Numerous gambits are used by watch companies to distinguish their products from those of their rivals. The most obvious are aesthetic – unusual dial colors or new strap types – and commercially savvy, affordable, and address fashion, style, or taste. More serious, though, are the technical elements. For more than 30 years, that included the unearthing of obscure complications or the invention of new ones, obsessing over tourbillons, or fixating on bizarre materials. Most of these are either spurious or genuinely useless. Do we really need a watch that’s water resistant to 4000 meters?
This writer is notorious for his contempt of most complications, never imagining when I will need, for example, moon phase, but one horological mentor impressed upon me the single most important element in keeping a watch healthy: case integrity. While wristwatches have been around for over a century, and the majority of quality timepieces have commendably robust cases (notably Rolex’s Oyster, Bremont’s Trip-Tick and Panerai’s Luminor), one of the toughest and most admired seems to have been lost in the mists of time.
Like so many other casualties of the Quartz Crisis, when that technology all but wiped out the entire mechanical watch industry, the Super Compressor case was a victim of one of the most cataclysmic developments in timekeeping. Despite its wide acceptance among a vast range of manufacturers of sporting timepieces, including many of the most respected brands in the diving watch pantheon, the Super Compressor (and the slightly less robust, non-super variants) simply fell by the wayside. It was forgotten by all but the most dedicated of connoisseurs and collectors.
As values of vintage models began to creep up, especially for those Super Compressor-cased watches from prestigious brands such as IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, and Longines, something curious happened: the Super Compressor emerged as a design icon, however niche. For the watch industry, which has reveled in reissuing its classics ever since the revival of interest in mechanical timepieces started in the early 1990s, many models which were originally Super Compressor-cased were suddenly back in their catalogues.
Unfortunately, the reissues reproduced only the look, especially that of the models with two crowns, with one for time-setting and winding, the other for rotating the inner bezel. Christopher Ward has bravely decided to go the whole hog with the new C65 Super Compressor, arguably the first new true Super Compressor-cased watch in half a century. The company calls it a “labor of love” and that is no exaggeration, given what is involved.
Co-founder and CEO Mike France and head of product design Adrian Buchmann acquired an original Super Compressor case, which their team in Switzerland reverse engineered, aided and abetted by original drawings. They realized, however, that the resultant timepiece had to be a Super Compressor for the 21st century. It would benefit from lubricants and seals not available to its makers in the period from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. But any changes would aggravate the pedants and purists.
When asked why the C65 Super Compressor featured an exhibition caseback, France said, “We wanted to do something never done before, to allow people to see the compression spring that allows the compressor action. Even though the spring is only 300 microns thick – roughly four times the thickness of a human hair – those with good eyesight (or if you’re like me, a loupe) can see the spring sitting within the compressor ring.” To further disarm purists, he adds, “As you know, with the exacting standards of our modern case manufacture, a sapphire crystal back plate offers the same water resistance as a steel or titanium one.”
Another change from the original, which relied on superior O-rings, was fitting a screw-down crown. Explains France, “This has become one of the features watch reviewers often tick off as being a requirement on a modern watch. Even though it isn’t necessary for optimum water resistance, given the modern tolerances of the case and the high quality of modern gaskets, we wanted our customers to have a real sense of security, which a screw-down crown gives, so we made an early decision to include it in the design.”
As for the lack of screw-down capability on the crown that operates the rotating inner bezel, he says, “It’s not necessary as it’s a single position crown – it doesn’t open – and it needs to be easy to be used by the diver, which a screw-down crown isn’t. Although the chance of water ingress is remote, we have further added to the water resistance by using four gaskets in total around this crown: two outer and two internal. Your average duck would be more than happy with this arrangement.”
Examining pre-production examples, this fan of Super Compressors noted the appeal of its svelte 41mm case. The view through the back affords the opportunity to examine the compressor spring encircling the Sellita SW200 automatic movement; it’s orange so you can’t miss it. Orange is also used to accent the crown for the inner bezel, the triangle at 12 o’clock, the minute hand and the tip of the seconds hand, chosen for optimum legibility. Seasoned Super Compressor fans will have much to admire.
Two more equally remarkable aspects of the C65 Super Compressor project must be added to the fact it was revived with such authenticity. The first is that it was achieved in under two years, from the moment in October 2018 when customer Marc Schulteis posited the idea, until production models reached customers’ wrists. The second is that the price – for a brand-new Super Compressor watch – is less than one would pay for even a well-used original. Impressed? No, make that compressed.