After spending centuries battling the effects of gravity on delicate mechanical balance springs, watchmaking is turning to the second of the four elemental forces of the universe. This year at BaselWorld, the atmosphere was electric – well, electromagnetic to be precise. Breguet and TAG Heuer have teased us for a bit about the possibility of using the electromagnetic force in watchmaking; in 2013, both companies lead the way to what we think is a brave new world in mechanical watchmaking.
Before that though, we must pause to acknowledge that BaselWorld – arguably the greatest showcase of watches at every level on earth – itself is celebrating a renaissance of sorts. For the last five years or so, we have witnessed the evolution of the annual watch fair held in the Swiss town of Basel and wondered what the completed fairgrounds would look like. In 2012, we bid farewell to Bulgari’s stupendous exhibiting space outside the fair proper – across the street really – with its challenging double-staircase setup, because this year, Bulgari is inside the main hall, alongside its LVMH brethren.
We are selfishly relieved though, that the layout of the halls remains relatively predictable, which allows us to get to all our appointments without mishap.
Changes to the exhibiting space aside, the world of watches itself is relatively unaltered – except that it might just have changed forever. The final realization of a new mechanical escapement from Girard-Perregaux (Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement) might well count as a reinvention of the wheel if it eventually makes a wide impact at Girard-Perregaux and other Kering (formerly PPR) watchmaking brands. Whatever happens in future, Girard-Perregaux now joins an exclusive club of watchmakers that have realized alternatives to the Swiss anchor escapement, including the Co-Axial escapement at Omega and the Dual-Direct system at Ulysse Nardin. Look for further developments from the Girard-Perregaux with the new escapement in future watches.
This year also saw an admirable transfer of technology throughout Swatch Group-owned brands, although Omega continues to tell us that the Co-Axial escapement will remain exclusively with it. In 2013, we see Liquidmetal making an appearance at Blancpain and the introduction of silicium escapement components, also at Blancpain. The Le Brassus-based manufacture thus joins Breguet and Omega in the silicium revolution. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2013 sees a raft of antimagnetic watches introduced at both Omega and Blancpain, which has been made possible in part thanks to silicium components. For watch lovers, the main advantage of the new Blancpain Bathyscaphe and Omega Seamaster timepieces, especially the Aqua Terra model (to be covered later, we promise) is that they are equipped with exhibition casebacks; in the past, an inner soft iron case was used to shield the mechanical movement from magnetic fields.
Close-up of calibre 574DR, showing all the innovations but revealing nothing to the untrained eye
In 2013 though we move far beyond mere antimagnetism, with Breguet showing us several interesting and entirely useful applications for magnetism in watchmaking. While other companies fret about introducing new techniques and materials into mechanical watchmaking, Breguet charges fearlessly ahead. Having been a pioneer in bringing silicium to fine watchmaking in 2006, Breguet today uses the power of having a silicium escapement (hairspring, escapement wheel and pallet fork) to turn the electromagnetic force into a friend of watchmaking. Two watches in particular bear out the truth of this in 2013, the Breguet Classique Chronometrie reference 7727 and the Breguet Classique La Musicale reference 7800 but here we look at 7727 (more on 7800 in the near future).
Hands of Time
Tarrying a moment in the Kingdom of the Swatch, Harry Winston is not exhibiting as a part of the world’s largest watchmaking group but the company did host a cocktail reception inside its booth that drew many a Swatch Group board member. Of course, we were at Harry Winston to see what our perennial favorite, the Opus series, had in store for us in 2013. With a wildly complicated method of displaying time, Opus 13 was developed with independent watchmaker Ludovic Ballouard and effectively has one hand for every minute. In total, the watch has 70 hands – 11 for the hours and 59 for minutes – which makes it the watch with the most hands ever made, we think.
Elsewhere in watchmaking, experiments with materials new and not-so-new continued. Hublot demonstrated its proficiency with carbon by exhibiting an entire range of watches with precious stones set directly onto carbon cases; typically, such stones would be set in metal of some kind so this is a genuine material coup for the brand. Yes, as with many such innovations in watchmaking, the patent office has been called into service.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual GMT Master II
Not on this list but still worthy of a mention, Rolex demonstrates its growing prowess with ceramics, as typified by the new Oyster Perpetual GMT Master II with bi-colored ceramic bezel. Apparently, the brand-that-wears-the-crown has figured out how to incorporate two colors consistently into a single ceramic piece. As Rolex watchers have guessed all along, it is not a matter of ‘if’ Rolex will bring back the so-called Pepsi bezel but ‘when’…
All across the reinvented halls of BaselWorld, we see evidence of material innovation, including some technical wizardry with regards to magnetism, as already mentioned with Blancpain and Omega. Some brands, such as Christophe Claret and TAG Heuer are already harnessing the power of magnetism to generate technical solution in watchmaking. TAG Heuer in particular has made some fundamentally important moves here, casting aside the balance spring itself for magnets. Basically, the engineers at the firm are interested in upping the vibrations per hour or frequency of the escapements and they are employing magnetism to realize their vision.
For more details and visual references, please see the gallery of watches below, listed in alphabetical order.
