How Marc Newson Preserves The Legacy Of Jaeger-LeCoultre's Atmos Clock

Works miraculously by “breathing” in the surrounding air.

BY Daniel Goh | May 23, 2017 | Feature

We live in an age where pretty much nothing surprises us anymore. We have devices that can understand and respond to verbal commands, yet this is regarded as a standard feature. We have timepieces that can automatically change time zones, tracked by a floating metal contraption in space, and yet we see that as an “innovation”, not a downright miracle.

The curiosity to learn how something works has given way to complacency in accepting that it just does. But the Atmos clock from Jaeger-LeCoultre is different. This mechanical marvel is everlasting, “breathing” the air around it, never needing to be wound, and begging the question: How exactly does it work?

Even today, this exquisite table clock from Jaeger-LeCoultre inspires a sense of wonder. But can you imagine back in 1928, when they unveiled a clock that simply utilised the variation in temperature from the air around it?

Of course, these days, it is well-documented how the Atmos works, how the sealed chamber with a mixture of gases expands and contracts with the temperature and the atmospheric pressure to continuously wind the clock.

Acclaimed designer Marc Newson admits that he has been enthralled by the premise of the Atmos clock from childhood. And today, he works with Jaeger-LeCoultre to bring to life his third Atmos clock.

As befits his approach to design, the Atmos 568 is tagged as “time, pure and simple.” What follows is a conversation that we had with Newson to ascertain the philosophy behind this latest rendition.

ESQUIRE: With the Atmos 561, 566 and 568, the vision of the mechanism free-floating within the crystal was something that you wanted to achieve. What is the reason why?
MARC NEWSON: It was important to me to convey the sense of wonder, the sense of mystery. It is like the wonder that I experienced on first seeing a ship-in-a-bottle. How did it get there? How did they do it? It was magical.

ESQ: What is it about the Atmos clock that keeps drawing you back?
MN: The fact that an Atmos is perpetual—or the nearest thing to it.

ESQ: You said the first time you saw the Atmos was in your early teens, and that you loved the clock. What was it that grabbed and held your attention all these years?
MN: Yes, I have been fascinated by the Atmos clock ever since I saw my first one as a teenager. For me, it is a complex and magical object. It seemingly runs on perpetual motion, or the closest thing to it, and it needs a constant environment to function. It is completely anachronistic. It is as up-to-date now as it was 80 years ago, and no one has been able to improve or modify its essential technical features. I love the way a company like Jaeger-LeCoultre continues to champion such an object. There aren’t that many companies around today that would understand or appreciate its continued importance in society.

ESQ: In fact, you have an ongoing love affair with timekeeping instruments. From clocks to wristwatches, what is it about these instruments that have captivated you?
MN: I have always been fascinated by the idea of the watch as a little universe, a container, a time machine that holds an enormously complex mechanism with many moving parts, each one perfectly made. It is practically impossible to see what’s really going on inside, so watches have always seemed like wonderful, mysterious objects to me. I like the intricacy, mechanically, of watches and, yeah, they are just incredibly nicely engineered objects!

ESQ: According to sources, you designed your first watch when you were 23 in 1986, which was also when you first discovered how difficult it was to put a watch together. I am sure that experience came in handy when working with Jaeger-LeCoultre?
MN: Yes, to a great degree. Actually, I made my first watch when I was about 12—from a piece of blue Plexiglas. I carved it into a funny, massive rectangular shape and bored a big, perfect, cylindrical hole through it with a power tool. Then I inserted a movement that my uncle had given me, or rather he had given me a watch that I promptly took to pieces! I screwed the thick Plexiglas face down with four big woodscrews. They were unique technical experiments, but I remained interested in watches, clipping pages from magazines, learning about all the Swiss brands, and so on throughout my teenage years. Later, I studied jewellery making and sculpture at art college—mainly because I wanted to become proficient in using a variety of tools. I have always made things and have no doubt that hands-on experience on a practical level has held me in good stead. I am comfortable with engineers and watchmakers because I understand the language of making things and respect the expertise required. Watches illustrate a skill-set that has neither significantly evolved nor significantly atrophied over the last century, unlike most other artisanal practices. My watches are handmade and there are very few of them, which is partly why they are inherently valuable. There is no other way to make them, especially not with robots.

ESQ: You worked with Jaeger-Le-Coultre for the first time in 2008. From the first Atmos to now, were there any moments where you could do something that you couldn’t previously due to advances in technology?
MN: Not exactly, but the Atmos 568 has an expanded production potential (the Atmos 568 is not a limited edition), so I had to approach this project quite differently. The level of precision required was greater because the form has to be easily repeatable. I made the decision to inject a level of newness to the movement, which we achieved with the addition of uniquely-designed decorative details such as the bolts that attach the movement and the chamber to the glass—utilising 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. Most importantly, of course, is that the quintessential DNA of the Atmos had to be maintained and respected within the creative process.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia, May 2017.