Think of them as time machines. Or rather machines that travel back through the history of time measurement. Like ancient water clocks, HYT’s watches use liquid to show hours and minutes. Three thousand years separate the first clepsydras and the Neuchâtel brand’s hydromechanical timepieces, and still they share a common thread; a stream of meaning that has continued across the ages. If we consider that time is a uniform flow, what better way to express it.
Strangely enough, HYT makes little reference to this legacy in its communication. The clepsydra barely gets a mention. Instead, the young brand delivers a contemporary message and takes pride in the technological prowess behind the development of its mechanical-fluidic creations. And these timepieces are indeed an exploit in an industry that habitually builds openly on its past, and a tradition that has a language of its own which just about everyone can understand.
An original proposal means reinventing communication. HYT uses a language more readily associated with a scientific instrument or an engineering product. In fact it describes itself as a “hydro-mechanical engineering lab”. It emphasises the sum of expertise required to produce its watches: chemistry, optics, fluid mechanics, electronics, aerospace, medical, and nanotechnology.
Flexible reservoirs, liquids with opposite polarities, separated by a meniscus inside an ultra-fine capillary, a thermal compensator, fluid restrictor, connection to the hand-wound mechanical movement… the aim is simple – to use a liquid to show the time – but the means to do so are complex, and remain difficult to explain, hence why HYT brings its sales staff from all around the world to spend two and a half days in Neuchâtel, where they are taught the subtle details of this particular technology.
HYT remains a specialist, high-end niche brand with production in the region of 350 units a year. The question being how to reach beyond the circle of technology buffs that have made up its original audience since 2013 and address a wider public, particularly from 2019 as more affordable models are introduced. The brand will have to simplify its message, and go further in its explanations. Hydromechanics are no longer enough. It needs to find another angle.
Sitting in his office in Neuchâtel, CEO Grégory Dourde has already given the question considerable thought. He is an engineer, after all. He talks about more than science, spontaneously referring to the legacy of water clocks, and the rich parallels to be made between the flow of time and that of water. He mentions Greek thought, and the contrast between the metallic coldness of the mechanical movement and the living, organic display. “Water is at the origin of life,” he insists, his eyes focused on his Ho watch, before launching into a discourse on this intuitive way to interact with time, and the aesthetic possibilities of HYT’s technology.
Without any prompting, Grégory Dourde makes the connection between ancient clepsydras and the fluidic display of a HYT watch. Invented in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs, or in Babylon, the water clock started out as a simple bowl with a hole in its base. It measured intervals of time, approximately at first then with greater precision as questions of pressure, temperature and the fluidity of water were gradually resolved. The clepsydra offered a significant advantage over its predecessor the sundial, namely its ability to function both day and night. Time became a quantity with a measurable flow.
Like the water clock, a HYT watch must accommodate a liquid, pressure, a graduated scale, the diameter of an orifice that determines flow time, temperature and viscosity. A clepsydra had to be filled. So does HYT’s capillary, which empties twice a day to refill with its two liquids: one transparent, one coloured. The water in a clepsydra was constantly renewed. Similarly, at a given moment the liquids in a HYT watch come together and are therefore different each time they progress through the circular capillary – or skull-shaped in the case of the Skull collection.
Short past, big future
Grégory Dourde quotes the pre-Socratic philosophers. “You never swim in the same river twice,” said old Heraclitus, meaning everything changes, nothing remains the same. People and things are in constant formation. Matter and life are assemblies of contrary forces, a perpetual to-and-fro of opposites. It’s a lesson that is 25 centuries old, and as true today as ever.
The clepsydra was also a scientific instrument in the early days of astronomy. In Das Sanduhrbuch, Ernst Jünger reminds us that the clepsydra gave man the means to first measure stellar time. It regulated crop irrigation. It measured the amount of time a plaintiff might argue his case in court, a politician’s speech, or a priest’s sermon. Nothing could match its precision until the late Middle Ages. Combined with gears, drums, escapements, dials and hands, strikeworks and decorations, it paved the way for the mechanical clock. It was used by the powerful. Princes and emperors from Europe to Arabia and China gave it as a gift. It was a status symbol. Until it was trounced by the clock.
Clepsydra means “water thief” in Greek, in reference to its constant trickle of liquid, and it’s tempting to see in this a symbol of time itself as it steals by. It was a philosophical machine, as is the HYT watch in its own way. That the brand has chosen not to elaborate on this dimension, as a questioning of life and destiny, is something we can perhaps regret.