- Blancpain Bathyscape - Although Blancpain has some technically impressive watches in 2013, we like this piece for what it says about the manufacture’s dedication to making a better diver’s watch that also allows the mechanical movement to take center stage. The watch comes with an exhibition caseback but Blancpain have not made a picture of that view available.
- Blancpain Bathyscape - Calibre 1315 is the first example of the use of silicium by Blancpain, which in itself is significant enough. The Fifty Fathoms watches have typically been anti-magnetic and the use of silicium makes complete sense. We wonder when Blancpain will introduce more escapement components in silicium but it can only be a matter of time.
- Breguet Classique Chronometrie 7727 - Collectors will recognize the 10Hz movement from Breguet’s earlier Type XXII 3880 effort but here there is no chronograph of course. In a way, this gives the escapement room to breathe, no pun intended. The counter at 1 o’clock allows calibre 574DR to show off a bit but the true magic is hiddend
- Breguet Classique Chronometrie 7727 - A rendition of part of the escapement of calibre 574DR. It is a double hairspring, created via DRIE (deep reactive ion etching) out of a silicon, otherwise known in French as silicium, wafer. Silicium does not react to magnetism, making it ideal for experiments with magnetism in the rest of the movement.
- Breguet Classique Chronometrie 7727 - This illustration shows the action of the electromagnetic field on the balance staff. The magnetic bits are in purple, above and below the balance assembly. As shown here, it is clear that the balance is totally disconnected from the rest of movement, held in place by the field. Aside from being undeniably cool, this technical achievement marks one of the most impressive engineering feats in contemporary watchmaking since the introduction of silicium itself.
- Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement – Girard-Perregaux is distinguished by a pioneering spirit – the manufacture was responsible for the general vibrating frequency of all quartz watches (32,768Hz for those who care to know) – and the Constant Force escapement within this watch is a symbol of the same.
- Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement – The idea behind the escapement is to supply a perfectly steady beat for the watch, a sort of eternal quest for watchmakers because even quartz has infinitesimal variations. In the picture above, we see that the watchmakers have managed to shape this movement with a nod to another famous symbol of Girard-Perregaux, the arrow-shaped bridges.
- Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement – This quest for a constant rate partly explains the name of the escapement, which uses the single thread-like silicium section or blade to generate a constant force. Basically, a micro-impulse is delivered to the blade, which bends and stores the energy until it snaps into a mirror shape. This process goes back and forth, thus generating a constant force between the main springs and the balance. Note also the two wheels above the balance and the silicium blade; these are the escapement wheels and need only three specially profiled teeth to deliver a frequency of 3Hz to the movement. The name Constant force is also a reference to one of the brand's founders, Constant Girard-Perregaux. The frequency of this escapement is 21,600 vph or 3Hz.
- Harry Winston Opus 13 – If having the most number of moving parts represents the peak of micromechanics in watchmaking, the Opus 13 is a star performer. Created by independent watchmaker Ludovic Ballouard, we know of no other time-only watch with this level complexity, just to get the hands of time in motion! Ballouard creates dreamy timepieces and here, for this series with Harry Winston, he creates the apotheosis of his vision.
- Harry Winston Opus 13 – The view of the movement is magnificent but reveals little about its secrets. You just about make out though, that calibre HW4101 has quite a number of rubies – 242 to be exact – and it may surprise you to learn that this is certainly the largest number of functional jewels ever to grace a mechanical watch movement.
- Harry Winston Opus 13 – Even outside the case, as represented here, calibre HW4101 is very coy, showing that it has a traditional escapement and is manual-winding. Hiding here though is a component made of 59 jumper springs, carved from a single piece of steel using LIGA technology, that allows of the minute hands to ‘jump’.
- Hublot Big Bang Carbon Bezel Baguette - This particular collection consists of four models in a delectable mix of candy-like colors: Diamonds, sapphires, rubies and tsavorites. What makes it special isn’t the visual properties, striking as they may be. In most situations when gemsetting meets unusual materials, the solution is to use steel or gold just for the parts to be set.
- Hublot Big Bang Carbon Bezel Baguette - Here, the masters of fusion have gone one better and set the stones directly onto the carbon fiber cases – a first in watchmaking and possibly in jewelry too. Of course, this is a low-key innovation but watchmakers and jewelers of the future will be applying the lessons they learn from this collection.
- TAG Heuer Carrera MikroPendulumS – Three years after it showcased its concept watch, Carrera Pendulum – which boasted the world’s first escapement using magnets instead of a traditional hairspring – the watchmaker is back with a double slam. Behold the Carrera MikroPendulumS – the first-ever magnet-driven 100th-of-a-second chronograph and the world’s very first magnetic tourbillon. We think TAG Heuer will be trying to properly industrialize this magnetic innovation in the years to come.
- TAG Heuer Carrera MikroPendulumS – This mechanical tour-de-force – the fruit of the labor of a 25-person team at TAG Heuer’s Avant-Garde Haute Horlogerie workshop – was created with an understanding that a higher frequency presents the most accurate timekeeping but also of the inherent limitations of traditional hairsprings. The team’s solution was to remove the problem entirely by replacing the hairsprings with magnets. Although this watch is a concept, it is likely to see actual production and perhaps holds the key to yet another alternative to the notoriously delicate traditional escapement.