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A bit of electronics in your engine? (I)
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A bit of electronics in your engine? (I)

Thursday, 30 June 2016
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Timm Delfs
Freelance journalist

“Unlike a watch, a sundial never stops.”

A freelance journalist working from Basel, Timm Delfs is also the owner of Zeitzentrale, where he sells all sorts of timekeeping instruments including his particular favourites: sundials.

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4 min read

Since its post-quartz crisis resuscitation, mechanical watchmaking has kept a strict distance from anything electrical. Electronic circuitry was a no-go… until the advent of smart watches.

Connected watches were around before the Apple Watch came onto the scene. Witness the smart watches by Samsung and Sony, and of course sports instruments by Finnish manufacturer Suunto, but nothing to ruffle Swiss feathers. It was the watch from Cupertino that eventually made the difference. Why is that? Firstly it came with a design which, like it or not, was different and had something luxurious about it, especially in the polished steel and gold versions. Secondly it came with a range of interchangeable straps and bracelets that made it something of a style chameleon. True innovation was also to be found in the clasps, some of which are even magnetic.

An innovative approach

What else could explain the phenomenon of electronics suddenly seeping into mechanical watchmaking? We’re not talking about Tag Heuer’s initiative to create a connected watch with the help of Google and Intel. This fits perfectly with the reasoning of the brand, which addresses a wide audience and has never abandoned quartz. We’re talking about the innovative approach taken by some of the most daring brands within Haute Horlogerie, the likes of Urwerk and HYT, along with some well-established names such as Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels. They were the first at SIHH to show some interesting ideas about how to combine mechanical tradition with innovative electronics, without one compromising the other.

Urwerk EMC Time Hunter
Urwerk EMC Time Hunter

A pioneer all along, Urwerk already presented its first EMC model last year, a mechanical wristwatch that incorporates an electronic time-gauge that can be consulted to test the movement’s rate. Instruments used to check and adjust balance-wheel amplitude are generally large items, more likely to be seen on a watchmaker’s bench. Urwerk’s technicians have succeeded in miniaturizing the circuitry and the microphone to such a degree that they fit into a typically futurist Urwerk case. This was, by the way, the first Urwerk watch to indicate time altogether conventionally by means of hands. Instead of a battery, EMC incorporates a tiny dynamo, equipped with a foldable handle, and a capacitor. This way, both the mechanical watch and the electronic measuring instrument get their energy via the wearer. This year’s EMC is a little less bulky and comes in military gray. And, all of a sudden, it was no longer the only hybrid.

HYT H4 Metropolis
HYT H4 Metropolis
Even traditional brands

Next door to Urwerk in the Carré des Horlogers, a new part of SIHH for a select bunch of independent watchmakers, HYT presented its H4 Metropolis with a liquid time display and an LED lighting system that is activated by turning a second crown. A gear-train drives the rotor of a tiny generator which produces sufficient energy to make an LED illuminate the liquid inside the curved glass capillary, giving the watch a ghostly appearance at night.

Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Nuit Lumineuse
Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Nuit Lumineuse

Even a traditional brand such as Van Cleef & Arpels, whose roots are deep in high-end jewelry, showed interest in new ways of combining the old with the new by making diamonds sparkle with the help of backlighting. Its Midnight Nuit Lumineuse, a prototype or rather concept watch, features a deep blue dial set with diamonds that are arranged to look like constellations in a starry sky. At the push of a button in the side of the case, some – but not all – the diamonds light up to make one of the constellations stand out. Unlike the other watches mentioned here, energy is produced not by a dynamo but by a piezo-electric switch, similar to the ones found in certain high-quality lighters. A short audible click signals that the required energy has been produced, and immediately the constellation lights up.

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