The Watches Pushing The Boundaries Of Watchmaking
Are mechanical watches obsolete? Hardly. Here’s evidence that they are as forward-thinking as ever
You’d be forgiven for thinking: didn’t mankind perfect the watch decades, if not centuries, ago? And, more recently, hasn’t the idea of mechanical timekeeping, powered by something as basic as a wound-up spring, been obsolete since the advent of digital watches? Surely all that watch brands have to do these days is make them bigger or smaller, add colourful faces and give them a new name every now and then?
Not quite. Watchmakers the world over expend enormous amounts of time, energy and money in their efforts to push things forward, to make their creations lighter, thinner and more accurate, or to simply do something that hasn’t been done before. They enlist material scientists, physicists, mathematicians and even musicians to their cause. The results are not only flamboyant works of wonder – masterpiece complications from Vacheron Constantin and Cartier – but also substantial real-world gains, such as the improved warranties recently announced at Jaeger-LeCoultre, and more efficient and durable movements rolled out at Zenith, TAG Heuer, IWC Schaffhausen, Panerai, NOMOS Glashütte and so many more over the past few years.
So, yes, we figured out the basic formula a long time ago, but that was merely the foundation for a stunning diversity of ideas. In just the past few years, the best new concepts defy the conventional. In HYT and Ressence, we have two of the most exciting, experimental watch brands in the world. And even where the basic premise is more traditional, brands such as Parmigiani Fleurier and Roger Dubuis are proving there is still plenty of room to innovate. Here are four watches that are all pushing the envelope, in one direction or another.
Parmigiani Fleurier Kalpagraphe
On its face, Parmigiani Fleurier is one of Switzerland’s more traditional firms. The brand creates beautiful hand-finished movements, sometimes entirely in precious metals, and has a peerless reputation as a restorer of vintage clocks and watches. But the watchmaker, which only recently entered its third decade, has a fiercely innovative streak. Three years ago, it revealed a concept watch called the Senfine, which used a super-high-frequency silicon escapement to achieve a power reserve of 70 days, a record that is unlikely to be broken any time soon. Since then, Parmigiani Fleurier has been working on improving its production movements, and in 2018 it created the Kalpagraphe Chronometer, which housed the brand’s first in-house automatic chronograph movement (a major undertaking that many much older and larger brands haven’t embarked upon). That it beats at 5Hz is notable, but to be rated to chronometer levels of accuracy and boast a 65-hour power reserve at the same time is impressive. With this year’s latest Kalpagraphe, Parmigiani Fleurier has also joined the vanguard of watch design, embracing titanium cases and a more avant-garde aesthetic epitomised by the laser-cut stencil dial.
Ressence Type 2
Founded by Belgian industrial designer Mr Benoît Mintiens in 2010, Ressence has displayed a precocious capacity to turn established thinking on its head. Its first watch, the Type 1, featured a dial where all the indicators – hours, minutes, seconds, day of the week – rotated around each other constantly, leaving you to tell the time by the angle between the hands. From there, Mr Mintiens added the Type 3, a watch whose entire dial space is filled with oil for a perfectly unrefracted view. One could write entire essays on these watches, so trust us when we tell you that they’re seriously impressive. This year, Ressence went even further with the Type 2 (don’t ask about the naming schedule), a watch that introduces an electronic element yet remains firmly mechanical. A module called the E-Crown, which is solar-charged via the apertures on the dial, enables the watch to “remember” the correct time long after the mechanical power has run down and reset itself in an instant when you want to wear it. All you have to do is tap on the crystal. It can also be adjusted to any time zone in the world using the accompanying app and can display two time zones at once.
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Aventador S Skeleton
In less than a decade, Roger Dubuis has gone from being yet another competent traditional watch brand to the maker of some of the most adventurous takes on high-end watchmaking – which has made it a natural partner for none other than Lamborghini. Cased in forged carbon – which is tougher, harder to machine and, let’s face it, better looking than woven carbon fibre – the Excalibur Aventador S Skeleton uses a movement designed to mimic the appearance of its supercar namesake’s engine. To that end, it features two balance wheels instead of one, each mounted at 45 degrees to the rest of the movement just like the V-shaped mounting of an engine’s cylinders. It’s not just for appearances, however. Being positioned in different planes helps mitigate the effects of gravity on the watch’s timekeeping, and they are connected via a differential that averages out their energy to deliver a more accurate impulse to the hands. At the base of the open-worked dial you’ll read the words “Poinçon de Genève”, a declaration that Roger Dubuis is one of only a couple of brands to meet this standard of quality in every watch. Also known as the Geneva Seal, it demands a high level of decorative finishing on every component and independently tests every watch’s functionality, reliability, accuracy and water-resistance.
HYT H0 Blue Night
HYT H0 Blue Night (right) Coming soon
You don’t have to be a master watchmaker to know that getting water inside your watch is bad for its survival prospects. That basic contradiction is what makes HYT so enthralling. It relies heavily on liquid for its timekeeping displays (“dial” is such an insufficient word here). Extremely thin glass tubes are filled with two mixtures, one coloured and one clear, and linked to miniature mechanical bellows that contract and expand in accordance with the passage of time (with a regular springs-and-gears movement driving them on). The meniscus between the two liquids marks the hours against the outer scale, while more traditional dials indicate the minutes and seconds. The precise chemical make-up of the liquids varies for every different colour, as any adjustment to the mix changes the liquid’s viscosity and thus the rate at which it moves. The H0 is the brand’s third iteration of the basic concept, and the design has been streamlined and smartened up no end since its debut. You can peer at the bellows through two small apertures in the dial, and the whole arrangement is presented under a goldfish bowl of sapphire crystal, which adds to the theatre of it all.