Obituary: Kiu Tai Yu, Chinese Independent Watchmaker

Inventor of the Mystery Tourbillon.

Born in China but having worked in Hong Kong for decades, Kiu Tai Yu was long reputed to have been the first watchmaker to produce a tourbillon wristwatch in Asia, having premiered his own in 1990. Before that, only watchmakers in the West had ever produced a tourbillon, a device that was then still regarded as the pinnacle of artisanal watchmaking.

A year after unveiling his tourbillon, Kiu became the first Asian member of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI), the association of independent watchmakers that had been established by Svend Andersen and Vincent Calabrese just a few years before. The news of Kiu’s death was first announced by Mr Calabrese on Facebook.

Kiu Tai Yu in his shop. Photo – Vincent Calabrese

But it was in 1993 that Kiu debuted his most memorable invention, the Mystery Tourbillon. Equipped with an oscillating balance wheel making one revolution a minute, but seemingly with neither a cage nor bridge. The secret lay in a clear sapphire plate that functioned as the upper bridge, while the cage of the tourbillon was reduced to a fish-shaped platform underneath the balance wheel, a construction that has since been adopted in various forms by brands like Montblanc and Zenith.

Not content with a mere Mystery Tourbillon, Kiu subsequently installed the invention in a rectangular form movement, and later even added a jumping hour time display. It’s worth pointing out that every one of Kiu’s tourbillon wristwatches was unique, and he produced only about two dozen (both Mystery and conventional) over his career.

The Kiu Tai Yu Mystery Tourbillon produced in 2004 to mark the 30th anniversary of Antiquorum that sold for 113,500 Swiss francs at the anniversary auction. Photo – Antiquorum

A childhood ambition fulfilled

Kiu was born in 1946 in Suzhou, a city about 90 minutes by car from Shanghai that was historically renowned for its lakes, canals, gardens, and pagodas, but heavily damaged by the war. Having developed an interest in timepieces as a boy, Kiu taught himself watchmaking and was soon fixing watches for friends. Legend has it he built his first wristwatch when he was still in his early twenties.

Not long after, in 1980, Kiu moved to Hong Kong with his family, setting up shop as a watch repairer and dealer in antique pocket watches and clocks. Naming his store Kew & Cie., he soon became a leading specialist in pocket watches, which was the foremost collecting category in horology at the time.

According to veteran watch journalist Alan Downing (who’s also a contributor to SJX Watches), amongst Kiu’s clients was Michael Sandberg, then chairman of HSBC and one of the world’s most important collectors of pocket watches and clocks, particularly those made for the Chinese market.

Kiu himself amassed a substantial collection of Chinese market pocket watches and in 1992 published Time in Pocket, a book cataloguing 89 timepieces he owned.

“A talented artist”

By all accounts, Kiu was a fascinating man with a deep and almost instinctive understanding of watchmaking. Operating from a tiny shop in World-Wide House, an office building in Hong Kong’s Central business district, Kiu operated his business with the aura of an expert who only occasionally wanted to sell one of his own watches.

In a 2006 profile, Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) described him as possessing the “pride and temperament of a talented artist waiting to be discovered” for whom “commercial success does not appear to be very important”.

But Kiu produced his watches in small quantities; even his time-only automatic watches were limited to 20 pieces in each metal. Although his watches were characterised by designs that were extremely, perhaps even excessively, Chinese in style, Kiu’s work was entirely original and sought after, particularly by collectors desiring an example of Chinese horology.

Kiu Tai Yu ‘Year of the Rooster’ wristwatch. Photo – Antiquorum

After suffering a stroke in 2007, his unusual brand of watchmaking was put on hold, and the shop was shut not long after. Kiu’s daughter, Peony, has taken on her father’s mantle, albeit in a different part of the industry, having once been the head of Antiquorum Auctioneers in Hong Kong, followed by a stint at Glashütte Original.

“‘I have my place in history, and that’s the most important achievement”, declared Kiu in the 2006 SCMP profile, and he was probably right.

Topmost image – Christie’s 


 

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Vacheron Constantin Introduces the Égérie Ladies’ Collection

Now round.

