How the Harry Winston Opus Eleven Works

A regular watch uses small, complex systems to enable people to tell time. The Harry Winston Opus Eleven is far more intricate.
A regular watch uses small, complex systems to enable people to tell time. The Harry Winston Opus Eleven is far more intricate.
Hemera/Thinkstock

If you ask someone for the time and his answer is "Wow!" it's just possible he's wearing a Harry Winston Opus Eleven watch. This remarkable timepiece is one of the most ingenious, playful, and innovative wristwatches ever made. Of course, that distinction comes with a price: This cool watch sells for a cool $230,000.

The Opus Eleven is an example of a modern collectible watch. It's handmade and runs on a movement that is completely mechanical -- no motors or batteries. It's a piece of superb craftsmanship and a stunning example of sophisticated design. The complex mechanism is a source of continual amazement.

Harry Winston, Inc., one of the world's leading jewelers, introduced the Opus Eleven as a limited edition watch in 2011. Only 111 watches were made and each required four to five weeks to assemble [source: Giguet].

Opus Eleven's creator, Denis Giguet, spent 18 months designing a watch "to explode the time" [source: Giguet]. He wanted the numeral indicating the hour to fly apart in three dimensions -- not an easy feat to pull off inside the confines of a wristwatch. His watch created a sensation when it was introduced at Baselworld, the annual Swiss watch and jewelry show.

The Opus Eleven has three parts:

  • The hour is shown as an Arabic numeral beneath a raised, sapphire crystal dome. A complex, exposed mechanism assembles the number from separate placards.
  • The minutes are indicated on two disks visible in a cylinder that projects from the side of the main case.
  • The balance wheel can be seen in a second cylinder below and to the side of the first, marking time with its rhythmic swing.

If a watch makes a statement about its owner, the Opus Eleven shouts. The white gold case is big and flashy, measuring 2 by 1.75 inches (54 by 43 millimeters), and it's fully three-quarters of an inch (19.5 millimeters) thick. The back is transparent, revealing part of the movement. If your yacht sinks, the watch is waterproof down to 30 meters (98 feet) [source: Haute Horologie]. A black alligator-leather strap with gold buckle holds this sizeable watch on your wrist.

It's not surprising that such a watch would come from Harry Winston. Especially when you consider the company's innovative line of timepieces.

Harry Winston and the Opus Series

Harry Winston was known as "Jeweler to the Stars." He designed the crown jewels for modern royalty: celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Movie stars continue to wear Winston gems to Hollywood galas [source: Harry Winston].

Harry Winston grew up in the jewelry business, working in his father's store as a boy. He opened Harry Winston, Inc. in New York in 1932, when he was 36. Gaining a reputation as an innovator in jewelry design, he specialized in elegant settings for large precious stones. In 1949, he acquired the Hope Diamond, the dark-blue, walnut-sized diamond that once belonged to Louis XIV. He donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958. Though Winston died in 1978, his company has grown, operating stores around the world [source: aJeweler].

Harry Winston, Inc. began making fine watches in 1989. The firm is one of the few jewelry companies whose watches are prized by collectors of timepieces. Most collectible watches are made by specialty watchmakers, like Rolex, Breitling and Patek Philippe. In 2007, Winston opened a new, state-of-the-art watchmaking workshop in Geneva [source: Harry Winston].

Harry Winston, Inc. first introduced the Opus series of watches in 2001. The company announced that it would choose a watch designer each year to produce a limited-edition masterpiece. The idea was to focus on a single craftsman's work. Each design in the series would be completely new. These conceptually daring, technically complex mechanical watches appealed to connoisseurs and collectors. Each year, hundreds of watchmakers submit designs to Winston, hoping theirs is chosen.

The first of the series, Opus One, was an elegant, two-time-zone watch by designer Francois Paul Journe. Winston offered it in three limited editions of only six watches each. Opus Three was the work of Vianny Halter, a watchmaker renowned for "retro-future" designs [source: Morais]. Six portholes in the face show the hours, minutes and date.

Denis Giguet, who created the Opus Eleven, is a Swiss designer who was trained as an engineer. A fascination with his grandfather's antique pocket watch inspired him to become a horologist [source: Mulraney]. As head of production at Harry Winston, Inc., he worked on earlier Opus watches. He then left to found his own watch company, called Manufacture Contemporaine du Temps. An ease of telling the time and extreme ingenuity in the movement are typical features of Giguet watches and are apparent in the Opus Eleven.

The Mechanism of the Opus Eleven

The mechanism that displays the hour on the Opus Eleven might remind you of the bizarre shifts you see in "Transformers" movies. And it's likely to evoke the same sense of astonishment.

The watch has 566 parts that move on 155 jeweled bearings [source: Harry Winston]. Computer programs were used in the design to help make all the parts mesh. Some of the components were formed using photolithography, the same process by which integrated electronic circuits are created. The technique allows precise levels of accuracy that surpass traditional machining.

The main event of an Opus Eleven happens when the hour changes by means of a virtual explosion and reassembling of visual components into a number. The movement or mechanism that makes this possible is based on a series of planetary gears. These gears, found in machines ranging from pencil sharpeners to automobile transmissions, have a "sun" gear surrounded by several "planet" gears, all usually contained in an outer "ring" gear.

In the Opus Eleven, four planet gears revolve around the central gear. Each of those planet gears is the sun for three more subplanet gears, which revolve around them. Each of those three subplanets turns two pentagon-shaped placard displays, each with part of a numeral on either side, for a total of 48 placard faces (four main planets times three subplanets times two placards times two faces) [source: Harry Winston].

