For a remarkably long period, time has been displayed in a predictable and familiar manner. We’ve come to expect all watches to feature separate hands for the hours, minutes and seconds, which glide across the dial at their own pace. Learning to read your own watch thanks to this system became one of the first things that children were taught when they started growing up. It seems like one of those areas of watchmaking that are so fundamental that they cannot be replaced, such that even an Apple Watch embraces this type of display.
However, some watchmakers have challenged this approach. In our eyes, one of the most compelling alternatives can be found in jump hour watches. Foregoing the traditional hands, these feature a series of discs in different configurations, which jump at certain transitions, hence their name. Despite having first appeared in the 19th century, this innovative way of displaying the time has seen mixed success over time.
The enigmatic display of A. Lange & Söhne's Zeitwerk.
It rose in popularity in the early 20th century, when the likes of Cartier, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet embraced the contrarian approach jump hour watches embodied, which went hand in hand with the spirit of the time. Forward thinkers such as Gary Cooper or Duke Ellington embraced the concept whole heartedly. Then, it seemed that they all but disappeared, before resurfacing decades later, as brands and independent watchmakers took a more contrarian approach, yet again. The likes of Daniel Roth, Vianney Halter, MB&F, DeBethune and François-Paul Journe would rediscover the jump hour. To get a sense of how these have evolved over time, and some of the difficulties involved in their production, let’s jump right in.
The Birth of Jump Hour Watches
While many have cited IWC’s Pallweber pieces as pioneering the jump hour watch, the Schaffhausen-based brand and Josef Pallweber were far from first to display time digitally. Of course, when we talk about digital time in this context, we’re referring to the use of numeral displays in place of rotating hands, not the LCD screens of the 1970s.
An original advertisement from IWC for the Pallweber pocket watches, courtesy of IWC.
An early example of a digital display can be found inside the Semper Opera House in Dresden. Above the stage, the Five Minute Clock goes to show why this way of reading the time was first invented. In low lighting situations, reading the bold, oversized numerals is much easier than trying to find a pair of thin hands. Rather interestingly, this clock was partially designed and built by a Ferdinand Adolph Lange in the 19th century, later becoming the inspiration for the oversized date window found on modern A. Lange & Söhne models.
The Five Minute Clock above the stage at the Dresden Opera House, courtesy of A. Lange & Söhne.
While the advent of jump hour timepieces does seem to predate the work of young Josef Pallweber, his advancement in the field helped IWC commercialise the complication like no one else. Not only was it possible to mass produce the movement he developed, but he also figured out a way to have jumping hours and minutes, although this came at a cost.
Starting in the summer of 1884 and running until the 1890s, IWC were able to produce about 16,590 Pallweber-design jump hour watches. It’s important to note that the base of these movements was an IWC design, later to be known as the Elgin II. “Pallweber only designed the mechanism for the jumping numerals,” Dr David Seyffer, the curator at the IWC Museum tells us. “In various letters, we see that IWC complained to Pallweber that the mechanism did not work satisfyingly and that IWC had to continuously improve it.”
An original IWC Pallweber pocket watch and its movement with Pallweber’s module on top, courtesy of IWC.
During its lifecycle, the manufacture had to improve the watchmaker’s mechanism twice, aiming to increase the power reserve – it was originally less than 24 hours – but also to make it easier to produce. This low power reserve was in part due to the fact that “toothed cogs were responsible for the energy-intensive job of advancing the display discs,” Seyffer tells us. Despite the advancements that IWC achieved, many of the jump hour movement components still had to be made by hand, which cost the company quite a lot of money. Along with buying the design from Pallweber, IWC spent the equivalent of about $10 million in today’s money on their jump hour pocket watches in the 19th century. A significant investment by any measure.
What was the outcome of this investment? A rise in imitations from around the world and a fall in demand the following decade. Despite so many of these watches being produced by IWC, the likes of Cortébert, Minerva, Wittnauer and Lange were never far behind. However, all of these jump hour pocket watches would peter out in the 1890s, as manufacturers started to focus more on chronometric accuracy, which these models did not lend themselves to.
