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20th Anniversary
20 Years of Watchmaking - Watchmaking patents between protection and inspiration: Part 1

20 Years of Watchmaking Watchmaking patents between protection and inspiration: Part 1

While watchmakers repeatedly demonstrated ingenuity, the patent activity over the first two decades of the century increased in such proportions that their primary purpose for companies to serve their clientele with exclusive products also fostered an unprecedented level of creation at the industry level**

Combined with other key factors ranging from a new purpose after the quartz crisis, a supply reorganisation and major advances in design and production, this increased protection undeniably contributed to inventiveness and inspired more novel ideas.

Brevet Horlogers entre protection et inspiration : partie 1

The bridge for the Freak © ulysse Nardin

The Aftermath of the Quartz Revolution – New Purposes for Mechanical Watches

For the first time in their history in the late 1970s, following the quartz disruption, timepieces regulated by a mechanical regulating organ faced a dramatic paradigm shift: their primary function – providing their wearer with a necessary time indication – was no longer capable of keeping up with their new competition: quartz-regulated watches. Less accurate & soon more expensive than their challengers, they experienced an overnight drop in demand which remained extremely low for many years.

Companies had to reconsider the value and role of mechanical timepieces, shifting from a mere commodity product to a luxury one to attract customers again. Enhancing their emotional value and unique selling proposition was a necessity to (re)conquer people’s hearts… and their wrists.

Brevet Horlogers entre protection et inspiration : partie 1

Révélation d’une Panthère © Cartier

Swatch Group’s Supply Reduction – Internal Developments and New Standards

The Swatch Group’s decision in 2002 to reduce movements supply to external watch brands forced the latter to build up or reinforce their internal development resources. Designing alternatives to standard calibres, like the famous Valjoux 7750 and ETA 2824-2, was both a challenge – as catching back on several decades of technical maturity was a difficult task – and an opportunity as it enabled specifications relating to the decades-long use of these ‘workhorse’ calibres to be reconsidered and improved, thereby providing beneficial to the customer experience.

Some revealing examples are enhanced shock-resistance and increased power reserve, which shaped standards for new product design, meeting the expectations of a more discerning customers and their wearing habits.

While designing new base calibres was a new exercise for many companies, competences developed during this journey also enabled engineers to further engage in watchmaking mechanisms and functions. In the meantime, several external development specialists emerged to round out watch companies’ resources and come up with more creative and sometimes exotic creations.

Watchmaking patents between protection and inspiration: Part 1

Movement for Baccara © Christophe Claret

New Capabilities pushing the Boundaries of the “Feasible” and the “Thinkable” 

During this period, major technological advances at the design and production levels also contributed to new and more advanced functions, displays and complications.

The further integration and evolution of modelling, engineering and simulating software significantly accelerated novel arrangements and their alternatives. Through animation of new and complex functions, engineers could better engage with surrounding teams, which also facilitated feedback and thus further fostered development.

Additionally, significant breakthrough advances at the production as well as materials and related processes levels undeniably contributed to novel concepts. Essential technologies such as LIGA (an advanced process for multilevel metallic parts enabling rapid prototyping while assisting the selection of design alternatives for movement components); silicon DRIE etching technique; and a growing range of additive manufacturing technologies including 3D-printing, are nowadays regularly used in production (finished products) and prototyping phases. Such processes and their hybridisations opened up new possibilities for designers, while also making them dependent, as some geometries, properties or materials cannot necessarily be reproduced with traditional processes.

Faster, Lighter, Thinner, Louder… A Race to New Records

As the result of fast-growing demand and keen interest from customers – many of them better informed than ever – and from an expanding community of collectors, acting as art patrons, the watch industry soon became a ‘sky’s the limit’ type of playground.

Records ranging from the number of watches’ individual components, contained or combined functions, hours of development or craftsmanship, dazzling full-stone settings or other ornamental accomplishments, overall thinness, lightness or even loudness became increasingly fleeting phenomena, and in some instances morphed into battlefields for a handful of key players consistently seeking to protect their advances.

*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.

** written by Sébastien Dordor

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