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The hybridisation of high-end watches


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May 2018

The hybridisation of high-end watches

Hybrid designs combining mechanics and electronics is one path being explored in chronometric watchmaking. But beyond precision, hybridisation may also be a strategic tool for moving upmarket (Seiko), asserting a pioneering spirit (Piaget), charming elegant women (Journe), putting a poetic slant on luxury (Van Cleef & Arpels) or jumping with both feet into the next generation watchmaking of the 21st century (Ressence).


enuine progress or smoke and mirrors? It could be one or the other. Or a mixture of both.

Quartz in the Carré des Horlogers

Invited to the Carré des Horlogers at the last SIHH, François-Paul Journe chose, astonishingly, to showcase only his Elégante collection. Quartz watches in this purists’ stronghold? No! Electro-mechanical watches!

The word “quartz” has an impure ring to it. So if this cheap-sounding technology wants to slip through the cogwheels, it needs to dress up and put on its Sunday best. Elégante –in this case, elegance means being able to shut down if taken off for more than 35 minutes and go into complete hibernation for a given period of time – months or even years – and in a split second reset itself to the exact time when picked up again. Worn daily, it boasts more than eight years of autonomy, and in standby mode up to 18 years. And you can only do that with (luxury) quartz.

It took eight years of research, notably in collaboration with the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), to perfect this cutting-edge quartz timepiece, the printed circuits of which have a finish every bit as noble-looking as any mechanical movement. After all, Elégante is made by Journe.

With this hybrid horology, François-Paul Journe is clearly stating his objective and he makes no bones about it. The aim is to charm women who have an eye for fine watchmaking but do not want to be bothered with it non-stop. Look beautiful and keep time! In doing so, he’s taking a strategic risk with his image. But the intention is also to show that electronics can be glamorous too.

Van Cleef, poetic piezoelectricity

Is piezoelectricity becoming poetic? We all make use of this property that certain materials have, of accumulating an electrical charge in response to applied mechanical stress, each time we press the button on our gas cookers to produce the piezoelectric spark to light the gas ring. Van Cleef & Arpels have incorporated this same property into the 12 different watches of their Midnight Zodiac Lumineux collection, in which the stars on the dial light up on demand.

To achieve this, they built a module featuring a ceramic blade into the automatic mechanical movement. Movement causes this blade to vibrate by mechanical means, generating a piezoelectrical charge that feeds luminescent diodes (between four and six, depending on the sign of the Zodiac). These diodes then backlight the translucent enamel beads on the dial representing stars for about three seconds. Here, hybridisation enters by subtle means, at the service of poetry on an astronomical theme.

Ressence e-Crown Photovoltaic Shutters
Ressence e-Crown Photovoltaic Shutters

Ressence invents the e-Crown®

This is not about piezoelectricity, but a combination of kinetic and photovoltaic energy that helps set the watch. With its e-Crown®, Ressence is seeking to “associate the reliability and precision of electronics with the empathy and beauty of mechanical engineering”. What this boils down to is that the e-Crown® is an electronic crown that automatically regulates and adjusts the watch to the precise time. This fully autonomous, on-board system does not interfere with the wheel train of the automatic movement and is linked to the display by means of discs. The specially developed, miniature electronic system comprises 87 components, and its power consumption is very low (around 1.8 joules a day).

The energy is produced by the wearer’s movements via a kinetic generator with its own barrel and, if necessary when the watch is not worn, by photovoltaic cells concealed beneath 10 micro-shutters on the dial, which open. You set the watch manually once by means of a small lever on the back of the case. After that, the electronic device checks the time at least once a day and automatically adjusts it.

e-Crown® technology developed by Ressence
e-Crown® technology developed by Ressence

The e-Crown® can be deactivated and reactivated at any time and a simple tap on the crystal resets the time. You can also connect it to the smartphone application of the same name via Bluetooth. This app offers geolocation and a pop-down menu of cities and their time zones to let you select, predefine and send the information to the watch. “In full e-Crown® mode (e-Crown® + setting by app), your watch is set and adjusted to the nearest second by your smartphone. In semi-e-Crown® mode (e-Crown® +manual setting), your watch is set and adjusted to the nearest minute. In mechanical mode (no e-Crown® + manual setting), your watch works without any assistance like in the ’good old days’ - single ’ of traditional fine watchmaking,” Ressence explains. Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod, founder of Nest and technology coach at Ressence, adds that “high-end watchmaking has to adapt to new technologies to gain access to a new level of functionality and, first and foremost, fascinate the new generation”. So, first and foremost, it has to keep the flame of haute horlogerie alight.

Might electronics be a crucial ally for high-end watchmaking in this task? There are grounds for thinking so.

