Traditional skills complement futuristic materials

By Theodore Diehl

Published: March 30 2006 16:27

Time was when a king’s ransom was the price of a quality mechanical clock or watch.

These objects were responsible not only for regulating daily life. After the invention of the chronometer in the 18th century increased accuracy, timepieces became essential for protecting lives, economic prosperity and scientific research, keeping ship, aircraft and scientist on course during the past 250 years.

Amazingly, during the 1950s, the French navy still relied heavily on mechanical ship’s chronometers made by Leroy. They were returned annually to the factory for oiling and regulation long after electric timekeeping was well established on ship.

Even today, a high-performance mechanical watch can still be the preferred option where accuracy is essential and temperatures are extreme so batteries are not an option. My cool and ultra-hip, Seiko LCD watch from 1994 with built-in drum machine will not work below minus 10C or above 50C, so obviously I have no other choice than to strap a tourbillon to my wrist for the next expedition to places unknown.

Yet today, although daily life is filled with a plethora of electronic, accurate timekeepers, the king’s ransom is still being paid.

The need for mechanical accuracy has been largely replaced by the pure enjoyment of flexing one’s technological muscle and the increased market share that patenting one’s technology can engender. The technological mountain has always been there but keeping the interest of collectors has become the reason for climbing it.

In particular, one part of portable mechanical timekeepers has received an extraordinary amount of attention for more than 500 years: the escapement containing the beating heart of the watch, the balance wheel and balance spring. Its sole function is the regular release of the energy stored within a watch’s winding barrel. If it releases energy too quickly or too slowly, the watch will run either too fast or too slow. It sounds simple, but when gravity, temperature, friction, material composition and a host of other parameters are taken in account, it becomes a physicist’s nightmare.

It is no wonder the patent books of countries contain hundreds of patented escapement mechanisms, many of which never saw the light of day.

In any case, three of the best-known patents must be Breguet’s tourbillon escapement, awarded in 1801 and now in use by very many watch brands; George Daniels’ duplex escapement, used by Omega and the independent watchmaker Roger Smith; and the duplex escapement in silicium used by Ulysse Nardin in its Freak watch.

For 2006, at least three companies have presented new or improved escapements. Audemars Piguet unveiled an escapement inspired by fine 18th century examples of Robin and Leroy. Patek Philippe has continued its materials research with the Spiromax, a silicium-based balance spring created using plasma ion technology related to the manufacture of microchips, and perhaps the most intriguing entry is the return of the British to the forefront of the horological scene with the creation of the Carbontime balance wheel and balance spring.

Their approach is unique in its simplicity and (dare I say terribly English) no-nonsense attitude combined with thorough materials knowledge.

To put it simply, the widely-used standard Swiss anchor escapement is actually a simple yet sophisticated and accurate escapement type.

However, the combination of Invar balance spring and beryllium copper balance wheel in its construction means the escapement will suffer from thermal change and the build-up of magnetism.

(Contrary to popular belief, a balance spring cannot be demagnetised, as each contact with magnetism permanently changes its physical state).

By using carbon-based materials for the balance spring and matching it with a weighted, quartz balance wheel, the Carbontime solution represents the first time a non-magnetic balance spring and wheel are completely “coupled” and therefore insensitive to thermal change as well as magnetism, with remarkable timing results.

Gideon Levingston, the inventor of this simple yet effective system, registered more than 10 patents and spent more than five years of study and research on this solution.

On the financial side, the investments made by the aforementioned companies in escapements alone reach tens of millions of pounds and the repercussions within the industry are high. Nivarox, owned by the Swatch group, is the main supplier of balance wheels and springs to the entire Swiss industry, including giants such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, so it is no surprise it has been closely following these patent developments.

Until now, the control by Nivarox of its parts supply chain gave it power over the growth of any watch company. All these newly developed elements and corresponding patents mean the hegemony of Nivarox is being eroded and it may be forced out of the market if its classical escapements become outdated and all alternatives are secured by exclusive patents. This is why it is quietly collaborating with a couple of the leading forces.

The implementation of patented high-end technology products, such as Patek’s Spiromax, also has the potential of generating long-term economic security. With metal parts, a master watchmaker or fine machining expert can always create a replacement part and all the tools and methods of standard watchmaking practice will apply. However, if the unusual, proprietary and specialized silicium based system of Patek Philippe imbeds into its watches in the future, it will slowly take full economic and physical control over all repairs of its timepieces. In addition, it will have a means of detecting and frustrating production of the multitudinous high quality fakes in the marketplace.

Strangely enough, the Swiss patent office is rather useless for protecting such intellectual property in comparison with the US and other countries in Europe. In those countries, a patent must fulfill specific criteria: it must be novel, innovative, offer technical solutions and undergo a close examination by trained specialists before a patent might be granted. In Switzerland, the patents are not benchmarked; you can deposit anything you wish, and the courts remain the final arbiter in the case of dissent. This means any watchmaking innovation of real potential will require multiple depositions in several countries outside Switzerland with a corresponding investment in lawyers and fees to protect it.

Luxury brands have also found other ways to use patented materials and methods to their advantage via crossover technology.

Metallurgist Luc Lajoye, general manager of Les Bronzes d’Industrie near Metz, developed ALUSIC as part of his doctoral thesis. He says: “I actually had no idea what it might be used for. My goal was to find an ideal way to create an extremely light yet strong material using carbon particles in a metallic matrix.” The fact that the aerospace industry picked up his patented ALUSIC for communications satellites came as a surprise to Mr Lajoye, until Richard Mille shocked him further with the idea of using ALUSIC to create the case for his skeletonized tourbillon RM 009 Felipe Massa, at 28 grams the world’s lightest mechanical tourbillon using no plastics.

That watch turned the concept of luxury on its head, proving that the toughness and lightness of industrial materials could also be reinterpreted as luxurious and exclusive.

Certainly one of the most radical watches embodying fascinating patents must be the TAG Heuer Monaco V4. The outrageous engineering it contained was both attacked and lauded at its release in 2004.

The industrialisation process of its development afterwards had a rocky road, with experts predicting its demise in each delay, but this is not surprising considering the radical design it embodies.

Inspired by a car engine design, the watch uses small bands, much like the V belts used in cars, eliminating the use of the usual gear train wheels found in all other watches.

These miniature belts had to be created from hundreds of materials, and everything was tested from titanium to thermoplastics until the ideal synthetic material for each belt could be determined.

To produce these belts there had to be the development of techniques such as the application of a high frequency cold laser called a femto laser, the femto referring to its frequency of one quadrillionth of a second. The pulsed bursts of energy are extraordinarily high, but since the duration is so incredibly short, there is no time for adjoining electrons to be displaced, creating minimal heat, which leaves the edges of the remaining material well-defined.

Originally designed for use in surgery, it was taken up by the microchip and vehicle industry; and now watchmaking. Able to cut gently areas to only a few microns in size, the laser can easily cut more than 300 microscopic teeth into a V belt measuring only 8mm in diameter. Happily ticking away behind the scenes, the official Monaco V4 release is upcoming, but TAG Heuer is keeping its cards close to its chest until its long-term, state-of-the-art testing is complete.

Watchmaking in Switzerland, the actual assembling of watches, will probably remain the domain of the talented and patient hands that created the tradition. However, the chances are that the parts those hands assemble will have been created using techniques of a futuristic complexity and innovation.

(From original found at :