Monday, May 01, 2006

Ramblings on Innovation in Wristwatches

I remember years ago having a discussion with a product manufacturer intrigued by their constant change in fundamental design. I asked if they felt they were gradually evolving towards a better device. The answer? “No, we just get copied so much we need to have new product to differentiate us in the crowded (and by implication, the knock-off) market.” So I wonder now that everyone has tourbillons down pat and they are now being mass produced in China, the next accomplishment for our high-end friends that came off their conference brainstorming pads is “escapement or accuracy” innovation. Bit churlish? Well, some things are clearly advantageous: take Silicon/silicium/DLC etc; but what of the new escapements?

Silicium/silicon – Discussed at length before, Dario considers that unless we have broad application of this it is not a benefit as it remains only in untouchable pieces. I agree and would encourage it’s uptake as soon as possible. One of the advantages of it also seems to be that parts can be made with identical geometry thus allowing upgrade during routine service. And of course it also allows the manufacture of parts that were previously next to impossible to make let alone accurately. This opens the door to some new mechanism innovation (particularly escapement).

And then the recent escapements. One such example, the new AP ‘Robin’ escapement, confuses me. Why? It offers an improvement in efficiency because it has the escape wheel providing direct impulse to the balance, but what else? Will it allow higher balance frequencies? Maybe, the lever should have low inertia. Will it provide better rate stability? Having half the interaction of the escape wheel with the balance is a good direction to go in. Has it got better wear characteristics? Looks like it could be semi-coaxial in the escape/pallet contact behaviour and silicon would help too. Does it self start? Probably not. Is it shock proofed? Yes.

We already have a me-too market inside of one year. Unless I see some timing/stability data I remain sceptical of many of these things being anything other than interesting diversification. No bad thing in itself, but as Purists I believe we must sort the wheat from the chaff. Now, that leads me to another point. The motivation. Ripwatch considers that trying to improve the accuracy of these obsolete systems is an irrelevance quoting “ near enough is good enough.” I think it is technically fascinating to continue to improve the accuracy of the mechanical watch. I don’t think doing this is irrelevant like “improving the accuracy of a slide rule.” As, in fact some of the cylindrical slide rule designs could achieve pretty astonishing accuracies due to their long effective scale lengths…. I look forward to really worthwhile improvements - so please Switzerland, let's see some data.

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