King George III was an amateur horologist. When he wasn’t busy ruling England or levying taxes on his American colonies, he passed the time by dismantling and reassembling watches. Even by the standards of 18th-century royalty, he was a connoisseur of rare expertise.
For a young watchmaker of exceptional talent, the urge to impress the king was irresistible—the perfect opportunity to start a career—yet no ordinary masterpiece would capture the monarch’s attention. So in 1764, a 28-year-old prodigy named John Arnold contrived to make a watch nobody thought possible: A repeater that could fit on His Majesty’s finger. When a Russian tsar learned of Arnold’s feat, he offered the watchmaker a king’s ransom of £1,000 to build another, but Arnold sagely declined. His bravado had already earned him one of the greatest reputations of his age.
Haute horologerie runs on audacity. Bravado advances the art at least as much as gradual technological progress. The call to do the impossible motivates watchmakers and collectors today just as it did in the 18th century, except the aesthetic, technical, and conceptual sophistication of the timepieces today would make King George turn in his screwdrivers. In fact, over the past decade, watchmakers have challenged practically every assumption about mechanical watchmaking.
Start with liquid, the scourge of springs and gears. Traditionally watchmakers have sealed out water with screws and gaskets. The HYT H2 does the opposite, making liquid integral to the movement, indicating the hour by the transit of luminescent green fluid through a transparent tube. Time flows literally, hydrodynamically controlled by two small bellows that are opened and closed by a system of cams and pistons. Yet the bellows cannot be directly coupled to the train of gears because liquids dramatically expand and contract with changes in temperature. (That’s how a mercury thermometer works.) On a hot day, the watch would run fast were it not for the inclusion of a thermoregulator, a novel mechanism that reduces the pressure as the fluid gets warmer. Preventing leakage is the least significant challenge of making a watch filled with liquid. Audacious watchmaking mothers its own inventions.
If liquid is one of the biggest physical threats to mechanical watchmaking, the digital revolution of the 1970s was one of the greatest historical menaces. In 2008, Harry Winston turned history on its head with a mechanical watch that mechanically mimicked the digital readout of a ’70s liquid crystal display. The Opus 8 was designed by Frédéric Garinaud of Renaud & Papi, who was inspired by a children’s toy: a grid of pins that makes a pixilated portrait of whatever is pressed against the pinpoints. Garinaud reasoned that he could build a similar mechanism that would show the time on a metal plate punched with the horizontal and vertical segments used to display digital numbers. The time is read on the Opus 8 by sliding a lever that lowers the plate for five seconds. A system of pins holds up the appropriate segments, showing the hour. Garinaud’s system is spectacularly complex, a virtuoso feat of horology requiring 437 components to imitate a watch with no moving parts at all. The Opus 8 also emulates the incremental nature of digital timekeeping: For all the phenomenal precision of the Renaud & Papi movement’s 21,600 vibrations per hour, the minutes are indicated with a pointer segmented to five-minute intervals.
Accuracy has been a goal of horologists for centuries. Over that time, clocks and watches accumulated more hands without much thought given to whether the extra information was useful. For most purposes, one hand will suffice, as long as that hand is reliable. MeisterSinger has audaciously stripped most of their watches down to the minimum: A single hour hand that shows the approximate time, coupled to a movement that ensures the approximation is always right. The hour hand on a MeisterSinger is slender enough, and the gradations on the dial fine enough, that you can tell the time within a five-minute window, the same as the five-minute give-or-take of an Opus 8. Yet while the tenor of the Harry Winston watch is playfully ironic, a MeisterSinger is sincere. The watch is designed to relax your pace, a bold proposition from a watchmaker.
Why not go all the way? Many people thought watchmaker Beat Haldimann had in 2008, when Haldimann Horology released the H8, a handcrafted triple-barrel flying tourbillon that had no hands at all. Only the tourbillon was visible, set against a pure black dial inside a white platinum case. Then a few years later he produced the H9, which had all the technical finesse of the H8, only this time the flying tourbillon was hidden beneath an opaque black sapphire crystal. Haldimann dubbed his H9 the Reduction, and explained that it allows for time to be “imagined, dreamed, or invented.” He might also have mentioned that it allows time to be heard, because the effect of eliminating all visual information is to attune the other senses, especially the ears. Regulated to Haldimann’s exacting standards, the regular ticking gives an acute sense of the seconds passing by, yet with no means of observing the cumulative effect. Conceptually it’s the opposite of the MeisterSinger—which shows time only in aggregate—but Haldimann has arguably found the ultimate means of making wearers live in the moment.
