How Five Brands Are Pushing the Boundaries of Mechanical Watchmaking

At this year’s SIHH, the heaviest-hitting pieces were unapologetic displays of horological technology.

Piaget's 2mm Thin Altiplano Ultimate Concept | Henry Phillips / Eric Yang

Every year, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) is a pageantry of over-the-top watches, insane movements and exquisite finishing. This year was no different — complex movements, precious metals and world-class designs were all present. The show’s modus operandi has been, traditionally, to serve as an exhibition of the artistry of watchmaking. But horology is defined as the study of time as both an art and a science, and a funny thing happened this year: the show’s heaviest-hitting pieces skewed more towards the latter.

Take for instance one of the show’s biggest departures from mechanical watchmaking, the Ressence Type-2 e-Crown. With the help of Tony Fadell — one of the creators of the iPod and the founder of Nest Labs — the independent brand’s new watch is one of the few timepieces to augment a mechanical movement with electronics. A wearer will set the time, then an electro-mechanical system uses that time as a reference, then self-regulates throughout the day. If you take the e-Crown off and it stops running, the watch will know precisely what time to reset to once it’s running again. It can also pair to a smartphone via Bluetooth, and will automatically adjust time zones when traveling based on your smartphone’s super-accurate clock.

Mechanical watchmakers, generally, try to solve these problems with chronometer accuracy, long power reserves and wold time functions. But this is the first time a watchmaker has used electronics to enhance the functionality and user experience of a mechanical timepiece. It’s a tactic not dissimilar to the growing market of GPS, Bluetooth and radio-enabled quartz watches that use outside time signals to keep accurate time. Right now, the piece is just a concept, but a production version is reportedly coming later this year.

Ressence's new concept uses electronic augmentation of a traditional mechanical movement to keep accurate time. Read the Story

The potential of this electronically-augmented future is enticing, but most of the other innovations this year came from restructuring and rethinking traditional mechanical movements. This seemed to manifest itself in the fast-growing realm of absurdly-thin watches. For instance, Piaget debuted its Altiplano Ultimate Concept, which, at just 2mm thick, holds the record for the thinnest mechanical watch in the world. It did so by integrating the movement baseplate and case into one piece, then replacing bridges and jewels with ball bearings. According to the brand, it took four years and five patents to perfect.

The ultra-thin Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Concept #RD2. Read more about it: Here

Similarly, Audemars Piguet debuted the RD#2 concept, the thinnest perpetual calendar in the world, at 6.3mm thick. Quite the feat, given that perpetual calendars are some of the most complicated movements in watchmaking, requiring multiple levels of machinery. Essentially, the complication is stacked on top of a base movement. Audemars Piguet, however, was able to fit the entire guts of the movement into one layer, by simplifying and integrating components that used to serve specific functions, most notably the cams and gears for the calendar functions.

“It’s really incredible that it’s never been done before. It was one of those innovations that seemed so obvious in hindsight that it’s hard to believe in 500 years of watchmaking it’s never been done quite like that,” said Michael Friedman, the brand’s historian. When asked if he thought the breakthroughs made with the RD#2 would influence future watches, Friedman said, “If you look at the trajectory of Audemars Piguet innovations going back a century and you look at when a big innovation came up, typically it’s something that finds its way into other products.”

Friedman notes that computer modeling was essential in the testing and developing of this uncharted territory, but according to Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias, young watchmakers played a vital role in making the RD#2 a reality. “We learned not to say no to a young mind about developing movements”, he said. “There were fights at the headquarters between the old generation and the younger one. The young one is saying it will work, and the older generation is saying it won’t. At one point I had to act as a sort of referee, and say the only way to do it is to test it. In the end, I think the old generation told the new generation [whispers] “you know what, you were right.”

Other brands have tried new means of production to promising results, notably 3D printing. For instance, Parmigiani Fleurier’s Bugatti Chiron-inspired Type 390 uses a cylindrical movement that necessitated 3D-printing technology to produce its tiny (0.2mm in diameter) ceramic ball ball bearings. Panerai also unveiled a model utilizing 3D-printing: the Lo Scienziato, a limited edition tourbillon that costs around $170,000; it has a titanium case made through a 3D-printing process called “direct metal laser sintering.” It weighs 30% less than a standard titanium case, according to Panerai.

Baume & Mercier’s Clifton Baumatic is taking what was once a concept-level innovation and bringing it to an affordable price.

If there’s a strong running theme between these innovative pieces, it’s the fact that they’re essentially unobtainable to most consumers; if not just concepts, they’re expensive and limited. But watchmakers further down the price spectrum have a habit of taking notice and following suit. Much like the wild concepts and high-dollar exotics you’ll see at auto shows, the technologies exhibited in these pieces will likely find their way into obtainable timepieces down the road.

Consider, for example, this year’s big release from Ulysse Nardin: the Freak Vision, a nearly $100,000 watch with a unique “grinder” automatic winding system that the brand claims is twice as efficient as a standard rotor. It’s the direct descendant of the original Ulysse Nardin Freak from 2001, revolutionary for being the first production watch to use a silicon escapement, which is more accurate, more resistant to magnetism and more durable than a metallic escapement. Just a bit further down the hallway, Baume & Mercier was debuting its momentous addition for the year: the Clifton Baumatic which uses a silicon escapement and balance spring. It costs less than $3,000.

In 17 years time, what will a $3,000 mechanical watch look like? Will it have electronic augmentation? A super-thin movement? 3D-printed components? If history is an indicator, we shouldn’t be terribly shocked if it does.

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