Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Mysterious Chinese Tourbillon and the History of Chinese Timekeeping.

What you are looking at is a genuine tourbillon crafted in China by horologically gifted Kiu Tai Yu.

Why has Kiu Tai Yu named his watch the Kiu's Mystery Tourbillon? Well we will come to that later, but first lets see how a Mao Zedong medal maker from Soochow (near Shangai) crafted the first Asian Tourbillon.

Although, Kiu Tai Yu was born in China, and not in the Swiss valleys, he was drawn to watchmaking. His friends at school brought old heirlooms and broken mechanical watches, and Kiu Tai Yu fixed them to perfection. He was mesmerised by the mechanical workings of the timepieces and drawn to the art of watchmaking.
Although China is not usually associated with complicated watch making, its history spans a thousand years. In the year 1088, 11th century Chinese engineer, polymath, diplomat, astronomer and prolific writer, Sung Song, created Su Song’s "Heavenly Clockwork" tower.

The Tower was a remarkable feat of precision timekeeping of that time spurred by a small discrepancy in time. A discrepancy of a full month. Su Song - in the time of the dragon throne - arrived a full month early to a meeting between him and certain northern barbarians. Su Song (1020-1101) ,who was not used to be kept waiting, was actually scorned at his obvious lack of even the most rudimentary of timekeeping. Thus Su Song's "Heavenly Clockwork"- a water driven astronomical clock tower was built. A mechanical masterpiece, even by today's standards, was 10 meters high and consisted of five stories. It was a pagoda-like structure which used flowing water to turn a giant water wheel at a precise, steady rate made possible by an escapement. Wheels, shafts and levers worked in perfect unison to signal, with the aid of puppets, bells, drums, gongs, and whistles, quarter hours. The escapement, now known as Su Song's escapement, kept the water running at a steady rate . Positioned at the very top was a large armillary sphere and a celestial globe portraying the position of the stars. The sphere and globe were able to indicate errors made by official astronomical observations.

(Inset - Museum prototype)

China's long history in time keeping dated back even further to the year 723. In the days of the Tang Dynasty the escapement was applied to a water powered armillary sphere and clock drive.

Thus China's modern day watch maker, Kiu Tai Yu, stands in good company.

There was a complication above all others that intrigued Kiu Tai Yu, the tourbillon. Invented in 1795 by Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Bregeut, a tourbillon was said to counter the effects of gravity on a pocket watch. In a traditional tourbillon, the escapement and balance wheel rotates in a cage at one rotation per minute; however,in 1993 Kiu Tai Yu introduced a tourbillon which required no bridge or carriage. This invention was just two years after he created the first Asian Tourbillon.
When the timepiece was unveiled the question on all watch aficionado lips was:
Lacking a bridge or carriage, how was the tourbillon supported?
The effect was indeed mysterious and created quite a stir among European watch makers. Kiu Tau Yu had achieved this illusion by suspending the balance-wheel atop its spring from a transparent bar of crystal. Kiu Tau Yu reduced the carriage to its barest functional necessity, fashioned it in the like of a pair of fish, and pinned one to the balance-spring.

Born in 1946, Kui Tai Yu made his first mechanical watch at 23; in 1978, he crafted an escapement without pallets and in 1980, Kiu Tau Yu moved to Hong Kong and opened his shop Kew and Cie - dealer in clocks and fine wrist and pocket watches.

Since, 1993, Kiu Tau Yu has created many more one-of-a-kind tourbillon watches, which all have a distinctive Chinese look. Utilizing lacquer, gold, red, curves, and Chinese ideograms, Kiu Tau Yu has created a unique look coveted by watch collectors. Each watch is a single unique work of art drawing on Ancient Chinese architecture for inspiration.
Kiu Tai Yu, has studied all possible technical aspects of the tourbillon enabling him to redesign this compelling complication. It is amazing to note that every timepiece crafted by Kiu Tai Yu, from case to dial, to movement within, is entirely handmade .
His craftsmanship techniques are so well respected that his book "Time in Pocket"was adopted by a Swiss watchmaking school as a standard reference work.

As far as I can tell the Tourbillon No.14, called "Joy of the Millennium", crafted wholly in platinum, is his latest piece. This piece is unique in its dial organization in that a large upper bridge supports the tourbillon carriage. The hour indicators are off-center and in the lower part.
When one thinks of China and watches, one generally thinks of plastic bubblegum watches stamped with cute cartoon characters or cheap replicas manufactured by the hundreds of thousands. One does not think of fine cutting edge horological craftsmanship, but let that not deter you, because one must remember China has been in the business of precision timekeeping for very long. Very long indeed.
China's economy has surged past Japan to become the second largest global economy, and luxury items are in high demand. Luxury items such as fine timepieces crafted to perfection.

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