Mechanicals on the Move

Mechanical watches seemed near extinction just 25 years ago. Today, they not only dominate luxury watchmaking but also are profit centers for other watches. Maurice Lacroix, for example, expects 90 percent of its watches to be mechanical by 2012. Nearly 60 percent of Hamilton’s watches are now self-winding, while 25 per-cent of Victorinox Swiss Army’s watches are mechanicals, including its new Alpnach collection.

Others, from upscale to affordable, are adding one or more to their repertoire, such as Gucci’s first automatic (a limited edition for men) in its new Pantheon collection and Armitron’s first automatic, a skeleton watch (starting at $95).

One sign of activity in the mechanical watch segment is that more brands are unveiling their own movements. Bulgari’s Diagono Scuba watch, for example, has a specially created movement, as does Ebel’s 1911 BTR. Formex’s square 4Speed (with tilted case), aimed at young adult buyers, uses a new automatic chronograph movement. The Krieger Chronograph is the first to use the new ETA AO7 automatic movement, while luxury brand JeanRichard’s 2TimeZones GMT is the first in its new sports line with the JR1000 movement made in its workshops. Maurice Lacroix’s Masterpiece Le Chronographe uses the ML 106-2, conceived and developed in the brand’s technical department in Switzerland.

Many mid- and upper-price brands with new mechanical movements say they represent their company’s future. IWC’s “milestone” movement, made in-house for its Da Vinci automatic chronograph, boosts efficiency of the winding system 30 percent. “There’s a real future for mechanical watches, and [for IWC] this represents a new generation of horological innovations,” says product manager Claudia Urani.

The movement luxury brand Ulysse Nardin created for its 160th anniversary timepiece is “the basic movement” for future timepieces, says vice president Patrik Hoffman. Swiss-made Corum and Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, a top Swiss mechanical movement maker, will make movements exclusive to Corum, taking it into new categories of complication watches. Parmigiani’s proprietary movement for its new Kalpagraph chrono series, its first, “lights the way for the more accessible, sporty direction the brand has chosen to follow,” said a spokesperson. Eterna’s calibre 3800, using new ball-bearing technology altering the centuries-old way movements work, launches “a new generation” of movements and watches for the brand, says president Patrick Schwarz. First to use it is Eterna’s new Vaughan watch.

Not all new movements are mechanical. Seiko’s first hand-wound kinetic movement, energized by wrist motion, is “the basis for a future series of calibres,” says Les Perry, Seiko Corp. of America executive vice president. Citizen watch has two new calibres for its Eco-Drive (light-powered) watches. ETA, one of the world’s largest movement makers, has added two quartz calibres to its Fashionline series, one a “response to the trend for large watches,” while Swiss movement maker Ronda’s Startech 5130.B is the first quartz chronograph movement with alarm and big date.

THE COMPLICATIONS OF TIME

The surge in mechanical watches and movements is spurring more brands to add complications, i.e., specialized functions. Chronographs, moonphases, and day/dates have been standard in many watches for years. More recently, watchmakers have begun to add esoteric ones that once were found only in high-end watches.

The tourbillon, which compensates for gravity’s slowing effects on mechanical movements, though difficult to make and best suited to limited editions and one-of-a-kinds, has been popular recently—in part, so brands can demonstrate their watchmaking craft. (In 2006, almost 100 brands debuted new watches with them.) Swiss brand Paul Picot, for example, this year presented its first-ever tourbillon in its upscale Atelier collection. Cuervo y Sobrinos this year also debuted its first tourbillon (eight only, in its Robusto collection, for the brand’s 125th anniversary). Offering such complex and delicate mechanisms provides “credibility [and] a message to the industry, watch enthusiasts, and consumers that we’re serious Swiss watchmakers,” says managing director Massimo Rossi. Even Italian fashion watch Vabene has added one (rose gold–plated, with a thermometer on the side).

