What recent innovations are shaking the world of watches? Lovers of mechanical watches, which can be properly conservative, often see innovation with skepticism, but that is changing. As Felix Baumgartner, co-founder of the Swiss Watches luxury brand Urwerk in Geneva and Zurich, said, “history and tradition are better respected by innovating and not simply imitating and repeating the past”.
Mechanical watches were a feat of engineering. Around the year 1300, they became the first in Europe, but it took another 250 years to reduce their components to a portable size. The clocks were an early example of the trend towards miniaturization that persists today and will last until human beings stop thinking that smaller things are more attractive / better. In other words, it will last forever.
Innovation in these times derives mainly from a change in the industry that is also in the process of innovation: the advent of expensive research and development equipment in brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, as well as in large groups such as Richemont and Kering. These firms employ watchmakers, scientists, engineers, and technology experts; they focus on developing materials and energy sources on which mechanical clocks are based and how they are manufactured. In these times there are then a few innovations that are worth noting.
One of them is 3D printing based on computing. This technology has been a blessing for many industries and among them is watchmaking, where it is used primarily to create prototypes of mechanical watches. It has also been used to make parts of watchmaking end pieces, such as the titanium casing of Pam 767 Paneral Lo Scienziato Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanium, which weighs almost half of a steel equivalent.
Philip Barat, Head of Watch Development at Patek Philippe, said that the 3D design based on computing allowed the creation of the 2014 Grandmaster Chime anniversary watch of the brand, which has 1366 parts. Barat explained: “With 3D vision, builders could not manufacture smaller pieces, but fill in empty spaces, which is impossible to achieve in 2D.”
Another innovation was marked in 2013 by Swatch, when it announced the Sistem51, the first Swiss mechanical watch whose components were assembled completely by robots. More than something ingenious, the production of the Sistem51 gave a signal of a clear advance towards the artificial intelligence in the manufacture of watches.
Four years later, the Richemont Group, owner of 11 watch brands, set up a new research facility in Neuchâtel, a medieval town by the lake in Switzerland, announcing plans to recruit engineers specialized in microsystems, microfabrication, and microengineering, which will give an impulse to the trend towards robotics. 35 minutes away by car, the factory Christophe Claret similarly uses a 16-axis robot to make its casings.
Since the sixteenth century, almost all parts of watches have been made of steel, bronze, gold, silver or other metal alloys. But in 2001 the Swiss manufacturer Ulysse Nardin introduced a watch with an exhaust (a mechanical device that controls the flow of energy) of silicon. Patek Philippe and Breguet soon introduced silicon parts as well. While the use of this material (a chemical element that is extracted from quartz and other minerals) was initially limited to luxury pieces, it has now been spilled to more basic brands with models such as the Mido Baroncelli SI Caliber 80.
Silicon is lightweight, it can be produced massively and easily molded to produce the intricate components of the movement of a watch. Unlike metals, silicon resists corrosion and remains stable with temperature change. Parts made with this material do not require lubrication or wear, so watches do not need repairs as often.
Every mechanical clock needs an oscillator, a device that oscillates between two positions, like the pendulum of a large clock. In a watch, the traditional oscillator has more than 30 parts, including a rocker and a spring that contribute to precision by means of rotation. Its design remained largely unchanged from its invention in 1675, until last year when Zenith, a subsidiary of LVMH, launched the Defy Lab, a watch with a one-piece silicon oscillator. While a traditional oscillator goes back and forth between 18,000 and 26,000 times in an hour, this new oscillator performs the same function 108,000 times per hour, resulting in greater precision.
We can conclude that watches are more than a timepiece. This is inseparable from technological developments.