The Technology of Time

Innovative advances in watchmaking at BaselWorld this year included some true groundbreakers, especially in mechanical timekeeping.

  • Seiko’s multipatented Spring Drive movement—28 years in development—is its most important launch since its quartz Astron in 1969, which sparked the quartz-module revolution in watchmaking that radically changed the international watch business.
    Spring Drive combines mechanical watchmaking and electronic micro-engineering. Though based on a mainspring (the root of mechanical watchmaking), it uses a new electronic system of time regulation that ensures accuracy to within one second a day and hands that glide around the dial rather than “tick.”
    Three features characterize the new movement: A mainspring of new high-elasticity material that creates more power more smoothly for a longer time (72-hour power reserve); more efficient transmission of the rotor’s power to the mainspring (and 30 percent more efficient winding of the spring than traditional systems); and a new device called a tri-synchro regulator, replacing the escapement (used in mechanical movements to control a mainspring’s speed and accuracy). It regulates three kinds of energy in the Spring Drive mechanism—the mainspring’s power, the electrical energy that creates to activate a crystal oscillator, and the electromagnetic energy that turns the movement’s glide wheel.

  • A prototype “e-paper” watch using “electrophoretic paper” technology (by Seiko Epson and America’s E Ink Corp.) was shown by Seiko. The e-paper, embedded in the watch bracelet, displays a changing mosaic pattern, as well as time.

  • TAG Heuer’s Calibre 360 is the first mechanical chronograph accurate to 1/100th of a second, and “the most accurate mechanical timepiece ever crafted,” it says, due to the high frequency of its balance wheel, oscillating at 360,000 beats per hour (10 times faster than any other chronograph). TAG Heuer is seeking a worldwide patent on its single-crown control system, which winds the movement and controls its hour and date settings.

  • Patek Philippe debuted a major technical advance that solves a centuries-old problem—the first anchor escapement wheel of monocrystalline silicon, a diamond-hard material. Antimagnetic and corrosive-resistant, it transfers energy more efficiently to the balance and never needs lubrication.

  • Harry Winston had several premieres. Its Opus 5 watch, a collaboration with Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk (and the last in its annual Opus series), uses three tiny numbered blocks to display the hour, topped by a pointer for the right-side minute arc. An indicator on back tells when to service it (every five years). Its women’s automatic Excenter Biretro combines retrograde indicators of seconds and weekdays, a world first. Its Excenter Tourbillon, by English watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin, puts the rotation system inside the carriage, for enhanced accuracy and more resistance to shocks.

  • de Grisogono’s Occhio Ripetizione Minuti, inspired by reflex camera lenses, has a 12-blade diaphragm mechanism that opens to reveal the repeater movement when the watch chime sounds and then shuts to shield it.

  • DeWitt has a patented, miniaturized system, which speeds up winding in a mechanical watch so it never depletes its power reserve.

  • Vacheron Constantin’s hand-wound Tour de l’Ile (limited to seven) is the world’s most complicated wristwatch and took 10,000 hours to develop. Functions include repetition of hours, quarters, and minutes on request; a tourbillon; power-reserve indicator; second-time-zone indicator; phases and age of the moon; striking-mechanism torque indicator; and a perpetual calendar showing day, date, month, leap year, and perpetual equation of time, with sunset and sky-chart indicators.

  • Flight Watch, created by U.S. pilot John Reisman, features the patented Global Time Management, a one-touch time-management system a pilot can use in-flight or on the ground anywhere in the world. First models will go on sale by 2006.

  • Martin Braun’s Heliozentric World Positioning Display, an astronomical complication new to watchmaking, continuously displays on the dial the relation of the earth to the sun, as well as the current zodiac sign.

  • Ulysse Nardin’s newest Freak 28’800 watch has a dual escapement made of diamond.

  • Roger Dubuis’s automatic RD02 minute repeater has the world’s first watertight minute repeater.