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Forward in Time

Space-age technologies herald the future of mechanical watchmaking.
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

It was a phone call that Joachim Schulz never would have expected. A physicist who has spent his career occupied with the application of microtechnology for research purposes, Schulz had no experience in the watch industry, but as the division head of the Institute for Microstructure Technology at the Forschungszentrum in Karlsruhe, Germany—one of the world's largest government-funded research centers—he listened with great interest. • On the other end of the line was Jürgen Lange, who explained to Schulz that he was founding a new luxury watch brand and that he needed Schulz's help. The premise of the new brand was going to be based upon a new movement design that would combine modern and vintage characteristics. At the forefront of these was a new escapement—the component in a mechanical watch movement that actually beats the time.

Aware that the escapement can be a watch's weak link due in great part to the lubrication it needs, Lange told Schulz that he had conceived an escapement that would function without oil. It was a dramatic innovation, but he wanted the component crafted in solid gold, like pocket watch escapements of yore. The problem was, this had never been done, and most watchmakers and scientists were saying that a solid gold escapement without lubrication was an unattainable ideal.

That's exactly why Lange was contacting Schulz. Lange was aware of a process invented by the Karlsruhe research center in the early '80s known as LIGA, and he explained to Schulz that his intention was to use it to develop the escapement. Schulz was most interested.

The basic premise of LIGA, a German-language acronym that stands for lithography (Lithografie), electroforming (Galvanisierung) and molding (Abformung), is based on lithography, the process of transferring things such as text or images onto a smooth, plane surface. Like modern lithography, which depends on photographic procedures and is used to create almost every mass-produced item with print on it, the LIGA process uses light for stabilization, but it's X-ray light, which allows structural information to be "transferred" and "exposed" onto a layer of plastic of micro-lithographic scale. A solvent is then introduced, which leaves behind the conformation of the nonirradiated plastic as the primary structure. The spaces generated by the removal of the plastic material are then filled with a metal, thanks to the electroforming part of the process.

Creating a solid gold escapement using LIGA was a difficult process. Since LIGA was developed, the Karlsruhe institute had found that using blends of nickel, copper, nickel-cobalt, nickel phosphorous and nickel-iron alloys produced the best results. Gold had not yet been explored as a possible material due to its extreme softness. Nevertheless, Schulz and the research center's scientists took on the challenge and came up with a hard gold alloy that can be electroformed. The gold, which is 23.5 karats pure, is blended with cadmium and arsenic to give it the proper hardening properties, which are twice as hard as regular gold at 150-160 Vickers (normal gold can be found at about 70 on the Vickers scale). Above and beyond that, Lange and Schulz found a way to harden the walls exposed to mechanical wear by subjecting the parts to local ion implantation.

In 2005, after several years of experimentation, Lange's H. Moser & Cie. brand was introduced to the watch world. The watches included escapement parts in 23.5-karat hard gold manufactured by the Karlsruhe research giant's institute for microtechnology. What's more, the phone call that Lange made to Schulz that day in 2001 is indicative of the search for innovative watchmaking material and technology that has the industry firmly entrenched in its throes.

A few years prior to the cooperation between H. Moser & Cie. and the Karlsruhe Forschungszentrum, Hubert Lorenz, a doctoral candidate from Lausanne's Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral, founded Mimotec, a company geared toward finding better ways of building watch components with the LIGA process. Lorenz's concept was groundbreaking in horology. Using a recipe for a photosensitive epoxy developed by IBM, he hit upon a more economical LIGA system to manufacture precise micro-components for the medical and watch industries, based on the use of an inexpensive ultraviolet light source for the exposure process.

Mimotec cornered the market. Because LIGA components are made in batches on a wafer, tooling costs are far lower than with conventional stamping tools. The process allows parts to be manufactured quickly, thus eliminating a major problem among Swiss suppliers: late deliveries. Quick delivery also means that parts can be obtained early enough for prototyping and testing. In addition, the wafer element of batch production, in theory, guarantees that the first piece will have the same quality as the thousandth piece of any given run, ensuring consistency. Components thus manufactured are hard, stable and nearly friction-free thanks to their extremely smooth vertical walls. The quality and properties of these components are without a doubt the main reason that almost all high-end watch companies are exploring the use of LIGA components for their movements.

Historically, the search for new materials in watchmaking has almost always been inspired by the pursuit of materials that don't require lubrication. Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), who is perhaps the most prolific and inventive watchmaker ever, and who remains revered, is reputed to have once said, "Give me a perfect oil, and I will give you a perfect movement." This statement was not made arbitrarily. Indeed, lubricating the watch's escapement remains one of the most controversial issues in horological mechanics. Hot on the trail of new alloys to alleviate friction, the luxury watch industry seems set on this common goal, which will ensure better timekeeping, more reliability and longer intervals between service appointments for the wearer.

In addition to using LIGA, a number of brands are experimenting with silicon, an element known in the watch world by its Latin name, silicium. Used in other high-tech industries for decades, silicon made a big splash in the watch industry when a research group consisting of Patek Philippe, the Swatch Group and Rolex contracted the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Neuchâtel and other renowned institutions to research the use of silicon in the watch movement's regulating organ. The first component to emerge from this research was an escape wheel made of silicon, introduced at Baselworld 2005 by Patek Philippe. It broke new ground in watchmaking and the following year, the brand debuted a partner element: the silicon balance spring.

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