Self-taught Russian clock- and watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin, who has built notably complex timepieces, is ironically best known for the Joker, a relatively simple watch. The Joker is powered by an ETA 2814 base movement with an in-house module of just 61 parts that drives the novel time display: two sub-dials, positioned like eyes in a face, for hours respectively minutes, and a moon phase at six o’clock resembling a smiling mouth – the funny face of time.
When first unveiled the inaugural Joker in steel at Baselworld 2017, the 99-piece limited edition sold out quickly. The watch also enjoyed critical acclaim; the subsequent Joker Clown won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve 2018. Konstantin notes he was particularly surprised how eagerly the love-or-hate design was embraced by collectors of high-end watches. So his extended the Joker concept to the top-end of the price spectrum, with the limited edition Joker automaton developed with fellow independent watchmaker Svend Andersen.
And then Konstantin recently revealed he was participating in charity auction Only Watch 2019 – alongside peers like Akrivia, F.P. Journe, Urwerk and De Bethune – which piqued my interest, so I reached out to Konstantin to find out more.
As Luc Pettavino, the founder of Only Watch, was planning the 2019 event, he approached Konstantin to suggest a straightforward variant of the original Joker with only tweaks to the dial colour. Konstantin’s immediate thought was that it was inappropriate to merely rehash the existing design, especially for a charitable cause.
While visiting an exhibition of Arkhip Kuindzhi, a Tsarist-era Russian painter, at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the idea of an artist’s self-portrait came to mind. “My idea of a self-portrait is that the artist captures his emotions and his feelings at a certain moment in life on the canvas,” said Konstantin, “Since I am also an artist, this idea seemed close to me.”
Ideas, for Konstantin, pop into his head all the time, which is why he never leaves the house without a Moleskine notebook. “Creativity begins with an idea, but it may end with that, if everything is not written down and sketched,” explained Konstantin. So right after the inspiring gallery visit, the Joker Selfie’s gestation began on paper.
As a self-portrait, the idea was to replicate his own face on the dial. Having recently grown a beard, Konstantin had a distinctive facial feature that was transferable into a tangible design element as a metal decoration on the dial. Appliques representing eyebrows and the colour of Konstantin’s irises was replicated as the markers for minutes and hours.
The eternal watchmaker cliché, a loupe slung over one eye, could not be absent. And for a personal touch, Konstantin himself wrote down the numerals for hour and minute scales as well as the inscription “Selfie”, which was then engraved on the bezel. Scans of the writing could then be transferred to a 3D model.
Since emotions are the most personal expression shown on a face, a reminder of their frequent changes was conceived as a display at 12 o’clock resembling a third eye.
To execute all these features on the dial, 13 custom parts had to be made for this one-off watch. And as is the case with all his watches, the design, CNC milling programming as well as all manufacturing is done in Konstantin’s own workshop.
Before the Joker was launched, Konstantin built 10 to 20 clocks and wristwatches each year. The success of the Joker made it necessary to invest in additional equipment as well as training specialists to grow the production.
Now, most parts are produced in-house, and the workshop’s capabilities including pad printing and electroplating. This gives the flexibility and quality control needed to experiment and produce one-offs. Such specialised production ability is especially important for intricate parts like the “beard” applique for the Joker Selfie, with its fine milled surface.
Konstantin’s effort for his Only Watch creation went beyond the dial. He loves stainless Bulat, a high-carbon steel alloy, despite being one of the most difficult materials to work with. The alloy is used for the case of his signature, spaceship-inspired Lunokhod wristwatch, so it had to be part of the Joker Selfie as well.
Bulat is the Russian name for a steel alloy known as Wootz steel, which originated in South India and was sought after as a material for blades and other weapons because it could be honed to hard, sharp edge. The technique to produce this steel alloy was lost around 1700 and only in recent times has reproduction became successful.
Ingots of bulat are produced by mixing the alloy ingredients in a crucible, resulting in the hard metals within forming bands of micro-segregation within the steel, creating its characteristic pattern. In contrast, what is known as “Damascus” steel – sometimes used for watch cases and more often for high-end knives – is made by pattern welding different steels together, which creates a decorative pattern resulting from the layered structure.
But the choice of Bulat is not merely a decorative one. The hardness and irregular surface pattern of Bulat mean the choice of case material is also a practical one, as scratches are hardly visible.
The Joker Selfie case started with a bar cast from Bulat steel, from which the raw shape is cut by wire erosion. The details of the case are then realised by turning on a lathe and CNC milling. After milling, the case is carefully ground down to create its details, then etched with acid and polished to reveal the surface pattern of the alloy.
An inherent characteristic of Bulat steel are structural imperfections that only become visible in the final stages of machining and grinding. Pores, bubbles and dirt can emerge after much time has already been invested. In fact, the case and bezel were perfect only on the the third attempt.
All the relief engravings on the bezel and back are done in-house with a laser. This allowed Konstantin to personalise “Selfie”, which is based on his handwritten script.
