Ulysse Nardin: An Inside Look At Two Decades Of Silicium Revolutions
The never-ending quest for increased precision is one of the key pillars of mechanical watchmaking. In the 21st century, silicium has become one of the most explored techniques. Sigatec, a joint venture between Ulysse Nardin and Mimotec, is at the forefront of this technology and offers new opportunities to the La Chaux-de-Fonds brand. Let's dive to the heart of this innovation.
The objective is clear: to search for precision through microtechnology. This pursuit is a far cry from the traditional haute watchmaking workshops. First, geographically as we were in the heart of Valais, in Sion, close to the vineyards on the famous slopes of the region. And second, technologically as we were shown into Sigatec's cleanroom to discover this technology of the future. A technology that is already available today.
Betting on the future
First, a little history is needed. Founded in 1998, Mimotec is one of the forerunners of UV-LIGA technology. Using silicon wafers, they've created cavities of SU-8 resin, allowing for metal growth in the production of components. These molds were then destroyed after each operation. However, as the technology developed, so did the possibilities and the underlying knowledge.
It was in the early 2000s that Ulysse Nardin began to study the potential of silicium. In 2001, it was the first watch brand to present a novelty with silicium escapement, the Freak. This was only the beginning because Ulysse Nardin decided to invest in this innovative technology.
Subsequently in 2006, along with Mimotec, Sigatec was launched. At the time, the production of silicon watch components was mostly experimental, but today Sigatec is one of the few companies capable of producing silicium balance springs. And Ulysse Nardin is the only non-consortium brand (i.e., Patek, Rolex, and Swatch) creating complete escapements in this futuristic manner.
Unique knowledge and material
The strength of Sigatec lies their mastery of Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE) on monocrystalline silicon. Involving hybrid photography and 3D-engraving technology, DRIE is a non-contact process using only light, gas, heat, chemistry, and physics. Thus, the need for a cleanroom to prevent the slightest speck of dust from gumming-up the works.
Silicium is widely used in the semiconductor industry and in particular MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) which require tiny components with complex shapes and extreme reliability. These properties seem to match the needs of the precision micromechanics of watchmaking perfectly.
Beyond being 15% less dense than aluminum conferring phenomenal lightness, silicium is entirely antimagnetic, addressing an increasing problem with metallic balance springs in our ever-connected society. It is flexible with high elasticity allowing it to retain its original shape. Additionally, with high resistance and durability that does not deteriorate over time, the fatigue phenomenon is a non-issue. Finally, silicium does not require lubrication due to its self-lubricating silicon oxide layer, which also makes it nonreactive to thermal variations.
A complex process
How does it work? In a clean room, under orange light and technicians in head-to-toe clean suits, silicium wafers are coated with photosensitive resin. They are then put in a machine where a UV light transfers the photomask – a sort of stencil with the shape of the desired component – onto the wafers. After a chemical bath removes the resin, the elements materialize, flexible but resistant, in delicate and complex geometries.
The result is stunning. The ultimate step is an ultra-secretive manipulation that forms a layer of silicon dioxide on the component's surface to harden and stabilize the parts. Providing a finish worthy of Haute Horlogerie. It is Sigatec's mastery made manifest and a competitive advantage for Ulysse Nardin.
The Freak NeXt
This year, Ulysse Nardin unveiled the fruit of this venture with the Freak NeXt. The latest evolution in the family is an ultra-modern timepiece proudly sporting a flying carousel* and a revolutionary oscillating balance wheel with flexible silicon blades. Significantly, the oscillator doesn't have a pivot and floats without a balance bridge. So now the only friction is from the air. As a result, the power reserve is improved to 70 hours with a frequency of 12 Hz.
*Similar to a tourbillon, a carousel continuously rotates the balance wheel and escapement to counteract gravitational pull. However, unlike a tourbillon, a carousel both requires another gear to turn its mechanism and it's typically mounted on the fourth wheel.
Stéphane Von Gunten, director of Research and Innovation at Ulysse Nardin, was also enthusiastic, "This is a real revolution in watchmaking. This technology reaches levels of precision in components to a 10th of a micron. It further offers complete freedom of form. Finally, thanks to the unique skill sets developed within Sigatec since 2006, we reach the highest levels of traditional Haute Horlogerie with mirror polish. Our mastery of technology is improving every day."
The silicium revolution is underway, and Ulysse Nardin is undoubtedly leading the intergalactic armada with the Freak NeXt's all-white spaceship-like appearance and Super-LumiNova framed baguette movement. The watchmaking world of Ulysse Nardin is in Xpansion.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell & Ulysse Nardin)