The Longines 990 is a movement that is highly revered by watch collectors. It is often said to be one of the finest automatic movements ever made and it's continued use in very high grade watches today speaks highly of its design. In the course of this article, I will attempt to analyze the mechanisms, layout and design of this benchmark movement and try to understand both its quality and its celebrity.
Caliber history and overview:
In 1975 Longines released the Calibre 890 automatic movement. It's defining feature was the twin, stacked mainspring barrels that gave the high-beat movement a longer power reserve while simultaneously decreasing the torque (and stress) on the rest of the movement. Another advantage of the twin barrel arrangement was a flattened power curve, giving the movement greater isochronism.
In 1977 the design was further refined and updated with the introduction of the 990.1 automatic movement. Its height was reduced from 5.2 to 2.96 mm by placing the twin barrels side by side and simplifying the automatic system to wind in one direction only. In this configuration it remained the flattest automatic movement for close to a decade and is still regarded as a very advanced design. The Calibre 990 (and its variants) was the last automatic movement to be manufactured by Longines. It was produced as the 992 (no date), the 993 (no date, no seconds) and 994 (w/ date, no seconds) with either 25 (.1) or 17 (.2) jewels. Within a decade of its introduction, rising costs coupled with the onslaught of inexpensive quartz technology caused Longines to begin outsourcing all of their mechanical movements. The irony is that Longines was part of the consortium of Swiss manufacturers that pioneered the Beta 21, the first ever quartz movement, thereby sealing their own fate as a movement manufacturer.
Lemania purchased the design and presumably the tooling for the Longines 990 and began producing it as a Lemania Calibre 8810. In 1991 its design was refined in some respects and released as the 8815. The 8815 was expanded into a host of other movements including a skeletonized version (8881), one with a perpetual calendar (8840) and one with a quarter repeater (8860). The Lemania 8815 and its variants are currently used in a variety of watches from Breguet and a few other mostly high-grade manufacturers (a rare, more affordable watch with this movement was produced by RGM for a TimeZone limited edition watch in 1999).
Since Lemania's acquisition by the Swatch Group in 1999, Longines has re-released watches with this movement, re-labeled as a Longines 990. Whether the Lemania 8810 continued to be produced after that or Ebel purchased a new old stock movement for their Ebel Calibre 060 is unclear to me. At any rate, the Ebel Calibre 060 found in this limited edition Ebel Lichine automatic is clearly marked on the barrel bridge as a Lemania 8810 (in addition to the Ebel calibre designation).
Typically when I review a movement, I like to start from scratch after the watch has been cleaned and approach the movement from the ground up, starting with the naked plates. Vintage watches usually show signs of multiple servicings and the layers of marks left by unconscientious watchmakers can obscure finishing details. The difficulty in discerning the quality of manufacture exhibited in any given watch movement is only exacerbated by the presence of old oil, grease and dirt.
Because this is a brand new watch, we will not only be concerned with the design and construction of the movement, but also with the care taken in its manufacture, assembly and casing. Especially because this is a movement supplied by a third party, subtle indicators here will tell us something about the care and attention given to the movement by the watch manufacturer (as opposed to the movement supplier). We will be looking for any signs of mis-handling, including scratches on the movement plates or damaged screw heads, as well as examining the amount and location of lubricants. In this instance we will approach the watch as I did in actuality, as if it were a gift to be unwrapped and enjoyed, in this case piece by piece.
When I first received the watch, I decided to run it for a few days and see how it was performing. It was clear from the condition of the 18K gold case and leather strap that it had never been worn and the case only showed very light hairline scratches from handling by dealers, salespeople and probably the owner. I wound the watch by hand and set it to an atomic synchronized quartz reference (which was very easy thanks to its hacking feature).
I noted it's timekeeping after the first 12 hours and it had gained about 3 seconds. After another 12 hours and it had lost the same 3 seconds and was dead-on. I was a little surprised however that it ran out after 30 hours. In retrospect there is every possibility that I did not wind it fully, as the twin barrels require quite a few turns of the crown to reach full wind. I wound it again (making sure I did so completely) and ran it out again. This time it gained about 5 seconds in the first 12 hours, lost 3 seconds in the next 12 hours, lost another 2 or 3 seconds in the next 12 hours and stopped after 40 hours.
