The Purnell Escape II Double Tourbillon Comes To Life
by Martin Green
It was a scary moment. On a narrow mountain road in the Vallee de Joux, an oncoming car doesn’t slow down or move over. With a quick flick of the wrist Maurizio Mazzocchi, CEO of Purnell, avoids disaster and continues our conversation as if nothing had happened.
The cool head Mazzocchi exhibited on that drive are also visible in his professional career spanning three decades: he served as the managing director at Roger Dubuis after having been a brand manager for both Omega and Blancpain. Before Purnell, Mazzocchi played an important role at Jacob & Co. as CEO, turning the famous jewelry brand into a serious player in the watch world by offering incredible creations marrying serious diamonds and serious complications.
Mazzocchi is a realist – the watch industry hold few secrets for him – but he has never stopped dreaming.
Purnell: only tourbillons
Purnell is a brand with a philosophy that can be summarized in just two words: “only tourbillons.”
The reasoning behind this harks back to the grandfather of the founder, Cecil Purnell. He served as a soldier for the British armed forces in World War I. Wounded in battle, he ended up in Besançon, the capital of French watchmaking, where he settled upon healing to train as a watchmaker.
It was there that Purnell became fascinated by the work of Abraham-Louis Breguet, in particular Breguet’s most famous invention: the tourbillon.
Decades later, his grandson, Jonathan Purnell, decided to make his grandfather’s passion a reality with a brand of his own, and in 2006 launched Purnell’s first tourbillon.
While in terms of age this makes the brand a spring chicken, especially in Switzerland where many watch brands boast a 100-plus-year history, it also offers the advantage of having a clean sheet.
Instead of inflating the brand’s “history” with cleverly chosen marketing terms, Purnell (which was previously called both Cecil Purnell and C. Purnell) focused all its resources on its watches. This has resulted in the development of 13 exclusive tourbillon movements in almost as many years.
Purnell’s latest model is Escape II featuring two spherical tourbillons developed by Eric Coudray. This master watchmaker is the definitive expert in the field of multi-axis tourbillons, having also designed the Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillon, which was the first of its kind when launched in 2004. More recently, Coudray has reached a new audience as the movement architect behind the MB&F Thunderdome.
Mazzocchi smiles as we begin to discuss the term “manufacture.” He has no ambition of steering the brand into that direction as he sees only constraints and little added value.
To my question regarding Purnell’s strategy of not into making everything “in house” Mazzocchi replies, “Why would you want to have a ‘manufacture’ when you already work with the best in the industry?”
Purnell prefers to work with suppliers, artisans, and creative watchmakers that share the young brand’s passion for watchmaking and pushing the envelope. This is both a much more efficient use of funds and allows Purnell to develop a technical reach way beyond most boutique brands selling fewer than 100 watches annually.
Magic happening in unlikely places
We pull up to a half-full parking lot – COVID-19 precautions are still in effect – next to a nondescript building in Vallorbe. Its exterior reveals very little of the magic happening inside.
What looks like a factory where useful, but relatively boring, items such as ball bearings or metal hinges are made, is in fact an essential part of the TEC Ebauches movement group.
We are met by Arnaud Faivre, the energetic owner, who exhibits a constant sparkle in his eyes as he talks about his business and shows us around. There are very few components that his companies do not make, and in the manufacture of most of them his business is counted as one of the best in the industry.
We walk through the different halls filled with impressive machinery, the brand names on schematics and finished orders reading like a Who’s Who of Swiss haute horlogerie.
While Faivre could wear any Swiss watch, he has a Purnell on his wrist – not because he knew we were coming, but because he shares with Mazzocchi a real passion for the brand. A fact highlighted by his obvious pleasure as he shows us the workshop where Purnell’s highly complicated watches are assembled.
Quality over quantity
The reason why Faivre is so excited becomes apparent: he works with, not for, Purnell.
While the brand pays for the work done, it also challenges Faivre and his staff to take things to the next level. Where in most cases the brands themselves firmly steer the course of their developments, Faivre shows Mazzocchi some new ideas that he had just come up with during our visit.
It is a rarity that such discussions even occur with a journalist present, and even rarer when the two experts don’t hesitate to ask my opinion. This type of close client/producer collaboration means that Purnell’s watches can be customized to the client’s wishes and feature innovative technical features and complications.
Faivre shows us the most breathtaking of these in the watchmakers’ atelier where each watchmaker is responsible for assembling and regulating the entire movement.
Currently, Purnell sells and makes fewer than 100 watches a year. The distinction in that last sentence is important: with the exception of a few exhibition models, the brand first sells each watch before making it.
I’m shown a box containing five movements ready to be cased and delivered to their new owners, with a sixth on the workbench. While they all impress, two stand out as the titanium outer cages of their spherical tourbillons are set with gemstones.
It is not only the setting of the stones that is incredibly difficult here, but also the fact that the gemstones add weight, and that changes the physics. This means that balancing the spherical tourbillon for optimum performance is challenging to say the least.
Quality control is another thing. When you spend close to half a million on a watch, you have every right to expect it to perform superbly. Many collectors know that with the increased complexity of a movement, dependability often declines. At Purnell, there is one ground rule to counter this: they take their time.
Early on in the development, Purnell tests the movements under real-life conditions, aiming to identify the places where something might go wrong and find solutions. However, quality control doesn’t stop there.
In essence, spherical tourbillons aside, the Purnell movement is a sturdy manual-wind caliber. It is the complex tourbillons that might cause problems in new watches, and Purnell has identified five sources of potential issues.
As all of these potential problems are addressed by the watchmaker adjusting them, Purnell performs a wearing test on each movement during which the freshly assembled spherical tourbillons are vetted. By wearing the watch for two weeks, the watchmaker can spot any problems and tweak the tourbillons for optimum performance.
Contemplating future complication
The symbiosis that Purnell has with its partners also extends into the development of new watches. As the brand is all about tourbillons, it comes as no surprise that the next model will be fitted with one as well.
Answering my question as to whether it would merely be a version with even more spherical tourbillons, Mazzocchi responds that he doesn’t believe that this would be a viable avenue to pursue, instead preferring to focus elsewhere.
With a smile, he tests my discretion further as we arrive at the second place on the trip’s itinerary: close to Neuchâtel, in the shadows of an impressive castle overlooking the lake, we visit the small workshop where the next chapter of Purnell will be written.
It is a mesmerizing atelier that, to the untrained eye, might look like a modern-day version of an alchemist’s workshop. Here ancient crafts and techniques are still practiced daily, utilizing machines that were almost all made decades before the watchmakers working on them were even born.
Mazzocchi shows me the new model that they are working on. While still in development, with many details still to be decided, it is interesting to see that the development process is not purely design driven.
As the initial drawings are not set in stone, this process is more of a constant exchange in which the design elements challenge the watchmakers and their solutions inspire the designers to take it to the next level, and vice versa.
That this back and forth, an open and constructive conversation, in which brand and suppliers both contribute, and even on occasion a journalist can give his input, is an approach that works has already been proven by the Escape II Double Tourbillon.
And will undoubtedly also be proven by the next introduction, which is as yet not quite fully determined.
For more information please visit purnellwatches.com/escape-II.
Quick Facts Purnell Escape II Double Tourbillon
Case: 48 x 19 mm, pink gold, forged carbon, or titanium
Movement: manual-wind Caliber CP03 with two spherical triple-axis tourbillons with titanium cages (some set with diamonds), six mainsprings in four barrels, 3 Hz/21,600 vph frequency, 32-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes; power reserve
Price: starting at CHF 425,000
* Disclaimer: Purnell paid for the author’s travel to the Swiss workshops.
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