Friday, March 11, 2005

Limits on the development of mechanical watches?

I thought I’d revisit this topic, in light of Patek’s recent announcement of their oil-less escapement. The new silicon wheel used in it is covered in a superb article by the astute Suitbert Walter here.

You can make out the grey silicon escapement wheel in the picture above.

If we look at other areas of our lives, a new technology comes along and blows the previous one away because the job is done better and cheaper. The steam engine was supplanted by the electric motor, the piston engine usurped by the jet engine. Mechanical watches seem to flounce that because, I’m sure most of us agree, it’s an emotional thing, there’s the appreciation of craftsmanship and that ultimate accuracy isn’t that important. In the end, the mechanical watch is a bit of a pet. However, I’ve been reflecting on where mechanical watches can go in terms of technical time-keeping performance.

Quartz offers superior time keeping prowess. Thus sticking with mechanical watches is almost an exercise in futility from a performance point of view. The question in my mind is how far do you go to innovate new methods of improving the timekeeping performance of a mechanical watch. Does it boil down to, “If you want accuracy get a quartz?” And does that then mean that horologists should stop any further progress such as developing anything that could beat a tourbillon, remontoir or whatever.

I read recently about Renaud and Papi allegedly developing a hyper fast beat escapement and it made me wonder, what’s the point? Despite being a mechanical engineer and having an appreciation for craftsmanship, innovation and so on (I mean one can envisage some kind of ultimate mechanical watch containing a coaxial gyrotourbillon with Diapal coated pallets) but I can’t help thinking what is actually the point of that when you can do it another way much better (in this case quartz). Does that then mean mechanical horology stagnates at the level of the lever and/or coaxial escapement with the occasional tourbillon flourish?

If things move forward would there need to be some kind of rules needed and what would be the definition of a mechanical watch? By which I mean:
Would some method of quartz regulating a mechanical watch be ‘allowed’?
Would the ‘rules’ be that to dictate it’s a mechanical watch that it has to have a mechanical spring power source and a intermittent escapement mechanism with no electronic interference or assistance?
Would there be any appeal to us in a mechanical watch that contained electronic (quartz or radio controlled) regulation?

30 years ago wristwatches split into two branches: quartz and mechanical movements. If you look at the range of radio controlled watches available now, they are essentially perfect timekeepers. It is fair to say that there is no way that mechanical watches could ever do that. Mechanical watch fans warm to new movement developments that enhance accuracy, as greater precision is a measure of its creator’s pursuit of excellence.

Using electronics to improve the accuracy of mechanical watches has been tried with some success, but mechanical enthusiasts have usually not been interested in these. The logic being perhaps, if one wanted absolute accuracy, one would go fully electronic; quartz or radio-controlled.

Mechanical fans are usually after some romance, some life or soul; the presence of quartz or some electronic regulation would sully the purity of the mechanical watch. It might enhance the watch's accuracy, to be sure, but it would be, “a bit of a cheat.”

Thus, if one wishes to develop the accuracy of a mechanical watch, then one must do so within the limitations of an all-mechanical movement.

Key recent developments in the mechanical watch world would have to be Daniels' Coaxial escapement and Sinn's Diapal treatment for the escapement and Patek Philippe’s most recently announced silicon escape wheel. They tackle the key issue of the effect deterioration of the tribological conditions at the escapement pallets has. Where lubricants change their physical properties (and hence friction) over time and use is one of the main areas affecting long term watch accuracy. In the Coaxial case by nearly eliminating all rubbing contact in a novel escapement design and in the Diapal or silicon case by using materials or surface treatments with naturally low dry contact friction on the rubbing components of a traditional lever escapement. A well-sealed watch made with either approach will not be subject to the worsening of the lubricant properties over time and use.

Why there is not more of an effort made to create more precise mechanical watches is probably simply because, with the availability of quartz, no purpose would be served in doing so. Innovation is extremely expensive to the watch manufacturers and, given the two hundred year successful track record of the lever escapement, there is little incentive to change. However, we do see innovation when it’s necessary to maintain or increase sales by being technically innovative in the specific mechanical watch market.

To conclude, I would predict that of the innovations recently seen, these latest materials technologies such as coatings and silicon wheel will move into mainstream mechanical watch manufacture.


John F. Opie said...

Hi -

Great piece!

Bear with me: I'm an economist. :-)

I think that the problem facing the makers of mechanical watches is a commercial one: at some point the amount of monies spent on creating that last little improvement in mechanical accuracy bears *no* benefit to the bottom line.

It's a commercial problem rather than a purely mechanical one: I can foresee that ceramics and silicon can increasingly be integrated into mechanical watches, but the question that still remains is whether the costs bear relation to the price increases that can be justified in the market place.

There really isn't any economic justification for mechanical watches: but, as is so often the case in our consumer world, that doesn't mean that people don't want them. They have the cachet of the unusual, the unique, the different: I work in the financial services field, and people are often judged when meeting for the first time on three things. First, the suit; second, the shoes; third, the watch.

Get all three right and you're accepted. Get two out of three right and you'll still have a chance, anything less and you're an amateur. But you don't have to have the most expensive, handmade stuff, but it all has to click to give you an identity that the other side can understand and place you. I know it's simplistic and ultimately rather easy to defeat, but that is how a significant portion of that world functions, barring other information (and I know that there are exceptions: there always are!).

Hence ultimately - and I think this is certainly no surprise - the economic survival of any watchmaker becomes a function of design and marketing, as long as certain minimum criteria are met. I work as an industrial forecaster, rating hundreds of industries as to their credit-worthiness, which means that I have a fairly technical line of work. By wearing mechanical watches that are clearly technical pieces of work - largely Fortis and Poljot, but also antique watches from the 1950s - I identify myself with the industrial era: I have colleagues who take another route, of either not wearing watches - management gets told what time it is and doesn't need to wear one - or of high-tech design watches that signal full acceptance of the electronic world.

But it remains a question of design, which is the point I'm painfully trying to make. And ultimately the incremental improvements in mechanical design play a secondary role.


John F. Opie

Velociphile said...

Hi John, I'm not sure what drew you here...! Thanks for your input. I hope you enjoy watches! If you don't already, please join us at The Purists and add some more there.

Best wishes to you about your grandma.


Speedmaster said...

Great reading from both of you, thanks very much.