Modern watchmakers are faced with a paradox: how to make age-old technology both true to its traditions and relevant for the 21st century? The answer for houses such as Patek Philippe and Zenith lies in a keen eye for emerging technologies that enhance the efficiency of mechanical watch design without altering its character and humanity. Just like in architecture, utility is a necessary but not sufficient value. Seiko was only half right with its 1970s advertising campaign promoting the revolutionary era of quartz watches, when it said “Someday all watches will be made this way.”
Today, it is not so much a power revolution as it is a driving force behind materials. Silicon, or more precisely the CVD (chemical vapor deposition) process, enables tiny components to be fabricated to radically finer levels of precision than conventional machining. The parts can simply be printed on a silicon substrate and materials added or removed using reactive gases and plasma. Most importantly, he was a catalyst for new thinking.
In its simplest form, replacing standard parts with silicon equivalents allows brands to offer watches that hold better and last longer than those with standard movements, a big improvement as tracking is an integral part of the watch. mechanical watch industry. Take, for example, the all-new Baumatic movement from Baume & Mercier, which meets COSC (the official Swiss institute for the testing of chronometers) standards and comes with an extended warranty and service intervals. These improvements are almost entirely due to the inclusion of silicon.
Now that designers can define the structure of a component molecule by molecule, single parts can be designed to perform functions that traditionally require the assembly of separate parts, a conceptual leap known as conformal engineering. Think of it like making a pair of scissors from one piece instead of four. In watchmaking, this means reducing the balance, spring, escape wheel, pivot and anchor of the escape assembly (typically a minimum of 24 tiny and difficult-to-machine components) to just four, three, or even an entire room.
Compare that to mechanical watches using conventional materials for key components. They face three challenges: they need oils (which degrade over time), their rate can vary with temperature, and they need to outsmart magnetic fields. Silicon, on the other hand, is a low-friction, isothermal, non-magnetic property that prompted Swiss watch brand Ulysse Nardin to pioneer the development of silicon components nearly 20 years ago, and which led to the launch. in 2001 of the Freak watch. . The Freak showcased the potential of silicon, and the technology has since been gradually adopted in industry, with the time taken reflecting the need to prove absolute reliability.
Now designers can define the structure of a tiny component molecule by molecule. In the photo, the Girard-Perregaux 0.14mm silicon escapement blade, as used in its LM model with constant escapement. It is designed to create a constant energetic force, independent of the other energy received. Photography: Peter Langer
The designers of watch movements also quickly noticed that the silicon manufacturing process allowed them to experiment with new geometries. Patek Philippe’s latest Oscillomax exhaust system features a now subtly reinforced hairspring at each end, allowing it to oscillate evenly in all orientations.
These components can be profoundly different from their conventional equivalents, as the Girard-Perregaux constant force oscillator shows. It is built around a thin, curved blade designed to warp as it absorbs energy, then folds back, delivering precise pulses into the mechanism. The entry of Zenith in the field is the idea of Guy Sémon, Managing Director of TAG Heuer, in partnership with the Technische Universiteit Delft, one of the main research centers in this field. Zenith’s oscillator is a frictionless one-piece silicon component that will maintain a constant frequency from the fully wound state of the watch until the end of its 60-hour power reserve, a feat that conventional watches cannot. estimate that with elaborate compensation mechanisms.
But unlike the very real threat that quartz posed to the watch industry, in this case the opposite is true. Big brands such as Omega, Rolex and Patek Philippe, which all supported early silicon research, have taken the thinking behind silicon and applied it to more conventional materials, prioritizing proven reliability over novelty: Omega’s Caliber 8900 combines the two approaches to produce a watch that will perform better than standard under almost any condition with extensive service and warranty benefits.
Perhaps the most interesting position is that of Patek Philippe. By nature conservative in its approach, the internal Advanced Research team must find a balance between pure utility and the watchmaking culture around which the brand is built. But, explains Frédéric Maier, deputy team manager, “They may be more difficult to design and manufacture, but compliant mechanisms use fewer parts and in smaller volumes, which means greater reliability. “
Last year, Patek Philippe showed an Aquanaut Travel Time watch fitted with a “compliant” one-piece mechanism that adjusts the GMT indication. This has to transmit, store, and change the direction of the tappet pulses, a complicated task that would conventionally require 15 or more components, half of which would require lubrication. Surprisingly, it’s made of steel using traditional techniques, with 150 micron clearance between the crossbars that wouldn’t have been conceivable a few years ago. This is just a demonstration of how the technology could be applied in the future; you can easily imagine more complex assemblies, however, as Maier adds, “our job is to make a better Patek Philippe, not just a better watch”. §
As initially presented in Precious Index, our Watches and Jewelry supplement (see W * 230)