Embracing Art Deco
We have to wait another thirty years before we see jump hour watches reappear in any meaningful way. With the rise of the Art Deco design movement, this alternative way of displaying the time began to rise in prominence once again. During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour and exuberance, coupled with a faith in social and technological progress. Embodying many of these ideas, the jump hour display was rediscovered, making its first appearance in wristwatches in the 1920s and 1930s.
Two vintage ads showing jump hour watches, with one from 1932 showing that you could pay 50 cent a week for your very own “Iron Mask” watch.
We also start to see a real diversification in how jump hours were designed at this time, with established names such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Cartier embracing the concept. Many of the design cues from the pocket watches were carried over into the wristwatches of this era. Both Audemars Piguet and Cartier opted for the closed metal front, with small apertures for both the hour and minutes. Patek Philippe took a slightly different approach, by still using a hand for the minutes, whilst the hours sat in a window. Meanwhile, Rolex simply integrated the complication into their popular Prince line.
Three styles of jump hour pocket watches, include a wandering hour from Breguet, a closed case from Audemars Piguet and one with a traditional minute hand from Cartier. Images of pocket watches from Heritage Auctions and Christie’s respectively.
Despite these models standing out today, they were only ever made in very limited quantities at the time. In fact, according to John Reardon of Collectability, it is believed that Patek Philippe made less than twelve during the ‘20s and ‘30s, with only seven known to the public. We then don’t see any jump hour watches from the manufacture for another sixty years or so. It was a similar story for the Cartier Tank à Guichet pieces, which were also produced in very small numbers, as was the case for most Cartier watches at the time. Despite their limited production, they were still purchased by forward-thinking individuals such as the Maharajah of Patiala or Duke Ellington.
Gary Cooper and Duke Ellington sporting their Tank à Guichet watches, both images courtesy of Mr Porter.
Though these designs were spearheaded by the likes of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Cartier, other Swiss brands eventually embraced jump hour watches throughout the ‘30s. During that time, the design rose to prominence, with a much greater number of jump hour watches being produced by lesser-known brands such Mimo and Niton. That being said, a great number of the pieces from this period don’t even feature a visible brand name on the case, keeping the pared back design of the jump hour watch intact. Many of these can still be bought for a relatively affordable price, though it does take some digging to find nicely preserved examples.
The movement of a Mido jump hour, courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
As the complication rose in popularity during the decade, certain manufacturers specialised in developing jump hour movements to supply to other brands. For example, the Fabrique d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon developed and patented their calibre 29, which featured a modified top plate allowing slightly recessed discs to be mounted in place of hands to the top of the movement. Although the discs for the seconds and the minutes are continually moving, the disc for the hours features an additional gear, so that it satisfyingly jumps from one hour to the next.
Some of the early advertisements for these watches emphasised their robustness, which is rather amusing considering we look back on them as distinctly dressier pieces. In the United Kingdom, they were targeted at aviators and for outdoor activity. One advertisement from December 1932 described a jump hour watch as having “No glass, no hands. Ideal for Sportsmen for general use and fitted with the highest grade movement.” Another advertisement from the same year goes further still, emphasising the “aircraft instrument accuracy and armour-plated strength of the design.” This is reminiscent of the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso which was commercialised as one of the first sport’s watches of its day, whilst we look back on it now as a dress watch.
A Cartier Tank à Guichet and it’s movement, recently sold at Phillips.
However, despite commercial success in the decade leading to the Second World War, jump hour watches quickly vanished. The small production of Patek Philippe and Cartier disappeared, whilst the more mass consumer interpretations of the design also no longer appeared in jeweller’s windows. As we well know, the mid-20th century saw the advent of many other types of timepieces, from dive watches to chronographs, with the jump hour being swept aside.
Rediscovered in Modernity
We don’t see a return of the digital display until the next major upheaval in the watch industry, the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s. While LCD screens began to appear during this period, with the likes of the Hamilton Pulsar, brands started to look at new ways to present the digital watch whilst maintaining the mechanical heart of the timepiece. These models were based on cheaper movements, but perfectly captured the colourful, bold and exuberant nature of ‘70s design. Often paired with unconventional case shapes and bright colours, the jump hour complication took a completely different form during this decade. Whilst Duke Ellington may have worn a Tank á Guichets a few decades prior, we can’t imagine he would’ve gone for one of these designs.
