In the 21st century, what is the state of the mechanical watch?

August 2004

At the beginning of the 21st century, a marvellous ‘anomaly’ continues to be found on the wrists of the world’s elite: the mechanical watch. It is a technology that some say is out-of-date, a costly, complicated technology that requires maintenance and upkeep, and whose precision and accuracy are far outweighed by quartz. And yet…

It is quite clear that the mechanical watch, whose success is undeniable and continues to increase, transmits ‘values’ that the cold body of quartz cannot even hope to do. With quartz, time is objective. Time is scientifically calculated in measurable and uncontested fractions. It is no longer noon or midnight. It is 11h59'59'' or 24h01'01''. So, what is there to worry aboutı With mechanical watches, whose precision varies always from a few seconds to a few minutes, time is, in a way, ‘floating’. And in doing so, it is closer to us; it is not always the same; it corresponds to our own perception; it is more ‘intimate’. Mechanical watchmaking resembles, in a certain manner, our own biological clock.(See Editorial) Mechanical time, we could say, has a ‘soul’ that electronic time does not have. Another factor in favour of the mechanical watch is its conceptual qualities. While we have finally passed into a new age, the digital age, our imagination has not (yet) followed along. The Man of the 21st century continues to imagine himself as did the Man of the Renaissance – as a sort of ‘celestial’ mechanical body. Although we sometimes compare our own brain to a ‘hard drive’, which was unthinkable even ten or twenty years ago, it is with old mechanical metaphors that we still use to describe ourselves. After life is over, we become an assembly of mechanical parts. Our own skeleton, obviously not made of gears, is still made of joints and connecting ‘bridges’. A mechanical watch, a sort of animated ‘skeleton’ on our wrist, symbolically resembles us more than a collection of printed circuit boards. Another important factor in favour of the mechanical timepiece, in a social context, is its prestige. A quartz watch, even if made of gold, even if bathed in exquisite diamonds, will always have an aura of something banal or something left unfinished. It lacks nobility and the ‘intelligence’ of the hand of Man. It does not have a specific, and only partially quantifiable, personalized ‘added value’ that the mechanical piece ideally possesses. A quartz watch remains somehow ‘anonymous’. A quality mechanical piece, on the other hand, has layers of prestige – prestige of the brand, prestige of the materials employed, and prestige of the inner workings, of its movement.

The Golden Ages and CAD
During its history, which goes back to the first weight driven mechanical clocks that appeared around 1370, timekeeping has known several Golden Ages: from 1750 to 1800 with a succession of technical advancements (determination of longitude by Harrison, calibre with bridges by Lépine, automatic winding by Perrelet, tourbillon by Breguet), and then from 1850 when the measure of time spread around the world. The latest Golden Age, the one we are now living, started in the middle of the 1980s with the progressive renaissance of the mechanical watch, which most had relegated to obscurity after the advent of quartz. Currently, we can affirm that mechanical timepieces have never been so precise or reliable as they are today. We are even witnessing an unheard of boom in complications, inventions and perfections. It must be understood, also, that we are living on top of the theoretical and practical bases formulated during the preceding centuries. In other words, today’s watchmaking was defined by Huygens and Breguet. Yet, we have now reached an extreme level in mechanical refinement that had never been attained previously. These new performances have been accomplished thanks to digital technology, mainly in the invention of digitally commanded multi-function equipment and machines. They have permitted the realization of industrial operations accurate to a micron. They have allowed new levels of perfection in operations that were unthinkable earlier. They have often led to decisive developments, even if these were not systematically spectacular.

The teeth of Patek Philippe
To give an example of these developments: for its new family of 324 calibres, Patek Philippe researched how to decrease the effects of gears engaging. Solutions found by the Geneva brand’s engineers involved the entire redesign of the shapes of the teeth on the gear wheels. The objective, which required several years of study, was to improve the movement’s operation. This could never have been accomplished without the aid of the most advanced CAD machines, because the tolerances of the new shapes are so extreme, to the point that they can only be cut by the highly precise machines. “This optimization guarantees a constant transmission of energy, regardless of the depth of the engagement of the different gears. Therefore, it has a direct and positive effect on the amplitude of the balance (earlier a variation of 22 degrees, or about 10%, against a variation of 11 degrees, or about 5%), and thus on the operation of the movement,” explains a spokesperson at Patek Philippe. The foundations of this new Golden Age are therefore not so much based on the tradit-ional alliance between what a machine can do and what a man can hand finish, so much as it is based on the spirit of the watchmaking tradition applied to the advanced use of the new opportunities offered by the machine.


