BEARING in mind that mechanical watches have followed the same engineering principles for centuries, horology may not seem like an area for frontline, this-is-the-future engineering.
Wrong. Take, for instance, the Advanced Research Unit at Patek Philippe, which is doing very remarkable things indeed with very tiny components, using materials more commonly associated with cutting-edge medical technology. Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE) is a way of producing multiple identical components made of silicon, the 14th element. Silicon (not silicone, Jordan fans) is lighter, harder and stronger than metal, and can be formed into highly unlikely shapes for very tiny parts.
Take the bowtie-shaped module pictured – it’s the balance wheel for a watch, the element which combines with the hairspring to govern the frequency of a timepiece. Naturally, balance wheels are normally wheel-shaped; but thanks to silicon, Patek has been able to create a balance wheel with a far more streamlined form, augmented by miniscule gold weights distributing weight away from its centre. That means it uses up a lot less energy than a normal balance wheel, and that means important improvements for Patek Philippe.
It’s part of an assembly called Oscillomax, comprising the most important inner-parts of the watch, that may well change watch-making as we know it.
Such is the painstaking detail of the Advanced Research Unit’s work that it’ll be 10 years before Oscillomax is found in a wide selection of Patek pieces, but for now it’s in a limited edition perpetual calendar, Ref 550P. Due to the Oscillomax mechanics, the watch’s power reserve is increased from 48 hours to 70 hours – meaning you can leave it for the weekend and it’ll still be running on Monday morning.
Add to that the improved reliabilty, durability and accuracy silicon can afford, and you’ve got a lot of reasons why such tiny parts mean a revolution in watches.