As we move towards the last decade of the 20th century, however, the jump hour begins to regain its place amongst high-end watchmaking. During this period more generally, brands took the opportunity to look back into their archives and recreate notable models from the past. Cartier brought back their Tank à Guichets in a series of limited runs, between 1996 and 2005. They began with just six pieces in 1996, three in yellow gold and three in platinum, all with the crown at six o’clock. Then, as part of the Collection Privée Cartier Paris, they released 150 pieces in platinum in 1997 and 100 pieces in rose gold in 2005. Powered by the 9752MC from Piaget, these had the crown placed at the more traditional three o’clock, set with a ruby cabochon.
The platinum Cartier Tank à Guichets reissue from 1997, courtesy of Haute Time.
Around the same time, Patek Philippe would also bring back the jump hour, after close to sixty years of interruption. To mark the 150th anniversary of the company, they paid homage to the tonneau shaped watches of the ‘20s, by releasing the reference 3969 - only 450 examples were produced pink gold and 50 in platinum. It’s amusing to think that both Cartier and Patek Philippe, who had jointly been early adopters of the unusual way to display the time, decided to bring in back at around the same time.
However, it wasn’t just the traditional players that adopted the jump hour. The last decade of the 20th century is also synonymous with the rise of independent watchmakers and newly established brands, many of which would turn to the novel time display. Just as it had been forward-thinking and contrarian in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it became the case once again. One of the earliest independants, Daniel Roth celebrated the ten-year anniversary of his eponymous brand by launching his own jump hour wristwatch. Made in 250 pieces, the Papillon combined an interesting retrograde display for the minutes, taking up less space on the dial, allowing for the larger aperture for the hours to be displayed.
The next leap forwards in the complication’s history came from another independent, François-Paul Journe. His Vagabondage pieces were true reinterpretations of the jump hour complication. The story of the Vagabondage starts in 1995, before the watchmaker had established his manufacture, when he was approached by a French watch collector, who asked him to create a jump hour watch. Since this would require the development of a new movement, which was time-consuming and expensive, Journe asked the client if he would be open to doing the watch as a series, rather than a one-off piece.
All three of Journe’s Vagabondage set.
The client was agreeable, and a rather large brand, rumoured to be Cartier, was approached. Unfortunately, the brand in question pulled their interest from the project as soon as the first prototype was completed. Some years later, ahead of their 30th anniversary charity auction, Antiquorum approached Journe, asking him to create a special watch to be auctioned off at their anniversary sale. The Vagabondage project, which had long sat in a drawer, seemed like the obvious choice.
Up close with Journe’s Vagabondage I and III.
Utilising the open dial aesthetic, all three Vagabondage models show the inner workings filling their tonneau cases. Whilst the Vagabondage I features a wandering hour complication, the Vagabondage II, released in 2010, features true jumping hours and minutes. Rather impressively, the Vagabondage III took the idea of a jumping indication to the next level by being the first timepiece to incorporate jumping seconds. This requires a disconcertingly high power reserve and regulation, which is helped by Journe’s very own remontoire d’égalité.
Of course, quite a few other independents have also brought new life to the complication. One such example is the Harry Winston Opus 3, which was designed by none other than Vianney Halter, who integrated his unique style into the piece. Halter was able to construct a movement that not only had jumping hours and minutes, but also gave a countdown for the final four seconds before the jump, along with a date and day & night indicator. The twin-barrel, 53-jewel movement was so hard to produced it took the help of Frédéric Garinaud, while he was still at Renaud et Papi, to get all 53 models made. Many people today also point to Andersen Genève, MB&F, Urwerk or De Bethune for tackling this complication, not to mention the work of Rexhep Rexhepi of AkriviA who managed to combine a jumping hour with a tourbillon and chime in the AK03. About a decade ago, A. Lange & Söhne also joined in with the Zeitwerk, which was inspired by the historic digital clock in Dresden’s opera house.
