Forward in Time

Space-age technologies herald the future of mechanical watchmaking.
| By Elizabeth Doerr | From 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.

Another main proponent of nontraditional materials in watchmaking has been Ulysse Nardin. In the fall of 2006, the innovative company from Le Locle, Switzerland, announced its successful use of diamond-silicon escape wheels. This came after extended experimentation in diamond components that culminated in 2005's Freak 28'800 V/h Diamond Heart, the first wristwatch to contain a balance spring crafted completely in synthetic diamond. Now, in collaboration with a specialized German laboratory, Ulysse Nardin is producing silicon escape wheels that have synthetic diamond literally cultured on the silicon wheels. According to Ulysse Nardin, this material promises less wear and tear on parts, less friction, greater shape stability, less tendency for impurities (thanks to the absence of lubrication and a reduction of thermal influence on the watch's rate).

A pioneer of escapement research, Ulysse Nardin had previously developed its own Dual Direct Escapement, which debuted in 2001's Freak timepiece. The Freak was the first watch commercially outfitted with silicon parts, thanks to the fact that the company had begun working with CSEM before others began to catch on. In late 2007, Ulysse Nardin announced a joint venture with Mimotec, called Sigatec, whose manufacturing of silicon products by combining the LIGA process with Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE), an important step in producing silicon products, might just represent the future of watchmaking.

Although Ulysse Nardin owns half of the company, Sigatec plans on offering this technology to any company that desires it. And Ulysse Nardin is OK with that. "One big reason for Ulysse Nardin to enter into this joint venture," explains Mimotec's Lorenz, "was for its exceptional promise in the area of research and development."

Ulysse Nardin has already put Sigatec's continuous research and development to good use. Using its convention-breaking Freak model as the platform, the watchmaker has introduced a new version of the Freak aptly named Innovision, which showcases all the new parts thus far created by Sigatec for Ulysse Nardin—even including a bridge that wondrously combines silicon with LIGA nickel.

It's not so much about the watch here as the groundbreaking, almost futuristic, technology that is going into its movement's manufacture. "We are proud to share our hopes, our vision and our achievements," explains Rolf Schnyder, the owner of Ulysse Nardin. "Without a doubt, our industry will continue to progress, and probably in very different directions, but it seems important to us to include new materials and technologies in our concept that promise improvements or advantages."

According to Schnyder and Ulysse Nardin technical director Pierre Gygax, these new materials and technologies are profoundly justified in a technical sense. That is, they make lubrication a thing of the past, while making production more precise and simple. "We are of the opinion that mechanical watchmaking is a living thing," Schnyder continues. "Perhaps Ulysse Nardin, in some modest way, has contributed to a new collective imagination to which there is no boundary."

However, Ulysse Nardin is not alone in its research into and release of new technologies that were unthinkable a few years ago. Also in pursuit of the lubrication-free movement of the future is Jaeger-LeCoultre, which has created a laboratory inside its thousand-man-strong factory in Le Sentier, Switzerland. Though you don't need a degree in chemistry to wear its output, having one may help you identify some of the elements and alloys that the nearly two-century-old company is now using in some of its no-longer-so-traditional wristwatches.

It is within this lab that 45 engineers, technicians and watchmakers now systematically work toward the discovery and development of futuristic materials and methods for use in watchmaking. The first product to spring from this research took two years to complete and is called the Master Compressor Extreme LAB.

Focusing on finding materials for a friction-free movement that needs no lubrication, Jaeger-LeCoultre searched for such perfect alloys in other industries. What the brand came up with was Easium, a ceramic that is nearly impervious to temperature change and has a low friction coefficient. While Ulysse Nardin and Sigatec are replacing traditional jewel bearings with silicon bearings—some manufactured directly into silicon plates and bridges—Jaeger-LeCoultre, which plans to introduce the silicon bearings on a global scale in the next five years, is also using Easium as a substitute for synthetic jewels. Along with an escapement wheel made of silicon, other space-age components in the Master Compressor Extreme LAB include black synthetic diamond pallet stones, ticalium (an aluminum-titanium carbide alloy) for the flat parts and a tourbillon carriage crafted in extremely lightweight magnesium. Jaeger-LeCoultre is also coating pivots with molybdenum bisulfide in the Master Compressor Extreme LAB to make them smoother and with less friction.

Jaeger-LeCoultre is not the only brand using new alloys to achieve its goals. Zenith, another one of Switzerland's most traditional watch brands, has introduced new materials in its Defy Xtreme line—an extremely robust range of watches whose design complements its functionality with a dial comprised of several different layers of carbon fiber, Hesalite and aluminum.

"Contrary to many other traditional manufactures, we still dream at Zenith, take risks," says CEO Thierry Nataf in regard to his striking collection. "We took on a design and technology challenge to create timepieces that do more than just measure the time. We are developing a new, unmistakable Zenith style."

