In rhythm with the universe

It was a year of astronomy at the Geneva fair, and the fascination with what’s going on in space has never been greater in the watch industry.
Text: Britta Rossander
Shooting star - GettyImages

The moon calendar and the Zodiac are terms that describe the trip through the universe, way beyond our capacity of understanding. The Earth’s orbit around the sun is divided into moon phases that have become weeks and months.

At the show, Jaeger-LeCoultre displayed a watch model with a face made out of a piece of meteorite. The name of the meteorite was impossible for the Swiss to pronounce, so they asked me for some help. But there was no way for a Stockholm lady to pronounce a name that seemed to be some kind of mix between the Finnish and Sami languages and with way too many vowels. The embarrassing language challenge at the press conference made me very curious about what place they were trying to talk about. The only thing their production manager was certain about was that it was located somewhere north of the Polar circle.

This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last watch model with a little bit of meteorite in it, but the interesting this about Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watch is that the face comes from a meteorite that was discovered in Sweden. Rolex for example has produced the Daytona model with a face from a meteorite that was found in Namibia in 1838, and several other manufacturers have used the same material for faces or details on the faces. Corum, Omega, Arnold & Son and Bovet are only a few of those who have used the mythical space material.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Calendar_PG

The fascination with meteorite as a material increased dramatically with the movie “Armageddon” from 1998 where Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis saved the world. The plot revolves around a gigantic asteroid, the size of the state of Texas, on its way to collide with the Earth at a speed of 35,000 kilometers per hour. To stop the disaster, the head of NASA hires the world’s best oil driller, the only person who can accomplish the mission. During twelve intense days, he and his men are trained to become astronauts – and not least to save the world…

WTM called Thomas Österberg, who knows everything about the meteorite in Mounionalusta and who told us:

– My interest in the history of the Mounionalusta meteorite started more than ten years ago. My first visit to the area was in 2002. The village of Muonionalusta is north of the Polar circle, right outside Pajala close to the Finnish border, and it was back in 1906 that the first piece of meteorite was found there. Today there isn’t much left of it. After the “Armageddon” movie, lots of the material disappeared across the borders.

In literature, the meteorite is described the first time in 1910 by professor A.G. Högbom, who named it Muonionalusta after a place nearby at the Muonio river. It has been carefully studied and is believed to be the oldest meteorite known to mankind, having struck the Earth during the Quaternary Period around a million years ago. This means it has been with us through four ice ages and was born from an occurrence in space hundreds of millions of years ago.

So why was it at all discovered? Because of two kids in 1906, watching the family’s cattle when they started kicking at some rocks on the ground. One of them hurt his foot on something “extra heavy” and they brought the rusty object back to their village. It was later identified as an iron meteorite.

In the 1950’s the locals were encouraged to keep their eyes open for meteorites and more bits and pieces were found – some of them very large, weighing in at over a ton apiece. One of those is today on display at a museum in Prague. It’s been rumored that a stone-crushing machine in Muodoslompolo got stuck in 1989 because of a strange material that resembled soft iron. The two pieces were rescued before they were crushed to rubble.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Calendar_Steel

Meteorites or meteor stones are firm objects from space that burn and sometimes split up in Earth’s atmosphere to later hit the ground. When the object is still in space it’s called a meteoroid, when it enters the atmosphere and is slowed down by air resistance it turns into the light phenomenon that we call a shooting star. If the object doesn’t burn up completely but hits the surface of the Earth, it’s called a meteorite. The power of the impact can result in enormous craters – one good example is the lake Siljan in the region of Dalarna. Meteorites are usually shrapnel from collisions between asteroids that have deviated from their orbit.

WTM made a phone call to Eger Space Rock in Germany, one of the two companies that have the expertise for creating watch faces out of meteorite material. Unfortunately we never reached the right person, but their Swedish representative informed us that the material is so delicate that two out of three faces have to be scrapped. We also learned that the hunt for meteorites around Pajala has resulted in a shortage of the material, and it’s not likely to be replaced. We also talked to a knife-maker in southern Sweden who uses the material for handles in his knives, and he too had noticed the increasing scarcity.

In Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watch, the delicate meteorite faces are displayed in a beautifully polished condition. For the moon phase, lapis lazuli is used – a mineral that was the favorite rock of royalty in several ancient kingdoms. The mineral is believed by some to have healing powers, and is still used in healing sessions to this day.