The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, takes place in January in Geneva. In most cases, we in the watch media world tend to wait until the end of the show before naming our favorites, especially since our meetings with many of the horological heavyweights there — IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, Vacheron, Cartier, etc. — tend to be spread out across the week. It is exceedingly rare that one discovers one of those favorites in the very first appointment on the very first day, but that is what happened this year with Speake-Marin, which exhibited at SIHH alongside other indie brands as part of the Carré des Horlogers collective. Despite the departure of its eponymous founder, Peter Speake-Marin, this Swiss-made brand has defiantly clung to its British heritage, never more boldly or audaciously than with the introduction of the new London Chronograph, a watch that truly meets its mandate as a ticking embodiment of Swinging London — its colorful design calling to mind the early Beatles, Carnaby Street, and yes, Austin Powers, all while still channeling an immense level of horological cred with its use of a vintage Valjoux 92 chronograph movement.
To start with the titanium case, we have here the latest example of Speake-Marin’s now-emblematic “Piccadilly” construction, named for the London neighborhood of the antique shop where Speake-Marin cut his horological teeth restoring antique timepieces, with its perfectly rounded shape, thin, stepped bezel, and signature protruding lugs with the movable screwed central bar to attach the strap. At 42 mm in diameter, it’s sized for contemporary tastes but not oversized by any means. The topmost piece is polished, while the sides are brushed; on the right-hand side are two plunger-style chronograph pushers with polished, rounded heads, and a fluted crown decorated in its center by Speake-Marin’s “topping tool” emblem. The caseback, held fast by six screws, is polished on its outer flank and brushed on the flat surface framing the sapphire window into the gorgeous micromechanical vista of the movement — a surface also engraved with “Speake-Marin” “London Chronograph” “Valjoux 92” and “Limited Edition.”
So far, not many elements we haven’t seen in dozens of other Speake-Marin timepieces, right? But things really start to get interesting with the dial — matte white, surrounded by a 60-minute counter scale along its periphery and featuring alphabetical letters, rather than numerals or indices, at its key hour markers. The letters, much of which are obscured or partially covered by the two subdials in any case, spell out the name “SPEAKE,” as though we needed further identification as to this watch’s identity. In keeping with the brand DNA, these letters are elongated in the manner of the Roman numerals that we have come to associate with classic Speake-Marin dials.
Indicating the current hours and minutes are two blued hands in Speake-Marin’s signature spade-shaped “Foundation” style and a thin central chronograph seconds hand in bright red. These hands hover over two subdials — one white, at 9 o’clock, upon which a minuscule blue hand ticks away the running seconds; the other red, with a white 45-minute scale, upon which a white hand tallies the chronograph minutes. Smack in the center, between the two subdials, we find another example of the brand’s topping tool symbol on a central rotor element that rotates with the hours and bears the words “London” and “Chronograph” at its 12 and 3 o’clock positions, respectively. The multi-layered architecture, combined with the judicious use and balancing of colored elements, makes for a visually intriguing effect; the subdials appear to be floating over the main dial, with the whole ensemble traversed by the main hands. It is also, of course, a color scheme reminiscent of the Union Jack, the flag of Peter Speake-Marin’s homeland. The use of red even brings to mind the classical, and now sadly obsolete, red telephone boxes once found all over the city of London — while the blues may remind some of the police-box design of the TARDIS from the long-running British sci-fi series, Doctor Who.
Speaking of classic TV series: “The Wire” creator David Simon is often attributed with saying that his show was one that “taught you how to watch it.” Well, this watch is one that teaches you how to read it. At first, it’s not the most intuitive design in the world to read the time at a glance, especially if the chronograph is running. But once you get used to it, it’s simple: all the blue hands (central hours and minutes, small hand on the 9 o’clock seconds subdial) are devoted to the reading of the current time, while all the elements in red (central seconds hand, 3 o’clock subdial) are employed to display the chronograph readouts.
Of course, the flip side of this timepiece, while far less colorful than the front, might be even more appealing to serious aficionados of chronograph history. The restored Valjoux 92 movement inside, on display through the exhibition back, was one of just 15 specimens of this 1950s-early ‘60s manual-winding caliber discovered resting in a safe for 60-odd years — like a horological Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the Quartz Crisis and waking up in the mechanical watch renaissance. Technologically, the Valjoux 92 is distinctive from others in the Valjoux 23 family of calibers from which it sprang: it’s got an oscillating pinion design, a column wheel mechanism, two (rather than three) chronograph engagement wheels visible in the back, and seven (rather than nine) pillars. Aesthetically, of course, it is quite eye-catching, especially with the stopwatch in motion. With no rotor to obscure the elements beneath it, the oscillating balance wheel, côtes de Genève finished bridges and plates, rubies and screws, and the various gears and levers that engage, disengage, and zero the chronograph are all on full display. The onion crown pulls out gingerly to just one position, to set the hands, as there is no date display. About 40 turns of the crown winds the movement, which claims a 39-hour power reserve, or about one hour per each turn of the crown. A built-in limiter, which decouples the winding mechanism from the hairspring, ensures that one cannot over-wind the watch.
The red, white, and blue striped strap — certainly influenced by the British flag but also ideal for a patriotic American and not at all out of place at a 4th of July picnic — melds a fabric upper layer with a lower layer made of soft blue rubber, so the watch is both more comfortable and sturdier on the wrist than it may appear at first glance. As far as coordinating this very colorful timepiece with formalwear, it is — like the camo-dialed Anonimo Military Alpini model I reviewed recently — not the most subtle or versatile in the world, but it’s likely anyone wearing such a piece would be okay with calling attention to it, especially considering it is one of (as yet) only 15 pieces (priced at 17,200 Swiss francs, or about $17,165 at press time). And one can almost hear the strains of “Rule Britannia” piping in one’s ears majestically as one straps it to the wrist.