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20th Anniversary
20 Years of Watchmaking - The Silicon Revolution: Part 2

20 Years of Watchmaking The Silicon Revolution: Part 2

Invisible but essential, silicon has delivered the most silent watchmaking revolution of the past 20 years. Silent it may have been, but silicon has become vital to the industry: without it, regulating organs would have been stuck in the distant past. How did this material, so common and in such plentiful supply on earth, become one of the pillars of 21st century precision?*

The Perfect Material?

Silicon is now to be found everywhere in fine watchmaking, thanks to its non-magnetic properties and its insensitivity to temperature variations. The single-crystal component is also rustproof and particularly light. Moreover, in a watch it is not subject to wear and cannot buckle. Even when subjected to an impact of 5000 g – equivalent to a one-metre fall onto a hard surface – it does not break.

La Révolution Silicium : Partie 2

Silicon Dioxide Layer forms on the Bafer and becomes Purple © Ulysse Nardin

Ulysse Nardin has developed several treatments to further harden silicon, in particular by adding a diamond deposition, a process it began to explore in 2002. Ulysse Nardin thus created Diamond Coated Silicon (DCS), following which it unveiled its Freak DIAMonSIL in 2007. The same material has also been used by Vacheron Constantin and IWC. Today, to achieve its necessary thermal compensation, all silicon components are oxidised in an oven heated to 1050°C, creating a thin surface layer of silicon dioxide.

La Révolution Silicium : Partie 2

Escapement Pallet Lever © Ulysse Nardin

100 Million in 25 Years

A process known as Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE), used back in 2001 for the Freak watch, is now possible for full production runs, with tolerances measured in microns. All silicon components produced in this way come with a 10-year warranty, a testimony to Ulysse Nardin’s confidence in these processes – to which the firm often enjoys exclusive rights.

La Révolution Silicium : Partie 2

Manufacture Mimotec merged with Ulysse Nardin to form Sigatec © Ulysse Nardin

The hairspring, pallet lever and escape wheel are the three components that derive most benefit from the advantages of silicon – and silicon balance wheels and hairsprings are individually paired. Ulysse Nardin is also capable of producing its bridges in silicon, and has its own proprietary shock-proofing processes. Since the late 1990s, the firm has spent some CHF 100 million on Research and Development.

La Révolution Silicium : Partie 2

Silicon Escapement © Girard-Perregaux

Now Everywhere you Look

Today, silicon is used by a very large number of brands, first and foremost those in the Swatch Group: Breguet, Blancpain, Jaquet Droz, Harry Winston, Glashütte Original, Omega, Rado, Tissot, Hamilton, Swatch, etc. The same is true of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, Baume & Mercier, Chopard, De Bethune, Tudor, Laurent Ferrier and Maurice Lacroix, not forgetting more advanced initiatives such as Girard-Perregaux’s 2013 Constant Escapement. And last but by no means least, there’s the distinctive Zenith Defy Lab, which has neither hairspring nor an independent pallet lever – nor indeed a conventional shock absorption system. All of these have been replaced by a single-block silicon unit that combines the functions of escapement and oscillating system. Operating at a high frequency of 108,000 vibrations per hour (15 Hz), its expected maximum variation is only ± 0.5 seconds in 48 hours.

La Révolution Silicium : Partie 2

Freak Vision © Ulysse Nardin

*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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