Though fewer brands offer new tourbillon watches this year, there are still a number of notable debuts. JeanRichard’s Bressel 1665 Chronograph Tourbillon and Panerai’s 47 mm Luminor 1950 TourbillonGMT both show theirs via caseback windows, rather than on the dial. Pierre Kunz has a 41 mm square Art Deco Tourbillon, while Breguet’s Marine Tourbillon is water resistant to several hundred feet. Omega’s De Ville Central Tourbillon Co-Axial Chrono-meter puts its titanium tourbillon at dial center. Girard-Perregaux’s Vintage 1945 Jackpot Tourbillon features slot-machine symbols that spin when a case side button is pressed. Daniel Roth’s manual-wind Lumiere is a delicate skeleton tourbillon with power-reserve indicator on the back. Bulgari’s limited-edition platinum GMT tourbillon features dual time and a perpetual calendar.

Hublot’s diamond one-of-a-kind One Million Dollar Big Bang tourbillon took 2,000 hours to make, while Movado, marking 60 years of its Museum watch, unveiled a single platinum tourbillo with 24-hour and 60-minute retrogrades, worth 1 million Swiss francs (about $814,000). Jacob & Co.’s 55 mm Quadra tourbillon ($580,000) in white gold or red (18 of each) has four time zones and is wound on the caseback.

Several Chinese companies—suppliers of some Western upscale brands—displayed their own tourbillon watches. Among them are longtime Hong Kong watchmaker Peace Mark, exhibiting for the first time at BaselWorld; Shanghai Watch Industry Co., China’s largest manufacturer of mechanical watches; and Fiyta, which showed an eye-catching model with a blue mother-of-pearl dial.

Interest in other complications is rising. More prominent this year are the retrograde (a hand moves around an arc before springing back to its starting point to begin again) and GMT (an additional hand tracks world time on a 24-hour scale).

Retrogrades usually come in minute (seconds), hour, days, and date-of-the-month versions, such as Hermès’s Cape Cod Moon Phase (date); Clerc’s Odyssey (date), with a case incorporating titanium, ceramic, carbon, pink gold, and palladium; Gérald Genta’s Gefica Safari (minutes); and Maurice Lacroix’s Masterpiece Jours Rétrogrades (days).

Other retrograde debuts this year include ESQ’s Fusion chronograph; TAG Heuer’smen’s Link collection, with perpetual calendar; and Patek Philippe’s newest officer-style watch, with moonphase and leap-year indicator.

This complication so fascinates watch enthusiasts there are bi- and even tri-retrograde watches, such as Harry Winston’s newest Excenter Perpetual Calendar (date and month) and Milus’s Herios TriRetrograde (60 seconds in three 20-second arcs).

GMT and multiple time zones—found in travelers’ watches—are two of the most popular complications. New models include David Yurman’s men’s Belmont GMT; Glashütte Original’s Sport Evolution GMT, using a new calibre; Ebel’s 46 mm Classic Hexagon GMT; and Officine Panerai’s Luminor 1950 10 Days GMT.

First-time entries in the travelers’ watch category include Zenith’s Grande Class Tourbillon, its first multi-time-zone watch, and Ernst Benz’s Chronoflite GMT.

A number of the watches are technically impressive. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 46.3 mm MasterCompressor Extreme Diving 1000 GMT, for one, carries seven patents and claims to use the world’s smallest mechanical calibre (made in-house). The Porsche Design Worldtimer, Carl F. Bucherer’s skeletonized GMT, and Eterna’s World Timer each use just one push-button to show other times zones. And some are poetic in design, such as Le Vian’s DuoChrono, with two time zones, and Pierre Kunz’s Second Time Zone (with retrograde hours), inspired by Jules Verne’s From Earth to the Moon.

Other complications are getting more attention, too. High-end Daniel Roth’s Equation of Time lets a wearer evaluate differences between mean and true solartime at a glance. The rare complication is one of five in the timepiece. Luxury watchmaker Martin Braun’s 42 mm Selene, using Braun’s own movement, is the most accurate mechanical moonphase watch ever made, says the watchmaker.

The repeater (which sounds hours, quarters, or seconds when a button is pushed) also appears more frequently. Examples include Blancpain’s diamond minute repeater movement (the world’s thinnest) and Roger Dubuis’s Excalibur 9 Place Vendôme (with push-button winding system, perpetual calendar, flying tourbillon, and dual time zone). Also drawing more interest are flyback (split second) functions, as seen on TX, the new midprice brand of the Timex Group; the Krieger Power Reserve; and Hamilton’s automatic Jazzmaster Rattrapante.