The new 324 Calibre by Patek Philippe with the new ‘teeth’.


The hand of the Master Watchmaker
The excellent results obtained today in mechanical watches remains nonetheless confined to a movement whose roots are deeply anchored in the classical timekeeping of the 18th century: a barrel spring that provides the power, an escapement that transmits the impulsions and an oscillating balance that moves the hands. This is all driven by a gear train. One of the first veritable attempts to go beyond the classical style of timekeeping is seen by the Monaco V4 Concept watch, which we discussed in detail in the preceding issue of Europa Star (3/2004). In this timepiece, the gears have been replaced by notched drive belts and the oscillating weight has become a sort of ‘vehicle’ moving up and down a linear track. However, the ‘heart’ of the piece’s time regulating unit, with its tradit-ional palette balance, remains clearly rooted in the techniques of the ‘old’ watchmaking. But for how longı A few incautious remarks led me to learn recently that totally new and rather spectacular regulating units will see the light of day in the next year or next few years. It is apparent that some watchmakers are getting ready to move beyond the timekeeping of Huygens and Breguet. Yet, ‘old’ watchmaking, like ‘old’ Europe, is not ready to throw up its hands. Just look at the ultimate adjustments of the new Monaco V4 Concept. As Philippe Dufour has explained, it was by using an antique, hand-driven machine from the 19th century that he was finally able to get working the most futuristic prototype of contemporary mechanical watchmaking. It just goes to show that we cannot do without the most ancestral savoir-faire… which is, after all, comforting.

Everything has not been done
“Everything has been done” is a phrase we often hear in regard to the future of the mechanical watch. But, all has not yet been done as is exemplified by the Monaco V4 Concept watch, which opens exciting new opportunities, thanks especially to the exceptional power that its four barrels provide. There are also other avenues to be explored that are ‘wider’ than merely simply improving on tradition. In this sense, the Bugatti timepiece by Parmigiani comes to mind (see article in this issue) as does the Opus III by Vianney Halter made for Harry Winston. With its completely mechanical digital display, the Opus III (presented at BaselWorld 2003), is innovative in several domains. First of all, the movement of the Opus III has been completely redesigned. Even though the double barrel, escapement and balance wheel remain traditional, the physical disposition has been totally reorganized, from the bottom plate to the gear trains. Secondly, the time reading mechanism is totally original. It is composed of ten superimposed discs that display the hours, minutes and seconds in different windows. Thirdly, the crown and case are innovative. The single horizontal crown moves from top to bottom in four adjustment positions. The first position is for winding; the second adjusts the minutes; the third adjusts the hours, while the fourth position controls the date. Satellite time Felix Baumgartner, of the independent brand Urwerk, is exploring another avenue of research with his UR-103. Here, too, there are no hands but rather four conical hour discs that each display three different hours. These hour cones are supported and guided by a rotational element controlled by the minute wheel. They appear in an open window and slide along a minute scale. While the movement is based on a traditional manual-winding ETA 21600 calibre, the innovation lies not only in the display which evokes the natural course of the sun on the horizon, but also on the original satellite mechanism whose future applications are yet to be discovered. In the same vein is the display of the time and the wandering dates conceived by Vincent Calabrese, and now available to a larger audience thanks to the new brand NHC (Nouvelle Horlogerie Calabrese). The jumping hour hand is displayed in a small window that turns around the dial, showing the minutes passing. There is only one hand on the dial, that of the seconds. The same principle as it applies to the date is a world first. Calabrese, in his Beauty-Fuel watch, which as its name indicates, is inspired by the automobile and presents a working reserve display reminiscent of a dashboard gauge, is also innovative in another domain. A single crown permits the wearer to regulate all the functions of the watch – the hour, minute, second, date, and a second time zone.


