One-upmanship infects even those in the most sophisticated circles. Consider Swiss watch designers, who lately seem more like teenagers adding chrome and horsepower to their muscle cars and less like the keepers of hallowed tradition.
This extreme turn in product development has actually been evolving for years. In theory, anyone can make a complicated watch by enlisting the help of one of the many contract specialty watchmaking houses or by using ready-made modular watch complications. Thus the bar has been substantially raised for companies intent on making timepieces that will rise above the flood of complications now entering the market. Changing tastes have also created demand for overtly complicated wristwatches with elaborate dials and tourbillon apertures. Such radical designs may be a sign that the centuries-old industry remains vital. Then again, they may prove to be a mere passing fad. Either way, we cannot take our eyes off them.
Theory of Evolution
Mechanical watch design has changed little over the past 200 years, which must rankle any modern watch designer worth his salt. It is therefore easy to understand the excitement over TAG Heuer’s Monaco V4. Though it is only a concept watch that is not yet available to the public, the V4 demonstrates that there really is a different way of doing things.
Taking its inspiration from a Maserati engine, TAG’s development team enlisted independent watchmaker Philippe Dufour to help develop a movement with a multitude of completely new systems. Instead of through gear trains, the power from the four mainspring barrels (mounted at an angle like an engine) is transmitted by a system of 13 drive belts. The movement is wound by a sliding weight, rather than a rotor, and instead of employing traditional jewel bearings, the major turning axes rotate on tiny ball bearings.
Once the V4 hits the streets, it will be one of those first-one-on-the-block pieces for true watch aficionados. The dial and caseback are transparent, so the moving belts are visible, lending the V4 the same intrigue as a tourbillon. But will the thing work? Most of us become aware of our auto’s drive belt only when smoke pours out from under the hood. In a similar fashion, failure with a showpiece like this could be as spectacular as success.
Twist and Shout
Although it may resemble the inside of a missile guidance system, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new Gyrotourbillon (approximately $275,000) successfully pairs a visually fascinating form with a genuine improvement in function, making it the extreme watch most likely to have an impact on the industry at large.
The timepiece’s principal mechanism is a multiaxis tourbillon, a concept that has been executed previously in clocks and pocket watches and that made its wristwatch debut last year in the Revolution 2 from Franck Muller. The Gyrotourbillon, however, is a turbo variation on the theme, with an inner axis that spins at a dizzying 2.5 revolutions per minute.
All tourbillons seek to improve accuracy by minimizing the deleterious effect of gravity on the time-regulating parts of the mechanism, specifically by rotating the escapement around the balance wheel. Because conventional tourbillons turn on only one plane of rotation, they are less effective when the watch lies horizontal, or dial up. A tourbillon that turns on two or more axes theoretically should improve performance by creating a three-dimensional rotation.
Heightened accuracy is the chief benefit of the Gyrotourbillon. Privately, Jaeger-LeCoultre engineers boast of remarkable, quartzlike results with some of the prototypes, but publicly, they conservatively estimate that the 150 pieces to be produced will exhibit an accuracy of plus-or-minus 2 seconds per day—far better than most tourbillons. The development team found that the high rate of spin enabled the mechanism to correct for changes in the watch’s position much more efficiently than other designs. Furthermore, this fully shock-protected watch performs in real life, not just on the watchmaker’s bench.
Aficionados will be happy to learn that the tourbillon—from both a fashion and function perspective—is not the only attraction of this remarkable piece. An equation of time, an abstruse complication for many people, is clearly displayed by a sun hand that indicates the difference between our time and real solar time, which varies because of the elliptical orbit of the earth. The watch’s perpetual calendar also exhibits an innovative construction for the complication: The date is indicated by a novel double-retrograde display, which gives you an opportunity to watch the hands snap back more than once a month. The first hand counts the days until the 16th of the month, when the second hand begins to move together with the first hand until midnight on the 16th, at which time the first hand snaps back, and the second continues the march to the end of the month. Additional displays showing retrograde month and leap year (on the caseback) change simultaneously at midnight on New Year’s Eve, ensuring that you will be thoroughly preoccupied during future celebrations.
Although this is in essence a simple automatic watch, it employs a new rotor design that allows it to be customized for the wearer. Very active people who continually wear their automatics have a tendency to overwind their watches, causing damage to the mechanism. Mille’s automatic movement, developed in conjunction with well-reputed specialty house Renaud & Papi, contains a winding rotor with appendages that can be adjusted, tailoring the rotor’s inertia to suit the owner’s lifestyle. Simply tell the factory whether you are active, sedentary, or somewhere in between. The company, of course, assumes no responsibility for exaggerations and outright falsehoods.
Richard Mille, available at Westime
You do not have to be a connoisseur to be struck by unorthodox design. And there are few more oddly striking watches than Vianney Halter’s Antiqua (starting at about $70,000), a piece that registers with watch experts as well as ordinary civilians. The watch—half technical achievement, half genetic mutation—is the product of Halter’s famously vivid imagination. As so often happens with unusual designs, incredulity and laughter were the first reactions it evoked. But the Antiqua—to its merit—demands a second look.
A watch this strange might be dismissed as a gimmick were it not backed by some serious street cred in watchmaking circles. Halter has established a reputation for creating specialty mechanisms for some very prestigious brands. His Antiqua possesses a completely original perpetual calendar mechanism designed to suit the unorthodox placement of the dials, as well as a transparent synthetic sapphire winding rotor that allows the movement to be admired. The technical feel extends to the case, which itself comprises 123 components. All these facts are worth remembering, because when you wear a three-eyed watch, you may have some explaining to do.
The tourbillon-chronograph combination is one of the flashiest complications and one that is much coveted by collectors. But when Zenith decided to try its hand, it faced a dilemma: How could it marry its signature high-frequency El Primero chronograph movement to a notoriously fragile tourbillon construction? The El Primero achieves its famous accuracy by beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour, a rate that is far faster than most watch movements and one that can strain a tourbillon’s delicate parts. It took Zenith’s engineers three years to devise a workable technical solution, which resulted in the Grande Chronomaster XXT Tourbillon ($104,000).
When you strap on this ground-breaking Zenith, you can admire the fastest tourbillon escapement in the world, which requires five times the energy of conventional constructions. The cage in the aperture appears to be slightly off center, mimicking the offset dial design. This positioning is intended to deliver as much energy as possible to the cage, which is robustly built to withstand the strain. Other less sexy developments, such as new gear teeth and lubricants, probably played an even more important role in realizing this watch, but the designers—wisely—left them tucked safely under the dial.