Reviving a name once used for a line of tonneau-shaped women’s watches, Vacheron Constantin has just unveiled the Égérie, now a round watch with an unusually positioned crown.

Translating as “muse”, Égérie is a slightly larger and more casual automatic watch for ladies, setting it apart from Vacheron Constantin’s current offerings for ladies, which are mostly downsized or quartz versions of men’s watches, as well as pricey, high-jewellery timepieces. That also sets it apart from its namesake, introduced in 2003 with a tonneau case, which lasted several years in the catalogue but never quite took off.

Inspired by haute couture according to Vacheron Constantin, the new Égérie line is centred on two models, with either a moon phase or date. Each is offered in pink gold or steel, as well as a fully diamond-set version in white gold, for a total of five models.

Égérie Self-Winding (top row), and Égérie Moonphase

All models share a fully polished case with a diamond-set bezel, with a silver opaline dial featuring an offset sub-dial at two o’clock that sits just beside the crown, topped with a moonstone cabochon.

The dials are decorated with a pleated, radial guilloche done the traditional way, with a hand-operated rose engine. The engine-turning is intersected up by a chapter ring with spherical markings for the minutes and applied gold hour numerals.

Specially designed for the collection, the numerals are a modern take on traditional Breguet numerals and identical to those found on the one-off Les Cabinotiers minute repeater. Made of either pink or white gold to match the case, the numerals are paired with leaf-shaped hands.

Another notable feature of the Égérie is the quick-release strap that has a tab on the back to retract the spring bars, allowing an easy strap swap.

The tab for the quick-release strap


The base model is the Égérie Self-winding that measures a dainty 35 mm in diameter and just 9.32 mm high, due to the compact cal. 1088, a newly developed automatic movement.

A key element of the dial is the ring at two o’clock that’s paved with 26 diamonds and serves as a frame for the arc-shaped date aperture.

Visible though the sapphire back is the cal. 1088, which measures just 20.8 mm wide and 3.8 mm high. It operates at a frequency of 4 Hz and has a relatively short 40-hour power reserve, an inevitability given its small size.


Despite being powered by a near-identical movement, the Égérie Moon Phase is a tad larger at 37 mm wide and 10.08 mm tall, due to the moon phase display positioned right next to the crown. As a result of its position, the gears driving the moon disc are stacked on top of the keyless works for winding and setting.

It shares the same dial design as the self-winding model, with an off-centred ring framing the moon phase display. The moon is rendered in either pink or white gold to match the case, while the cloud motif is made of mother-of-pearl inlay.

The Égérie Moon Phase in white gold with a diamond-set case and dial

The moon phase model is powered by the cal. 1088L, essentially the same calibre as in the base model but with the moon phase display taking the place of the date.


Key facts and price

Vacheron Constantin Égérie Self-winding
Ref. 4605F/110A-B495 (stainless steel)
Ref. 4605F/000R-B496 (pink gold)

Diameter: 35 mm
Height: 9.32 mm
Material: Stainless steel or pink gold
Water resistance: 30 m

Movement: Cal. 1088
Functions: Hours, minutes and seconds; date
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4 Hz)
Winding: Automatic
Power reserve: 40 hours

Strap: Bracelet for steel model, alligator strap for gold model
Availability: At retailers and boutiques from March onwards
Price: US$20,200, or 30,300 Singapore dollars (steel); US$28,200, or 42,300 Singapore dollars (pink gold)


Vacheron Constantin Égérie Moon Phase
Ref. 8005F/120A-B497 (stainless steel)
Ref. 8005F/000R-B498 (pink gold)
Ref. 8006F/000G-B499 (diamond pavé white gold)

Diameter: 37 mm
Height: 10.08 mm
Material: Stainless steel or 18k gold
Water resistance: 30 m

Movement: Cal. 1088L
Functions: Hours, minutes and seconds; moon phase
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4 Hz)
Winding: Automatic
Power reserve: 40 hours

Strap: Bracelet for steel model, alligator or satin strap for gold model
Availability: At retailers and boutiques from March onwards
Price: US$24,800, or 37,200 Singapore dollars (steel); US$32,700, or 49,100 Singapore dollars (pink gold); US$62,000, or 93,000 Singapore dollars (diamond pavé)

For more information, visit Vacheron-constantin.com.