OPUS III by Vianney Halter for Harry Winston OTTICA by Vincent Calabrese


The UR-103 by Uhrwerk

The research of Renaud & Papi Renaud & Papi, belonging to Audemars Piguet, introduced the spectacular Royal Oak Concept timepiece two years ago. This watch combines several advances from various fields of research at Renaud & Papi, which is a veritable laboratory of innovations in the service of Audemars Piguet. A major part of their research was on metals. The Royal Oak Concept is thus the first watch made of alacrite 602, an exceptionally resistant alloy (430 vickers compared to 200 vickers for steel). It is composed of cobalt (57%), chromium (31%), tungsten (5%) and traces of carbon, silicon and iron. “Our metallurgical research is important for us,” declares Giulio Papi, who is in charge of development for the company, “because, while watchmaking now has its avant-garde machines, it works with metals that are now obsolete. Nickel silver was considered futuristic during its era, but it is now outmoded. We are currently looking at 'inter-metallic’ materials, or in other words, a mix of two elements in precise proportions that when combined form a different crystalline structure than the two original elements. This permits the creation of certain alloys, for example, that can be easily shaped and worked by forging, rolling, spinning, etc., at temperatures of around 1000 °C. These alloys can also be used for applications at temperatures of between 700 °C and 900 °C.”

The ultimate escapement
Another avenue of research by Renaud & Papi is the development of what they call ‘the ultimate escapement.’ “This is a direct impulsion movement, ultra simple, with 43,200 oscillations per hour, without lubrication. If we equip it with a standard barrel, it has a power reserve of 56 hours, the double of that normally obtained. Its balance is auto-regulated. The isochronism adjustments are carried out at a small amplitude. It has incredible precision. To sum it up, it is a jewel of the future,” smiles Giulio Papi. It is impossible to learn more for the moment. The ‘ultimate’ escapement has passed a battery of intensive tests and in 2005-06, it should become the focus of a “global project” that also means marketing et communication efforts in order to “make a big splash.” Beyond this “big splash” to come, Giulio Papi explains that one of the main goals of their research aims, more modestly but still fundamentally, “to further increase the level of finishing. This does not mean that we are asking our craftsmen to work better, but rather to learn to work differently. It is a global qualitative research.”

New materials equal new design
To come back to the Royal Oak Concept watch, it clearly illustrates the technical and aesthetic transformations that result from research. The movement of this timepiece is made up notably of bridges and a titanium bottom plate. Besides the reduction of inertia in the movement and the improvement in sturdiness, the choice of titanium has also permitted changes in design. The very visible plate has become a surface where various indications of the watch can be read: a dynamograph, which shows the precision of the movement’s operation; a linear power reserve that shows rotations of the barrel; a tourbillon supported by a titanium bridge shaped like a spring that absorbs shocks. The last innovation is a three-position function selector (winding, neutral and hour corrections) adjustable with only one crown placed a 4 o’clock. When we asked him about the Monaco V4 Concept watch, Giulio Papi was very collegial and respectful. “All conceptual research in watchmaking is welcome,” he says, “because it is beneficial to our overall sector. Research is the only way to maintain the advance that we Swiss have over the Asiatic competition.” So, not everything has been done. Far from it, as demonstrate these advances, both modest and spectacular.


The ROYAL OAK CONCEPT by Audemars Piguet

Futuristic dreams
A few years ago, everybody predicted that the future of the watch would be a global com-munication platform. This futuristic dream appears to have deflated as quickly as a soufflé. About four or five years ago, I had the opportunity to examine the experimental ‘Swatch telephone’ in the laboratories of the Swatch Group. It worked perfectly and had the appearance of a large Scuba tank but it had one ‘silly’ defect. Unless you were going to put your watch against your ear, which I imagine would be rather uncomfortable after about 30 seconds (try it!), then every person nearby could hear your conversations… And, after all is said and done, what is better than a telephone to make a telephone callı The impasse in their research, which was not technical but rather a conceptual design problem, had the indirect benefit of helping the mechanical watch. It put ‘timekeeping’ back at the centre of the village, so to speak.

F-P Journe moves into gold
Another approach, not so much pure ‘research’ as it is continual amelioration, is seen in François-Paul Journe’s move into a gold movement. From now on, bridges and bottom plates are made of 18 carat gold, while the pinions remain in steel. This ‘golden touch’ means only a 10% increase in the consumer price, but on a practical level, it involved developing a whole new and sophisticated way of treating the material and the tools that wear out much faster working with gold as opposed to brass. By moving to a gold movement, as is done with pocket watches, Journe found himself having to improve all the tooling and production processes, thus giving a boost to quality. In its own way, his development also contributes to the superiority of the mechanical timepiece. Additionally, it is another milestone on the road to independence that Journe is following. By taking the production of his bridges and plates in-house, he acquires greater flexibility and eliminates his past dependence on others, with the slew of deadline and delivery problems. And, Journe is granting the watch movement new titles of nobility that it deserves.

