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Silicone or not ?

Silicon Spiral, The Final Revolution?

Why some watchmakers continue to believe that the upsurge of the silicon spiral in Swiss mechanical watches goes against the original watchmaking values. The debate is ongoing.

By Joël A. Grandjean

This material is cold, and it's glass. It is brittle too. It cannot be adjusted by a watchmaker’s hand or it will break. It is not the outcome of a watchmaker's skill, but of talent of a chemist or a physicist. Even if the silicon spiral successfully addresses watchmaker’s age-old problems such as self-lubrication or repeatability in the area of precision. However, the whole of tradition, and the reasons why watchmaking is geographically located in the terroirs of Helvetia, is based on the quest for precision, which is achieved through the meticulous fine-tuning of a spiral that has been manufactured in a particular alloy, which has memory capabilities.

First experiments and Ulysse Nardin

Tackle the Grail? In recent watchmaking history, Anthony Randall, who won the Gaïa prize, is said to have been responsible for the craftsmanship and inspiration of glass balance springs. He is an English watchmaker who studied at the Technicum in La Chaux-de-Fonds and is the pupil of the genius Jean-Claude Nicolet, aka " the last of the great horlogers." Then, between February and March 2002, Philippe Pellaton of the restoration department gave a few initial tests on 25 silicon balance springs at the heart of the International Watchmaking Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The Museum was then under the control of its Curator, scientist Ludwig Oechslin. The calibers were Unitas 6445, 18½, 18'000 A/h, lift-angle 49°. His report concluded that "the results are sufficiently eloquent to insist on a larger sample."

In 2001, curator Ludwig Oechslin, also a watchmaker, inventor, and astronomer partnered with Ulysse Nardin to sign the first use of a silicon spiral in the watchmaking industry. But research needed resources. It was therefore decided by three companies to finance it, Patek Philippe, the Swatch Group, and Rolex. These leading companies embarked in a quest whose usefulness was not guaranteed at the time, on a programme led by researchers from the CSEM, the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology in Neuchâtel. Each company jealously kept the secret of the results obtained together while having the right to exploit them at the time of their choice.

Patek Philippe, through its "Patek Philippe Advanced Research" department, demonstrated a certain audacity by launching itself first into the silicon revolution. First since 2005 with the arrival of a Silinvar wheel that does not require lubrication, then in 2006 with the introduction of the Spiromax spiral. Finally, in 2008, it was time for the Pulsomax escapement to create a surprise. In 2011, to complete the whole, it was finally, at last, the GyromaxSi®, the pendulum, to make its first appearance. Patek Philippe has been demonstrating a planned consistency in the development of component manufacturing that aims to optimize the performance of watches without structurally changing their workings. As for the Swatch Group, without making any noise, gradually introduced a first at Omega, Co-Axial escapements! Later, a Tissot won the 2011 Chronometry Contest with a silicon spring.

As for Rolex, it was not until 12 years later, at the 2014 Basel Fair, that the crown brand embarked on this revolution, with the introduction of a silicon spiral in one of its collections of women's models. This "ladies first" feeling makes some people smile as much as it is a diversionary maneuver in the face of market reluctance as it is a way of discreetly orchestrating a real-life test. That year, for the first time, the 34 mm Oyster Perpetual Datejust Pearlmaster was used to host the 2236 calibre with the new Syloxi silicon spiral. This innovation is surrounded by five patents, including four specific to Rolex and one on the material itself, shared with Patek Philippe and the Swatch Group. Certified COSC, this calibre was then used to supply other watches.

Opinion leaders who wonder

Unlike in other sectors, advanced technology does not have the same meaning in the watchmaking sphere. Indeed, it is tradition that is the key to the resurrection of the mechanical age. It is above all this omnipresence of a system based on an ideal historical compromise, the one that so many generations end up validating before establishing as a sacred rule.

The old enemy of mechanical watchmaking was quartz. However, there are some disturbing similarities between quartz and silicon: it is the main component of the microprocessors that operate our computer systems, including the Casio G-Shock. In the same way as silicon watch assortments, the manufacturing process of a quartz watch is highly standardized. However, the paradox is that the silicon, well calibrated, is extremely precise, as evidenced by the 2011 Chronometry contest, which saw the victory of Technotime, Chopard and Tissot, three watch models equipped with silicon balance springs. So, the other technology that provides formidable precision with a silica heart is of course quartz!

For purists, the best illustration of the tradition factor and an uninterrupted mechanical good workmanship remains Patek Philippe. Do they really want to see state-of-the-art equipment interfere in a traditional watch, even the 5550P Advanced Research reference? In short, within this somewhat atypical niche of insiders, silicon raises the metaphysical question of the shutdown date of pure mechanical watchmaking: Is silicon legitimate in a traditionally crafted watch? On the web, the debate allowed brands that own this new technology to avoid slip-ups and move smoothly.

It is worth remembering that Watchonista had opened a reference space on this subject (see “Silicon or Not? Section) and gathered the opinion of influencers. Here is a reminder of the views provided at the time: Ariel Adams (ablogtowatch), Frank Geelen (Monochrome), Robert-Jan Broer (Fratellowatches), Jason Pitsch (Professional Watches) or Angus Davies (Escapment). Finally, the insightful opinion of a great captain of the watchmaking industry, Jean-Daniel Dubois, one of the saviors of mechanical watchmaking together with Nicolas Hayek Senior. He is the current CEO of Vaucher Manufacture in Fleurier.

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