An English clockmaker and a Swiss Haute Horlogerie maison? What do they have in common and who actually was John Harrison? Those are a number of questions we will try to explore in this background report.
There have been 4 different Girard-Perregaux models dedicated to John Harrison over the last 2.5 decades with the last one being the Traveller II GMT from 2014. We will have a look at all 4 different models later one, but let’s start with a little excursion into history.
John Harrison, born 1693 was actually a carpenter and a self-taught clockmaker. Today he is regarded as the inventor of the Marine Chronometer and with the ability to accurately measure on Sea, he solved the so-called Longitude problem. The ability to accurately calculate longitude at Sea is extremely important for navigation and if you think this to the end, it could be claimed that the British Empire would not have looked like what it did, without the John Harrison marine chronometer.
Harrison solved a number of problems and invented mechanisms to improve accuracy in clocks. The longitude problem was critical in naval explorations in order to avoid shipwrecks when approaching land. Knowing your exact East-West location, the longitude could be calculated by having a clock that is in sync with a reference time like in Greenwich. There is a great BBC documentary going into the details of the Longitude Act from 1714 and how Harrison solved this.
But it was by no means easy to get there. Building an accurate clock on land was one thing, but building a marine chronometer that kept its accuracy under changing temperature, pressure and exposed to humidity and constant motion was a much bigger challenge in the 18th century. Furthermore, Harrison was met with a lot of ignorance and arrogance by the members of the Royal Society including such famous scientists as Isaac Newton, as Harrison was not a studied scientist but “just” a carpenter and self-taught clockmaker.
The clock that built an entire empire, the Harrison H4.
To cut the story a bit short here as there are hundreds of interesting details, Harrison had two major things besides his geniality: perseverance and passion. Eventually, his forth clock, the H4 set out on the Atlantic journey that was required to pass the Longitude test under the Longitude act. The journey was taken 1761 to 1762 by which time John Harrison was already too old to take the journey but his son sailed across the Atlantic on the HMS Merlin. The H4 design eventually became the standard marine clock used by many famous explorers like Captain James Cook and others.
Now we know most facts about the great John Harrison and the impact he had on watchmaking at large, we need to solve the puzzle of the link to Girard-Perregaux. If not for a bureaucratic coincidence, the name John Harrison may have been forgotten in modern watchmaking, but thanks to that, Girard-Perregaux has brought to use some Tribute models to this great watchmaker.
Luigi Macaluso, the former owner of Girard-Perregaux and watch designer and retailer himself, had actually owned the brand name “John Harrison” since the 1980s but it was never used or planned to do anything with it. That would have probably been like that if yes, if Girard-Perregaux did not receive a letter from the British patent and brand register.
In a nutshell it said, if you’re not using the brand “John Harrison” you will eventually use your trademark rights and ownership. So what to do? The idea was born to produce a “John Harrison” branded Marine Chronometer as a limited edition. As easy as it sounded as an idea, it was difficult to put into reality.
The most challenging part was finding a fitting movement. After much searching and asking around, most manufactures denied based on the effort and limited production, but GP did in the end find a supplier. From Russia!
Poljot born in Soviet times made a name by producing pilot watches used by Soviet cosmonauts and take this Omega!, Poljot was the first watch in space worn by Juri Gagarin in 1961. So GP bought a supply of Poljot Marine Chronometers, but they were nowhere near to just rebrand them to “John Harrison”. The case finishing was golden and did not please GP.
So GP went on disassembling all clocks and refinished all parts in a brushed silver steel, produced a new box with light coloured wood and of course produced a new black dial branded John Harrison. The John Harrison Marine Chronometer was released around 1996 as a limited edition of 50 pieces.
The John Harrison Marine Chronometer actually sold very rapidly, so Girard-Perregaux warmed up to the idea of releasing John Harrison tribute releases of wristwatches. In 2004, the popular Sea Hawk II came out as a “To John Harrison” version as Reference 49910. Picking the Sea Hawk seemed logical as John Harrison has made conquering the oceans possible.
The Sea Hawk II, 49910 “To John Harrison” was available in quite a few variations. Differing from the normal Sea Hawk 49900 with a different dial layout including a small seconds versus a central seconds, it came otherwise in the identical 42mm case with the typical crown at 4:30 h. The most common version was the steel case that distinguished it a little bit with a white gold bezel insert. There was white and sunburst blue dials available for this version.
There has also been a special limited edition in all steel case including the bezel insert with a more sporty dial in either black or white. But that’s not all. The Sea Hawk “John Harrison” came also in solid gold, yellow, pink and white gold and here we had again many different dials: white, hobnail black, blue and possibly others. Consequently, if you want to get a GP “John Harrison” the Sea Hawk 49910 is your best bet as those had by far the largest production numbers.
Which brings us now forward into 2011 and to a very special, limited to 50 pieces only Girard-Perregaux ww.tc “To John Harrison”. A World Timer watch in a 41mm white gold case with a hand-painted enamel dial depicting the world around the Atlantic Ocean and showing the maiden voyage of the Harrison H4 across the ocean. On the backside, the gold rotor has an inscription of 1761-1762 when John Harrison’s son took the journey from Portsmouth to Jamaica and back.
The Girard-Perregaux ww.tc “Tribute to John Harrison” is such a special watch that it will deserve a dedicated post, so I will come back to it in due course.
Let’s complete the John Harrison tribute watches with the so far last release from the year 2014, the Girard-Perregaux Traveller GMT Tribute to John Harrison. This one was again limited to 50 pieces in pink gold and showing a longitude meridian across the dial and red Britain on the small GMT dial.
Concluding this report, we should have given some insights into the great inventor John Harrison and how Girard-Perregaux ended up providing us with some fantastic Tribute watches “To John Harrison”. For me personally, the Girard-Perregaux ww.tc “Tribute to John Harrison” is not only my signature watch but one of the finest GPs of all times.