Some of the most impressive watchesare grande complications, exquisitely handcrafted timepieces. Franck Muller Geneve, the self-billed “master of complications,” this year unveiled Aeternitas Mega, its most complicated wristwatch yet, with 20 complications (in four versions). Vacheron Constantin’s calibre 2755, three years in development and used in its Patrimony Traditionelle, features moonphase, tourbillon, and perpetual calendar. Production manager Christian Summonet calls it “the most complicated watch we’ve ever made.” Carl F. Bucherer’s automatic Patravi Chronograde, capping two years’ work, combines chronograph, flyback, large date, annual calendar, power reserve, and retrograde (hour) functions, a world first.

KEEPING TIME WITHOUT FRICTION

Strong business in mechanical watches is spurring research and development in mechanical watch movements. One area of activity is improving efficiency by reducing internal friction and eliminating lubrication and servicing. Among high-end watchmakers who this year unveiled materials and mechanisms are these:

Ulysse Nardin’s limited-edition Freak DIAMonSIL, says the watchmaker, is its “next leap forward.” Its Dual Ulysse escapement is composed of lightweight silicium encased in tough synthetic nanocrystal diamond (registered as DIAMonSIL).

Audemars Piguet’s Millenary, with deadbeat seconds, uses the brand’s own escapement. Its design eliminates lubrication of pallet stones, increases efficiency by transmitting energy directly to the balance (instead of by the lever), and improves shock resistance with precisely designed new components.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s own calibre 988C in its Master Compressor Extreme LAB has six patents. It uses redesigned components and lighter, more resistant materials in its escapement, which operates without lubricant. “[It’s] our most reliable mechanical watch ever, and extremely accurate even in extreme conditions,” says Sonia Spring, product manager.

Eterna’s calibre 3800 is the first in watchmaking history in which the barrel, barrel arbor, and winding wheels are mounted on ball bearings, improving precision and efficiency. The tiny ceramic ball bearings are extremely hard and can work indefinitely without lubrication.

Lubricant-free movements aren’t the only innovations. IWC’s calibre 89360, three years in development and its first proprietary movement, uses a double-pawl winding system, which transmits energy using four pawls (instead of two) to the pawl wheel, increasing efficiency 30 percent.

German luxury watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne’s Lange 31, with a 31-day power reserve, has been in development three years. It’s the first with a constant-force escapement, providing sustained delivery of energy for a month for constant accuracy. However, watch aficionados must wait until late 2008 or ’09 for one. The limited-edition watch, say officials, isn’t completely developed.

Wyler Genève’s automatic chrono-graph incorporates a triple-shock protection system (unique crown protector, Wyler’s own shock-resistant Incaflex balance wheel, and sprung case). The movement is suspended in the case and cushioned by springs, like car axles suspended on a chassis by shock absorbers.

More brands offer multifunction watches (chronographs, world timers, repeaters) with mono-pushers for greater efficiency and ease of use. Among them: Cuervo y Sobrinos, Carl F. Bucherer, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Porsche Design, and Roger Dubuis.

There are creative innovations, too. One of the most exquisite is Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Les Masques collection. Twenty-five sets each contain four automatic timepieces representing the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. On each watch face is a tiny, exact replica of an ancient tribal mask from those regions, created with advanced computer imaging and design software to ensure they’re identical to the real masks, even to a dent on the nose of the Chinese mask. Each case is different: white gold for the Alaskan mask, pink gold for the Indonesian, yellow gold for the Chinese, and platinum for the Congolese. Each watch’s sapphire crystal has a different tint (using a unique metalization process) and a poem engraved underside. Dial apertures show the hour, minutes, day, and date.

The automatic Titanic-DNA incorporates elements from ocean-floor remains of the famous ocean liner that sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg. The luxury watch, first in a DNA of Famous Legends collection of Swiss brand Romain Jerome, integrates oxidized steel from the Titanic with titanium in a rust-color case (also available in gold or platinum) and its coal in the black dial. Titanic-DNA is limited to 2,012 watches (for the 100th anniversary year of the sinking).

Quartz mechanicals may dominate the watch business in volume, but mechanical watches are where the action is these days in mid- and upscale watchmaking—in new calibres, technical innovations, creative designs, and consumers’ growing fascination with them. That was amply demonstrated at this year’s major international watch shows in Switzerland and The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas in the United States.