Watch Trends 2006: Automatics Thrive, Complications Spread

Among the most fascinating features of the annual Swiss watch fairs in Basel and Geneva are the marvelous innovations unveiled there. Many recent ones underscore the rejuvenation of mechanical watchmaking. Following are some of this year’s advances.

MOVEMENTS

  • Breguet, Patek Philippe, and Rolex—collaborating with a Swiss research institute and with considerable investment—have developed new technology to make mechanical movement components (i.e., balance springs, gear wheels, pallets) of silicon. This improves precision and operation, because silicon parts are antimagnetic, lighter and harder than steel, resistant to corrosion and wear, and—unlike traditional machined parts—need no lubrication. That means more efficient timepieces and less servicing and repairs. At BaselWorld 2006, each of the three luxury watchmakers presented their own patented applications of the new silicon-based technology.

  • Audemars Piguet has totally redesigned the escapement (which controls rotation of the movement’s wheels, and through that, the hands and timekeeping). Six years in development and based partly on an unused 1791 design, it improves precision, eliminates oiling, and replaces the traditional lever escapement of Swiss mechanical watches. Features include the newly created “guard pin” for shock resistance; much improved efficiency by eliminating the lever, reducing energy loss; and long-term operating stability, thanks to the new design of various parts. The watchmaker calls the new escapement “a minirevolution in mechanical horology [that] heralds a new generation” of its movements. “If this had been used 200 years ago, it would have changed the course of Swiss watchmaking,” says Francois-Henry Bennahmias, president of Audemars Piguet North America.

  • Montres Journe S.A.’s Sonnerie Souveraine timepiece caps six years’ development and has 10 patents. A sonnerie—a complex mechanical complication—chimes hours and quarter-hours, and is so delicate a slight mistake setting time can damage it. However, the new movement is so easy to use and durable that, in F.P. Journe’s words, “it’s safe for an 8-year-old.” The low-tension movement minimizes energy use while maximizing efficiency. A single mainspring provides enough energy for 24 hours (96 quarter-hour chimes), the minute repeater, and the movement (for 48 hours without rewinding). Without the chime, the movement can run five days.

  • Jacob & Co.’s automatic Quenttin, with a tourbillon, is the world’s first watch with 31-day power reserve. Movement wheels are positioned around several axles—instead of a central one—lined up horizontally. Seven barrels housing multiple mainsprings work interactively to drive the train, generating constant power and torque.

PRODUCTS

  • Jaeger-LeCoultre’s patented world-first Amvox2 “vertical-trigger” chronograph is the first chrono without push buttons. To start, stop, and reset it, the wearer simply presses the crystal. A ball-joint system lets both case and bezel pivot away from the watch’s shoulders, activating levers—each on a miniature stainless-steel ball bearing—that instantly transmit impulses that control the chrono. A three-position cursor, on the case side at 9 o’clock, keeps the chronograph from being inadvertently triggered, disengaged, or reset.

  • Geneva watchmaker Franck Muller’s automatic Aeternitas timepiece is the world’s first with a perpetual calendar mechanism (or “eternal calendar” as the brand calls it) that’s designed to operate 1,000 years. The small complex mechanism in the movement not only accurately adjusts days, dates, months, and moonphases but also leap years, and—says a company statement—“can go on indefinitely.”

  • The Oris Big Crown Telemeter, a pilot’s watch, makes it easier to fly around thunderstorms or avoid them on the ground: The seconds counter measures the time span between lightning and thunder, or any other optical and acoustic events. An extension of the stop seconds counter records distance between them on the bezel’s telemeter ring.

  • Rado, a pioneer in ceramic watches, has two patented firsts, both on its new Rado.True line. One process gives ceramic watches (normally sleek and shiny) a satin-brushed look. The other lets high-tech ceramic be imprinted or decorated, something not previously possible. The 2006 models have scrolling patterns resembling tattoos (on black or platinum-color ceramic), flowing from case to bracelet.

FEATHERWEIGHT MATERIALS

Manufacturers of fine watches began using stainless steel—in addition to the gold, silver, and platinum traditionally used by watchmakers—years ago. More recently they’ve discovered other metals, including titanium, a strong, lightweight metal used in golf clubs, boats, airplanes, and rockets, which is especially popular with men; and zalium, an alloy that’s even harder than titanium and used in the aerospace industry.

The quest for new watch materials continues.

  • Magnesium—lighter than titanium and even lighter than aluminum—was used for the first time in Hublot’s automatic Mag Bang for the bezel, case, and caseback. The watch uses titanium for its dial, bridges, bottom plate, and movement screws.

  • Material of a different kind is on the dials of luxury brand Piaget’s limited-edition Casino watches. They use real peacock and turkey feathers to eye-catching effect.

TOURBILLONS

  • Harry Winston’s Opus 6, with its “emotion 30” movement by watchmakers Robert Gruebel and Stephen Forsey, uses a double tourbillon—a one-minute cage rotating inside a four-minute one—set at a 30 degree angle. That lets its balance oscillate constantly in all planes (eliminating positional errors) for more precise timing. The company calls it “the ultimate tourbillon.” Another feature is the tiny double-arched tourbillon bridge styled like the Brooklyn Bridge. Also, instead of a traditional dial, two small display counters (at 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock) show hours, minutes, and seconds. (The winding gear and rest of the movement are under plates supporting the counters, putting viewer focus on the tourbillon.) It’s the Opus series’ most exclusive model yet. Only six will be made.

  • DeWitt’s Tourbillon Force Constante Academia uses a patented world-first regulating system, designed to transmit impulses of identical strength to the tourbillon, whatever the state of winding. The dial design, with hours and minutes in the upper half, spotlights the patented device at 8 o’clock and the tourbillon at 5 o’clock.

  • The Piaget Polo Tourbillon Relatif features a flying tourbillon hanging from the end of the minute hand. (The mechanism driving it is hidden beneath the dial.) Hours are read on a central disc, while the minute hand carries the tourbillon’s carriage as it rotates around the dial. The hand-wound tourbillon movement is produced in-house by Piaget.