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Watches and magnetism: poles apart? (II)

Watches and magnetism: poles apart? (II)

Wednesday, 04 October 2017
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Vincent Daveau
Journalist, watchmaker and historian

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6 min read

Watchmakers have always been at pains to shield their movements from magnetic fields. But as science has progressed, a handful of visionaries have searched for ways to turn magnetism to their advantage. This two-part article – an MRI of the latest developments – explains just what the big attraction is.

The quartz watches that came crashing onto the market in the early 1970s quickly won fans among young buyers who identified with this modern technology. They also left watchmaking’s industrial fabric in shreds. Once the crisis had passed, this tradition-based branch was left to pick up the pieces, and it would be several years before it regained its cruising speed… ready for the surge in interest in vintage watches. Suddenly, antimagnetic watches were back in the spotlight, the antidote to the electromagnetic rays that had become a feature of daily life. IWC jumped at the opportunity and in 2004 reissued the first series of its Ingénieur, manufactured in partnership with AMG (the soft iron cage was later dropped). In 2007, Rolex revisited its Oyster Perpetual Milgauss, last seen in 1988 and worn by countless engineers, including at CERN. Then in 2017, for the 60th anniversary of its famous Seamaster 300-Railmaster-Speedmaster trilogy, Omega put anti-magnetism front and centre again. The brand even moved up a decimal thanks to the Master Chronometer Co-Axial calibre. Its resistance to magnetic fields has been increased from up to 1,500 gauss, which is already considerable, to beyond 15,000 gauss, the equivalent of an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner.

Omega Seamaster 300, Railmaster and Speedmaster
Omega Seamaster 300, Railmaster and Speedmaster

Magnetism is something watchmakers take seriously, and for good reason. After-sales services at Swatch Group, which puts considerable onus on researching this technology, deal with huge numbers of watches that have become magnetised: 15% of the total according to Jean-Claude Monachon, Vice President, Product Development at Omega, when he presented the new Seamaster Aquaterra in Geneva, in 2013. He reminded the audience that for a modern mechanical watch to be labelled antimagnetic in compliance with Switzerland’s standard for industry and watchmaking (norme industrielle et horlogère suisse, NIHS), it has to withstand exposure to 75 gauss. The international ISO 764 standard specifies requirements for magnetic resistance in watches. ISO 6425 standard goes further and states that any watch intended for wear while diving must be antimagnetic.

Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 Amagnetic 3 Days Automatic Titanio 47 mm
Embrace the enemy

The number of electrical products in regular use has skyrocketed since the 1930s, and with it those which rely on magnetism in order to function. Today’s watches must contend with the rays given off by airport metal detectors, mobile phones, handbag clasps, children’s toys, fridge doors… and the list goes on. In a world swimming in magnetism, resistance to 75 gauss can seem like a drop in the ocean, hence why more and more brands are developing watches with a much higher threshold. Officine Panerai is one. Its Luminor Submersible 1950 Amagnetic 3 Days Automatic Titanio 47 mm is built to withstand magnetic fields encountered by professional divers. Others have joined the fray, more often than not with movements whose strategic components are in silicon. The latest example to date is the Zenith Defy Lab. Its revolutionary high-efficiency escapement combined with a low-amplitude balance is completely non-magnetic.

Zenith Defy Lab
Zenith Defy Lab

Other brands have been less interested in warding off the effects of magnetism and more focused on putting its properties to good use. Jumping back in time, the Hamilton Pulsar was the first LED display watch to have no moving parts. In the first series, from 1972, the time and date on the Pulsar 101-102 and 401 were set by inserting a magnet into a recess (marked HR) in the caseback. Breitling reprised the idea for its electronic dive chronograph, the Superocean Chronograph M2000. Its magnetic pushers can be safely operated underwater and control the chronograph through the metal of the case.

Breitling Superocean Chronograph M2000 Blacksteel
Breitling Superocean Chronograph M2000 Blacksteel

Christophe Claret uses moving magnets for the time display of its X-Trem-1, angled in such a way that they do not prevent the movement from running normally. They act on two steel balls, which are unconnected to the magnets, causing them to move along sapphire tubes to show the hours and minutes. Even more impressive, if the bond between ball and magnet is broken due to a shock, the ball drops into the tube and a simple shake of the wrist suffices for it to realign in the correct position.

Christophe Claret X-Trem 1
Christophe Claret X-Trem 1

Another purely mechanical timepiece which harnesses magnetic properties is the Breguet Classique Chronométrie 7727 with its high frequency of 10 Hz. Classic on the outside, inside magnetic counter-pivots control the movements of the balance wheel. The balance wheel is maintained in a sort of artificial gravity, created by the magnets, which keeps it perfectly stable and unaffected by changes in position, thereby keeping a precise rate.

Breguet Chronometrie 7727BR b
Breguet Chronometrie 7727BR
Harness an invisible force

Magnetic fields can therefore have a negative or a positive effect on timekeeping precision. Certain quartz watches include protection against magnetism. The Longines Conquest VHP, for example, features sensors that freeze the hands when they detect a magnetic field and reset them when the “danger” has passed. Analog Kinetic watches are a different beast: they are powered by a magnetic rotor which, coupled with an electrically stimulated stator, turns the wheels in the geartrain. Other watches also make use of electromagnetic forces in order to function. Seiko’s Spring Drive is one example. Launched in 2003, this revolutionary timepiece unites the best in mechanical timekeeping with the best in quartz to create what Seiko has called the Tri Synchro regulator. It spins at a rate of 28,800 rotations per hour to replace the balance wheel and is controlled by an electromagnet brake, much like the magnetic brake on a truck.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8 Days
Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8 Days

In 2015, Piaget launched the Emperador Coussin XL 700P with, at its heart, a similar type of calibre. A mainspring barrel and a geartrain power a generator, i.e. an electromagnet. It generates electrical power which causes a quartz crystal to vibrate, which in turn controls the speed of the generator at a steady and precise rate of 5.33 turns per second.

TAG Heuer Carrera MikroPendulumS
TAG Heuer Carrera MikroPendulumS

Yet another example of watchmakers’ fascination with the possibilities of this invisible force came from TAG Heuer, which developed a magnetic oscillator for its Mikropendulum chronograph, unveiled in 2013. In this instance, the choice was made to work with a high-efficiency regulator as magnets, which are sensitive to temperature change, are by definition unstable.

The future will tell whether magnetism is a way forward for watchmaking. What we can say is that magnetic rays are increasingly present in our lives – electric cars are no stranger to this – and are therefore to be taken seriously. While some brands have been quicker to respond than others, they have all grasped the implications and the importance of controlling magnetic fields, and even making a friend of this foe.

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