TECHNOLOGY - Mechanical watchmaking, diminishing returns?

September 2015

Slimmer, more complicated, more accurate, and – inevitably – more expensive. Will the race for mechanical performance in watchmaking, like the quest for human performance in athletics, hit a wall? Here are some attempts to answer this question.

“Are invention and innovation still possible in watchmaking?” This question – a somewhat provocative one, given the plethora of ‘innovations’ constantly being announced by the watchmaking industry – was the theme of a debate held recently at the EPHJ trade fair. New materials, such as silicon, continue to make a splash. But do they really represent progress in mechanical watchmaking, or have they simply created new problems and, perhaps, new time bombs? (See sidebar for the experts’ views.)
The participants around the table represent a variety of industry opinions on innovation: a ‘practitioner’, Jean-Daniel Dubois, CEO of Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier; an ‘aesthete’, Alexis Georgacopoulos, director of the prestigious Swiss school of art and design ECAL; and a ‘technician’, Jens Krauss, VP Systems at the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology. The discussion was moderated by Stephan Post of Dynamics Group. Excerpts.

Have we reached the end of the era of complications and innovations in movement design?

Dubois: It’s true that in some areas – astronomical measurements, for example – a great deal has already been done. But with new materials such as silicon we are now able to improve the accuracy and running time of our watches even further. These technologies give us the ability to make advances, even with perennial challenges such as these.

Krauss: Let’s take the example of the ‘Genequand regulator’ (a detailed description of this innovation can be found in Europa Star Première 2/15), developed by the CSEM and Vaucher Manufacture. It gives a power reserve of 45 days, which is ten times more than is possible today. And far longer than Apple’s 18-hour battery life!

Dubois: Pierre Genequand’s thought processes followed the same logic as those of English clockmaker John Harrison back in the 18th century. First, the flexible components of the regulator guarantee minimal friction; and second, the escapement component works far more efficiently. Pierre Genequand began working out of his garage ten years ago. And the first Parmigiani watch to incorporate his regulator will be introduced at SIHH 2016 with, we hope, a power reserve of 45 days. We are at the start of something quite amazing.



TECHNOLOGY - Mechanical watchmaking, diminishing returns?


“Innovation is everywhere: intelligent modules, new functions, horological ‘machines’... Over the last ten years, the way we tell the time has been turned upside-down. Brands that just do hours, minutes and seconds are a vanishing species. Now, it’s time to bring the price of complex movements down.

The next step is to add a bit more dimension! We do 3D design, but watches still don’t really have that three-dimensional look. We need to anticipate this trend. Mechanically, we try to think five years ahead: 80% is operational and 20% is projection. That’s why brands have departments dedicated to innovation, departments that are not ‘contaminated’ by the concerns of today.

We can also draw inspiration from other industrial sectors such as the medical sector. The processes and materials used in medtech are fascinating. It’s a very aggressive sector, and electronics have given it a new lease of life. Today you can buy little pills that are in reality tiny robots. We could also learn from the medical sector in terms of costs. When you think about industrial-scale production of artificial valves for pacemakers, the financial stakes are huge. They can achieve enormous economies of scale.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced by innovations such as the Genequand regulator. In design it’s not just energy that counts. If I’m doing 5 km/h on the motorway, of course I waste less energy... Power reserve is not the only issue, you need to look at the overall dynamic. You need to give it some gas, then slam on the brakes; build up sufficient energy, then ease off. I won’t optimise one aspect if it means the rest goes out of the window. There’s a great deal more to do and more innovations to be made in 3D.”

This example aside, what margins for innovation do new materials offer the watchmaking industry?

Dubois: Carbon fibre cases and titanium movements are gaining ground. But we must remain within the realm of what is feasible, what is possible to produce. And Swiss watchmaking does remain focused on precious materials. If we are to use titanium movements or carbon-fibre cases, that has to be what people want, and there has to be good reason to use them, for example because their ultra-lightness means that tennis players can wear the watches during the French Open. Silicon, again, makes it possible to do certain things that were impossible with traditional materials.

Krauss: Don’t forget, silicon is what started the microelectronics revolution! Today it has found a place in microtechnology, because it’s amagnetic and it allows for more precision. Tomorrow’s watch will be lighter, more accurate, and it will run for longer. But silicon also has some disadvantages, in particular its lack of strength.

Georgacopoulos: In design, you often hear people say, “Everything has already been done.” But that’s a bit like saying that we don’t need any more chairs. It’s quite a simple object, after all, but thousands of new chairs are designed every year. In watchmaking, there is also a constant stream of thousands of very different new designs. But the tendency of recent years, to make everything bigger, is perhaps not the most interesting design trend we have seen. No one wants a brick on their wrist! What’s essential, in both design and technology, is to avoid the obsolescence of smartphones.



