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The endless quest for watchmaking precision

The endless quest for watchmaking precision

Thursday, 19 June 2008
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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4 min read

Precision is surely the never-ending quest in watchmaking. With the arrival of quartz, some thought that the race was won. Since a group of Swiss researchers designed and then developed the first electronic watch movement in the sixties, the Holy Grail seemed within arms reach.

This technology using energy from an electric battery enabled extreme precision due to the high frequencies used to vibrate the quartz crystal, i.e. 32 kHz compared to barely 4 Hz for ordinary mechanical watches. Not content with these first results, some watchmakers like Breitling have gone still further with this search for the absolute. With its SuperQuartz, the company founded in Saint-Imier in 1984, has devised a sophisticated system that enables the watch’s operations to be corrected based on effective temperatures.

Quartz electronic thermocompensated SuperQuartz movement © Breitling
Quartz electronic thermocompensated SuperQuartz movement © Breitling
The merits of classicism

Each movement is equipped with a miniature thermometer that slows down the quartz’s oscillation speed, deliberately chosen to be too high, by suppressing a certain number of impulses through the integrated circuit according to the ambient temperature. Result: the rate variation of such a movement is 15 seconds per year maximum, compared to two and a half minutes for a standard quartz watch. Comparing this to the requirements of the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) for mechanical timekeepers, the benchmark for precision, one can see that the performance is impressive. The tolerance limit allowed by the COSC for watches with mechanical movements is actually -4 to +6 seconds per day.

The worthy representatives of traditional watchmaking have not yet had their last say. Far from it. But when it comes to precision, there are two schools: the proponents of classicism denounce the current departure from tradition in the form of the extreme complication that results in double or even triple tourbillons in the same calibre. And this, even while the utility of a tourbillon in a wristwatch is today strongly contested as regards precision. For François-Paul Journe the great watchmaking principles on which he relies go back to the great quest for precision taken up in the 18th century. “In marine chronometers and regulators of the period, the aim was to have as little friction as possible and thus reduce to a minimum the number of intermediary gear trains.” he explained recently on the Worldtempus website. Therefore it was necessary to ‘bring out’ the hands at the precise place on the wheel and pinion that drives them: on precision regulators, the slower hour hand is on top of the barrel, the minute hand in the centre and the second hand on top of the escapement. On Berthoud marine chronometers, the hands are positioned in the same way on the wheels and pinions. This was found to be the best way to limit friction.” Far from the fleeting “concept watch”, the watchmaker favours the refinement of simplicity linked to the philosophy of observatory watches and marine chronometers, the basis of watchmaking precision: “Timekeepers were then scientific instruments whose precision determined the advancement of knowledge. This quest for precision was an absolute that should still inspire us.”

The quest for precision no longer has any limits.
The benefits of silicon

If François-Paul Journe, despite everything, is interested in silicon, which is very fragile and impossible to clean at mainspring level, it is essentially as an experimental field of research. Patek Philippe understood the same thing but pushed the idea a step further. Their workshop, specialised in new technologies, has produced this year the third generation of Patek Philippe Advanced Research watches, i.e. an Annual Calendar, Ref. 5450, equipped with a new Pulsomax® escapement (Silinvar®, Spiromax® and other Patek Philippe Pulsomax®).

“The first escapement entirely designed by the manufacturer, the Pulsomax® combines the renowned qualities of reliability and sturdiness of the Swiss lever escapement, which it surpasses in performance thanks to its original geometry”, asserts Patek Philippe. “Each of the Swiss lever escapement’s functions has been optimised by taking advantage of the freedom of form and the precision machining provided by the DRIE (Deep Reactive Ion Etching) engraving procedure. With this last innovation of silicon technology, the performance of the mechanical movement is notably improved, taking watchmaking into a new dimension.” The quest for precision no longer has any limits.

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