hen watchmakers innovate – and they do, constantly – it tends to be in an area in which they already excel, namely micromechanics. The last time the industry threw itself behind a new technology, quartz, it put its very survival at risk. By reaffirming its expertise, it came back stronger than ever. Many were sure the smartwatch would relegate mechanical watches to the history books; an irony from an object with built-in obsolescence. Record figures for Swiss watch exports show this hasn’t been the case.
Why, then, incorporate modern technology into something as successful as the mechanical watch? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Benoît Mintiens, a highly regarded industrial designer and CEO of Ressence, has a clear view on the matter: “Young people live in a digital world. If we can reconcile that with watchmaking’s micromechanical excellence, everyone stands to gain. The watch industry stays relevant in the modern world.”
- Belgian industrial designer Benoît Mintiens is the founder of Ressence
Consequently, Ressence uses modern technology to create an enhanced experience for the users of its watches which are, let’s not forget, purely mechanical. It introduced the idea as the Type 2 concept watch, unveiled in 2018. The response was extremely positive and in 2019 the brand launched production, making its first deliveries in 2020.
So what exactly are we talking about? The heart of this innovation is the eCrown® which, as Benoît Mintiens explains, originated from a simple premise: in the 176 years since Adrien Philippe replaced the watch’s winding key with a crown, in 1842, no-one had challenged this status quo. The question then was how to introduce an electronic system into a watch and at the same time conserve its mechanical integrity. Ressence responded with a technology that automates the functions performed by a conventional crown. Put simply, the eCrown® sets the time and stops the movement with no action from the watch’s wearer.
Mintiens recalls first reactions to this innovation: “Everyone was amazed. Here was Ressence with a mechanical watch that automatically restarts and sets itself to the exact time.”
The principle is an electro-mechanical system composed of 87 miniaturised parts that acts as an interface between the mechanical movement and the brand’s own ROCS® (Ressence Orbital Convex System) module. Its primary function is to automatically set the time of the mechanical watch with electronic precision.
First, the watch’s owner sets the time manually using the caseback lever. The eCrown® stores this information on a circuit board as the reference time. At least once a day, the system checks that the rotating hours, minutes and seconds disks are showing the correct time and makes any necessary adjustments, adding a previously unseen level of convenience and precision.
Electronics without planned obsolescence
The first challenge when developing the eCrown® was the amount of energy required for it to function. Ressence succeeded in reducing this to 1.8 joules per day (equivalent to 1.8 watts sustained for one second). Most of the components meet aerospace or medical standards and are connected on a custom-built, four-layered, flexible circuit board that is 0.25mm thick.
The next step was to develop a battery cell that would be powerful enough to store this energy and small enough to fit inside a watch. As Mintiens explains, “Ten years ago, the technology simply didn’t exist. Batteries weren’t powerful enough.” The batteries in the eCrown® are made by Murata, a Japanese company, and are the same as the ones in Apple AirPods, for example. They are guaranteed five years and can be replaced.
This brings us to the other major innovation: the eCrown® is an electronic system with no planned obsolescence. “There is no reason why electronics should become obsolete after one or two years,” insists Benoit Mintiens. “Obsolescence is a product of business and always wanting to sell more. Technology can function for 25, 30, even 50 years if there is no wear, which is the case with our watches.”
Not a smartwatch
At this point, we need to be clear that the Ressence Type 2 eCrown® is not a smartwatch. It doesn’t connect to the internet. The embedded electronics contribute to the optimal functioning of the mechanical movement. The eCrown® continues to monitor the correct time until the watch’s wearer chooses to stop it.
The system’s four modes are selected by tapping the crystal and shown by four colours on a subdial: green for the reference time, yellow for the second time zone, blue to connect with the app via Bluetooth (which opens a menu of cities for the two time zones) and white when the eCrown® is deactivated.
The Type 2 has an automatic movement that winds when the watch is worn. If the accelerometer in the eCrown® detects that there has been no activity (no wrist movements) for more than 12 hours, it will shut down the mechanism, preventing the barrel from unwinding and saving power reserve… until the watch is worn again, at which point tapping the crystal will restart the movement and automatically set the display to the correct time. The system is surprisingly versatile and easy to use.
“In practical terms, this means never having to wind your watch again,” says Mintiens. The eCrown® remains constantly charged thanks to ultra-powerful photovoltaic cells under the dial that transform outside light into energy.
Watchmaking for the 21st century
This ingenious combination of Swiss micromechanics and advanced technology has an audience. Retailing at CHF 46,800, the Type 2 is the most expensive Ressence watch and accounts for 15% of the brand’s sales. Customers appreciate the craftsmanship and expertise behind mechanical movements but have nothing against the latest technology, and are happy to take advantage of it. Ressence’s CEO admits that “the mechanics are the most complex part, whether the movement or the photovoltaic technology, which was a real headache.”
Ultimately, the concept is simpler than it may seem. The last word goes to Benoît Mintiens: “The purpose of the eCrown® is complete ergonomic comfort. The Ressence Type2 is a mechanical timepiece with the benefit of modern technology to facilitate use. It provides an unprecedented level of comfort. Add the precision of automatic digital time-setting and you have a watch for the 21st century.” Ressence is, to quote its slogan, ahead of time.