 

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Uncommon Longevity – The Story of Golay Fils & Stahl of Geneva

Evolving since 1837.

Auction catalogues often offer early 20th century pocket watches of impressive, refined quality that bear the names of unfamiliar Geneva firms. Amongst the most prominent are Agassiz, Ed. Koehn, Haas Neveux, and Touchon. Despite their obscurity now, these brands were once amongst the best in the world – arguably the equals of Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin, producing or retailing highly complicated and extra-thin timepieces.

All of them, save for one, are now defunct and long forgotten. In fact, most went under long before the Quartz Crisis. A single name has survived and prospered while remaining a family business, by evolving its business over the centuries – Golay Fils & Stahl.

A familiar name

As an avid reader of auction catalogues, I had come across Golay Fils & Stahl on several occasions, and the name stayed with me because of the high quality of firm’s pocket watches (Haas Neveux being another).

Then in November 2019, Phillips sold the Patek Philippe ref. 3652 minute-repeating wristwatch. Not only was the watch relatively recent, having been made in 1985, it was a unique reference powered by a reworked vintage movement – and signed “Golay Fils & Stahl” on the dial. Few retailers get their name on modern Patek Philippe watches, let alone a one-off, custom timepiece. It piqued my curiosity.

The ref. 3652 – essentially a Calatrava ref. 96 minute repeater

By sheer chance that curiosity was satisfied when Melissa Wolfgang Amenc got in touch after seeing my article on the ref. 3652.

Ms Amenc is the daughter of the current owner of Golay Fils & Stahl, Jesse Wolfgang, the very gentleman who commissioned the ref. 3652 in 1985, when the firm was still a retailer of Patek Philippe. She revealed that the movement inside the ref. 3652 was originally a homeless, 19th century movement once destined for a Golay Fils & Stahl pendant watch.

Now a director of Golay Fils & Stahl and a gemologist by training, Ms Amenc let me visit the company’s premises in Geneva and explained the fascinating story of the company.

The movement inside the ref. 3652

Place des Bergues

Frequent visitors to Geneva will realise that Golay Fils & Stahl is a familiar sight, literally. The company name is in large blue letters on the roof of the five-storey building next to the Four Seasons Hotels des Bergues, an old-school grand hotel that opened in 1834. Golay Fils & Stahl has been at that address, Place des Bergues 1, for almost 200 years. And like much else in Geneva, both the hotel and surrounding buildings look pretty much as they did when the Golays first set up shop there.

Places des Bergues 1. Photo – Wikimedia Commons

The beginnings of the firm were laid in 1829 when Jacques David Golay moved to Geneva with his family. He was born in the village of Le Chenit, the municipality that includes Le Brassus and Le Sentier, now home to Audemars Piguet and Philippe Dufour respectively. Beyond his birthplace, Jacques David’s last name is also evocative of watchmaking, being one of the great watchmaking families in the Vallee de Joux, alongside Capt, Meylan, LeCoultre, and Piguet.

Already a teenager when the family moved to Geneva, Jacques David’s son Auguste married Susanne Leresche in 1837. Her family also hailed from the Vallee de Joux, and unsurprisingly, she too joined the trade as a regleuse, or regulator of movements.

Auguste entered the watch business that same year, first with Louis Gunther as a partner, before going solo in 1842 as Golay-Leresche. It was in that decade that the firm moved to Place des Bergues, where it has been ever since.

Pages of a late 19th century catalogue with colour paintings of ladies’ pendant and brooch watches

Another page showing photographs of the finished timepieces

Like many of its peers in Geneva, Golay-Leresche was an etablisseur, assembling and finishing watches built from on parts made by suppliers. Auguste chose to focus on pricier watches, usually complicated or highly accurate timepieces, instead of the lower-cost watches that were by firms in the Vallee de Joux or the watchmaking giant of the period, England – again a strategy employed by many firms in Geneva. This distinction separating Geneva watchmakers from everyone else has largely endured till today.