A more accessible version of the digital display, the Gucci Grip.
Today, the jump hour also seems to have moved beyond the world of high-end watchmaking. Because of its distinctively different approach to telling the time, paired with the fact that it can now be created with relative mechanical ease, it’s been adopted by the most unexpected of brands. One such example is Gucci. The Grip, which runs on a Swiss Ronda quartz movement, follows the general direction which the fashion house has taken in the last few years, embracing increasingly playful and quirky designs. Whilst there is nothing mechanically interesting to look at here, the fact that the jump hour watch has made into mainstream luxury, purely for its aesthetics, is interesting to note. Gucci market the Grip as a unisex watch, and they make the most of the blank canvas, that is the closed dial, for their creative designs. Other more affordable watch brands, such as Christopher Ward, have also brought mechanical jump hour watches to a wider audience with Sellita or ETA movements.
What makes it so difficult?
A jump hour watch can be deceptively simple in appearance. Its execution, however, is rather more complicated. Aside from its polarising aesthetics, the difficulty of creating a jump hour movement contributes to this. The trick when designing these is controlling a large and sudden release of power, without cogs flying everywhere. The discs holding the numerals are normally quite large and take a lot of force to move from one notch to the next. This is why you will often find large, or double barrel springs in these pieces. In fact, to power both jumping hours and minutes, A. Lange & Söhne thickened their mainspring, flipped it upside down and then suspended it. This means that it is wound from the inside and unwinds from the outside, resulting in a much higher torque output than normal.
The complexities of A. Lange & Söhne’s Zeitwerk movement, courtesy of A. Lange & Söhne.
However, traditional watch movements and gear trains are not equipped to deal with these levels of torque. While they need to transfer enough of this possibly destructive energy, they also need to ensure that the excess is dissipated in a safe manner. Normal escapements can’t deal with it, which is why Journe used a remontoire d’égalité to ensure that the power delivered to the discs of his jumping Vagabondage models was perfectly regulated. This is especially important when you don’t only have to worry about jumping hours or minutes, but also seconds. A. Lange & Söhne went one step further and designed a remontoire with a free-spinning flywheel damper that uses blades to cause air resistance to safely release this extra energy.
An unsigned vintage jump hour watch displaying its small movement, courtesy of The Watch Forum.
Another force that needs to be taken into account when designing these movements is the amount of friction needed to hold the discs in place and stop them from moving more than one position at a time. This can require a large number of jewels, in order to catch wheels in place and to stop over-rotation. For a more detailed description of how the Zeitwerk’s movement functions we recommend reading their breakdown. While this won’t tell you exactly how every jump hour movement works, it gives a great overview of how complex these mechanisms can be and the inventiveness of the German design.
The jump hour can often be thought of as a non-complication, something that doesn’t add function or practicality to a watch. Yet the one thing it can add in spades, is complexity. Crafting a movement that is able to display the time in a digital format and still be powered by a traditional mainspring is not something that is taken on lightly, even by the most talented of watchmakers.
Luckily, this challenge hasn’t stopped everyone. The aesthetic simplicity of displaying time without any hands has proven to be such a draw over the years that this complication has stuck around for well over a century. Forward-thinking manufactures such as Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Cartier helped bring the idea to the wrist during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Jump hour watches then went dormant for several decades, before brands looked back into their archives for interesting and unusual models. The new wave of independants, driven by the idea of doing things differently, were also quick to adopt the playful and distinctive approach to telling the time.
While the production and appeal of jump hour watches was traditionally been fairly limited, it’s also ended up being surprisingly popular in certain areas. A. Lange & Söhne introduced it to high end watchmaking with the Zeitwerk, which is one of the very few jump hour watches out there that isn’t made as a limited series. Having been produced for over a decade at this point, it remains a fan favourite. And then, of course, Gucci introduced the idea to a wider luxury goods audience – though we’re not sure you’d have seen Cary Grant wearing a Gucci Grip.
Our thanks to Dr. David Seyffer and Alex Barter for sharing their knowledge about these intriguing watches.