Omega claims that its co-axial is “the perfect mechanical watch”. Here we take a look at the co-axial escapement’s history.
I have a special interest in Omega’s co-axial escapement, since I was working at the company when the first limited editions were produced and as Omega’s official translator and writer I was given the unenviable task of accompanying George Daniels on his visits to ETA. Unenviable for a translator, that is, because not only were the two parties speaking different languages at a highly technical level, they also came from worlds that were diametrically opposed – Daniels famously producing every single component in his watches by hand, selling only a handful of watches in his lifetime (the first of his pocket chronometers to feature the co-axial escapement was recently sold by Sotheby’s for £362,500), while ETA was mass producing millions of mechanical movements per year.
Despite the numerous difficulties in adapting Daniels’s design to mass production for an entirely new kind of movement, it was clear that Omega was not about to give up on the co-axial escapement, as several big watch brands had done before it. But the risks were clear. In his autobiography, George Daniels himself mentions 200 known examples of attempts to find a more suitable escapement than the lever escapement invented by Thomas Mudge in 1754, not one of which managed to supersede Mudge’s design. Daniels had been working on his co-axial approach since the 1970s, aiming to combine the benefits of the lever escapement with those of the detent escapement, specifically to use the tangential impulse of the detent escapement to reduce friction and eradicate the need for lubrication.
- The original “Omega-Daniels” co-axial escapement design
Daniels’s first designs used two escape wheels arranged side by side that engaged a single lever to impulse the oscillator. But the version he invented in 1976 and patented in 1980 used two wheels on the same axis, a lever with three pallet stones and a balance roller with its own pallet stone. Crucially, the impulse angle was reduced from the 52 degrees of the lever escapement to 30 degrees in the co-axial escapement, allowing for a lower-friction sliding action to the impulse.
The first Omega watches fitted with co-axial escapements were presented in 1999 as limited editions in the DeVille line (Omega Calibre 2500). One of the last bones of contention between Daniels and the technicians at ETA and Omega was whether or not to lubricate the co-axial watches. Since lubrication, or more specifically degradation of the oils used over time, was a major source of problems in a movement, Daniels did not lubricate. But given the massive risk of commercialising an entirely new form of escapement without any lubrication whatsoever, Omega played it safe and added a drop of oil (this was, of course, before the breakthrough in the use of silicon for reduced-friction watch components).
The first chronograph version of the co-axial movement, the Calibre 3313 (based on the Frédéric Piguet chronograph movement) was launched in 2005, but the biggest advance in the co-axial technology came in 2007, with the launch of Omega’s own in-house co-axial calibre, the 8500. Besides signalling the brand’s return to its roots as a manufacture with a new movement that was developed and produced “in-house”, it was also the first time that a movement had been developed from scratch around the co-axial escapement. One of the main benefits of this, in Omega’s own words, was that the movement was “developed without the constraints of space that are encountered when integrating the co-axial escapement in an existing calibre”. This meant that the brand could introduce an entirely new co-axial escape wheel design with three levels, allowing two functions that had been housed on the pinion of the two-level co-axial wheel to be dissociated: the direct impulse function and the transmission of energy from the barrel to the escapement. In doing so (the two functions are now housed on two separate pinions on a co-axial wheel with three levels), Omega has “optimised the geometry of the teeth without making any compromises and thus further improved reliability”. A silicon balance wheel and balance spring were also introduced, adding all the benefits of silicon that we are now familiar with. The three-level co-axial wheel has since been retrofitted to the 2500 and 3313 calibre families.
The main problem for Omega had always been explaining the co-axial technology to its existing and potential customers, given that it is far from being a niche brand and that a certain amount of theoretical knowledge of watchmaking is required to fully understand its operation and the benefits it offers. After starting with promises of greater service intervals and better accuracy over time, the brand put its full weight behind the technology by doubling to four years the warranty on watches sold with the co-axial escapement. Although this gave a compelling argument for choosing a co-axial movement even over one of Omega’s other movements, the brand has now eradicated any niggling doubts in customers’ minds altogether with its boldest move to date: the only Omega timepiece that you can now buy that doesn’t have a co-axial escapement is the legendary Speedmaster Professional Moon Watch, which still ticks away the time using a chronograph movement whose design has remained largely unchanged since it was first launched in 1957. As progress marches relentlessly on, it’s refreshing to see that some classic designs, both inside and out, remain sacred.
Source: Europa Star August - September 2013 Magazine Issue