Collection Friday, January 6th 2012
On the eve of the watchmakers’ salons, will brands once again yield to the high-frequency temptation? A marked trend in 2011, this new division of time into faster and faster oscillations offers advantages that will certainly endure.
TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Concept Chronograph (500 Hz / 3,600,000 vph) © TAG Heuer
“Citius, altius, fortius”(faster higher stronger), the Olympic motto seems to have taken on for some time now extremely concrete forms in the world of Haute Horlogerie. This has become evident in a new holy grail called “high-frequency”. Over the last two years or so, the number of brands offering high-speed calibres has indeed more than doubled and the field is bound to increase since the advantages of high frequencies seem to respond to persistent mechanical movement problems. The frequency of a movement corresponds to the number of oscillations of the balance wheel (each oscillation consisting of two vibrations, a back and forth motion). The oscillations are responsible for the number of “tick-tocks” of a watch in the space of an hour. Currently, nearly all mechanical timepieces function on the basis of a frequency of 3 Hz (21,600 vibrations/hour) or 4 Hz (28,800 vph). Any higher “speed” is now considered high-frequency. And in this area, we must admit that we are already in the realm of superlatives.
Precision and reliability
But to what advantage? The emphasis is first and foremost on precision, the major concern of the profession, as demonstrated by the return to enthusiasm for chronometric competitions. In theory, the higher the number of oscillations, the greater the segmentation of time, the greater the precision. A calibre beating at 5 Hz (36,000 vph) beats every 1/10th of a second and a movement with a frequency of 50 Hz (360,000 vph) beats every 1/100th of a second. A second advantage: increasing the beats of a watch decreases its sensitivity to external forces such as gravity, shocks and inopportune wrist movements, thus representing a source of enhanced reliability. But, high-frequency is not exempt from pitfalls. When the heart of a timepiece beats at a faster rate, energy consumption is greater with a negative impact on the power reserve. Not to mention wear and lubrication, oscillation speed being a source of uncontrollable oil flinging.
Needless to say watchmakers have risen to the challenge with research on materials, particularly silicon, use of solid lubricants, double barrels and double rate modules. In recent years solutions have proliferated at Audemars Piguet, Breguet, TAG Heuer and will soon be seen at Chopard and Zenith, not to mention the F.-P. Journe approach – its Centigraphe Souverain has the appearance of a high-frequency timepiece without really being one. But credit where credit is due…, and in this case credit goes to TAG Heuer and its 1916 Mikrograph, a handheld stopwatch able to measure 1/100th of a second (360,000 vph, 50 Hz), the first breakthrough in this domain. The competition could only try to prepare its strategy, since the passage to the wristwatch was going to pose new precision problems due to the wearers’ wrist and arm motions that would greatly disturb the rates of movements generally beating at 18,000 vph (2.5 Hz).
A growing list
It did not take watchmakers long to understand that by reducing the inertia of the balance wheel and increasing the efficiency of the escapement, they would obtain clearly improved performance. Over the decades, frequencies have accelerated and by the 1960s had reached calibres of 5 Hz (36,000 vph) at Girard-Perregaux and at Zenith with its famous El Primero. And to imagine that this mythic calibre would have been virtually relegated to the dustbin of watchmaking history – the American owner of the Manufacture had ordered the liquidation of its means of production at the crest of the quartz wave – had it not been for Charles Vermot and his “heroic” act of disobedience to the dictates coming from the other side of the Atlantic.
Although the development of increased frequencies had slowed down in the intervening years, this is no longer the case today. Over the last two years the Manufactures have renewed their efforts in this vein. First at Audemars Piguet, with its 2908 movement (6 Hz, 43,200 vph) equipped with an in-house escapement without lubrication on the pallets and a double barrel, resulting in a 56-hour power reserve, achieved entirely with conventional materials. Then at Breguet, with its Type XXII that beats at 72,000 vph (10 Hz) with a silicon balance spring and escapement. Finally at TAG Heuer, which presented the Heuer Carrera Mikrograph with a double transmission and escapement system, 4 Hz for telling the time and 50 Hz for the 1/100th of a second chronograph. TAG Heuer attained another high-frequency achievement with the Mikrotimer Flying 1000 concept watch endowed with a frequency of 500 Hz (3.6 million vph)!
The list however does not end there. Zenith and Chopard are likely to introduce their own high-frequency versions in 2012, 50 Hz for the former at the heart of the Georges Favre Jacot chronograph, named for the brand’s founder, and probably 10 Hz for the latter, which has been working on its silicon escapement for several years. Watch for high-speed news in a few weeks. ■