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20th Anniversary
20 Years of Watchmaking - Performance and Perfection: part 1

20 Years of Watchmaking Performance and Perfection: part 1

From material innovations to high-frequency escapements –how 21st century watchmakers pushed the limits of an 18th century technology*

Is there anything more representative of the spirit of human endeavour than the pursuit of perfection? We do this even with technology that has been outpaced and outperformed; motorised vehicles will get you from point A to B far more efficiently compared to any leg-powered variety, but as anyone who has ever lusted after the very latest in ultra-light carbon-frame superbikes will tell you, that comparison misses the point entirely. High-resolution digital photography offers us the ultimate in pixel-perfect imagery, but that has only inspired contemporary artists who specialise in hyper-realistic work, going over wallsized canvases with brushes of retina-taxing fineness.

And so it is with mechanical watchmaking. The quartz oscillators which flooded the watch market after 1969 were much cheaper than their mechanical equivalents, and what they lacked in prestige they more than made up for in timekeeping ability. The standard quartz movement beats at 32,768Hz while the highest standard frequency in a mechanical watch is 4Hz. In other words, any old basic Casio watch is 8,192 times more precise than a fine mechanical timepiece with a price tag in the mid-five figures. There is currently no way of matching this kind of cost/performance ratio in a mechanical watch. Some people might ask, what’s the point in trying?

Performance et perfection partie 1

MP-09 Tourbillon Bi-Axis Titanium © Hublot

Nevertheless, we persist. We persist in developing mechanical resonators that can measure smaller and smaller fractions of a second, in shaving off incremental margins of error until we are within kissing distance of perfection. We will never reach it, of course; perfection is an absolute axis and we can only traverse its asymptote as it approaches infinity. But perfection is as tantalising as it is out of reach; and thus, in spite (or because) of this, we persist.

Performance et perfection partie 1

MP-09 Tourbillon Bi-Axis Titanium © Hublot

 

We Don't Live in A Theoritical World

In the last two decades, forays into the advancement of precision timekeeping have mostly fallen into two broad categories. The most prolific category addresses the causes of imprecise timekeeping in the extant body of watchmaking. In other words, it tries to solve the issue by investigating how watches currently underperform, chronometrically speaking, and then improving those aspects of the watch.

How, then, do watches currently underperform, chronometrically speaking? In theory, the mechanical principles of watchmaking are entirely flawless. A theoretical watch could run forever, with zero errors and with infallible precision. Unfortunately for mechanical horology, we don’t live in a theoretical world. Errors are introduced in various ways, at every conceivable point.

It happens when energy is transmitted inefficiently, when components are subject to wear and tear over time, when the watch receives a shock, when the movement is magnetised, when the balance is not perfectly adjusted, when the surrounding temperature is too extreme – and sometimes, errors are observed that have no discernible cause at all.

Performance et perfection partie 1

Making of constant escapement © Girard-Perregaux

A dedicated horologer, when projecting potential weak points in the construction of a watch, has much in common with a new mother imagining the potential catastrophes that could befall her child. Rather fittingly, the same three methods – isolating, compensating and upgrading – are employed in both scenarios, in response to perceived threats.

Isolating: Overprotective parents have become a cliché in the 21st century, the era in which the term ‘Tiger Mom’ entered the mainstream. Horological parents are not exempt from this instinct, adding layers of shock-proofing and other systems that provide shielding from deleterious external influences.
Compensating: Anyone who’s ever signed their kid up for sports or spent vast sums on expensive tutors because he wasn’t cutting it in academia will immediately understand why you might take a small, weak balance that’s vulnerable to shocks and pump up its frequency of oscillation to maximum levels in order to make up for chronometric shortfalls.
Upgrading: Just as a parent would seek to equip a child with skills and attributes to deal with the dangers posed by the big bad world, watch companies have used material innovation to fortify their watches against chronometric error.

Performance et perfection partie 1

Mirrored Force Resonance © Armin Strom

Textbook Examples

Almost everything we’ve seen over the past 20 years that is related to improving precision in a mechanical watch is a result of these three factors, either singly or in combination. The advent of silicon components in watchmaking, which first made an impact within the horological community in the form of the aptly named Freak by Ulysse Nardin (2001), is a textbook example.

Performance et perfection partie 1

Freak X Bucherer Blue Edition © Ulysse Nardin

The superior mechanical properties of silicon, namely its low mass and surface friction, made it a massive upgrade on metal components, which were significantly heavier and required extensive finishing processes. It was completely impervious to magnetism and, once it had undergone treatments to grow a thin outer layer of silicon dioxide, was also thermo-elastically stable, making it possible to have hairsprings that are isolated from the disruptive effects of magnetic fields and temperature changes. Lastly, the same mechanical properties (low inertia and friction) that made silicon an upgrade from steel also allowed watchmakers to create blazing-fast escapements with very little material fatigue or energy loss.

Performance et perfection partie 1

Manufacturing of Mikrotimer Flying 100 © TAG Heuer

The tourbillon, for which Abraham LouisBreguet received a patent on 26 June 1801 is widely seen as a mechanism that promotes chronometric precision in a mechanical watch, and can be considered a combined isolating and compensating solution. Although it is over two centuries old, the tourbillon was rarely seen in watches before the 21st century, and its rise in popularity and relative ubiquity today owes much to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Tourbillon (2006), shockingly affordable in its time, which demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that the tourbillon could be semi-industrialised and produced at volume without sacrificing performance. If the Master Tourbillon had not democratised and demystified the rotating escapement, it’s possible that the last 15 years of tourbillon-related innovation would have gone very differently.

Performance et perfection partie 1

Defy Lab © Zenith

Jaeger-LeCoultre can also take credit for launching a particular class of tourbillons that has indelibly marked the new millennium – the multi-axis tourbillon. Today, these cinematic micro-mechanical whirlwinds can be found in the collections of several watch companies, from established heritage brands (Girard-Perregaux, Vacheron Constantin) to independent avant-gardists (Greubel Forsey, MB&F, Cabestan, Purnell) and relative newcomers to haute horlogerie (Harry Winston, Hublot). The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Gyrotourbillon 1 (2004) started it all. Some critics continue to question the true value of the tourbillon as an enhancer of chronometric precision, but the definitive answer to this lies in the results of the 2009 International Chronometry Competition, in which the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Tourbillon and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 brought home the top two prizes.

Performance et perfection partie 1

Master Tourbillon © Jaeger Le-Coultre

*On the occasion of GMT Magazine and WorldTempus' 20th anniversary, we have embarked on the ambitious project of summarising the last 20 years in watchmaking in The Millennium Watch Book, a big, beautifully laid out coffee table book. This article is an extract. The Millennium Watch Book is available on www.the-watch-book.com, in French and English, with a 10% discount if you use the following code: WT2021. 

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