A mini-revolution in water-resistance, an innovation that promises to boost progress in flexible mechanisms, and new lume colours for ever more extravagant dials: three of the standout innovations at EPHJ, which attracted 820 exhibitors to Palexpo exhibition centre in Geneva, June 12th-15th. The event increasingly draws interest from brands on the lookout for the real innovation that originates at universities and with the industrial companies working behind the scenes.
Part of the Neode start-up incubator in La Chaux-de-Fonds, SY&SE (pronounced saɪ and si) is a spin-off of Haute Ecole Arc – Ingénierie (HE-Arc) and its collaboration with Cartier, whose manufacturing facilities are also in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Its innovation tackles water-resistance, one of the main reasons watches are returned for servicing. SY&SE has developed a cold bonding technique that will seal sapphire crystal to virtually any metal or ceramic, without adhesive. “There are currently two means of assembling the crystal that guarantee water-resistance,” explains Bertrand Späth, head of business development. “One is to use adhesive and the other is anodic bonding, which uses electrostatic force.” Both these technologies have their downside: adhesives alter over time and anodic bonding only works on silicon.
SY&SE’s patented technology is called impulse current bonding. It replaces the direct current used in anodic bonding with electrical impulses. The material is heated within a precise area and at a lower temperature (150°C compared with 450°C) to seal sapphire crystal directly to a range of materials: steel, gold, platinum or ceramic. This new solution, which has major potential in watchmaking as well as medtech, was awarded the Grand Prix des Exposants 2018 for the fair’s top innovation.
Direct injection micro-moulding
Also a contender for the Grand Prix award, Vulkam is a Grenoble-based start-up with ties to research laboratories. It has developed amorphous metals – also known as metallic glasses or glassy metals – which can be moulded like plastic. President and CEO Sébastien Gravier explains how “metals generally have a crystalline atomic structure whereas the atoms in amorphous metals are randomly arranged. This gives them extreme properties such as a very high elastic limit and twice as much mechanical resistance.” So far, the company has developed a dozen alloys.
Forming shapes out of amorphous metals is a complex process, hence why the few currently available products use specially optimised formulas. Vulkam has found a way round this limitation by also developing a direct injection micro-moulding technique that enables greater precision than machining and excellent surface roughness. This technology is ideally suited to flexible mechanisms; an area of particular interest in watchmaking right now. “All the brands that are working on this type of mechanism have been to see us,” confirms Sébastien Gravier, without mentioning any names.
Twice the performance
LumiNova stood out at the fair with developments we can expect to see on the outside of our watches. A joint venture between Japanese company Nemoto and Switzerland’s RC Tritec, it manufactures the luminescent pigments that brands use on dials and hands. The composition of the ingredients meant that, for a long time, lume was any colour you liked as long as it was blue or green. After white and purple in 2017, this year the company has introduced pink, yellow, orange and dark blue colours. “The night-view colours are new crystals, based on strontium aluminate or calcium aluminate combined with rare earth metal,” explains Albert Zeller, RC Tritec’s CEO. “These are very difficult to obtain, whereas we have more than 3,000 day-view colours.”
Each grain of Super-LumiNova acts like a mini-accumulator. When exposed to light, the electrons vibrate and reach a higher energy level – an electronic activity which the pigment will lose in the dark. It’s this energy, as it is released, that emits light. “We have patents pending for these new pigments, which have twice the glow,” added Albert Zeller.