The Minerva Pythagore "Anniversary Dial"


Featuring the Calibre 48 Movement

Revision 2, Appended 1-1-2003
by ei8htohms
© 5-25-2002

(click on all images to view a larger version)

Introduction

We really want to believe the myths. We might yammer and squabble about the true value of this or the intrinsic quality of that, but there is some part of each of us that really wants to believe the fantasies, fictions and distortions of history that are carefully crafted and sold to us by the brands with which we identify. We want to believe these stories so badly in fact, that if the brand does not create a mythology for us, we will create one for them. There are, however, some realities that are inescapable, especially for a small manufacturer seeking to create reasonably priced timepieces with in-house movements.

Minerva under the guidance of the Frey family was not a company steeped in mythology. Before being purchased by an Italian holding group in late 2000, they employed as few as 6 full-time employees and produced about 1,000 wristwatches a year (and considerably more stopwatches). Minerva was one of very few companies to produce their own movements and one of even fewer who had done so continuously for close to a hundred years. While this would be excellent fodder for a myth-making machine, Minerva could not afford the kind of marketing department that could properly exploit this history, even if they had wanted to. Instead, they chose to produce relatively affordable timepieces with classic designs and let the watches speak for themselves. This unassuming approach found an enthusiastic audience thanks to the unexpected assistance of the world wide web and within no time, a myth was born. The myth of Minerva was that a tiny, family owned company could produce a handful of mid-grade luxury watches with in-house movements at entry-level prices. Believing this to be true, the fervent supporters of Minerva found ample ammunition to attack the inflated prices, out-sourced movements and ridiculous marketing claims the watch industry has become saturated with. As with most things in life, the truth is neither here nor there.

The Case, Dial and Hands

The Pythagore I is a classic design distilled to near perfection. The stainless steel case is 34 mm in diameter and just over 9 mm thick, with sloping, facetted, understated lugs. This example is high polished and the finish is quite good, comparable to watches several times its cost. It has an appropriately large crown for a manual wind watch, a domed sapphire crystal and a screwed-in display-back. After 1998, Minerva purchased cases from Asian suppliers although I do not know the origins of this case. The quality is excellent regardless and a high percentage of watch cases in this price range are purchased from Asian suppliers.

The anniversary dial has nicely applied red gold numerals and matching leaf hands. The numerals are not perfect but they are very well done and impressive for a watch in this price range. Likewise the circular turned sub-seconds dial and the printing of the Minerva logo and chapter rings are excellent. Minerva did not manufacture their own hands and dials (very few companies do), but they did source them from high quality manufacturers and took ample care in fitting them. There is very little one can find fault with about the case, dial and hands of the Pythagore 1 "Anniversary Dial".



The Movement

Turning the case over we can view the calibre 48 movement through the display-back. Developed in 1943 by Andres Frey, the calibre 48 movement is unusual in its attempt to incorporate Pythagorus' golden mean into the architecture of its bridges and the resulting design is distinctive and immediately recognizable. The golden mean is a proportion found frequently in nature that is often incoporated into architecture and product design. The manner in which the golden mean was used to divide the circular form of the movement into forty-five and ninety degree angles remains something of a mystery to me. The effect is not one that I find particularly attractive but it is functionally sound and provides an interesting diversion from the more common bridge designs.

The Geneva stripes, nicely polished screws, escape wheel cap and radially grained crown and ratchet wheels are immediately apparent and give the impression of a well-finished movement. A careful examination through the display-back reveals the superficial nature of the decoration. The anglage is quite crude and shows a half-hearted attempt at polishing [1] as one might expect in a mid-grade movement. What is surprising is the crude nature of the hairspring stud [2] and its surroundings and even more startling is that the third and fourth wheel pivots are not finished [1&7]. Typically pivots have rounded and polished ends even when not required by function (pivots with cap jewels must be shaped and burnished). The pivot ends of these wheels are sharp, rough points, no doubt as they were cut from the lathe.



After removing the hands and dial the full extent to which this movement suffers from "display-back-disease" is readily apparent. The dial side of the movement is crude and unfinished with no real attempt at decoration whatsoever [3]. The barely finished set bridge is secured with unfinished screws. The best thing I can say about the keyless levers is that they are not tumbled (which would round the functional edges while polishing them). They are grained on top (with the exception of the set lever which is more or less polished), unfinished underneath and have unfinished sides as well. Even the functional, sliding surfaces of the set lever and clutch lever are unpolished and significant debris had built up around them [4] in less than five years. The step between the keyless works and the dial train is particularly crude, showing gross filing marks and unidentifiable finishing efforts [5]. The same unfinished pivots of the third and fourth wheels are also visible here.



The majority of the top plate screws are nicely polished and the screws for the crown wheel and ratchet wheel [6] are even bevelled. The hole for the crown wheel screw is quite a mess to look at [6, right side] but the bridge screws do all have countersinks. The barrel and power train are reasonably executed (with the exception of the aforementioned pivots) although certainly not finely finished. All of the wheels feature circular graining but this is all but obscured by marks and scratches [9]. Upon close examination some irregularities in the gear teeth can be seen as well. Outside of the watch, the unfinished pivot ends are even less attractive [7] and the pivot on the right shows substantial wear for a watch that is only a few years old. The hole in the main-plate for the center wheel is also quite crude and shows considerable wear [8]. One would hope for a jewel here, but a replaceable bushing would still be a vast improvement.

