Whatever impression to the contrary it may have given throughout its record-breaking years, watchmaking does not operate in splendid isolation, unperturbed by the ebb and flow of the economy. It’s true to say that this luxury “industry” adheres to its own code, serving a small community that falls into raptures over mechanical marvels whose value goes beyond merely “market”. It is, however, a different story for the profession as a whole. For almost a year now, exports have been struggling and the complications that add digits to the price of a watch are less in evidence. In a context marked by a resurgence in entry-level watches, mostly in steel, opportunities to stand out from the crowd are more difficult to find, particularly with two-hand and three-hand movements.
The abundance of extra-thin calibres can be seen as part of the riposte, particularly as brands are at pains to present extra-thin as a complication in its own right. Baselworld 2016 had its fair share of slimmed-down mechanisms. The Octo Finissimo line from Bulgari, which includes the Solotempo BVL 193 calibre (3.70 mm), the L.U.C XPS 1860 by Chopard (L.U.C 96.03-L calibre, 3.30 mm high) and Breguet’s Classique 7147 (502.3SD calibre, 2.40 mm high) all play in the same league, not forgetting the Elite 6150 from Zenith (Elite 6150 calibre, 3.92 mm high) and the slender form of the Slim d’Hermès (H1950 calibre, 2.60 mm high).
Alongside these symbols of horological elegance, another theme is emerging as brands’ new cause célèbre, and that is precision. This of course implies the robust construction essential to the mechanism’s regular rate and therefore reliability in any environment. In the scramble to glean fractions of a second, always a convincing argument vis-à-vis potential buyers, brands have embarked on a veritable “race against time”. So what’s new, one might ask. Skimming seconds off rate variation is a question that digs in the side of any watchmaker. Adjusting a mechanical watch to run with diabolical precision is within the realms of possibility when dealing in small series, determined by time and how skilful the adjuster is. It’s a different matter altogether when transposed to industrial production measured in hundreds of thousands, without which Swiss watchmaking is at risk of becoming the equivalent of an Indian reservation.
Needless to say, the Alpine nation’s watchmakers have spared no effort in this field, with results that are plain to see. Each year, close to two million watches are awarded chronometer certification by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), which sets the benchmark of a daily variation in rate of -4 to +6 seconds. COSC certification is an undeniable source of added value, given the shortcomings of the Swiss Made label. Even so, recent years have shown that the COSC stamp of approval is no longer sufficient, particularly as movements are tested uncased. Like the financial analysts who sweat blood to outperform reference indexes, watch brands are going all out to “beat” the COSC standard. That such an exploit is within their grasp owes much to the emergence of new, non-ferrous, self-lubricating materials, which are no longer machined but formed. Foremost among them is silicon, first used to make escapement parts (pallet levers and escape wheels), and later balance springs, a technique pioneered by Ulysse Nardin in the early 2000s.
The battle for seconds
Thus armed, watchmakers set out to conquer new records, setting their sights on tolerances that went far beyond COSC standards, which date back to 1973. Leading the way are the three brands that submit the most watches for official chronometer testing. Omega opened fire last year with the presentation at Baselworld of the Globemaster, the first watch to be equipped with a Co-Axial Master Chronometer movement, a new standard which Omega developed with Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS). Master Chronometer certification is open to all brands, as Omega was quick to point out, and with its battery of eight tests is one of the most demanding. It stipulates, for example, that certified watches must withstand a magnetic field of 15,000 gauss. The tolerance for rate variation is set at 0 to +5 seconds. Omega returned to Baselworld this year with six new Master Chronometer-certified movements. By 2020, virtually all its timepieces should comply with Master Chronometer standards.
Rolex was hardly likely to stand on the sidelines. After ten years of research and development, the brand with the crown had been making its own inroads into silicon with the introduction, in 2014, of Syloxi balance springs into Caliber 2236, used in its women’s watches and which equips this year’s Lady-Datejust 28. They joined the existing balance springs in Parachrom, a particularly resistant, paramagnetic, blue-coloured alloy that Rolex patented in 2005, and which continue to give the brand complete satisfaction. With the confidence that comes from being “the” watch of choice, Rolex took advantage of the Basel fair to announce that it had extended its Superlative Chronometer certification, introduced in 2015, to its entire production. “The certification applies to the fully assembled watch, after casing the movement, guaranteeing superlative performance on the wrist in terms of precision, power reserve, waterproofness and self-winding. The precision of a Rolex Superlative Chronometer after casing is of the order of -2/+2 seconds per day, or more than twice that required of an official chronometer.”
So is it all over bar the shouting? Not so sure. As its vice-president Jean-Paul Girardin explains, two years ago Breitling set up Chronoworks, an R&D division whose remit is to “develop and test technical breakthroughs that can subsequently be introduced on series-produced models.” As part of this mission, Chronoworks’ engineers and watchmakers went to work on Manufacture Breitling Caliber 01 with the aim of increasing the efficiency of this self-winding movement. They equipped it with a ceramic baseplate and gear-train bridges, silicon wheels and escapement, a variable-inertia balance and elastic toothing. The result is a 45% gain in power reserve, which goes from 70 to 100 hours on the Breitling Superocean Héritage Chronoworks. Variations in rate “are between 0 and +6 seconds on our in-house movements as we do not want our watches to run slow,” says Jean-Paul Girardin. A new project for Chronoworks?
Seiko, whose new range of self-winding watches, Presage, launches this year, tolerates rate variations of -3 to +5 seconds a day, as evidenced by its Grand Seiko line. The Japanese firm makes it a point of honour that its watches’ precision should be greater than the standard required by the COSC. Interestingly, Seiko refuses to use silicon in its mechanical movements. Despite being at the forefront of technology with its Spring Drive, Solar and Kinetic movements, it prefers to keep the authenticity of traditional materials for its mechanical calibres, having launched its first mechanical wristwatch, the Laureato, in 1913.
This may surprise, given that estimates suggest more than 70% of Swiss production uses silicon parts. For Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, founder of Agenhor which is currently developing movements for Fabergé, this is all wrong: “How can we continue to justify the excellence of Swiss watches when strategic components use elements which the Chinese can produce just as well as we can, and which exclude all form of human intervention. We’re forgetting that a watch is made by watchmakers, not just machines, and this is a very dangerous state of affairs.” A danger measured in seconds?