A selection of ladies’ pocket watches

Lady’s pocket watch with enamelled decoration in Art Nouveau style, c. 1885-1900

Enamelled lady’s pendant watch, c. 1890-1900

Golay-Leresche gained a reputation for high quality watches that extended across Europe, and then further afield. The firm exhibited its timepieces at exhibitions around the world, where they regularly won prizes, including a medal at the inaugural Universal Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Crystal Palace.

At the same time, the company entered its watches into the timing contests organised by the Geneva Observatory, taking part in at least 20 competitions between 1882 and 1914, winning first prize in five of the years (in 1895, 1908, 1910, 1912, and 1913), and second prize on four times. During that period, the three firms that claimed majority of the prizes awarded by the Geneva Observatory were Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin – and Golay-Leresche.

A third prize medal from the 1895 chronometer trials of the Geneva Observatory, given to A. Golay-Leresche & Fils for a watch regulated by Alexis Favre, a leading regleur of the late 19th century

A first prize in the 1911 chronometer regulation contest organised by the Société des Arts de Genève, awarded to Golay Fils & Stahl

Pocket chronometer, c. 1930, which won a first prize at the Geneva Observatory time trials in 1931

Distinguished names

By 1847, the firm had done well enough to open a second showroom in Geneva, located on the opposite shore of the lake. The firm’s success continued in the following decades, particularly with clients overseas, mainly in London, Paris and New York, but also faraway markets in South America and the Middle East.

But many notable personalities also shopped at Golay-Leresche in Geneva, including King Carl I of Romania, the Maharajah of Baroda, Prince Damrong of Siam, and Carol Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, along with assorted nobility from across Europe as well as American millionaires.

The royal warrant bestowed upon Golay Fils & Stahl by the King of Romania

A selection of enamelled brooches from the early 20th century

Gold box with enamel decoration, late 19th century

Despite ups and downs in the subsequent decades – including a slowdown caused by the American Civil War – Golay-Leresche continued to grow, eventually counting a staff of 20 watchmakers and jewellers in its Geneva workshop by the time of Auguste’s death in 1895.

Two of his three sons, Louis and Pierre, were already managing the business by then – the company had been known as A. Golay-Leresche & Fils for some decades – and control passed to them. Auguste’s will recommended his sons preserve the company name, though it appears that commercial realities meant adhering to that wish only in part.

A handful of wristwatches from the 1930s

Pocket watch with moon phase, c. 1910-1920

Pocket watch with world time, c. 1935, made by Louis Cottier, inventor of the world time mechanism

And Stahl

A year later, his two sons brought on Edouard Stahl as a partner, renaming the company Golay Fils & Stahl. An Englishman who had lived in Geneva for several decades, Stahl was a jewellery merchant who had done business with the Golays since the 1880s.

In many ways, the partnership was an inevitable evolution of the business. By the 1870s, despite the success of its watches, jewellery had become the main revenue earner of Golay-Leresche, with jewellery sales outpacing watches by two or three times in some years. That was, in part, a consequence of a general decline in the Swiss watch industry driven by the popularity of affordable, mass-produced American watches that began in the 1870s.

Observers of the watch market today – some 150 years later – would find that trend surprisingly familiar, with jewellery gobbling up an increasing share of business at major watchmaker-jewellers like Piaget, Chopard, and Van Cleef & Arpels.

A late 19th century sales book of Golay Fils & Stahl

Note the preponderance of sales of jewellery (‘bijouterie’) over watches (‘horlogerie’)

Gemstones and jewellery

Not long after Stahl came on board, the successive deaths of the Golay sons – Louis in 1900 and Pierre in 1905 – left him as the controlling shareholder. Despite the change in ownership, Stahl retained the Golay Fils & Stahl name, doubtlessly as a prudent business decision given the long-established reputation of the firm.

Stahl’s background in jewellery, and the downturn caused by the First World War, resulted in the gradual withdrawal from watchmaking. From 1914 onwards the number of watchmakers employed by Golay Fils & Stahl declined to a handful, and by about 1920, the in-house watchmakers were engaged solely in the repair of watches.

The store still sold watches with its brand name, but they were manufactured by other firms. At the same time, it was a retailer of high-quality watches produced by specialist watchmakers like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet.