TECHNOLOGY - Mechanical watchmaking, diminishing returns?


“The chapter of the mechanical watch began 250 years ago and no end is yet in sight! I like the idea of the vein or seam: the further you prospect, the more you find. Today, for example, we are working on a very innovative pallet escapement that could open up new horizons.

The first decade of the millennium was a time of creative madness. Now things have begun to calm down. Brands are also wanting to pull back their prices. It’s important to keep innovating, but in a more focused way and more cheaply! Less madness and more perceived value... And people still want to see the mechanics, through skeletonising. The watch is being laid bare. Seeing is also showing. We started out in 2005 with the idea of offering an alternative, creative style of watchmaking, for instance with a new way of displaying the time.

One of our main innovations is the detent escapement, which we used in series for the first time in a wristwatch. There remains a great deal still to be done in terms of the kinetics of time and how it is displayed, thinking more about how the movement interfaces with the case, merging movement and case together.

Design is also an extremely important element. We’re returning to more classical codes, but there’s still a need for differentiation: well-known points of reference, but strong identities. It’s always a bit of a contradiction. Whether in terms of design, movement or price, the equation is not easy to solve. Compared with ten years ago there are many more constraints, more unknowns, in the equation.”

But is it possible these days to continue to innovate, while reducing the cost of production in Switzerland, in a highly volatile economic climate?

Krauss: If we are to continue to innovate in Switzerland, it’s absolutely crucial. If we want to keep our centres of innovation we need to reduce the cost of production, including production of low-volume and limited editions. From that point of view, the Sistem 51 developed by Swatch sends out a fantastic signal: it’s a mechanical watch, made entirely in Switzerland, and it’s cheap! If the Swiss made sector is ramped up, more of our production could be repatriated to Switzerland.

Dubois: We’ve already done that. We’ve brought back what we had in the French Jura, and today we are 100% Swiss made.

The next major innovation looks like it will be in connectivity rather than in mechanical watchmaking, and it will come from outside switzerland.

Krauss: That’s true, but it’s not because we don’t have the skills here in Switzerland! We get a lot of requests at the CSEM from the smartwatch sector, and we have to turn many of them down. It’s in our interests to defend the Swiss made label, so we refuse to work with foreign companies such as LG or Samsung. We don’t want to lose our skills base. Some American companies have tried to start a ‘brain drain’ but we offer such good framework conditions here in Switzerland that thankfully it doesn’t work.

Georgacopoulos: At the ECAL it’s the opposite; we have exchanges with Apple each year. The demand comes from their side; they ask us to send them CVs and portfolios. These multinationals are curious. They come to Switzerland, as you say, but for our design too. Apple regularly takes ECAL people over to San Francisco.



TECHNOLOGY - Mechanical watchmaking, diminishing returns?


“A lot of work in recent years has gone into improving precision. We have reached an extremely high level, close to perfection. But there are still some areas with room for improvement: mainspring barrel power reserve; balance springs; and then there’s the casings: materials like Hublot’s Magic Gold, hardened materials and the general aesthetics. There has also been some fascinating experimentation in terms of how the movement is displayed. The Opus, with its off-centre dials, has opened up a new dimension in this respect. There is still room for innovation, but we need innovations that will stand the test of time and I do not believe that silicon is one of them. I doubt that using silicon in the regulating organ is something sustainable. It is obvious that a silicon watch cannot last fifty years, it is a fragile material. Indeed, in terms of after-sales service, the watch will have to be repaired directly at the factory, any other watch repairer will not be able do anything with it. With that in mind, longevity is highly questionable. Are clients that are paying a high amount for such pieces aware of this issue?

As far as titanium components are concerned, for me it is just a trend. Steel and brass remain ideal materials. Basically, we have not really found a better alternative than the good old lever escapement! Can we improve on this? Yes, and we probably will, like for example with the constant force escapement. But it takes dozens of hours to assemble just one.

Unfortunately, because of the division of labour, watchmakers these days are often under-employed. Watchmaking schools provide very good technical training, but newly-trained watchmakers often get quite a shock when they reach the job market and find themselves just doing part of the assembly, which is maybe 15% of what they learned. I’m worried that it could become a third-rate profession. Watchmakers lose a comprehensive know-how if they work for years on just one aspect of a watch.”

Regardless of the quality – or lack thereof – of the product, what makes apple such a big hitter is its commercial clout and innovative marketing. should the watchmaking industry be learning from this?

Georgacopoulos: The watchmaking industry is stagnating. The vast majority of communication campaigns are just copied and pasted from the year before! Watch brands are scared of confusing consumers, but in fact mature markets like Europe and North America are very receptive to new ideas. And that doesn’t just go for watches. The standard of car advertising is depressing; it’s always the same couple, gazing out to sea...

Source: Europa Star September 2015 Magazine Issue