The Escapement and Balance [10]

The escape wheel [11] and pallet fork [12], supplied by Nivarox, are very well executed. The escape wheel is nicely polished with highly polished impulse and locking surfaces and, other than the crudely made safety finger [13], the pallet fork is nicely made as well. These are typical of mid-range, modern watches and of a higher quality than the rest of the movement. The balance shows the same marks and scratches that the train wheels do [14], looking as if it has been dumped into and pulled out of a large parts bin before assembly. As is common among lower grade movements, the weights on the balance are not slotted. They are merely decorative, in the initial production at least, as the underside of the balance rim shows marks from poising. The timing screws could be used when fitting a new balance staff at some later date. The hairspring is flat and lacks a dogleg, possibly contributing to the positional errors the movement is known for.

Despite the shortcomings in the movement, it is not surprising that some cal. 48s keep very reasonable time. The convergence of modern metallurgy and computer-poised hairspring/balance combinations makes it easier than ever for manufacturers to achieve very accurate timepieces with little or no hand adjusting. In the example of Minerva, the hairsprings were fitted and adjusted by a lone "springer" who did an admirable job on the whole. Although many Pythagore owners have noticed fairly large positional variations, given the antiquated spring shape and presumably limited time devoted to each piece, she was able to achieve a very acceptable performance for most customers. Minor inconsistencies in the barrel and power train will effect the performance of the watch more in the long run than they will immediately. Some of the shortcomings in this movement are evident in the wear it shows after only a few years of use and the performance that necessitated servicing it after this relatively short period of time.

Conclusion

It is not my intention to be overly critical of the former owners and management of Minerva. I have never heard any claims on their part about the quality of their watches that are refuted by this review. Likewise I see little to be gained by tarnishing the reputation that Minerva enjoyed among collectors. It is important, however, to understand the choices that were made by Minerva at that time in an effort to sell moderately priced watches with an old world charm. Even more important to understand are the economic realities that necessitated those hard choices. If it seemed incredible that a company employing about a dozen people could produce mid-grade luxury watches with in-house movements at entry-level prices, it's because it was. While they spared no expense when it came to the cases, dials and hands, the overall execution and finishing of the movements left much to be desired. The superficial, display-back finishing is strikingly discordant with the rest of the finishing (and lack thereof) and only serves to create the appearance of a movement that befits the quality of its exterior. As much as we wanted to believe that Minerva was providing an extraordinary value in an inflated marketplace, the pricepoint at which they sought to compete simply could not afford the hand finishing and attention to detail that is so highly valued by collectors.

There is still a great deal of charm for me in these watches, despite their many shortcomings. While they do not enjoy even the quality control and execution of mass-produced ETA movements encased and labelled by Brand X, they likewise do not suffer the ubiquity and anonymity either. There is something very human about the watches made by Minerva at that time. When we reflect on the head watchmaker still working part-time well into his 70s, the beautiful French girl fitting and adjusting hairsprings by hand, the two full-time watchmakers and the local women and men who would come in part time to mind the machines or assemble movements, the shortcomings in execution are poignant signs of the last days of a long-held family business. As one insider shared with me, "It was easy to get lost in the huge building, looking for the workers." Although this charm has been largely stripped away by the new owners of Minerva, I remain hopeful that a whole new level of quality is being obtained as well.

_john

Thanks to Kent Lee for providing the watch for review.

Addendum

Before this article was originally published, I solicited input from two separate industry veterans who had close professional working relationships with Minerva to lessen the possibility of factual errors (that they were aware of). One of them told me that all Minerva cases after 1998 were sourced from Asian suppliers. Shortly after the review was published, the other inside source assured me that no Pythagore 1 cases were of Asian origin. Believing both sources to be reliable (and not seeing any inherent contradiction in the information they provided), I intentionally left the issue of the origins of the case of the watch I reviewed vague.

Regarding the quality of the finishing of the movements, I have since been informed (indirectly) by a watchmaker very familiar with older Minerva cal. 48's that the finish quality of the more modern watches is at least equal to the finish of the older pieces with the modern pieces obviously having the added visible decoration. In addition, other sources have indicated that starting in 1999, Minerva began to decorate the bottom plate of all their in-house movements. The movement I examined was undoubtedly manufactured before that time.

The thesis and tone of this review was in some ways the result of my own disillusionment upon having my misconceptions about the quality of Minerva's movements refuted by the evidence of seeing a disassembled movement firsthand. While I do not believe my previous conception of the fineness or quality of Minerva's movements was drastically different from that shared by other watch enthusiasts based on my many discussions with others both online and off, it was perhaps unfair of me to assume that my own perceptions were representative of watch enthusiasts at large and hence constituted a "mythology".

The Minerva cal. 48 powered Pythagore was of course one of the most (if not the most) affordable handwind watches available with an in-house manufactured movement at that time. I believe that the Minerva Pythagore offered an honest value for the money, particularly when compared with the rest of the watch market.

_john

January 1, 2003

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