Jean Antoine LépineCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
The Lépine Calibre
Around 1764 Jean-Antoine Lépine of Paris designed a new layout for the pocket watch that was much thinner than had been made previously, so that it could slip easily into the pocket of a close-tailored waistcoat. The waistcoat had been introduced into English fashion by King Charles II in 1666, derived from a Persian vest worn by Sir Robert Shirley, an Englishman who had lived in Persia and became Persia's ambassador to the court of Charles II. It was initially a loose fitting garment that extended down to mid-thigh. The waistcoat was subsequently adopted in France and by 1770 in Paris the fashionable fit of the waistcoat had become shorter and tighter, much like the waistcoat worn today as part of a three piece suit. This of course required a thinner watch to avoid an unseemly bulge.
Watches at this time had the train wheels, fusee and verge escapement mounted between two plates, with the balance mounted on the outside of the top plate. This made them thick to start with, and then they often had an outer case or a hunter lid over the crystal, which made them bulky.
The traditional vertical verge escapement dictated that the balance occupy its traditional position on the outside or top of the top plate. To make a thinner watch that would fit comfortably in a waistcoat pocket, Lépine used horizontal escapements such as the cylinder or virgule which allowed him to move the balance from outside the top plate to between the plates so that it was in the same plane as the train wheels, with its bottom pivot in the bottom plate. He also dispensed with the fusee and used a going barrel, and to make the movement even thinner, the barrel was pivoted in the bottom plate only, in a cantilever arrangement with no top bearing. The barrel is the item that normally determines how far apart the plates have to be, because it has to house a spring of a certain width and therefore cannot be made any slimmer.
With a single top plate, there is a limit to how close it can be to the bottom plate because the watchmaker needs access to guide the pivots into their holes. To make the movement as thin as possible but still possible to assemble, Lépine replaced the single piece top plate with individual cocks or bridges for the top pivots of the balance and train wheels so that they could be fitted one by one. For the spring barrel he even dispensed with the top pivot, cantilevering the barrel off the bottom plate only. This design was called at the time the Lépine calibre.
Lépine and Savonnette Styles
But all watches today have the balance mounted on the bottom plate and use horizontal escapements, so why do we call some of them Lépine and other savonnette? Well there is a clue in the name savonnette. Savonnette is the French for a small round cake of soap with slightly domed top and bottom, which is what a watch with a lid resembles when the lid is closed. It is evidently the watch that the name savonnette first applied to, not the movement.
To make his new design for watches even thinner, sensationally thin in fact, Lépine also dispensed with the outer metal cover so that the crystal was exposed and his watches were "open face". This new design caught the fashionable mood of the time and the demand in Paris was for one of Monsieur Lépine's watches. Of course the general public didn't understand or care about the details of Lépine's changes to the construction of the movement, they just wanted one of the newly fashionable watches, the most distinctive characteristic of which was the open face, so in time any open face watch became called Lépine.
Because the watch had no outer cover, rather than holding the watch in one hand and using the other hand to open the cover, it was more natural to view it with the pendant held vertically, so Lépine rearranged the layout of the dial to put the pendant at 12 o'clock. The meant that the small seconds display on the dial, when it was used, had to be moved so that it was opposite the pendant rather than at right angles to it. To achieve this the layout of the gear train was altered so that the arbor of the fourth wheel (which carries the seconds hand) was placed on a line projected from the axis of the winding stem. Most of the watches made by Lépine didn't have small seconds, so it is unlikely that this movement layout is named after him, rather it is called Lépine after the open faced Lépine watches in which it was used.
Lépine and Voltaire
From 1759 to 1778 the small village of Ferney, on the French side of the Swiss border near to Geneva, was home to French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who moved there to escape from the strictures of the Calvinist regime in Geneva. Voltaire encouraged Geneva craftsmen, including watchmakers, to follow to Ferney him so that they could practice their trades without retrictions. After the French Revolution, the village was renamed "Ferney-Voltaire".
Lépine was involved in Voltaire's watchmaking activities in some way as yet not fully known, but it appears that he had most of the ébauches for his watches made there between 1778 and 1782.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated May 2015. W3CMVS.