A magnetic table clock with antique Chinese jade inlays, c. 1920s

A miniature “gate” table clock, c. 1920s

Led by successive members of the Stahl family, the firm became a major name amongst Geneva jewellers in the mid 20th century. The final member of the family to run the company was the youngest son of Edouard, Morris Stahl (later Steele), who sold the firm to Jacques Wolfgang in 1961. Once again, the firm was handed over to a jeweller: Wolfgang had been a gemstone dealer who supplied the Stahls since the 1930s.

After Wolfgang’s death in 1976, his son Jesse took the helm. And in 1997, as had happened on several occasions during the firm’s history, the company evolved once again. With luxury retail in Geneva having slowed in the 1990s, the firm shuttered the retail store – a long-time Patek Philippe concessionaire – on the ground floor of Place des Bergues, which is now a Breitling boutique.

Though the firm has long left watchmaking behind, Golay Fils & Stahl remains linked to the watch business, primarily through relationships and family ties of the Wolfgang family.

Pierre Alain Blum, the former owner of Ebel who led the brand in its heyday of the 1980s, is a non-executive director of Golay Fils & Stahl. And Ronald Wolfgang, who is Ms Amenc’s uncle, was the president of the American operations of Ebel, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and then Roger Dubuis.

Golay Fils & Stahl is now primarily wholesale jeweller, while still serving a handful of key clients scattered around the whole. Its discreet office on the Place des Bergues offer a picture-perfect view of Lake Geneva – and the Patek Philippe Salon across the water – and is also home to a small, private museum that showcases the firm’s rich and varied history.


 

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Seiko Introduces the Presage Prestige Crown-Chronograph Remake

Just time and date.

Having unveiled the vintage-inspired Presage Automatic Chronograph ref. SRQ031 in October 2019, Seiko has returned to the same historical wristwatch with the Presage Prestige 2020. Comprising of three variants – SPB127J1, SPB131J1, and SPB129J1 – the new Presage is once again modelled on the “Crown” chronograph ref. 5719A-45899 that was unveiled in 1964 to mark that year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The vintage original was a mono-pusher chronograph with basic functionality, featuring a central, elapsed seconds hand and black plastic bidirectional bezel for recording times of over a minute. Last year’s Presage chronograph was a step up from the original with three counters, but this year’s Presage Prestige does away with the chronograph altogether. But since the original had a plain dial without registers, the new Presage Prestige manages to look pretty much the same.

The original “Crown” chronograph from 1964

All three versions of the Presage Prestige differ only in dial colour, and are otherwise identical in terms of dimensions, design and movement.

Because of the styling of the “Crown” Chronograph, the Presage Prestige manages to be fairly faithful to the original. Nearly all of the elements of the dial, from the chapter ring with the applied hour markers and oblong “lume” plots to the dauphine hands, are a close-enough replica of the original.

Granted it has been modernised with the usual tweaks found in remakes, including a slightly larger case and a date function. The steel case measures 41.3 mm (versus 38.2 mm for the original), but is relatively slim at just 11.2mm hight. The flanks of the case are polished, while the lugs are brushed on top with a polished bevel in between.

And as with the original, the watch is characterised by a distinctive 60-minute bezel, but now in hardier black-coated steel instead of plastic.

The ref. SPB131J1

The ref. SPB129J1

All three watches are powered by the 6R35, a central-rotor automatic with a frequency of 3 Hz, quick-set date, and hacking seconds. Most notably, it boasts a 70-hour power reserve as opposed to the 50 hours of the earlier generation 6R15.


Key facts and price

Seiko Presage Prestige “Crown” chronograph remake
Ref. SPB127J1 (SARX069 in Japan) – beige
Ref. SPB131J1 (SARX073 in Japan) – black
Ref. SPB129J1 (SARX07 in Japan) – green

Diameter: 41.3 mm
Height: 11.3 mm
Material: Stainless steel
Water resistance: 100 m

Movement: 6R35
Functions: Time and date; 60-minute, bidirectional bezel
Frequency: 21,600 beats per hour (3 Hz)
Winding: Automatic
Power reserve: 70 hours

Strap: Steel bracelet

Limited edition: 1964 pieces (including all dial styles)
Availability: At retailers and boutiques From February 2020 onwards
Price: US$825

For more information, visit Seikowatches.com.


 

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