At 2:59 p.m., the watch shows the numeral 2 constructed from four placards. A minute later, the mechanism goes into action:

  • The four main planets revolve horizontally around the center.
  • At the same time, each planet rotates horizontally around its own axis, carrying the subplanets.
  • Each of the placards on these subplanets spins vertically by means of bevel gears.

All this movement creates an illusion of chaos, which then freezes with the new number, 3, constructed from different placards, showing through the crystal.

Two dials driven by conventional watch movements displaythe minutes in a cylinder at the side of the main case. The 10-minutes disk jumps, the single-minutes disk passes continuously.

The designer decided to showthebalance wheelin another cylinder. The complexity of the mechanism suggests that it's driven by motors, if not by magic. The visible balance wheel assures us it's all mechanical. You wind the watch by hand, activating an energy system designed to propel the complex mechanism for 48 hours.

Owning an Opus Eleven

The company made 100 Opus Eleven watches available for $230,000 each. Another 11, decorated with diamonds, cost $289,000 apiece [source: Blades Magazine]. For most of us, the watch is way out of our price range, but why would even someone who could afford the Taj Mahal spend so much on a wristwatch? Is it just a rich person's toy? Is it bling raised to the nth power?

The truth is that fine timepieces have had an allure going back centuries. Precision-made mechanical watches have continued to attract buyers even in the age of digital watches and battery-powered movements. There are a number of reasons why:

  • As part of a collection --Many of us love to collect things: sports cars, antiques, stamps, dolls, beer cans. Collectors of watches have the same passion to own. Possessing an Opus Eleven is a matter of pride, bragging rights and deep fascination.
  • As one of a kind -- Part of the attraction of a limited-edition watch like the Opus Eleven is that the owner knows that he or she is one of very few people on Earth who will ever posses one. Such exclusivity holds its own appeal.
  • As art -- Art isn't only paintings and sculptures. Connoisseurs see a fine watch as a representation of human ingenuity and aesthetic sensibility. In other words, a thing of beauty.
  • As jewelry -- A watch like the Opus Eleven definitely makes a fashion statement. Since men generally don't wear a lot of jewelry, a watch serves as "wrist candy," letting them display their sense of style.
  • As an investment -- Though most don't collect watches purely for the money, a fine watch can gain in value. The best chance for appreciation is in antique watches or in exclusive timepieces like the Opus Eleven.

Any or all of these reasons might prompt someone to dig deeply into his or her bank account to own an Opus Eleven. We can't discount the cool factor, either. It's hard to define, but the Opus Eleven clearly has it in spades. In some ways, this watch really is a toy. It evokes the same kind of playful delight that we all remember so fondly from childhood. And that can be worth a lot.

Author's Note

Bling is not my thing. My cheap Casio watch tells perfect time and I never have to wind it. I started writing this article wondering where the ultra-wealthy were when the common sense was being handed out. To shell out the price of a decent home, not to mention a Ferrari 458 Italia sports car (top speed 202 mph or 325.1 kph), for a wristwatch? Gimme a break.

But as someone interested in history, I began to look into the long tradition of collecting fine timepieces. Today, we go to museums and stare with wonder at works of artistic and engineering ingenuity from bygone centuries. In their day, those clocks, astrolabes or mechanical nightingales might have struck some as pointless baubles. But they exist because the wealthy folks of those days chose to invest in beauty rather than something else. For all we know, some 25th-century tourist might stare at a Harry Winston Opus Eleven and marvel at the ingenuity of our own time.

Related Articles

Sources

  • aJeweler.com. "Harry Winston." (July 13, 2012) http://www.ajeweler.com/BioHarryWinston.html
  • Bladesmagazine.com. "'The Exploding Watch' Opus Eleven by Harry Winston." (July 13, 2012) http://bladesmagazine.com/2011/08/01/opus-eleven-by-harry-winston/
  • Giguet, Denis. "Harry Winston Opus Eleven Watch By Denis Giguet," Youtube.com, March 25, 2011. (July 13, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJfWya9bPyU
  • Harry Winston."Opus 11 by Harry Winston," Youtube, March 30,2011. (July 13, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWvhp4YL3Bc
  • Harrywinston.com. "Jeweler to the Star." (July 13, 2012) http://www.harrywinston.com/our-story/stars
  • Harrywinston.com. "Opus Eleven." (July 13, 2012) http://www.harrywinston.com/store/timepieces/opus/products/opus11
  • Harrywinston.com. "Our story." (July 13, 2012) http://www.harrywinston.com/our-story/time-story
  • Haute Horologie. "Harry Winston Opus Eleven." March 25, 2011. (July 22, 2012) http://journal.hautehorlogerie.org/en/news/baselworld-2011/harry-winston-opus-eleven-2552/
  • Morais, Richard C. "Avant-Garde Classics," Barrons, May 19, 2012. (July 13, 2012) http://online.barrons.com/article/SB50001424053111904571704577407981816741676.html
  • Mulraney, Tom. "Interview With Denis Giguet, Founder Of Manufacture Contemporaine du Temps," The Watch Lounge, Oct. 25, 2009. (July 13, 2012) http://thewatchlounge.com/interview-with-denis-giguet-founder-of-manufacture-contemporaine-du-temps/

watches.org. "Top 10 Watch Facts." (July 13, 2012) http://watches.org.uk/top-10-watch-facts/