Swiss Watch Houses Embrace Technology

New York Times, April 24, 2013

NEW YORK — At a time when pundits are hailing the coming wave of smart watches as the next generation of wearable technology, practitioners of the mechanical arts might seem to be a threatened breed.

In the 1970s, when inexpensive and accessible quartz digital technology brought disruptive change to the industry, many brands stuck in the machine age were driven out of business.

Yet today’s luxury watchmakers seem unfazed by the specter of competition from the technosphere.

“They’re not out there shaking in their shoes like it’s the next coming of the quartz crisis,” said Michael Disher, the technical editor for WatchTime magazine.

The difference between then and now is that this time around, the top Swiss watch houses are themselves poaching cutting-edge researchers from government labs and universities to emulate the forward-thinking ethos of the automotive industry, whose tradition of developing concept cars they have recently co-opted.

The extent to which manufacturers are thinking outside the traditional watchmaking box was made clear at an Omega presentation in New York last month, when the brand presented the new Seamaster Aqua Terra watch, featuring a first-of-its-kind antimagnetic movement, resistant to 15,000 gauss.

Michel Willemin, the chief executive of Asulab, a research and development laboratory owned by Omega’s parent company, the Swatch Group, conducted a primer on magnetism that led with a slide presentation: “Permanent Magnets & You.”

He then demonstrated how everyday objects, like the magnetic closure of a ladies handbag, could disrupt a watch’s timekeeping.

The discussion finally came around to the features that distinguish the Aqua Terra from past anti-magnetic watches, including the Rolex Milgauss and Omega’s own 1957 Railmaster, which employed shields to protect, and thus hide, the movement.

“The main problem of shielding is that it doesn’t work over 1,000 gauss,” said Thierry Conus, head of research and development at the movement and parts maker ETA.

Beyond incorporating materials that afford greater resistance to magnetic fields, the Aqua Terra movement boasts two distinctions: It is visible through a sapphire display back and it has been industrialized.

The plan is to equip all of the brand’s co-axial escapements with the anti-magnetic feature by 2017, said J.C. Monachon, head of product development at Omega.

The company’s decision to frame its news conference as a science lesson seemed to borrow a page from the playbook of Cartier, which invited a group of 115 journalists to its watchmaking facility in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, last July for a two-day educational session on its ID concept watch program.

Mr. Disher, one of the attendees, compared the experience to “a high school science class.”

“I’ve been to many new product launches before, but the approach Cartier took broke the mold,” he said, recalling an experiment in which presenters with degrees in physics and materials science reduced the pressure inside a sealed container in order to show that it was possible to boil water at room temperature.

“They demonstrated very vividly how material objects act differently in vacuums,” Mr. Disher said.

The Cartier presentation was an effective way to communicate the essence of its latest concept watch, the ID Two, introduced in January.

Dubbed the first high-efficiency watch, the ID Two is a prototype, not for sale. Its case, cut from a single block of transparent ceramic called Ceramyst, contains gaskets “doped” with nanoparticles to reinforce the seal and maintain an internal vacuum, free of air particles.

The construction helps to avoid a loss of energy by the oscillator, which regulates the speed of the movement, when it encounters air resistance. The result, according to Cartier, is a watch with a 32-day power reserve that consumes 37 percent less energy than its traditional counterpart.

The model follows in the footsteps of ID One, which Cartier introduced in 2009 and promoted as the first watch that could function, adjustment-free, for eternity, thanks to new “self-lubricating” coatings and materials and a shock-proof escapement, all housed in a case fashioned from niobium titanium.

The futuristic ID watches “integrate new technologies that are aimed at helping watchmaking to progress,” said Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, director of international marketing at Cartier.

But don’t expect to see the ID watches’ features on the market any time soon: “It is a long process to switch from R.&D. to industrialization,” she said.

At TAG Heuer, Guy Sémon, a former French navy pilot and physicist, has led the charge to transform the brand’s research and development team, which now has 52 people, into a stealth haute horlogerie unit dedicated to developing, and marketing, the world’s most accurate chronographs.

Since the introduction in 2004 of TAG’s first concept watch, the V4, which employed an innovative transmission system using gears and belts no thicker than a human hair, the brand has produced a series of high-speed chronographs that strive to reach the limits of mechanical accuracy.

In 2011, the team introduced the Mikrograph, a 50Hz chronograph with a regulating system accurate to 1/100th of a second.

Next came the Mikrotimer, a 500Hz chronograph accurate to 1/1,000th of a second, and after that, the Mikrogirder, a 1,000Hz chronograph that was accurate to an unprecedented 5/10,000th of a second, featuring the first new mechanical regulator since Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch mathematician and scientist, invented the spiral balance spring in 1675.

Last year, TAG took it a step further with the Mikrotourbillon. Priced from 50,000 to 250,000 Swiss francs, or about $53,000 to $267,000, the models were sold in extremely limited series.

At the Baselworld luxury watch and jewelry fair this week, TAG will present two new timepieces, the commercial Carrera Mikrograph Pendulum and the concept Mikropendulum, that reflect its synthesis of traditional expertise and cutting-edge materials science.

“The department of R.&D. at TAG Heuer is like an orchestra playing not Mozart, but a modern symphony,” Mr. Sémon said. “To play it, I have to find the best watchmakers and engineers.”

Lucien Vouillamoz is a poster child for that philosophy. A former nuclear engineer with a degree in thermodynamics, Mr. Vouillamoz teamed up with the watch marketer Vincent Perriard in 2010 to create the boutique brand HYT (for Hydro Mechanical Horologists), whose watches course with colorful fluid that indicates the time. This week, the brand will introduce the new H2, described as “the perfect alliance between high-end watchmaking and fluid mechanics.”

But even the industry’s most passionate inventors acknowledge that mechanical watches have their limits.

“Watches today are much more reliable than they were 20 to 30 years before,” said Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, founder and owner of Agenhor, a supplier of movements. “But it’s never possible to be as accurate as a quartz watch.”