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No escaping silicon

No escaping silicon

Friday, 02 May 2014
By Louis Nardin
Editor Image
Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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4 min read

Brands large and small introduced new escapements at the recent Baselworld, a consequence of the scheduled end of deliveries from Swatch Group, the biggest supplier of parts, and while technologies differ, recourse to silicon is a common denominator.

The first in-house assortment (escape wheel, lever and roller, the three parts of the escapement) for Nomos and for Arnold & Son; the first in-house escapement, in silicon, from Maurice Lacroix; the arrival of the Syloxi (silicon) balance spring at Rolex; silicon balance springs soon to be extended to virtually the entire production at Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz; a new “flying” lever escapement from Ulysse Nardin; detent escapements by Christophe Claret and Bulgari; a “natural” tourbillon from Kari Voutilainen. Escapements and regulators were the buzzwords at this year’s Baselworld.

Breaking free

Brands’ response to Swatch Group’s scheduled end to supplies of full or partial assortments are more and more in evidence, as Arnold & Son, Maurice Lacroix and Nomos demonstrate. Arnold & Son’s Tec 1 chronograph is equipped with an in-house escapement featuring a metallic balance spring from Nivarox and steel parts. At Maurice Lacroix, the development by the brand’s teams of the escapement inside the new Masterpiece Gravity marks a major step forward in its industrial integration. The metallic balance spring is sourced from Atokalpa. Sigatec supplies the lever, escape wheel and double balance roller, all in silicon.

Nomos, a small manufacturer in Saxony, has invested seven years and EUR 11.4 million in developing the Swing System, its first home-grown escapement. Research was conducted in association with Dresden University of Technology and the Fraunhofer Society. The brand has developed an algorithm that calculates the characteristics of the various escapement parts to best suit the gear train of the watch. This new system is a fundamental part of brand strategy, says founder Roland Schwertner, and is designed to deliver better chronometric precision than specialised companies are currently able to supply. All the parts in the Swing System are German-made, either in metal (for the balance spring) or using LIGA technology to “grow” parts through electrodeposition. More than 10,000 assortments have already been made and Nomos plans to launch production in steel by the end of the year.

Silicon, the new industry standard

Silicon is bigger news than ever among the market’s movers and shakers. From a technological rarity, it has evolved into a material that is perfectly suited to “large-scale” production. Excellent chronometric performance and the fact that parts can be manufactured with extreme precision at moderate cost have helped swing the balance in its favour. Rolex’s Syloxi silicon balance spring makes its debut appearance in the new Calibre 2236 that equips the Oyster Perpetual Datejust Pearlmaster 34. Patents protecting this new technology include for the geometry of the balance spring, whose coils have variable pitch and thickness, and for the system that fixes it to the traversing balance bridge. Virtually all the major Swiss watchmakers are now using silicon. Patek Philippe, for example, started in 2005, five years after Ulysse Nardin, a pioneer in the field.

Rolex was the centre of attention when it unveiled its Datejust Pearlmaster 34, the first of its watches to include the brand's Syloxi balance spring, made from silicon and with a patented geometry.

Over at Swatch Group, all Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz watches will be fitted with silicon balance springs. Already in evidence at Omega inside the 8500 calibre series that equips, among others, the new Speedmaster, the group has announced that silicon will be standard for its high-end products. Among the reasons behind this decision, financial considerations come into play given that silicon escapements prove more profitable than their conventional counterparts. “Even if they are currently more expensive to produce, silicon parts allow undeniable savings,” explains David Candaux, watchmaker and co-founder of Du Val des Bois. “The part is pretty much ready to use when it comes out of the mould. Even though it may require slight rectification or adjustment, the shape, accurate to a micron, and surface are final. This means minimum intervention from the watchmaker, which is where the savings are made.”

Swatch Group also owns Nivarox, the largest manufacturer of conventional escapements, and while the multinational could doubtless bypass silicon, it will certainly be part of the group’s new ranges of “high-tech” watches as and when they are launched. The irony being that silicon indirectly contributed to the collapse of the watch industry in the 1980s as it is one of the elements used to manufacture the electronic components of a quartz movement. Today, this same silicon is considered a strategic ally for developments in high-end watchmaking.

Further inventions

Several escapement-related innovations were unveiled at the last Baselworld. Ulysse Nardin took the wraps off the finished version of its Ulysse Anchor Escapement. The pallet staff and bridge have been replaced by a silicon frame to which the pallet lever is attached. This is a “flying” anchor as the pallet arms are suspended by two perpendicular blades which draw on the physical property of buckling, already put into practice by Girard-Perregaux for its Constant Escapement. The system delivers clean, direct impulses, recovers a maximum of energy and significantly reduces friction.

Kari Voutilainen, meanwhile, has incorporated for the first time his “natural” escapement with double direct impulse into a tourbillon: the Tourbillon 6. Lastly, Bulgari’s Ammiraglio del Tempo and Christophe Claret’s Maestoso both feature a pivoted detent escapement with cylindrical balance spring and constant-force device.

The Tourbillon 6 by Kari Voutilainen is the first tourbillon to feature the independent watchmaker's natural escapement.
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