A team of U.S. researchers has developed a silicon balance spring that could kickstart a revival of the American watchmaking industry. The technology was developed by Firehouse Horology, co-founded by Nicholas Manousos and Kiran Shekar, who are co-CEOs of the company. They are producing the balance springs at Columbia University’s Columbia Nano Initiative Clean Room, a micro- and nano-fabrication lab in New York City.
The partners started Firehouse Horology in 2015 with a goal to “explore the future of horological nanofabrication,” says Manousos. “Living in the USA, we know that the state of watch manufacturing here is not like it once was. In addition, there are significant issues surrounding American watch brands making questionable manufacturing origin claims. So it made sense for us to start with one of the most difficult parts to manufacture in a mechanical watch: the hairspring.” Firehouse Horology holds patents for the new balance spring, which has been tested and validated by independent watchmaker F.P. Journe. Journe installed a series of the hairsprings in his movements and put them through a battery of tests which confirmed they perform to the ISO 3159 (COSC) standard.
Different in process and material
“The biggest challenge we faced was convincing people that we were actually making hairsprings ourselves in New York City,” says Manousos. “We often heard the assumption that we were somehow outsourcing the work, or hiring graduate students to do the work for us. Our collaboration with F.P. Journe, and having him validate our hairsprings in his movements, helped us quite a bit with this credibility challenge.”
The springs are different from existing silicon balance springs in both process and material. “The specific differences are discussed in the patents, but the end result,” says Manousos, “is that our hairsprings are more durable and more isochronous than competing products.” When asked if Firehouse Horology has any Swiss watchmakers among its clients, Manousos declines to comment, but he does say they have the capability to manufacture hundreds of thousands of silicon hairsprings per year at Columbia University. “They are in production now, and there is significant demand for them,” he says. “We have many customers around the world, but we cannot discuss them publicly due to confidentiality agreements.” The company makes escapements, balances and wheels, and has the capability of making any two-dimensional shape in silicon with precision measured in nanometers.
Swiss manufacturers have dominated the research and production of silicon components. Ulysse Nardin was the first out of the gate in 2001 with its Freak, whose movement included silicon components. Next, a consortium comprised of Patek Philippe, Rolex and Swatch Group teamed with Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique to development silicon components. In 2005 Patek Philippe introduced the Spiromax balance spring in monocrystalline silicon, and a year later Breguet introduced a silicon escapement. By 2014, Rolex had introduced its Syloxi silicon balance spring, and Swatch Group’s other brands – Blancpain, Omega, Tissot, Mido and Jaquet Droz – had followed suit. The use of silicon gives watch companies a competitive edge. It is resistant to magnetic fields and temperature change, and eliminates the need for adjustment and servicing by a watchmaker.
Focus on the movement
“In the U.S., we often hear the complaint that there are no suppliers for movements, and therefore a U.S.-made watch cannot be made,” says Manousos. “We view this as an opportunity. The United States used to be a world leader in horological manufacturing, and there is no reason why we cannot get back to that with some determination and hard work.”
Could it lead to a revival of the American watch industry? Manousos says yes, but that for American watchmaking to thrive again, “American brands need to focus on movement manufacturing, and much more needs to be done to educate consumers about movements and manufacturing. An educated American watch consumer is much harder to mislead with marketing, and will naturally be drawn to products and companies providing real innovation.”
Manousos studied computer science, followed by a successful tech career in Silicon Valley. He studied watchmaking at the Hayek Watchmaking School in Miami, Florida, and now lives in New York City, where he is the president of the Horological Society of New York. He is also the technical editor of Hodinkee. Kiran Shekar has a degree in applied physics and has had a successful career in the finance industry. He also has an interest in watchmaking, and is a trustee of the Horological Society of New York.