Although this is admirable performance for a brand new watch, it doesn't really tell us anything. Because the watch has never been used, I expect that significant changes in its daily rate would manifest over the first month or so (normal break-in issues regarding distribution of lubricants, exorcism of gremlins, etc.). Also, the performance of an automatic watch, when manually wound and run in one position (dial up) for the extent of its power reserve bears no resemblance to how the watch might perform on the wrist. The variation of positions while worn alone would drastically effect the results in unknown ways. When you add to that the near full state of wind an automatic watch normally maintains for 14 to 18 hours followed by 6 to 10 hours on a dresser or nightstand and you've got more variables than I'd care to juggle. Suffice it to say that I always expect to have a new watch regulated for my personal use after owning it for a month or two and I'm not about to draw any conclusions about the quality of a watch's construction or adjustment based on some bench testing when new.
I meditated on this watch for several days before ever taking the back off. The responsibility of working on a brand new watch (that was fully functioning I might add) weighed heavily on my mind. Any scratches or marks that might exist on the movement would necessarily be mine (or so I thought) and so the utmost care must be taken to not let a screwhead be marred or a tool slip. After purchasing two additional full sets of screwdrivers (so that I could maintain each diameter in a thick, medium and thin profile for whatever size screw slots I might be confronted with) I took a deep breath and unscrewed the back of the case.
The case on this watch is solid and solidly made of 18K gold and while lyrical and soft from the front, shows precision craftsmanship in the sharp angles and precise fit of the caseback and movement (held in with case clamps and a thin, black, plastic spacer ring). The inside of the case back is decorated with a medium-coarse perlage and the back fits snugly enough that even with the four screws removed, it stays in place on its own. The case overall is a beautiful piece of work. I disagree with the screwed band attachment and the fact that the band is connected to the case in a much thinner portion than the band represents at its widest point. Both of these points would seem to weaken the bandís connection to the case but, it is of course a dress watch, and not likely to be stressed or twisted in any significant way, so my objections are more conceptual and aesthetic than practical.
Upon removing the caseback, I was immediately struck by two things. First, there was a big fingerprint on the power train bridge that had noticeably smudged the train jewels. Second, the overall finish was not as fine as I had expected.
A fingerprint on a brand new movement is simply embarrassing. I would be embarrassed to leave a fingerprint on even a low-grade watch that I had serviced but to do so on a brand new one, well, I was more than a little surprised. Besides the fact that every novice is taught to never touch a movement with his/her hands without gloves or finger-cots, leaving a fingerprint on a movement can sometimes become forever a part of the decoration. I don't know what length of time must transpire in order for the oils left by human skin to permanently stain the material of the plating, but I've seen more than a few pocket watches with permanent evidence of their previous handling. The other issue is that the jewels were smudged. If the oils from the print had entered into the jewel cups sufficiently, they could have created a capillary for the lubrication to run away from the pivot, leaving it defenseless. Luckily neither of these eventualities had occurred.
The decorative finish of the Ebel 060 movement was just slightly cruder than I had expected. I wasn't expecting hand applied anglage or black polished levers, but I did expect the striping to be a little finer (it was at least as coarse as that applied by Soprod to a heavily dressed ETA) and the overall appearance to be a little cleaner. There were a number of little marks around the top edge of the movement, evidence of where it was handled during the assembly, adjustment or casing procedures, and the rotor screw had numerous little scratches in it, as well as some imperfections. Most notably, aside from the fingerprint, the movable stud carrier had a plethora of little scratches from where it had been manipulated with a screwdriver or some other inappropriate, metal tool. The movable stud carrier is tweaked during adjustment and timing procedures to put the watch precisely in beat and a few seconds taken to use a piece of pegwood or nylon tipped pusher would have spared the lever this abuse. As you can see from the pictures, the movement's overall appearance is still quite beautiful despite these minor gripes. I found the uniformly striped rotor to be an interesting touch, giving it a massive, ominous appearance.
End Part Three.
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Part One introduces the origins of the Ebel watch company.
Part Two of this article covers Ebel's subsequent evolution, with its vertiginous highs and cataclysmic lows, a story that included an intriguing crossed path with Le Corbusier, Cartier, a way-stop with Middle-Eastern Investcorp, and its current home within the French luxury behemoth LVMH.
Part Three begins a guided tour into the innermost depths of the highly regarded Lemania 8810 movement, evolved from the legendary Longines cal. L.990, that powered the Ebel Lichine Sr.
Part Four continues the tour and analysis of the movement and watch.
Part Five finishes the tour and analysis, and provides some summary comments.
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This article was prepared from publicly available sources, without the express permission or approval of Ebel or LVMH. It is written for non-commercial reference and entertainment purposes only, and no claims are made for historical accuracy, although considerable efforts have been made to ensure factual correctness. All trademarks, trade names, service marks, logos, and copyrights remain the possession of their respective registered owners.