Universally acclaimed for his minuscule minute repeater, John Arnold set up shop on St. James Street in London, where aristocrats commissioned complicated watches in gold guilloche cases. It was a rich living, but intellectually unsatisfying. So beginning in 1770, Arnold turned his attention to marine chronometry, a field that keenly interested the British Admiralty.
Other watchmakers had already spent decades trying to build chronometers accurate enough for captains to reckon longitude at sea, but their complexity made them delicate and impractical to build in quantity. Arnold had the temerity to claim that years of work and thousands of pounds had been spent doing the opposite of what was needed. His stripped-down chronometers demonstrated that the key to seaworthy accuracy was simplicity.
Great watchmakers have the insolence to question all assumptions. Just as design advances when old notions are challenged, the function of watches also immeasurably benefits from disruptive thinking.
You might begin by asking whether a higher-frequency movement is inherently better. Over the past decade, most watchmakers have tried to make balance wheels faster and smaller. With the Antoine Martin Slow Runner, Martin Braun has done the opposite, building the largest and slowest balance ever put in a wristwatch, a 22 mm wheel that swings back and forth once per second. There’s a well-known advantage to a larger balance: The bigger the diameter, the higher the moment of inertia, leading to greater timekeeping stability. But to impel a larger wheel takes more power. To compensate, Braun’s escapement runs at one-
quarter the speed of most modern watches. It helps that his balance wheel is made of ultralight titanium, and also that the oversize hairspring is silicon, which doesn’t deform like steel. Yet the most crucial component of the Slow Runner is Braun himself, a man willing to run against trend and tradition.
Alternately, you could dispense with the balance completely and optimize your timekeeping by clocking a running speed approaching quartz precision. There’s a maximum frequency at which a hairspring can oscillate. At more than 600 beats per second, the spring will start to behave erratically. De Bethune watchmaker Denis Flageollet is determined to make a watch run much faster than that. (A standard quartz movement vibrates at 32,786 beats per second.) He’s achieving that feat by replacing the hairspring with magnets. In his Resonique, a magnetic wheel makes a magnetic resonator vibrate, and those vibrations control the rate at which the wheel spins. Recent prototypes have run for more than 24 hours at 600 Hz, a proof-of-concept that renegade thinking can outsmart even the fundamental limitations of physics.
Independently, Guy Semon, TAG Heuer’s director of research and development, has been breaking the rules imposed on horology by balance wheels and hairsprings, building a chronograph with a timing precision of one-two-thousandths of a second. The Mikrogirder is the culmination of a series of concept watches. The first of these were built by making the hairspring progressively shorter and stiffer, beginning with the one-hundredth-second Mikrograph. At a certain stage Semon found that his hairspring was no longer a spring at all. It had become a metal tine that vibrated like a tuning fork, and therefore obeyed a different set of physical laws. Like Flageollet, he had found a future for precision in mechanical watchmaking through the principle of resonance.
The laws governing resonance are not new. In fact the mathematics dates back to 1747, just 72 years after Christiaan Huygens invented the hairspring, and only 14 years before John Harrison perfected his marine chronometer. For centuries the theory was useful in music and much later contributed to the study of electromagnetism. So why not mechanical watchmaking? First, horologists had to decide to make their timepieces run impossibly fast. The impetus was audacity.
De Bethune 212.729.7152, www.debethune.ch; HYT, +41.32.323.27.70, www.hytwatches.com; Haldimann Horology, +22.214.171.124.82, www.haldimann-horology.ch; Harry Winston, 212.399.1000, www.harrywinston.com; Martin Braun, +41.41.662.02.42, www.martin-braun.com; MeisterSinger, www.meistersinger.net; TAG Heuer, 866.260.0460, www.tagheuer.com