All the marketing hype that seems to preoccupy the narrow little world of watchmaking more and more has helped to bury news of two upheavals that are changing the face of mechanical watchmaking in 2017: its ever-closer fusion with machines, on the one hand, and with science on the other. Or, to put it another way, automation and calculation.
This has nothing to do with the smartwatch revolution, which some people believe will be the next big watchmaking shift, forty years after quartz turned everything on its head. No, we’re talking about a revolution of the mechanical watch itself. In a year dominated so far by financial troubles, the mechanical watch is undergoing a profound transformation.
The changes are perfectly illustrated in our October issue of Europa Star by two ground-breaking watches launched this autumn by the Swatch Group and LVMH: Tissot’s Swissmatic and the Zenith Defy Lab.
Le Locle may not be Silicon Valley, but the sleepy Swiss backwater has nothing to be ashamed of! The watch industry’s marketing campaigns continue to bang on about craftsmanship (with justification, in some instances), but does anyone really believe that, ten or twenty years hence, there will still be any human input in mechanical watches under CHF 3,000?
The Swatch Group, with its democratic and industrial roots, is pushing automation even further, particularly in its two highest-volume brands, Swatch and Tissot (which between them produce around 15 million watches per year – half of all Swiss-made output). Swatch’s innovative Sistem 51 has been adapted into Tissot’s new Swissmatic, made on an entirely automatic production line. The result is an attractive price, a single screw and a laser-adjusted escapement. The other hightech breakthrough comes from LVMH, a group hoping to reconcile watchmaking and science through its highly ambitious R&D division, under the leadership of the fiendishly talented Guy Sémon, whom we had the pleasure to meet. The heart of the watch, the Huygens escapement, whose theoretical premises owe more to intuition than to science, has been completely redesigned with the aid of advanced mechanics.
In this issue we provide an in-depth look at the “Sémon oscillator”, made from a single piece of monocrystalline silicon, found inside the Zenith Defy Lab. This new technology will also make the group less dependent on the Swatch Group and its Nivarox balance springs.
So, on the strength of these two examples – and leaving aside the element of craftsmanship which, with its freight of human imperfections, will always play a part in fine watchmaking – the mechanical watch of the 21st century will be “simplified in both complexity and assembly”; it will be high-tech and made by robots on the one end, and fully playing the “human card” on the other.
P.S.: In the meantime, what is Richemont up to? The luxury behemoth, more committed to the top end of the watch market, has opted to bring together several areas of expertise – most notably the artistic crafts – under one roof at its new Geneva campus. The group is also pushing through its digital revolution, a move that has encountered some internal opposition, which George Kern’s hasty departure has done little to ease. The group should take care that this focus on externals doesn’t allow its rivals to outflank it in terms of pure mechanical innovation.