Now Reading: What Has Technology Ever Done For Watchmaking?

What Has Technology Ever Done For Watchmaking?

Some say technology will be the undoing of traditional watchmaking, but as history has already shown, there’s a powerful symbiotic relationship between the two

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By Dubai Watch Week

09 Oct, 2019

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When they’re allowed out of their Swiss mountain hideaways, watchmakers like to play a little trick on unsuspecting punters. Take a small coin, a dime for example, put a screw in it so small that it can’t be seen by the naked eye, and then invite those punters to see if they can find it. More often than not, they can’t, much to the watchmaker’s satisfaction.

The point, of course, is not to pull off a trompe l’oeil, but to demonstrate how complex and how technical watchmaking and the manufacturing behind it is. Apple’s new A13 bionic chip might be small, but it’s grand compared to the smallest precision-engineered screws found inside a mechanical watch.

Naturally, any comparison between today’s technology and the mechanics of a fine watch are going to be limited. But there’s no mistaking the parallels between the two.

Quality and quantity

At a macro level, technology introduced during the great watchmaking revival of the last three decades has transformed watchmaking quality, not to mention the manufacturing efficiencies companies now enjoy.

Many have facilities full to brimming with CNC machines lined up in sequence like synchronised swimmers that once programmed can produce parts engineered to tiny tolerances 24 hours a day. This isn’t just watchmaking nirvana for high-volume manufacturers, it’s also made the watches we buy much better in quantifiable terms, such as performance and reliability.

Swatch has taken modern technology further still, building facilities that produce the company’s hermetically sealed Sistem51 automatic mechanical watch using a production line run almost exclusively by robots. Seeing dials stamped, hands applied, cases glued together and many processes besides performed by a sea of small autonomous arms is bewildering, and a spectacular example of how technology has triggered a new era in so-called traditional Swiss watchmaking.

The material difference

Technology has also been pivotal in the development of the raft of new materials now found in watchmaking. As just one example, the alchemy behind Omega’s operation (its parent company Swatch Group owns a number of businesses that support its brands with parts manufacturing and research and development) has fuelled pieces made in Ceragold, Sedna Gold and most recently Moonshine Gold, mixing 18-carat gold with ceramic, copper, palladium and who knows what else to make materials that scratch less, wear harder and shine more brightly for longer.

Silicon, watchmaking wonderstuff, has also transformed the watchmaking landscape since it was first introduced 20 years ago, bringing tangible benefits to the performance of watches made by a growing roster of brands. It can be manufactured to finer tolerances than traditional brass, and is most commonly used in escapements, bringing with it greater resistance to magnetic fields, changes in temperature and shock.

Because it generates so little friction, it also doesn’t need lubricating, which means less wear and tear and longer service intervals. This is also why Rolex, Omega, Ulysse Nardin and others using it are now offering longer warranties on their new watches than ever before. Five years is increasingly normal, where once two was good.


The future of Swiss watchmaking?

But the area where technology is influencing traditional watchmaking most visibly is in hybrid watches. A new generation of pieces offering mechanical and digital functions is rapidly emerging, with some senior executives claiming that Swiss brands selling watches priced under $1,000 will have to embrace the technology if they are to stand any chance of surviving the crushing impact of smartwatches – and Apple Watch in particular – on the sector.

Some of the players in this space have been around the block. Frédérique Constant, Alpina and Mondaine are all now using movements with mechanical hearts and smart modules that connect to a phone and send notifications to your wrist and provide various health and activity trackers. Others are newer. In August this year, young Swiss company Sequent launched the world’s first automatic hybrid smartwatch with a heart rate monitor.

Peter Stas, who founded Frédérique Constant and continues to work for the company after selling it to Japan’s Citizen Group, believes health apps have the potential to kill watchmaking because a device that might extend your life by five years becomes more attractive to consumers than an old-fashioned mechanical watch.

How far that theory stretches will probably be linked to price point. No one is saying the choice universally will be between a smartwatch with health apps and a £50,000 Patek Philippe.

More likely, the two will coexist, complementing each other along the way. Arguably, given how the micro-mechanics of a wristwatch influenced early computer scientists, that’s how it’s always been.

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