How does a brand go about explaining the difference that is also its strength? No easy task, but Omega is undeterred. For the Biel-based firm, this difference can be summed up in one word: the Co-Axial, namely the escapement invented by George Daniels and which only a giant such as Swatch Group, to which Omega belongs, could put into industrial production. But how does a brand explain to the ordinary man in the watch shop that “as opposed to the lever escapement’s sliding motion, the Co-Axial escapement with its smaller contact surfaces and lateral impulses significantly reduces the friction in the escapement; thus there is less wear and tear on the lubrication, resulting in longer service intervals.” Or that “the Co-Axial escapement’s clockwise impulse is given directly to the pallet on the balance roller by the teeth of the escapement wheel. As a result, the Co-Axial escapement benefits from greater mechanical efficiency which ensures more stable precision.”
Omega Co-Axial escapement
A technological challenge
While the end result is easy to comprehend – less friction and virtually zero lubrication equals greater precision and long-term stability – understanding the means by which it was achieved requires more than a passing familiarity with horological mechanics. Undaunted, Omega has set itself the objective of explaining to the public the technological challenge behind this breakthrough in watch mechanics. “When in 1992 Nicolas Hayek acquired this technology for Omega, it’s fair to say he went out on a limb,” notes Stephen Urquhart. “In fact George Daniels had knocked on just about every door hoping to sell his invention, in vain. Until Swatch Group, with its ETA and Nivarox subsidiaries, rose to the challenge.”
And with brio. After the limited series unveiled in 1999 at Baselworld, the Co-Axial now equips virtually every one of the 500,000 mechanical watches that Omega makes each year, out of a total production of some 750,000 units. The Moonwatch is the one exception, as this would mean re-evaluation by the NASA for flight qualification. Initially, the Co-Axial escapement was fitted in the brand’s existing movements, although priorities soon changed. “We quickly realised that our original solutions weren’t satisfactory, particularly in terms of size. Hence we inverted the process and built a mechanical movement around this Co-Axial escapement, which now incorporates a silicon balance spring,” says Stephen Urquhart.
The first calibre to come out of this new approach was the 8500/8501. It equipped the De Ville Hour Vision, launched in 2007. Since then, nine more Co-Axial movements have seen daylight. “Six years on, I can honestly say that results have gone beyond our expectations in terms of chronometric performance, adjustment and reliability, thanks to which our watches benefit from a four-year warranty. And there is still potential for improvement. Within the next three to four years, we will equip all our Co-Axial calibres with the technology we introduced this year in the Seamaster Aqua Terra > 15,000 gauss, which has a completely antimagnetic movement. We also have the objective of doing away with lubrication entirely. And we’re very close to achieving that goal.”
Are others taking inspiration from the Co-Axial? Stephen Urquhart is unperturbed. In fact not a single patent has been filed for this invention. “This is Omega’s signature and won’t be extended to the other brands in the Group. As for the competition, as far as I know, no other manufacturer is working on the question. Applying this kind of technology on a large scale implies resources which are actually quite rare in the industry.” Clearly then, the Omega-Co-Axial couple is one of a kind, although there are still some communication hurdles to cross. Not that a few technical precisions will stand in the way of a brand which “has participated actively in some of the most challenging, fascinating adventures in human history.” Isn’t that so, Mr Urquhart.