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Société Suisse de Chronométrie: reinventing the wheel
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Société Suisse de Chronométrie: reinventing the wheel

Friday, 16 October 2009
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Fabrice Eschmann
Freelance journalist

“Don't believe all the quotes you read online!”

“In life as in watchmaking, it takes many encounters to make a story.”

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5 min read

The Société Suisse de Chronométrie recently hosted its thirteenth highly successful Study Day, on the subject of complications. The audience was particularly impressed by a presentation of non-circular gears by a researcher at HE-Arc in Le Locle.

There was a smile on Jean-Daniel Dubois’ face on September 16th. Taking stock of the day, the newly-appointed Chairman of the Société Suisse de Chronométrie (SSC) enthused: “I was expecting 500 people to attend, nothing like the 730 who actually came!” Such was the success of this 13th Study Day, when industry professionals gathered at the Beaulieu exhibition centre in Lausanne to discuss “the technical and aesthetic challenges of complication watches.” Movement designers, historians, researchers and brands shared their vision of watch complications. Of the nine speakers, Pascal Winkler, a lecturer at the Haute Ecole Arc du Locle, particularly held the audience’s attention with his presentation of non-circular gears.

Of the nine speakers, Pascal Winkler, a lecturer at the Haute Ecole Arc du Locle, particularly held the audience’s attention with his presentation of non-circular gears © Fabrice Eschmann/BIPH
Of the nine speakers, Pascal Winkler, a lecturer at the Haute Ecole Arc du Locle, particularly held the audience’s attention with his presentation of non-circular gears © Fabrice Eschmann/BIPH
Not just a tribune for the brands

The SSC’s Study Days are one of the rare occasions when brands, generally rivals with every interest in guarding their secrets, can present and discuss their inventions and working methods. Attending this latest event were Breitling, Vacheron Constantin, Concord, Christophe Claret, Seiko and Vaucher Manufacture. “The SSC bureau decides on a theme then invites speakers to submit proposals,” Jean-Daniel Dubois explained. “Of the seventeen topics put forward this time, we chose nine.”

Two historians and a researcher balanced out these six brands. “Our symposium is an ideal platform for watch and movement manufacturers, somewhere to show they are still very much around, especially in these difficult times,” commented Jean-Daniel Dubois. “However, because we don’t want this to be simply a tribune for brands, we always take care to invite other speakers too.” Hence the French historian Joseph Flores spoke on “Chronometric complications in the history of timekeeping” and Elena Stefanova, a historian and head of product development for a brand, asked “Have complicated watches conquered ladies’ hearts?”

Square wheels

The audience was especially intrigued by the presentation which Pascal Winkler, a lecturer and engineer at HE-Arc in Le Locle, gave. The audience of professionals looked on amazed as he demonstrated how a club shape and a square can mesh. As can a heart and a mouth. Even potato shapes. “I didn’t invent this,” Pascal Winkler hastened to say. “The idea has been around since the 1920s. What’s new is our capacity to calculate and produce these forms.”

We can produce these "wheels" using deep photolithography techniques.
Pascal Winkler

Indeed, modern applications such as MATLAB (“matrix laboratory”) can virtually design gear “wheels” in all manner of far-fetched shapes. Each of these “wheels’” teeth must be different to its neighbour if they are to perfectly mesh. “We can produce these “wheels” using deep photolithography techniques,” Pascal Winkler explained. “This process, which derives from micro-electronics, has only been around for a dozen years of so, which explains why there are almost no non-circular gears in watches.”

Perfect for astronomical indications

Calculating and manufacturing unconventional gears is one thing; their practical application in a timepiece is another. Says Pascal Winkler: “There are two problems. I’ve already shown some of my models to watchmakers who were fascinated by the idea. However, they all wanted exclusive use, if possible for free, which I can’t give them as I use my models to promote the expertise behind them. We are a school serving the wider community. Secondly, I’m offering the “technology” for non-circular gears but companies have to develop their own applications. This is where the value lies, in something that can be patented and protected, not the gears themselves. Non-circular toothed gears are so new to watchmakers that they can’t imagine ways to use them.”

One brand, Maurice Lacroix, has already latched on to this technology’s potential. It will unveil a new timepiece with club and square gears at Baselworld 2010. While this will be a purely aesthetic innovation, systems such as this, where the speed of the driven gear isn’t proportional to that of the driving gear, are perfectly adapted to non-regular displays, which in turn can be used to indicate non-regular phenomenon such as tides, sunrise and sunset, the equation of time and other astronomical functions. “We could also think of a different way to display jumping hours,” Pascal Winkler concluded. “I think my system uses less energy as it has no need for a spring or a feeler-spindle touching a cam, which is an important factor in a grande complication model.” Watch this space!

Universal themes

Grandes complications took centre-stage at the Société Suisse de Chronométrie’s recent Study Day. Highlights of the event included presentations on Fine Watches and women, and chronometry through the ages, both themes that have been the subject of exhibitions at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in recent years.

There is never only one way to inform an already knowledgeable audience of progress made in time measurement. Initiatives can include lectures, exhibitions and visits to brands’ manufacturing workshops. The changing expectations of the branch’s female clientele, watches for land, air and sea, chronometry and sport, and complications are all part of the unique environment which companies in the sector share with those whose role it is to defend its values. Hence the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie welcomes efforts made while highlighting its essential role in a discipline whose hallmarks are discovery and innovation.

Article published in BIPH

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