A Watchmaker’s In-Depth Opinion on the Progress of Silicon
In 2018, more brands entered the fold of next generation watchmaking materials. Here’s a closer look at the history and future of this increasingly important material.
As a watchmaker with a traditional education mostly oriented toward heritage and vintage timepieces, I must confess that the use of high tech materials such as silicon in a watch movements sounds a bit like science fiction.
When I remember the difficulty I had (but mostly the satisfaction I got) adjusting the functions of an escapement, forming my first terminal curve on a blued steel hairspring or even oiling the pallets stones of an ultra-thin caliber anchor, I hardly realized that it is nowadays possible to assemble all these components with almost no adjustment at all. But it is reality…
The Evolution of Silicon
Before reviewing the evolution of silicon in the last few years, let’s revisit the reasons why this element, borrowed from the semiconductor industry, has been subject to so much attention from the watch industry for 20 years. It should be noted that this article is about silicon used in the movement (notably the escapement) and not for the exterior of the watch.
Silicon (silicium in French) is much lighter than steel or brass (traditionally used for most movement components). The material is non-magnetic, resistant to corrosion and wear, flexible and generally requires no lubrication. Furthermore, its manufacturing processes allow the production of highly complex shape components.
Apart from being brittle and delicate to manipulate, silicon sounds like the ideal material not only to improve the traditional escapement but also to develop totally new systems, which present serious alternatives to the Swiss anchor escapement.
A brief history of silicon
In the early 2000’s, assisted by specialized high-tech laboratories and institutes of technology, a few watch companies started searching for new solutions to watchmaking’s centuries-old issues (rate, magnetism, lubrication, reliability, durability). In 2001, Ulysse Nardin paved the way to what is now almost common within the watch industry by selling the first mechanical watch whose Dual Direct escapement was partially made of silicon, the Freak.
Shortly after, in 2005, Patek Phillippe introduced its first Silinvar escape-wheel in the annual calendar reference 5250, under the Patek Philippe Advanced Research concept. A revolution for the family-owned company considered by many one of the most traditional watch manufactures.
Other brands gradually followed the trend, introducing silicon components (escape wheels, anchor, and balance-springs) in their classic escapements. Illustrious names like Breguet, Jaeger LeCoultre, Rolex, Blancpain, Jaquet Droz, Harry Winston, Tudor, and Laurent Ferrier among others, presented their own movements fitted with the new technology.
Some improved upon their existing calibers with silicon (such as Omega which equipped the co-axial escapement with its Si 14 balance-spring in 2008) while others created entirely new systems (such as Girard Perregaux, which developed its outstanding Constant Escapement in 2008 and officialy launched it in 2012).
For Only Watch 2011, Maurice Lacroix created a one-of-a-kind Masterpiece Roue Carrée Seconde in which both the square wheel and the cloverleaf-shaped wheel are made from silicon.
Further research led to the developement of several improvements including the diamond-coated silicon that confers a stronger resistance to wear and a longer life to the components. A significant amelioration that delighted manufactures such as IWC, Ulysse Nardin and Vacheron Constantin. The latter entered the era of silicon in 2015 by fitting the most complicated watch ever produced (reference 57260) with an escape wheel and a lever in silicon with diamond pallet stones. Never say never…
Theoretically, the announcement of new novelties by brands begins in January for SIHH (and the satellites fairs around Geneva) or in March for Baselworld. In January 2017, Panerai focused on high tech materials, by revealing the LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days, a lubricant-free watch with a 50-year guarantee. The watch, which is the creation of a whole program of advanced technology for Panerai, relies on dry self-lubricating materials like diamond-like-carbon (DLC) coated silicon. In the same spirit, Ulysse Nardin, which has been believing in silicon since the early 2000’s and has presented several evolutions of the Freak model, unveiled at the SIHH 2017 the InnoVision 2 and its latest technological innovations. The Dual Constant escapement (an evolution of the Dual Direct esapement from 2001 and the Ulysse Anchor escapement with its “flying” pallets from 2014) was updated with an unprecedented silicon bonding technique in addition to a silicon balance wheel with gold mass elements and stabilizing micro paddles providing a high moment of inertia and a weeker sensitivity to amplitude changes between horizontal and vertical positions.
In March 2017, Patek Philippe launched the fifth limited-edition timepiece of the Advanced Research program. For the 20th anniversary of the Aquanaut, this reference 5650G Travel Time was, in addition to an innovative adjustment mechanism for the second time zone indication, fitted with the updated version of the Spiromax hairspring and its inner terminal curve that improves the rate stability of the watch.
Other manufactures tend to present their new models a few weeks before or right after SIHH. This is what Zenith did in September 2017, a few months after the appointment of Julien Tornare as CEO of the Le Locle-based company, by announcing the Zenith Defy-Lab. In that watch, there is no conventional balance, no hairspring and no anchor. There is no traditional shock-absorption system either. In their place is a one-piece silicon element that combines both the functions of the escapement and the oscillating system. The high frequency movement beats at 108,000 vph (15 Hz), has a 60-hour power reserve and shows a maximum variation in rate of only ± 0.5 seconds in 48 hours.
Today, one month after SIHH, it is perceivable that silicium is less and less an exception and more popular than ever. Baselworld will certainly confirm but it appears that the technology is tending to expand to the whole production of several brands, from the most prestigious names to entry level brands. Patek Philippe, whose main calibers are equiped with a silicon hairspring, also fitted some of its Grand Complications with the same Spiromax balance spring (e.g. the Minute Repeater-Perpetual Calendar reference 5374, sells for over $600,000 in platinum). Meanwhile, Tissot fitted its Ballade Powermatic 80 COSC with a silicon hairspring (selling approx. $1,000 in steel). One of the most affordable silicon based watches at SIHH was the Baumatic by Baume & Mercier (selling for less than $3,000). Both the Swatch Group and Richemont Groups decided to expand the benefit of their research to all their product ranges.
The purpose of this article was not to present an exhaustive list of the brands that are using silicon in their products. It’s more to enhance the growing interest for this high tech material that seems to be the answer to the industry’s main problems. However, silicon doesn’t have unanimous support among watchmakers who are concerned about the way silicon will behave in the future and wonder how the next generations will fix or remake the silicon parts.
Most agree on the fact that it is going to be very difficult to justify the Swiss know-how using a technology that other advanced countries will certainly master just as well.
For sure, more than one watchmaker will, not as silicon, remain inflexible and undoubtedly never use it in any of their timepieces.