The movement of the Defy Xtreme contains an exclusive alloy that was the product of three years' worth of research and development: zenithium. Three times as hard as steel, zenithium combines titanium for robustness, aluminum for lightness and nobium—a mineral—for flexibility. Additionally, the company uses balance cocks, chronograph bridges and escape bridges made of zenithium for its Defy Xtreme Open and Chronograph movements, which strengthen the position of the escapement, even at 1,000 meters under water. The four models of the Defy Xtreme collection—Tourbillon, Open, Chronograph and Power Reserve—also benefit from the blending of traditional materials such as stainless steel with composite materials such as Kevlar and carbon fiber, both in terms of aesthetics and added strength.

These new materials can also be used to make large watches, which are presently in vogue, lighter. In every watch signed by Richard Mille, for instance, several unique and innovative metals such as Anticorodal 100 (an alloy comprised of aluminum, magnesium and silicon) and alusic (an alloy made up of aluminum and silicon carbide) are at work behind the scenes. Unlike Ulysse Nardin or Jaeger-LeCoultre, Mille's goal is to make his large, distinct watches lighter and sturdier. "The creation of [my] watches emulates the system of thinking from the world of Formula One racing," he says. "It is a world of no-nonsense; every part of the car must have a specific function working at the highest certain level and quality, especially under stressful conditions. Also, every gram counts; many people do not realize that F1 cars are really weighed by the gram during their development and construction. This approach really appeals to me. It's a balancing act, a pushing of the envelope."

Looking ahead almost always entails a look back, and the Frédérique Constant brand currently proves this point with the use of Zerodur, an inorganic, nonporous glass material made by a process of controlled volume crystallization. As Jules Verne-esque as this might sound, eighteenth-century British watchmakers John Arnold and Edward John Dent are credited with actually being the first to make a spring out of glass, examples of which can be viewed at the British Museum in London. While the proper disintegration of glass needed to make a viable spring was not possible in the era of Arnold and Dent, the liquid glass-ceramic Zerodur proves that it now is. Frédérique Constant used this spring in a unique timepiece that was auctioned for charity during the celebrated Only Watch 07 auction in Monaco. Its movement also contained a silicon escape wheel.

While this influx of new materials has mainly been to improve a watch's reliability, rate and overall timekeeping qualities, they are also used for aesthetics. For example, black cases are generally stainless steel or titanium with a coat of PVD (physical vapor deposit), which is not always a lasting solution as it tends to crack off after time. The look of a black case is, however, very appealing, so watch companies have searched for alternatives to PVD. DLC is one solution making the rounds in the watch industry. DLC—or Diamond-Like Carbon—is applied to stainless steel much like PVD, but because of its carbon origins, it offers the watch case a harder, more lasting surface. DLC is in and of itself colorless, but when it is applied to steel in a thickness of 1.5 to 2 microns, it turns a distinct shiny black color that is impervious to cracking.

"Profiting from the latest technical advances to continue developing our models is a must," explains Felix Baumgartner, who cofounded Urwerk, a small innovative watch company based in Geneva. "It was only after having seen and extensively testing the exceptional properties of TiAlN that we created our very first 103 steel-cased watch.

The TiAlN [titanium aluminum nitride] appears to have the gift of endowing supernatural properties to common metals like steel."

Baumgartner and his partner, Martin Frei, rarely work in steel, preferring hardened precious metals for the unique cases of their distinctive timepieces. However, using TiAlN—originally an application developed for industrial purposes—appealed to the duo. Urwerk also used the process for its own tools, since these always need to be harder than the cases that are being worked on. "Its superb properties regarding oxidation and excellent resistance to wear make TiAlN the coating of choice," Baumgartner says. Urwerk, always so interested in the aesthetics of its unusual timepieces, was enamored of the color that the alloy turned its steel cases, which can range from a melting bronze hue to a stormy black depending on the titanium-aluminum ratio.

And silicon? It, too, can be used to beautify the exterior of a timepiece. Thinking outside the box, DeWitt is using silicon outside the movement: namely on the dials of two models called Academia Silicium Hora Mundi and Academia Silicium Grande Date, which have an ultrafine sliver of pure silicon affixed to the brass plate constituting the actual dial. This is a very tricky process, for the silicon sliver is extremely thin—barely 0.2 mm—as well as brittle and fragile. The slightest wrong movement will snap it in two. The ethereal structure of the dial is a natural one born of the silicon—an element that makes up 28 percent of the earth's crust and that grows in a crystalline manner. Its gold or black coloring matching the watch's case metal is achieved by using a complex plating process. Thanks to the nature of its dial, each of these models is unique.

By the time Lange decided to go outside the watch industry to create the vintage specialty he envisioned for H. Moser & Cie.'s movements, its space-age implications did indeed herald the end of the watch industry's so-called mechanical renaissance, an era that saw the comeback of the anachronistic, luxurious mechanical timepiece after a decade of quartz timepieces. The mechanical renaissance is now over. Long live the era of new technologies and may they continue to improve and beautify the mechanical wristwatch.

Elizabeth Doerr is a freelance watch writer based in Germany.