Air time: Marc Newson gives the Atmos clock a lighter touch
Anyone who knows Marc Newson knows he loves watches. Indeed, he has been creating them since the mid-1990s, when his Swiss Ikepod brand refreshed traditional horological thinking with a whole new design sensibility. But even Newson couldn't have imagined that he'd become the most recognised watch designer in the world when the Apple Watch launched last year.
Today, fresh out of his horological dalliance with Silicon Valley, Newson looks content in the altogether more picturesque Vallée de Joux, the heartland of Swiss watchmaking. He is here to take a final look at the results of his latest time-keeping collaboration with Swiss watch and clock manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre, which this month will reveal its third Newson-designed Atmos clock. It has been two years in the making.
Marc Newson designed his first Atmos for Jaeger-LeCoultre - the 561 in 2008, followed by the 566 in 2010. This new iteration, the 568, is a distinctly honed version of both, in part, Newson says because the plan is to extend the production volume, which will, in turn, lower the price. The previous models were strictly limited editions of no more than 25 and were priced upwards of around €80,000. The new 568 is not limited and will retail in the vicinity of €25,000.
Mark Newson photographed at the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture in Le Sentier, Switzerland. Photography: Phil Dunlop
'It felt like the Atmos was being left behind when I came along', says Newson, of the initial collaboration. 'I love the idea of designing objects that stand the test of time, things that you can hand on, pass through the family. I don't think about Atmos clocks as clocks - they are wonderful, sculptural objects that happen to be timepieces. You'll never find an Atmos clock in landfill because they are inherently valuable objects; the opposite of disposability.'
The Atmos has been in continual production since 1933. The engineer Jean-Léon Reutter designed the technology in 1928. He wanted to invent a timekeeper that would keep perfect time for centuries, without the need for any outside intervention. He devised a gas-driven mechanism activated by small, sequential changes in temperature, and the Atmos clock got its brilliantly futuristic name. Jaeger-LeCoultre, by then one of a handful of grand maisons of Swiss watchmaking, acquired, perfected and developed Reutter's idea. Atmos clocks are powered by a small, hermetically sealed gas chamber - originally filled with mercury - which dilates when the temperature rises and contracts when it drops. At Jaeger-LeCoultre's specialist Atmos department in Le Sentier, it is often referred to as 'the mechanical lung' that 'breathes' in and out, winding the mechanism in line with atmospheric shifts. The clocks are so energy efficient that a mere one-degree Celsius shift will power the clock for 48 hours.
The futurism of Reutter's vision is compelling to a designer of Newson's technical breadth. 'The Atmos clock keeps time beyond any outside influence that, in itself, is completely modern,' he says. Then, there is Atmos' Steampunk aesthetic. 'The clocks are so sculptural that I knew they could be interpreted in a contemporary way. The glass casing was generally a means of keeping the movement covered, but glass has obvious structural qualities, so it's not like we are putting a movement in a fish tank - it's a holistic process because we work from the outside in.'
Because of the Atmos 568's expanded production potential, Newson had to take a different approach. The case was created with French crystal specialists Baccarat from a monobloc of crystal. The process to perfect the form has taken two years because Newson did not want a symmetrical outline. Rather, he wanted a low curve at the bottom, which better plays with the light and gives a sense of the mechanics floating. That anomaly caused havoc because, as Newson points out, 'Glass relies on consistency. As soon as you introduce an irregularity, it goes all over the place.'
An horological engineer fine tunes the details on the Atmos 568. Photography: Phil Dunlop
The crystal also has to be polished inside and out which, on this scale, is a highly specialised technique. 'The level of precision needed was greater because the form has to be easily repeatable,' says Newson. 'The shape is more rigid than the previous ones and that's because it's a particular formation of crystal glass. I've worked with glass in many applications across my projects. Making that shape is almost impossible - only Baccarat could do this.'
Newson was also keen to 'inject a level of newness' to the movement, which he did with decorative details. The bolts that attach the movement and chamber to the glass are designed by him and, being a skilled watch designer, Newson used smooth and brushed finishes to heighten shadow play and add depth. The crystal, too, has been designed to play with light, giving the clock an intriguingly new character from different points of view. The dial, moonphase and hands are created in-house, and the numerals are tampography printed. The hands are counterbalanced so that they do not consume any energy when turning.
Newson is clearly in happy territory here, in the Swiss valleys, working with horological engineers, taming complex materials to create beautiful things. 'It's always wonderful to get a chance to revisit things, which doesn't happen much with me', he says. 'I suppose this time round I've approached the design from a more philosophical point of view. The more that tech keeps infiltrating our lives, the more magical objects like the Atmos clock generate more interest - like looking at an open fire. They're mesmeric.'
As originally featured in the November 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*212)