MB&F and L’Epée 1839 celebrate Duality of Man and Machine in Balthazar

Sep 21, 2016

Balthazar, the latest robot-cum-table clock from the houses of MB&F and L’Epée 1839, represents the dual nature of man and machine: the lighter and darker sides. Philosophical musings aside, Balthazar – the big brother of Melchior – is definitely bigger, weighing in at more than eight kilogrammes and standing 40 centimetres tall

Composed of 618 beautifully finished, micro-engineered components, Balthazar is a sophisticated and imposing high-precision robot clock displaying jumping hours, retrograde seconds and a 35-day power reserve.

Balthazar – the clock
The light side of Balthazar boasts a month-busting 35 days of power reserve, where the clockwork displays “slow” jumping hours and trailing minutes via two discs on the chest, while the power reserve indicator is located on his belly. This side of Balthazar may be serene, but he is still always on guard: his red eyes, which continually scan the surroundings, are actually 20-second retrograde displays.

Moving higher still to Balthazar’s ‘brain’ under the polished glass dome, we find the precision regulator of the clockwork. The animated balance constantly oscillates to let you know that while he may be standing still, Balthazar is always calculating.

But beware . . . there is also a dark side to Balthazar, as there is in all of us. Rotate his torso 180° and discover a terrifying Balthazar, along with a dual hemisphere moon phase indicator that should help you anticipate the evolutions of your mood. Remember Darth Vader’s quote in Star Wars, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.”

The dark side of Balthazar is revealed by the cold hard skull with menacing teeth and deep-set ruby-red eyes. But the darkness is tempered as Balthazar’s chest also contains a moon phase display that is accurate for 122 years. One of many tactile pleasures that Balthazar provides is that you can adjust the moon phase manually.

Balthazar does more than display horological events: as well as rotating around the hips, his arms articulate at both the shoulders and the elbows, and his hands can clasp and hold objects. Finally, Balthazar’s shield conceals and protects the secret of his awesome power: an integrated clock-winding and time-setting key.

Balthazar – the robot
Balthazar doesn’t just look like an incredibly solid piece of complex high-precision micro-engineering, he is one. The previous movement that L’Epée had created for Melchior (the first cobranded robot-clock from MB&F and L’Epée) had to be modified so much that that it is basically a new movement. As well as the addition of a double hemisphere moon phase complication, Balthazar is around 30 per cent taller than Melchior. So an additional gear train was required to connect the regulator with the rest of the clockwork.

Surprisingly, because of Balthazar's size – he is even heavier than he looks – manipulating any of Balthazar's joints and even the moon phase indication is extremely tactile and requires excellent high-precision micro-engineering capability.

Balthazar is full of surprises: joints move in ways that astonish and invite repeated actions. The build quality continually surprises and it’s hard to emphasise just how solid Balthazar feels. Then there is yet another surprise: the double-depth square-socket winding/time-setting key integrated neatly into the shield, which naturally slips in and out of its concealed niche with horological precision.

And for those who look very carefully into those eerie, ruby-red, Terminator-style eyes set deep into Balthazar’s skull, there is an ultimate surprise: The red eyes are actually the ruby bearings that support the 20-second retrograde eye displays on the other side of his face.

With a normal jumping hour indication, between five minutes to the hour and five minutes past, it can be difficult to know if the jump has occurred or not. So L’Epée developed a ‘slow’ jumping hour, which sees the hour disc remain static for 55 minutes and then – rather than jump instantly and risk the jump being missed – starts to turn five minutes before the hour. The jump is so gradual that it can be easily seen.

Balthazar’s movement features a regulator (his brain) with an Incabloc shock protection system to minimise risk of damage to this critical component when the clock is being transported or moved. This type of shock protection is generally only seen in wristwatches.

Balthazar’s movement also features the same superlative fine finishing – Geneva waves, anglage, mirror polishes, sandblasting, circular and vertical satin finishing – seen on haute horlogerie wristwatches.

However, finely finishing a clock movement is more challenging than finishing a wristwatch because of the greater surface areas of the larger components. It is not just the component size that is doubled, but the complexity also increases exponentially. When polishing, for example, the same pressure is needed to be applied as when finishing a watch movement but on a much larger surface. Any variation in that pressure will show up in the finishing, so a skilled and steady hand is required to apply uniform pressure.

Much time, attention and work has gone into ensuring that Balthazar is absolutely everything he can be. For example, his legs, which have no articulations to minimise risk of falling over, have nevertheless been manufactured and finished in three separate pieces before assembly, just because going it significantly increased the telescopic potential of various sections.

Similarly, the long nail-type teeth set into Balthazar’s skull were manufactured and polished individually before being set carefully into the skull. This intense attention to tiny details adds up to a fascinating whole.

Balthazar – along with Melchior and Caspar – was one of the names of the three wise men, or magi, from biblical lore. But it also has special significance for Maximilian Büsser, founder of MB&F.

Balthazar is available in limited editions of only 50 pieces per colour in black, silver, blue or green armour.