Piaget, hybridising haute horlogerie

In early 2016, Piaget presented its Emperador Coussin XL 700P. A truly hybrid watch: mechanical energy and transmission, quartz regulation. Its energy source is a self-winding system in the form of a micro-rotor, which arms the barrel spring, driving the gear train. So far, so good. But rather than supplying energy to a traditional lever escapement, the gear train powers an alternator.

This generates an electrical current that is stored in a generator, which powers a quartz oscillator. The quartz oscillates at 32,786 Hz, controlling the speed of the alternator, which makes 5.33 rotations per second. The secret lies in the braking system, which ‘splits’ the quartz oscillations down to a frequency of 32Hz. This process is controlled by a sensor and comparator, which continuously corrects the system (numerous patents for this new technique have been registered).

The 700P, Piaget’s first hybrid movement, offers exceptional performance of plus or minus 1 second per day, which is beyond the reach of any exclusively mechanical watch.

But the question is: who, in the select circle of luxury watch buyers, is bothered about the absolute precision of the precious object strapped to their wrist? Precision is not to be sniffed at: it is the very core of the watchmaker’s art, its holy grail. But is it crucial down to the second?

Seiko, hybridising to move up the market

But all due credit has to be given to the pioneers of hybridisation, Seiko and their ‘operation Spring Drive’.

In 2006, Shinji Hattori, President and CEO of the Seiko Watch Corporation, said to Europa Star*: “The Spring Drive movement is only the beginning. We are sending a strong signal to the international watch market: Seiko is moving upmarket! The Spring Drive demonstrates our innovative potential and will gradually open markets for us in the mechanical haut de gamme sector. This is a long-term strategy.” The watch is beautiful, well-proportioned and impeccably finished. One fascinating detail is that its second hand glides forward like flowing water, as smoothly as time itself.

The hybridisation of high-end watches

This ‘quiet revolution’, as the Japanese called it back then, has a very long history. The idea was born in 1977 but the project was suspended several times, in 1984 and 1993, and then resumed in 1997, “only because its creator, Yoshikazu Akahane, wanted it”. A saga both industrial and human, in which the Seiko Epson division, which had expertise in low-energy circuits, played a role no less essential than that of the mechanical watchmaking division.

Premiered in 2005, the Spring Drive movement is driven by a traditional oscillating weight and a barrel transmitting the energy to the gear train. The final gear is a rotor, called a ‘glide wheel’, that powers a fixed bobbin. Controlled by the ‘Tri-Synchro Regulator’, the bobbin electrically powers the quartz oscillator that delivers signals to the integrated circuit, which in turn regulates the electromagnetic braking of the glide wheel. The glide wheel rotates eight times per second (the equivalent of a traditional escapement of 28,800 vibrations per hour). The precision attained is ± 15 seconds per month. As we described it, the hands are braked rather than propelled, and move smoothly, gliding around the dial of the watch.

Regulating time by braking it rather than sequencing it! Not only is it a fine idea, and the technology highly interesting, for Seiko it is also a successful exercise in moving closer to the higher end of the market. Available in a Spring Drive GMT, Moonphase, Chronograph, and even a remarkable zen Minute Repeater model, the Spring Drive hybrid lineage effectively enabled Seiko to carve out an innovative place for itself in haute horlogerie, paradoxically paving the way for the highly traditional Grand Seiko.

Which just goes to show that using innovation all the better to establish your status can be a worthwhile exercise.


The hybridisation of high-end watches

Frédérique Constant has introduced version 3.0 of its hybrid watch, and it has a new gimmick to match the name.

Claimed to be another “world first” for the industry, the brand has combined three technologies, hence the 3.0. Those technologies are: manufacture, smart watch functions, and calibre analytics. The Hybrid Manufacture FC-750 calibre is a patented in-house mechanical automatic movement with 42 hour power reserve and time and date functions.

Importantly, the movement has an electronic module – also developed in-house - that governs the watch’s smart functionality. It is connected to the so-called Hybrid App via the pusher button on the left side of the case, which brings us to the second feature. Using Bluetooth, Smart Watch Functions are displayed on the counter at 12 o’clock as well as in the app. Smart features include: activity tracking, sleep monitoring, analytics, world timer, coaching, and adjustments to the pusher settings. Not a lot of features, but more than any of us would probably use on a daily basis.

Last but not least is the third feature of the new watch: Calibre Analytics. Through the use of an algorithm, the health of the movement can be tracked by measuring its Rate, Amplitude and Beat error. The results are communicated to the Hybrid App and are displayed in graphs over time.

Each Horological Smartwatch 3.0 comes in a special box that offers a removable charger for the electronic smartwatch functionality (the module has a battery life of 7 days) and a more traditional winder rotating box to power the mainspring in the mechanical calibre. (Mr E.)

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