Ready to pay 123,500$ for your next manual watch?

Escapement mechanism based on silicon etching. Credit: Girard Perregaux

Just few posts ago I stressed the importance of lowering the cost as a fuel to innovation. Here let me take an opposite tack, just to show how varied is that concept we call innovation.

I stumble onto an article published in the June 2014 Economist Technology Quarterly about the high-tech world of old-world watches. It drew my attention because I happened to finish last week an interesting book (Longitude) telling the story of finding a way to determine the longitude (a crucial issue for seafarers). A pivotal role in this quest was played by the “watch” or, as it started to be called, the “chronograph”.
Developing a mechanism that could stand the variation in temperature, humidity and movement without failing to keep the exact time with a precision of one second over several weeks challenged many till one eventually succeeded (John Hom….).

Little have the principles of the chronograph evolved in the last 200 years, and at a certain point the whole breed of mechanical watches seemed to be on the verge of demise, following the advent of electronic clocks (quartz and its followers).
The advent of electronic watches and the tumbling of prices seemed to mark the halt of any innovation since no more money was available for investing in exploring something new. The Swatch in 1983 changed the rules of the game by moving the watch to be a timepiece to a fashion object, and it was able to do so by slashing prices (thanks to integration that decreased from 90 to 51 the number of pieces needed to assemble a quartz watch).

Indeed, very little innovation happened since. The new vague of smart watches (2 million sold in 2013) is still waiting for a game changer (Apple?) but more than an evolution of the watch they look like a shape transformation of an Mp3 player….

And yet, mechanical watches have benefit from a fashion advantage that has managed to keep their price high (28 million exported by Switzerland in 2013 at an average price exceeding 800$). And as it has happened in bikes, new advanced technologies are starting to be applied to mechanical watches. In bikes we have seen carbon replacing steel and aluminium in the topo of the line, here we are seen silicon being used to replace copper/brass/steel in the mechanisms.

In a way it si bordering on absurd, developing ever more sophisticated timepieces when the goal is not to improve their precision (if you want to have the right time look at your cell phone that takes it from the network). And yet, craftsmanship is attracting the connosseurs.

In my case, and I love mechanical watches, I am only intrigued by the progress of mechanical technology since I would not be ready to spill 123,500$ to buy the latest Girard Perregaux that has managed to develop the most precise mechanisms ever (shown in the photo).

It is based on a silicon etched from a wafer in strips 14µm wide covered in carbon to strengthen them (silicon is brittle). This provides a constant movement of the escapement with an energy absorption so law that a charge (mechanical) will last for a week.

All watches have already been reserved by aficionados. It shows that innovation, leveraging on technology and pushed by marketing, can be made also in high cost products.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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