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The barrel bridge is fitted.

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The great wheel, third wheel and central chronograph wheel can be put into place.

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The train bridge is fitted.

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The escape wheel, crown wheel, ratchet wheel, intermediate ratchet driving wheel and click spring.

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The intermediate hour counter wheels are put in place.

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Next the hour counter wheel train bridge is fitted.

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The column wheel and column wheel jumper are put into position.

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The column wheel operating lever and the clutch lever are put into place.

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Followed by the clutch yoke.

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The hour counter wheel, seconds wheel, reset hammers and hammer operating lever are fitted next.

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The minute and hour counter driving wheels are put in place and the chronograph three quarter bridge is fitted.

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The pallets and balance are now put into position. All that remains to fitted are the tension spring for the reset pusher, calendar work and motion work.

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So what are my thoughts on the Frédéric Piguet Calibre 1180?

Lets begin with the aesthetics, the movement is clearly decorated to the standards expected of a high end chronograph and looks the part behind a sapphire case back. The bevelled edges, pearlaged plates and bridges, polished screws and the Geneva striped chronograph three quarter bridge & balance cock all contribute to a high standard of finish. Next lets talk about function, the inclusion of a column wheel & vertical clutch along with the small innovations created by Piguet allow the chronograph mechanism to operate smoothly and efficiently. Its true that these features are generally only found in the very best Swiss chronograph calibre’s and the 1180 definitely falls into that category. The only feature that it lacks is a free sprung balance with Breguet overcoil, however this a pretty small negative against what is an excellently engineered and finished chronograph movement. I believe this feature has been incorporated into later incarnations used by some brands, making this fantastic calibre even better.

In conclusion, I would say that this calibre is up there with very best chronograph movements in terms of features and finish. I’m sure a number of manufacturers are of the same opinion and with that in mind, it’s no surprise to find the 1180 in various guises has appeared in the models shown below…

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