Sébastien Chaulmontet is a busy guy. In the last five years at Arnold & Son, he and his team have designed 21 different movements. For as much as we like to talk about design in terms of dial layouts, colorways and case shapes, we often don’t give movement design its due. This is because most watches hide the movement with giving, at best, just a peek at its inner workings through a clear case back. At Arnold & Son, a revived brand from over 200 years ago, many of the watches don’t even have dials.
Instead, Chaulmontet — Arnold & Son’s lead movement designer — creates movements that are the central design element. Movements are laid out in symmetrical patterns while the finishing on parts inside change along with case material on the outside to create a more cohesive look. This attention to detail means that Arnold & Son is making some of the best-looking skeletonized watches out there. For a more in-depth look at what it takes to make a movement beautiful, we sat down for a brief interview with him.
Tell me what Arnold & Son is about.
Arnold & Son is a pretty old brand founded in England in 1764. We have done 21 new calibers in five years, so it’s quite huge. Each time we do a new model we do a specific movement, which is really unique in the industry, meaning we don’t take existing stuff and just put a new dial or case on it. We always start from a brand-new idea. We try and make very beautiful neoclassical watches. We’re inspired by the past, but really try and make our watches contemporary. We always try to express design through an amazing movement with a lot of visual symmetry.
What is your role at Arnold & Son?
My duties are to come up with the basic ideas for watches, make sketches and tell the team what I’d like for us to do. I have to think of what the brand’s future will look like, and what models are needed to make that happen. I am also a designer — I have two other designers on my team, but we start with the outside dimensions and draw that, and basically come up with the mechanics that look good inside it. You have a lot of constraints because it has to function properly. It’s like a sculpture, but at the end of the day it needs to be efficient.
What’s your favorite part of designing a watch?
For me it’s finding the best aesthetic without any technical compromise. I couldn’t do a movement purely for aesthetic reasons. For me, doing a symmetrical movement is a tricky thing, but by doing so we can use the space to make the movement better. So for example, there’s no empty space inside, whereas on a normal movement you have everything over on one side. But by doing a fully symmetrical double-barrel movement, we’re using that space while increasing the power reserve, and the biggest pleasure is when you achieve something beautiful that is also the best usage of space. It’s really important to have both the optimum technical solution which, at least to me and my tastes, looks good to the eye.
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How are aesthetics important to movement design?
If you do something purely for mechanics, very few people will enjoy it from an aesthetic point of view. For example, you could make the most technically advanced airplane in the world and if it looks strange, as long as it’s a good airplane people will get used to it. But if you do a watch, you can say it’s technically amazing and some really nerdy people will agree with you. But most customers will say “Come on, I cannot sensibly wear this.”
And at the same time, I can make something technically amazing like a constant-force complication, and have it hidden in the movement and say “I have something amazing here.” But a customer will say, “Yeah, buddy, but I’m paying $20,000 for this, I want to see it.” At a certain point, you have to be honest — people need to like it. It’s everything that makes watch design so interesting to me compared to other types of design I’m interested in. You always have this technical barrier. You’re not completely free.
You were a lawyer before you got into watchmaking. Why did you make that switch?
I actually started watchmaking before I started school. It has always been a passion of mine, since I was a kid. I was doing some watchmaking myself during university; I patented a bunch of different innovations, and I also did my PhD in law, and at some point, I asked myself, “Am I going to keep doing this?” Instead, I decided to go with my passion. It’s nice doing products and having something physical in your hand — it’s very rewarding. It’s not that watches are particularly important, but you have something tangible in your hands. And it fascinated me, and it still fascinates me to this day.
Report by Andrew Connor for Gear Patrol