Collection Wednesday, July 18th 2012
Guy Sémon started at TAG Heuer four and a half years ago with the brief to build a research and development division from scratch. A mission he has accomplished with remarkable breakthroughs in fine watchmaking, the latest being the MikrotourbillonS.
MikrotourbillonS © TAG Heuer
For a while now, TAG Heuer has been taking watch fans by surprise - and proving wrong the pontificators who claim the mechanical measurement of time reached its apogee years ago - with products no one would even have thought possible in the not so distant past. Now the sceptics are having to eat their hats… and let's hope they're hungry as TAG Heuer serves up its latest innovation, the MikrotourbillonS.
A vision and a man
Projects of this calibre - in this instance a radical breakthrough in the upper echelons of mechanical timekeeping - are often down to the ability to take a long view and, above all, one person. That person is Guy Sémon, a former researcher and test pilot for the French air force, then a lecturer in physics and mathematics at Besançon University, and lastly a consultant with proven expertise in helicopter, missile and fighter plane flight simulation. "After working on the V4, Jean-Christophe Babin [TAG Heuer's Chief Executive] invited me to join the brand to set up a full-fledged research and development division," Sémon explained at the unveiling of the MikrotourbillonS. "The department now employs some fifty people with backgrounds in science and watchmaking. It's great to have this mix as the watchmaker's job is mainly to complicate mechanisms which scientists then simplify."
Organised as a profit unit, this R&D division is tasked with rethinking existing products from the watch head through to the dial display and external parts, in addition to certification and prototyping. Renamed the fine watchmaking division, the workshops also make the famous concept watches that showcase the brand's technology. They are produced entirely in-house; only the balance springs and surface treatments originate outside the firm. Currently, the department produces 300 to 400 units a year and aims to gradually ramp up capacity to reach one thousand. "For the last three years, every product made to demonstrate TAG Heuer's command of technology has subsequently been launched on the market," said Guy Sémon. "From the pure research we conduct in conjunction with several European universities to our production facilities which employ seven people, I think we can reasonably say we're past the tinkering stage!"
Aiming for chronograph certification
While there's clearly nothing amateur about these exploits, to embark on something this radical requires a degree of candour, as Sémon explained. "When you set off on an adventure like this, you need a certain amount of innocence. It really takes someone from outside the sphere of watchmaking to take apart the very concept of the watch and add new chapters to the history of time measurement. I was also won over by Jean-Christophe Babin's objective to make TAG Heuer a hotbed of technology." Guy Sémon's premise when he started working on the chronograph, the brand's heavy hitter, was both simple yet obvious: whereas a basic mechanical movement can obtain COSC certification (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres) which imposes a tolerance of -4 to +6 seconds/day, there is no equivalent system and no standard of precision for chronographs. Furthermore, precision with the chronograph running isn't measured even though the function, which uses a lot of energy, could well "land" a movement outside COSC limits.
"This prompted my idea to separate the timekeeping and chrono functions by integrating a complete dual-chain concept with frequencies that would calculate elapsed times in decimals, i.e. 5 Hz or 50 Hz or 500 Hz. Most calibres are adjusted for 4 Hz, or 28,800 vibrations/hour, and measure time to 1/8th of a second, which fundamentally I didn't like. Our objective from the very beginning was to certify chronograph precision, hence why we contacted the Besançon Observatory which, incidentally, conserves the standard second which is the basis for time measurement. We asked them to draft a scientifically watertight protocol which would then be presented before the International Weights and Measures Bureau. The new mechanical standard we asked for is 1/1,000,000th of a second or 10-6 second. This is the standard against which our measuring instruments will be rated. At the moment it's a TAG Heuer standard, a guarantee of the quality of our chronographs, but of course we intend it to become an open standard."
From 4 Hz to 1,000 Hz in seven years
The result of this quest is TAG Heuer's Mikro range with dual-chain system. It already encompasses the Mikrograph whose chrono measures 1/100th (50 Hz), the Mikrotimer which is precise to 1/1,000th (500 Hz), and the Mikrogirder which calculates 5/10,000th (1,000 Hz). It is the fastest mechanical regulator ever with a central hand that sweeps the dial twenty times in one second. Achieving such precision has meant exploits such as the Mikrotimer's escapement with no balance wheel and titanium launcher, or the system of vibrating "beams" connected to the escape wheel in the Mikrogirder escapement. It originates in the work of d'Alembert (1717-1783), editor with Diderot of the Encyclopédie and the author of research into vibrating strings whose applications were thought to be only in relation to music. Guy Sémon is convinced this technology brings 1/1,000,000th-of-a-second precision within reach.
For TAG Heuer's R&D department, this still wasn't enough. Its latest innovation is the MikrotourbillonS, which some of the brand's fans discovered at Baselworld. The product is now in the starting-blocks with four working prototypes and production of 20 units a year soon to launch. "At first glance, the tourbillon doesn't fit with TAG Heuer," commented Sémon. "It's a relatively slow mechanism, generally 2.5 Hz, with a regulating function for the watch rather than the chrono. Basically, a tourbillon doesn't serve much purpose other than to demonstrate the watchmaker's art. However, our dual-chain system means we could integrate not one but two ultimate tourbillons. One is COSC-certified and beats at 4 Hz with a 42-hour power reserve. The second, which doesn't have a cage, is for the chrono and has a frequency of 50 Hz to calculate time to 1/100th. It has a power reserve of 80 minutes." Like its predecessors, the MikrotourbillonS leaves us in awe. Fully manufactured by TAG Heuer, except for the balance springs, it is the world's fastest tourbillon rotating 12 times a minute, and the first ever tourbillon on a 1/100th-of-a-second chronograph that can be started and stopped.
The strategy behind these high-flying demonstrations is clear, coming from a brand that ranks among the top five watchmakers worldwide in terms of volume. According to Vontobel Bank estimates, TAG Heuer produces 600,000 watches a year and generates sales in the region of CHF 900 million (USD 917 million / EUR 750 million). The brand clearly leads the field in chronographs. "Of course the aim is to grow volume sales," commented Guy Sémon, "but also to progressively boost average price which is currently around CHF 3,000 (USD 3,060 / EUR 2,500). Research and development can be an excellent way of achieving this. Upping innovation is a means of upgrading our products. We aim to position TAG Heuer in the CHF 15,000 - 25,000 (USD 15,300 - 25,500 / EUR 12,500 - 20,800) price range. This is a coveted segment with strong competition between storied and traditional brands. With the MikrotourbillonS at CHF 220,000 (USD 224,320 / EUR 183,200), we're testing the very high-end market from which we were completely absent barely three years ago. This shows how determined TAG Heuer is to take market share with cutting-edge products whose growth potential is intact." Guy Sémon, who is used to being teased for his surgical approach to watchmaking, is in no doubt that this kind of inquest can turn up some unsuspected leads. ■