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How Silicon Became One of Watchmaking’s Most Valuable Materials

The material lasts longer than oil and makes for less maintenance.

Ulysse Nardin Freak movement Courtesy of Ulysse Nardin

Perhaps the single most important personality trait for watch collectors is patience. They wait years for intricate high-horology mechanical marvels to be developed, sit quietly for their turn to buy one of a precious few produced and then, most likely two to five years later, hand it back for servicing, which can take up to a year, and at significant cost. Companies can’t do much about the first two annoyances, but increasingly they’re aiming to eliminate frequent repairs by innovating technologically.

In the last two decades, silicon has become the go-to material to improve a watch’s life span. It’s anti-magnetic (a major plus in the era of iPhones and laptops) and lighter and harder than steel, but its most coveted asset is that it operates without oil. Employed to lessen the friction in the escapement wheel, oil has been essential to timekeeping for centuries, but it inevitably dries up, affecting accuracy. Brands say silicon has translated to a lower return rate for servicing, enabling them to significantly extend warranties beyond the old two-year standard, but the quest to eradicate the problem entirely continues.

Ulysse Nardin was among the first to try silicon (which the company refers to as silicium), by using it in place of steel for two escapement wheels in its revolutionary Freak model in 2001. “We started to put it in all of our watches,” says François-Xavier Hotier, the US brand president for Ulysse Nardin. Customers’ added bonus: a five-year warranty. In 2006 the company signaled its commitment by taking a 50 percent stake in Sigatec, a Swiss manufacturer of silicon that also develops smartphone chips. Now it supplies the material to several other watch companies.

Ulysse Nardin Freak

Ulysse Nardin’s Freak uses the latest technological breakthroughs.  Courtesy of Ulysse Nardin

Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe and Zenith, to name just a few, have also adopted silicon, to a greater or lesser extent. In 2017, Panerai launched the Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days, developed in its Laboratorio di Idee (Laboratory of Ideas) and equipped with silicon components. The specialized atelier is a testing ground for innovative limited editions. Panerai was so confident of the design’s technical gravitas that it offered an unprecedented 50-year warranty.

But purists in the watchmaking community, suspicious that silicon is merely a short-term fix, are reluctant to embrace it. “I don’t really get silicon,” says Roger W. Smith, a British watchmaker who famously produces only about 12 pieces per year, for the most serious horophiles. “I’m coming from a background where it’s all about the improvements of the mechanical timekeeper.”

To that end, Smith is teaming with researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK who are experimenting with an oil-free nanotechnology coating on escapements made from traditional alloys such as steel. “This way, my traditional watchmaking doesn’t have to change at all,” says Smith, who plans to use the coating on the co-axial escapement, invented by his mentor, the late master George Daniels. “When you combine the nano-coating with the work that Daniels did, you see incredible results with a watch that won’t have to be serviced for many, many years. Or that’s the ultimate goal, anyway.” Smith says delays from Covid-19 have postponed the unveiling of the finished watch, but he hopes to present it to the world next year.

Ulysse Nardin Freak

The Freak’s complex case back.  Courtesy of Ulysse Nardin

Another Daniels protégé, François-Paul Journe, eschews new-age components entirely. He first designed a watch featuring his own patented bi-axial escapement, ingeniously using standard materials without any lubrication, in 2001—the Chronomètre Optimum—but it wouldn’t debut for another 11 years as other projects sidelined the venture. But Journe, who spends years perfecting his creations, recently announced he was taking his invention off the shelf and will attempt to incorporate it (potentially with an update) into the double movement of his new Chronomètre à Résonance Remontoirs d’Égalités.

“Watches made 200 years ago are still in working order today,” says Journe. “It’s for this reason that I only use solid materials that have proven their worth, rather than modern materials that will probably be unable to be repaired in a few decades.”

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