Behind the Lens: Oileán H-B1 Triple Calendar Chronograph by John McGonigle
As we continue to grind our way into what I sincerely hope is the post-pandemic era, I’ve had more opportunities to get together with watch buddies and handle, and photograph some of their recent acquisitions.
My publicity-shy pal “Chuck” is a seemingly endless source for interesting pieces, especially those from independent makers. When the history of independent watchmaking over the past two decades is written, Chuck will certainly deserve a mention – if he permits it, that is. He was an early patron of makers from Voutilainen to Ballouard, and his collection includes watches from a great many of today’s leading independents, as well as some “insider” pieces like the Christian Klings watches I’ve been able to share here previously.
A few years ago, at an independent watchmaking dinner in Basel, I saw Chuck huddling with the brilliant Irish watchmaker John McGonigle, who, in addition to having worked behind the scenes on highly complicated references for many brands, had, along with his brother Stephen, created the self-branded McGonigle Tuscar I had the opportunity to write about for Quill & Pad in 2015.
John and Chuck were inspecting what looked to be a vintage calendar chronograph, and I left them to their private discussion. I suppose I should not have been surprised when, these years later, Chuck pulled up his sleeve to reveal the product of the project that he and John had been discussing: a beautifully made complete-calendar chronograph called the Oileán based on the classic Valjoux Cal. 88 movement.
I was particularly keen to see the production version as our own Ian Skellern had provided his impressions on a prototype version in February 2021 and I wondered if the final embodiment would surpass the pre-production example.
A front worth seeing
For all the watches out there with transparent display casebacks, there aren’t that many with transparent or translucent dials revealing the works below. While that’s at least partly for reasons of legibility, there’s another key element at play: the front sides of most watch movements are, to be blunt, pretty boring.
Happily, that’s not the case with the Valjoux 88, as there’s enough happening with the month and day wheels, the central date hand, the moon phase, and their accompanying mechanical drivers to command our attention when seen through the slightly smoked sapphire dial. And out front, the bright rings for chronograph minutes and hours and the running seconds provide added visual pop.
At 29.5mm in diameter, the Valjoux 88 isn’t exactly gigantic, but McGonigle cleverly keeps us from feeling that the sub-dials are too close to the center of the watch with his use of a bright, dished date ring and a dark inner ring with the hour indices that eventually yields to the clear central circle and the sub-dial rings hovering above.
If I have a complaint about the dial side of this watch, it’s that, as a photographer, the absence of external anti-reflective coating on the main crystal gave me fits. I pride myself on being able to give viewers an unobstructed view of a watch first and then re-introduce limited amounts of light scatter on the crystal to give a sense of depth; but from all but the most direct angles of view the Oileán defied my efforts to make scatter-free images.
As we’ll see later, in the real world – that is, on the wrist – this proves not to be a problem at all. So, unless you plan to view this piece only in the confines of your light tent, you should not have an issue – and even in that case, McGonigle advises me that he will add anti-reflective coating for any buyer who requests it.
A back at least as good as the front
If the front of the Oileán brings quiet pleasure, the reverse brings more exuberant sensations of joy. McGonigle has transformed the standard Valjoux movement into an open garden of levers, springs, and open bridges.
While in the prototype images on the Oileán website the wheels and bridges are quite different in color from each other, in the production watch the color match is quite uniform, making the look more harmonious to my eye and allowing us to focus on the interesting shapes and the contrast between the gold-colored running elements of the chronograph and the cluster of brushed-steel governing levers and column wheel.
And if you haven’t noticed it yet, take a look at the Irish harp with its lovely bevels and sharp interior angles that serves as the centerpiece of the chronograph works.
If you can drag your eye away from the movement for just a second, you’ll notice the Celtic-inspired pattern engraved into the rear bezel along with the Oileán designation and John McGonigle’s name; this handwork is another significant upgrade in my view from the the relief-etched rear bezel of the prototype visible on the Oileán website.
I had great fun shooting the movement side of the Oileán; so much so that for once I have more images to show than words to say!
Other cool touches
I mentioned earlier the visual tricks that McGonigle uses to make the movement seem fully proportional to the size of the watch as seen from the front. The back looks balanced as well; one reason for that is that, as shown in the image below, the caseband actually tapers inward between the front and rear bezels, allowing a smaller-diameter rear bezel to be used.
Other thoughtful touches are visible in the side view of the watch, including tapered chronograph pushers, hollowed lugs, and a concave front bezel that slightly slims the impression of thickness as seen from the side while keeping this daily-wear watch from becoming a scratch magnet.
Also making an appearance on the crown of the watch is a stylized Irish harp, tying the exterior design to the bridge shape in the movement – and in a final unifying touch, the harp symbol appears one more time on the assertively-styled clasp.
On the wrist and in the dark
With the light tent work complete, it was time to strap on the watch and head for the garden to grab a few shots on the wrist.
The immediate impression is of substance and, despite the number of visible components and variety of calendar, time, and chronograph indications shown, considerable clarity.
I didn’t find the previously mentioned anti-reflective issue to present any challenges at all in real-world use, and had I not had the hands set for 10:10 I’m sure that I still would have found it simple to read the time.
Seen from the side, the watch can seem a bit chunky, one tradeoff made to accommodate the deeply sloped outer date ring. In terms of wearability, though, the titanium case keeps the Oileán from feeling top-heavy to the wearer, and the substantial clasp provides a secure anchor on the underside of the wrist.
Putting the watch into use also gave me an opportunity to use the crown and pushers. The winding action is quite delicate feeling; certainly nothing objectionable, but nothing like the crisp cadence of a Datograph. The pusher feel, however, is very much to my taste: the start-stop button has a smooth, progressive action with just the right amount of resistance for me, and the return to zero snaps back with authority and a positive click.
If you’ve been studying the photos so far, you have likely noticed one of the major design choices McGonigle made: omitting individual running seconds and chronograph minutes markings on the subdials. I thought this might bother me, but the semi-instantaneous chronograph moves clearly from one minute to the next, and in practice I found it easy to see at a glance whether the chronograph minutes were, for instance, pointing at 2 versus 3. As for the running seconds, on a chronograph I use those mostly to make sure the watch is running when the chronograph is not in action, so the absence of tiny tick marks for the individual seconds isn’t an issue for me.
Upon returning indoors, one final check was to get out the UV flashlight and light up the lume. The view did not disappoint, and the decision to illuminate all the hands and the hour markers provides, in my opinion, just the right level of busy-ness to make the view pleasant.
As a combination of interesting styling, utilization and thoughtful modification of a classic movement, an intriguing set of complications and displays, high-quality finishing, and wearability the Oileán appeals to me quite a bit. The fact that John McGonigle is both a wizard watchmaker and splendid guy doesn’t hurt at all, either – and with his substantial track record and the proven robustness of the Valjoux 88, a buyer needn’t have any concerns about reliability or longevity of this watch.
If you are inclined to buy one, you might want to act now as production is limited to eight examples per year. To learn more or to make a purchase inquiry, check out the Oileán website at www.oilean.watch/the-watch
Quick Facts Oileán H-B1
Case: 40 x 14.2 mm, Grade 5 titanium with display back, water resistance 30 m
Dial: transparent smoked sapphire crystal
Movement: hand-wound modified Valjoux 88 with triple calendar, 3 Hz/21,600 vph frequency, power reserve 40 hours
Functions: hours, minutes, small seconds; date, day, month, moon phase; chronograph
Strap: leather with titanium pin buckle
Limitation: 8 pieces per year
Price: €32,000 (excluding taxes)
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