The great escapements

Timothy Barber
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New extreme versions of a mechanical watch’s beating heart

AS a wise cove once told me, a mechanical watch is really just a device for regulating the uncoiling of a spring (the mainspring that’s wound up to power the watch). The crucial organ in this operation is the escapement, an assembly of a toothed wheel and anchor that delivers even impulses of energy to the oscillating balance wheel, which in turn regulates the energy into units of time. It’s a mesmeric thing to see beating away; and as it represents the crucial area determining a watch’s accuracy, it’s a ripe platform for complex innovation. Add these facts together and you get sensational collector watches designed to dazzle with their vibrating, spinning, beating micromechanical hearts.

Most famous in this category is the tourbillon escapement, which puts the mechanism inside a constantly rotating cage assembly, designed to negate the detrimental affects of gravity on timekeeping.

But tourbillons are relatively common these days, so for something truly prestigious, consider Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Gyrotourbillon, first introduced in 2004. The genius of this is that the assembly rotates on two axes at once, an inner cage tumbling one way and an outer cage the other. In its latest incarnation, the not-exactly-shyly-named Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3 Jubilee (1), it takes flying tourbillon form with the added innovation of a spherical hairspring in blued gold, that can be seen “breathing” in and out as it tumbles away.

Zenith’s Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane (2) takes a different route to defying gravity. Inside a crystal bubble on the face of the watch, the escapement sits on a gimbal system that keeps it horizontal at all times. Zenith has also included the traditional clockmaking mechanism of a fusée-chain, a tiny chain that wraps around wheels in the mechanism to ensure a constant rate of energy delivered through the gear train.

That’s actually an age-old problem: as the mainspring unwinds it delivers diminishing force, and accuracy is affected. So Girard Perregaux has achieved an astonishing complete redesign of the escapement system in its Constant Escapement (3) watch. In this, a nano-formed, butterfly-shaped structure in blue silicon vibrates away infront of two escape wheels, delivering a constant force of energy. Like the others on this page, the accuracy of its function is in the end neither here nor there – it’s the dizzying sight of it in action that’ll have people stumping up six figure sums.