Manufacture Watch Movements: A New Frontier of Practical Innovation

Consider an exotic car like a Ferrari: People who own and covet these fine cars will admit to some occasion or another where a given car had to receive some attention (sometimes multiple times) for maintenance, or adjustment; yet this seldom blunts their enthusiasm to enjoy their Ferrari(s) to the fullest, or acquire further examples for their collection. This sometimes temperamental behavior from the car is a trade off these Ferraristi accept, given the thrilling performance, scintillating history, and incomparable sex appeal that the Ferrari embodies. At first glance, the question of temperamentality in a car like a Ferrari may seem odd – how can a largely hand-built engine, with only a few thousand produced per year, be anything but perfect, especially with all the devoted attention its passionate builders put into it? But upon a closer consideration, the following point becomes clear – the more of an engine that are made, the more statistical samples a company will have to measure performance, reliability, long term durability and other valuable intangibles. Any problems can be categorized, and optimizations can be made on subsequent production runs. As a result, after such a product has been refined over the course or years or even decades, you are left with a machine which performs with excellent repeatability and predictability.

I’m going to cool the car/watch analogy now, first of all because its been beaten to death by every watch scribbler out there (including yours truly) and secondly because, like many analogies, its not terribly exact. There are as many differences between cars and watches as there are similarities, but that is the topic for another blog. Here is my point – in watches, there can be an excellent compromise between exclusivity and performance, and the key to that is the design priorities of those who create the movement. Getting controversial perhaps, I will bring up Rolex. While the mere mention of this brand can agitate a formerly peaceful watch discussion like no other, the fact remains that it is a pure Manufacture of granitic solidity and nearly complete autonomy. And one of the foremost reasons their watches have been successful is the quality of their movements. Now, this is not a quality indicated by exquisite finissage, gold rotors, or prestigious hallmarks, but rather the kind that is proven through an ability to endure the elements, rough treatment, and remain functional and serviceable for decades – one reason that you still see many well-worn Rolex Oysters from the 1960’s or even earlier still ticking away merrily on the arms of their owner, or a descendant of that owner. A large part of this is the priorities that Rolex has long placed upon practical considerations – functional reliability, durable movement architecture (such as their long-time use of an adjustable full balance bridge), and an extensive and trained service network, all very good things for a watch owner, irrespective of whether you love this brand, cant stand it, or are somewhere in between.

So, can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we have a movement which is on the one hand, special and exclusive, yet also trustworthy and suited for use as a “daily driver”, so to speak? Very possibly, yes. Other manufacturers have taken notice of consumers, and their likes and dislikes, and we are starting to see more and more fine movements which are Manufacture, yet reflect a preoccupation with user-friendliness, serviceability, and reliability. Audemars Piguet has done well with its handwound 3090 Caliber and selfwinding 3120 Caliber movements – reminiscent of the Rolex 31X series of movements, these in-house AP calibers feature a full balance bridge; this and many other aspects of these two AP movements were optimized to ease the burden on watchmakers who service and adjust the watch in the future, as well as reduce the need for more frequent servicing intervals; at the same time, these mechanisms are exceptionally beautiful and reflect the haute horlogerie background of Audemars Piguet.

How about Ulysse Nardin? They have recently introduced a brand-spanking new Manufacture movement – the UN-160 Caliber – which also uses the full balance bridge, is designed for optimal long term durability and precision, and also uses a host of new technologies, such as the extremely cool Dual-Ulysse escapement (with unique escape wheels manufactured from nickel-phosphorus), an in-house designed balance wheel, and a rotor mounted on lubrication-free ceramic bearings. Then, there is Patek Philippe – the venerable Geneva manufacturer has added to its long list of Manufacture movements a new chronograph caliber specifically created to be used – and used lots. Recognizing that many users do like to actually play with their chronograph functions, and furthermore like to run the chronograph all the time (using the central chrono seconds as a main second hand) their designers got to work and created a caliber designed to specifically do just that, without any excess wear and tear on the chronograph gear train. The Jaeger-LeCoultre “Autotractor” movement, which occupied the company for a considerable period of time, was specifically created to be as durable as possible, and reports on this movement by owners have been very positive. When IWC needed to create a durable movement for their new Ingenieur watch, they went back to the drawing board and created the 80110 caliber, which is thickly built for maximum resistance to shock, employs a highly reliable bi-directional system (the Pellaton mechanism, which IWC has refined since the 1950’s) and even utilizes a rotor mounting which absorbs shock, as well as Delrin cushions against the bottom surface of the rotor in case an extremely severe shock should cause the rotor to actually flex enough to strike the movement. Like the other examples, IWC’s 80110 caliber movement was also designed to be extremely watchmaker friendly, so that long term servicing issues can be dealt with as expediently as possible for the owner.

The quest for trouble-free operation has extended into smaller, less visually evident (yet tremendously important, from a watchmaking perspective) details such as the hairspring and escapement. Audemars Piguet and Ulysse Nardin, like Omega before them, have both introduced exciting new escapements, designed to reduce or eliminate the need for lubrication (and hence, more frequent servicings), while Patek Philippe and Rolex have both created new anti-magnetic hairsprings which promise to be far more resistant to environmental interferences such as magnetism. Yet, these are only a few examples of some of the new wave of innovative techniques we are seeing within the mechanical watchmaking industry, and I apologize in advance for the many I have no doubt left out in my haste. Much is also being done within the highly creative independent watchmaking sector, an incubator for brilliant horological concepts that sometimes find their way into production—such as was the case with Omega adopting the revolutionary Co-Axial escapement, invented by the incomparable horologist George Daniels.

Reliability or exclusivity? Perhaps the choice is not so stark. Based on current developments in the watch industry, I think we are on the verge of having both. Time will tell of course, as these new developments in movements prove themselves over time, but with the current commitment of the watch companies, I am optimistic that watch lovers have a lot to be excited about.