Timepiece technology

Ask a consumer electronics enthusiast what a ‘smart watch’ is and they will explain that it is a ‘connected’ electronic device on their wrist that is able to communicate with other devices and/or the internet. Ask a luxury watch aficionado what a smart watch is and they may offer an entirely different response. If you are fond of mechanical luxuries but still want to enjoy the benefits of modern technology, the horological universe has a wealth of products that make intelligent use of advance engineering methods and materials; with often stunning results.

Executives at some of the finest watchmakers will sometimes muse that their jobs are to perpetuate technology that was last innovative 200 years ago. In many ways that is true. Even the most sophisticated mechanical wrist watch of today is based on a set of principles that were developed (and often perfected) long before any of us were born. Nevertheless, watchmakers continue to develop new products each year that genuinely feel novel. How do they do this when almost by definition they are stuck in the past? One answer is to use sophisticated materials and technology to advance the humble mechanical watch far beyond the limits perceived by the archetypical historic watchmakers brands of today relish in paying homage to.

If you look closely at many of the most exotic mechanical watches of today, they share a lot more in common with the worlds of aerospace, motorsports, and boating than they do with more traditional timepieces which were produced one at a time as a watchmaker cut metal parts by hand for movements that didn’t have interchangeable parts. Watchmaking in the 21st century is a result of sophisticated computer-assisted micro-engineering and use of materials light enough and strong enough to make tiny machines possible that were never possible even a few decades ago. Modern materials are even used to improve the basic performance of watches in areas such as accuracy or how long they remain wound. Nevertheless, high-end watches remain a product of hand craftsmanship as the human touch is not something the industry has attempted (or wishes) to develop itself out of. No matter what methods are used to produce parts or what materials they are produced from, skilled watchmakers and artisans are still required to decorate and assembled them.

One can easily define a luxury ‘smart’ watch as a traditional timepiece that cleverly uses novel materials and technology to enhance performance or aesthetics. Take the Breguet Classique Chronometrie 7277 watch as an example. During the heyday of Abraham-Louis Breguet in the 18th century, he was particularly concerned with ways of improving the accuracy of timepieces, which is why he invented such things as the tourbillon. Breguet himself would likely be extremely impressed with the technology that went into today’s Breguet 7277, with its high-frequency silicon-based regulation system and magnetic pivots. While most mechanical watches have a balance wheel that oscillates at 4Hz, the 7277 has one that oscillates at an incredible 10Hz. It is able to move so quickly for so long thanks to a frictionless silicon balance spring, as well as the fact that the entire assembly is suspended between two magnets – a previously unheard of solution in a watch where magnets can literally destroy movements.

In watches speed is related to not only accuracy, but also precision. A chronograph is a timepiece that contains a stopwatch complication and most are precise to about 1/8 of a second. While digital timepieces have won the chronograph race, the most precise mechanical chronograph gives even digital tools a run for their money. The TAG Heuer Carrera Mikrogirder uses a small blade (girder as they refer to it) that vibrates at 7.2 million times per hour to measure time down to 5/10,000 of a second (1/2,000 of a second). Complex mathematical models and extremely precise engineering allowed for the Mikrogirder watch to be constructed. Even before the Mikrogirder timepiece debuted TAG Heuer was the brand to beat when it came to ultra-precise chronographs.

By nature mechanical watch movements with a high frequency (how fast the balance wheel moves) tend to be more accurate, but that assumes the power going to the movement from the mainspring is consistent. Think of the accuracy of a watch like the torque curve on a car, which means as a spring unwinds the accuracy of a movement can wildly vary. The age old solution is a feature known as a constant force escapement – and even today they are both rare and highly compelling to collectors. Girard-Perregaux has a uniquely visual interpretation of a constant force escapement that uses two thin blades of not metal, but silicon in its Constant Escapement watch.

When a watch movement receives a constant force from the mainspring, it should perform with the same accuracy as the spring winds down. Silicon is considered by many to be a wonder material for traditional watchmaking as a novel way to replace metal. Even though silicon must be cut exactly to shape, it has some unique benefits over metal such as not requiring lubrication, being antimagnetic and not being affected by temperature changes. The first watch to prominently use silicon (watchmakers often use the French term ‘silicium’) was the Freak by Ulysse Nardin. It was aptly named and while it was ridiculed at first, its novel use of silicon for improved movement performance was quickly adopted by many of its competitors.

Some people obsess over accuracy, demanding top performance from their wrist watches. How then do they measure watch accuracy on the go unless they have a reference clock? The boutique ultra-modern watchmaker Urwerk devised a unique solution with their EMC watch. It is the first mechanical watch to incorporate a built-on accuracy measuring device. While the latter component is electronic, the watch contains no battery. Instead, the user must hand-turn a crank to generate a small charge which then goes to power the rate measuring system. A reading is displayed on the dial, and the wearer can then turn a small screw on the rear of the watch in order to adjust the movement. It offers endless tweaking for those who desire a more intimate experience with their timepieces.

“If you look closely at many of the most exotic mechanical watches of today, they share a lot more in common with the worlds of aerospace, motorsports, and boating than they do with more traditional timepieces.”