The Russian base
In his 2012 book, Watchmaking in Russia – Masters and Keepers, Konstantin highlighted the rich history of watchmaking in Russia since the 15th century. That was something he wanted to refer to in the Joker Selfie, which is why the base movement is the only wristwatch chronometer movement ever produced in Russia, replacing the ETA 2824 found in the standard Joker.
The Chistopol Watch Factory made the Volna, or Wolna, cal. 2809 until the early 1960s; it was essentially a copy of the Zenith cal. 135, a storied observatory chronometer movement. While the cal. 2809 was one of the most mechanically interesting movements produced during Soviet times, the decorative finishing is non-existent.
Konstantin retained the construction and gear train of the 2809 but redesigned all the plates, bridges, cocks, and hairspring stud, and refined other details to bring the aesthetics of the movement up to modern standards for a high quality movement.
The reconstruction of the movement also provided an opportunity to incorporate amusing details into the movement. A Joker face is found on the crown wheel, with the concave-headed screws forming the eyes and engraving for the other elements. And the unusual shape chosen for the click deserves an explanation: it is the stylised head of a seagull, a reference to the origin of the family name “Chaykin”.
Because Konstantin was making new parts from scratch, he was able to redesigned them completely, giving the bridges elegant outlines and increased thickness to allow for superb, hand-applied bevelling. All the bridge surfaces were then finished with Geneva stripes.
The high standards of Konstantin’s workshop requires all the parts to be hand-finished by grinding, bevelling and polishing, as expected of a high-end watches. The care lavished on the Volna movement made it fitting to have a display back, a first for the Joker watch.
And an extra function
Konstantin also wanted to integrate an additional complication that is visible on dial but at the same time providing a bit of mystery and whimsy. That resulted in a clever, on-demand “secret” display.
The mystery comes from the swivelling mechanism that covers either the right “eye” showing the hours or the day of the week. Konstantin wanted to do it without a pusher to operate the mechanism, and hit upon the alternative solution: a gravitational mechanism inspired by a doll with “sleeping eyes” that his sister cherished in her childhood – when laid flat, the doll’s eyes would close.
Complex calculations and weight selections led to the choice of Allite Super Magnesium for the swinging arm that covers the displays. The alloy is much lighter than aluminium, and the only way the mechanism can function reliably. Slowly turning the watch into a horizontal position covers up the hour display and reveals the weekday at 12h; reverting to a vertical position, the watch shows the time once again.
To add another whimsical element as well as a hint at Konstantin’s own changing emotions, the days of the week at 12 o’clock are represented by emojis, with different Joker faces depicting various moods for each day. This is similar to the “Smileday” indicator pioneered by Frenchman Alain Silberstein, the whimsical watch design star of the 1990s whose brand has since gone bust.
And Konstantin also plans to allow the successful bidder for the Joker Selfie to personalise the day indicator, so the facial expressions for each day can be arranged as it suits him or her. The sequence of faces on the watch right now has the saddest expression representing Monday, but Konstantin was quick to stress that this has nothing to do with his approach to watchmaking!
All the complications, including the swivelling eyepatch. are integrated into a proprietary module mounted on the Volna cal. 2809 base. This increases the movement’s height, as compared to most of his other watches that rely on in-house calibres that allow for full integration of all functions.
The total height of the watch is further increased by the miniature watchmaker’s loupe over the crystal. It is not just a decorative element but actually functional, magnifying the hour display. This loupe further complicated the construction of the watch. Calculations were needed to ensure that the hour and minute indicators appear the same size when reading the time, although the hours are actually printed with much smaller font because the lens is actually a sapphire crystal magnifier made in-house to sit inside the mini loupe.
Another sapphire crystal is used to magnify the display of the “third eye” 12 o’clock. This “eye” is not a direct reference to the Hindu believe where the Bindi retains energy and strengthens concentration, but Konstantin likes the idea that the seat of “concealed wisdom” is between the eyes. Wisdom, he argues, should be used to discover new horizons, particularly in watchmaking.
That the Joker Selfie won’t slide under a cuff befits the watch. It is meant to be a talking piece, visually shouting even louder than the standard Joker. Only the wearer has much more to explain with the Joker Selfie, because many of the special features are not obvious at first glance.
For a small manufacturer it is a significant sacrifice to donate a timepiece to Only Watch. I am amazed at the time and effort Konstantin invested in the Joker Selfie to make it special and translate as much as possible of his personality into it. This tangibly illustrates how independents like him are driven by genuine enthusiasm, and believe in values beyond merely selling watches.
All photos above – Konstantin Chaykin
Functions: Hours, minutes, moon phase, secret hour and emoji day of the week
Frequency: 18,000bph, or 2.5Hz
Power reserve: 46 hours
Strap: Alligator with Bulat pin buckle
Price and Availability
The Joker Selfie has an estimate of 18,000-24,000 Swiss francs, and will be sold to benefit medical research at Only Watch 2019 on November 9, 2019, at Christie’s in Geneva. For more, visit Onlywatch.com.
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