Future-proofing heritage watch design

By Alex Doak

8 minute read

So what now? After three centuries of tinkering and miniaturising, the tick-tocking tech inside your coveted Swiss watch appears, by all accounts, to have been perfected a full century ago.

For an industry founded on measurement through innovation, how can it push things forward when today’s collectors treasure mechanical watches for the fascination and history they hold, rather than the precision now freely available in the form of horology’s sole (and, arguably, soulless) 20th-century advance, quartz? 

Luckily for the purists, the answer lies not in reinventing what’s under the bonnet – instead, like the constant evolution of the internal combustion engine, components are being souped up and fine-tuned using modern advances in engineering. In parallel to the ever-advancing bodywork of a watch, this boils down to cutting-edge materials science.

As luck would have it, Switzerland’s watchmakers are as much metallurgists as they are timekeepers. When the Jura Mountains’ 17th-century dairy farmers pivoted to making components for Geneva’s watchmakers come the winter snow, they used iron mined from the surrounding slopes. The fact they soon started making own-branded watches speaks of their leaps and bounds in micron-tolerance engine turning, crafting complications easily up to today’s standards (mostly by candlelight).

Or what about watchmaking’s nigh-on alchemical advances in metal alloys, forged from 1896 when Charles Édouard Guillaume discovered the nickel-based alloy Invar? Its resistance to thermal expansion informed a line in portmanteau-ed concoctions used for the dainty hairspring. Tiny spirals of ‘Nivarox’ – with antimagnetic chromium into the mix – have been ticking at the heart of movements since 1933.

21st-century innovation

Patek Philippe Watch Factory
Top: A selection of Swiss watchmaking tools and parts. Above: A work room at Patek Philippe watch factory in Geneva, ca 1950; photography by Getty Images

21st-century innovation

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel (or pinion, or cam…) it’s this baked-in affinity with the raw substrate that the watchmakers of the 21st-century are bringing to bear once again. What’s more, these new adventures in alloys, ceramics or nano-fabricated silicon are re-establishing the mechanical watch not merely as a romantic antidote to our digital world, but something immune to the thing that plagues the priciest example of most anything else: obsolescence. 

Whether it’s reducing friction, resisting magnetism or surviving shocks, the materials spiking mechanisms where steel or brass once were mean warranties offered by brands are longer than ever. Service intervals, traditionally around the three-year mark, are now commonly over five. And you can stop worrying about our smart devices’ electromagnetism throwing things out of whack.

To paraphrase Patek Philippe’s famous slogan: “You never actually own a modern mechanical watch. You merely look after it for the next generation, because it’s built to last that long, unlike most things these days.”

Despite classical appearances, Patek was actually an early adopter of this new age in horological innovation. Since 2005, Switzerland’s grande dame maison, has been working with an alphabet soup of cutting-edge Swiss labs, from EPFL to ETH, IMT to COMLAB, and principally CSEM, or Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Mircotechnique overlooking Lac Neuchâtel in horology’s heartland.

Considering the great stock that Patek places in its self-sufficiency as a watchmaker, it is surprising to find this venerable brand hopping into bed with so many future-forward institutions. But that’s what it takes to develop a movement reliant on the most widespread of novel materials: silicon. Even those other titans of Swiss watchmaking, Rolex and the Swatch Group (parent company of Omega, Breguet and Blancpain) are fellow CSEM shareholders, collectively investing in its mastery of ‘deep reactive-ion etching’ (DRIE) intricately shaped micro-components out of silicon wafers, with perfect precision, at impossible temperatures.

Properly smart watches

Breguet 5837 Montre Pour La Marine Tourbillon
Breguet, 5837 Montre pour la Marine Tourbillon

Properly smart watches

Where smartwatches rely on its semiconducting qualities, properly smart watches take advantage of silicon’s self-lubricating properties – proved first in 2001 with Ulysse Nardin’s FREAK. Modern movements are rugged little marvels of micro-engineering, but the strain of ticking off more than 32 million seconds per year, four times a second, does eventually take its toll on the escapement. Which is where silicon components help, reducing the need for mucky oils. 

Most dramatically, Zenith’s ‘Inventor’ uses silicon to streamline the tick-tick-ticking escapement from the precarious assembly of 30 parts to just 1: a wafer of silicon, stencilled into Kandinsky-esque abstractness. It ‘twitches’ at 18Hz bringing the whole, openworked dial display to life – a poster boy for watchmaking’s other new wave of ‘compliant’ technology, which blends multi-part mechanisms into single, ‘monolithic’ components. (Also with an early adopter in Patek Philippe and the crab-like ‘pincers’ that flex to adjust its experimental Aquanaut’s Travel Time function.)

The Inventor’s wafer features 20 different ‘flexures’, each of which is just 20 microns (200th of a millimetre) thick and half a millimetre high. The upshot is the ability to programme-in an astonishing (alleged) accuracy – around 0.3 seconds a day. 

Future tech research

Rws 56
Roger Smith at work; photography courtesy of Roger Smith

Future tech research

One disadvantage of silicon, however, is its brittleness – something the old guard enjoys pointing out. They themselves are hardly resting on their metallic laurels, though. The Isle of Man’s Roger Smith, whose output of just 12 hand-crafted masterpieces per year look even more classical than Patek, is working on his own, oil-free nano-tech.

Alongside Manchester Metropolitan University’s researchers, he is developing virtually frictionless coatings using molybdenum disulfide, deposited onto his ‘Co-Axial’ escapement parts using a magnetron sputtering process. Barring major mechanical defects, Smith could be close to producing a virtually maintenance-free watch. 

“Give me the perfect oil and I will give you the perfect watch!” said Paris’s illustrious watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet over 200 years ago. He’d be glad to hear that the matter of oil could soon be a moot point. 

As for the matter of magnetism (simply rest your watch by the clasp of your phone case and you could wake up thinking you’re either very late or very early for work) venerable Omega is the clear winner. It’s the sole licensee of the near-friction-free Co-Axial system, originally developed by Smith’s mentor Dr George Daniels, which the watchmaker to James Bond has now enhanced with a 15,000-Gauss-resistant cocktail of alloys. 

It will still be ticking smoothly, even after a particularly unfortunate decade of MRI scans – or for that matter, missions to lairs filled with massive lasers – explaining why Omega’s standard warranty has now extended from 2 to 5 years. 

Those 17th-century dairy farmers would be proud. 

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