Inevitable advancesı
This research for ‘nobility’, with its corollary of added-value, also has several ‘perverse’ effects. We saw this at last spring’s watch fairs where an avalanche of tourbillons hit the stands. As has been said and repeated many times, the tourbillon, as lovely as it is, is actually quite useless in a wristwatch. It does serve a purpose in a pocket watch because it negates the effects of gravity due to these timekeepers being kept vertically in the vest pocket. Some developments in this domain, however, such as those dealing with double-axes tourbillons, might be justified ‘theoretically’ from a chronometric point of view. Thus, with a double axes, the barrel and balance spring are never in the same position and don’t always support their own weight. On the other hand, a triple-axes tourbillon, such as the one by Thomas Prescher, as superb as it is, remains somewhat useless since the third axis is naturally the wrist of the watch wearer… (For more on these new tourbillons, see the article by Denis Asch in this issue.) But then again, the goal of mechanical watchmaking is not necessarily its ‘utility’, now is itı Still for all, the craze of tourbillons this year seems to be an inevitable advance into the sacrosanct watchmaking ‘legitimacy’ that runs the risk, at the end of the day, of destroying this summit of horological dexterity. There is certainly more to ‘gain’ over the long term in fundamental ‘timely’ research, even if it is less spectacular but more ‘useful’ to the advancement of precision and reliability.

The well-named ‘Autotractor’
Speaking of the long term, this is how Jaeger-LeCoultre views the development of its new movement, ‘Autotractor’, a part of the brand’s family of 970 calibres. Sturdiness, reliability, ease of maintenance and winding, great precision and excellent performance form the basis of the ‘program’ for the progress of the Autotractor. Technically, it is the sum of a series of advances, beginning with its rotor, mounted on ceramic ball bearings, that slides on a steel rail (lubrication is thus no longer needed), and that is unidirectional. The engineers at Jaeger-LeCoultre have succeeded in demonstrating that unidirectional winding provides a larger amount of energy than does bidirectional winding. As is the case with Patek Philippe, mentioned above, the gear teeth have been reshaped, facilitating the engagement and improving the transmission of torque. Moreover, this calibre is equipped with a new escapement. The variable inertia and large inertia balance (4 Hertz, 28,000 vibrations per hour) is supported by a bridge screwed into the plate. Precision adjustments are made with the help of four inertia blocks placed on the exterior part of the balance rim which makes the regulator redundant. The two ends of the balance spring are laser soldered to the balance-spring stud and the collet. The same spring is supported by two threads that prevent deformation during violent shocks. The movement is divided over several bridges and half-bridges in order to facilitate access to the various organs during repair or maintenance. Everything in this movement is large (230 parts enclosed within a height of 6.14 mm) and was designed for sturdiness and ease in use. Perhaps the Autotractor is the most emblematic movement of the 21st century because it is both new and traditional.


‘Autotractor’ movement by Jaeger-LeCoultre Resonnance by F.-P. Journe

At a crossroads
Mechanical watchmaking is clearly at a crossroads. One direction leads to a new adventure in mechanical timekeeping, one that is slowly moving away from the traditional dogma that has ruled for several centuries. Yet, these dogmas have demonstrated that both their effectiveness and their ability to adapt are continuing. The other direction takes the path of constant improvement within the traditional framework. The scenery along the way is perhaps less spectacular and, although the road is better lit, it does not mean the way itself is any easier. This direction demands armies of engineers working often in the shadows, researching less media-attractive subjects such as lubrication, new materials or the shape of a wheel’s teeth. Yet, their results cannot be denied. As a watchmaker from Rolex once told me, “with a very good balance and spring, we can achieve a chronometry that is unbeatable.”


The frenzy of the third dimension

by Denis Asch (Watchmaker and retailer – L'Heure Asch – in Geneva)

The spirit of Breguet, the king of watchmakers and the watchmaker to kings, has returned for this year’s timely harvest, a large vintage crop of tourbillons that are whirling in space towards the second and third dimension. We salute the extraordinary ingenuity of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Greubel & Forsey and Thomas Prescher.