If history has taught us anything, it’s that new technology drives out old. Ballpoints drove out the fountain pen, which had driven out the stick pen; mobile phone cameras have driven out the video camera, which had driven out the 8mm colour film camera, which earlier had driven out the 9.5mm monochrome camera; word processing programmes drove out the dedicated Wang word processor, which in turn had driven out the electric typewriter; and, as everyone knows, the quartz watch has driven out the mechanical watch… OK, that last one is wrong, but why?
The mechanical wristwatch is one of the few technologies that have not succumbed to a newer, cheaper, better one – instead it has hauled itself out of its freshly dug grave, dusted itself off and strolled into the sunset. But the mechanical watch has done more than just survive, it has thrived, immune to technological Darwinism. So, was it a Lazarus-style miracle or was there a saviour, someone who by their tenacity and inventiveness saved the industry?
There are any number of claimants to that title – Nicolas Hayek, Philippe Stern and André Heiniger, all are in the running, but the two people I believe really deserve the title are Soviet husband and wife physicists Boris and Natalia Lazarenko. You have probably never heard of them, but give me a moment to explain. They were the folks that devised the first workable method of electro-discharge machining during the depths of the Second World War.
Known by the more common names of “spark erosion” or “wire erosion”, this is a method of contactless machining, reliant on a phenomenon first observed by Sir Joseph Priestley (scientist, religious free thinker and inventor of soda water). Priestley noted that when two electrical contacts are brought together, immediately before they touch, a spark will shoot between them resulting in a minute amount of surface material being eliminated from each of them.
To understand the relevance of spark erosion to watchmaking we only need look back 200 years, to the invention of the tourbillon – Abraham-Louis Breguet, 1801, solved the problem of positional error, yada yada yada. But let’s look at what isn’t so well known regarding the tourbillon – between 1801 and 1986, only around 600 tourbillons were made, in other words a little over three every year. Not only were few made, but almost every one of them was fitted to a pocket watch with less than 20 being found in wristwatches.
We know the name of the men who made every single one of those tourbillons for the same reason we know the name of every gold medal winner at every Olympic Games: completion was a major achievement. Back in the day, an apprentice craftsman would need to make an item known as a “masterpiece” to mark his passage from a journeyman to membership of the guild that he aspired to join. Often it would be the finest piece he would make in his life; for many of the watchmakers of the past two centuries, their masterpiece would be a tourbillon.
Although spark erosion was the original technology, today there are a number of different electro-erosion technologies grouped under the term of Electro Discharge Machining (EDM). The real breakthrough came in the early-1980s when a Japanese company made the first EDM machine linked to a numerically controlled (NC) computer. This enabled parts to be produced to extremely fine tolerances and, because there are no stresses on the material being worked, pieces can be made with incredibly fine detailing and tight corners and radii, thereby reducing the need for hand finishing of parts.
EDM machines were designed for tool and die making – one of the most highly skilled jobs in manufacturing. It is a labour-intensive job, requiring years of training, and a small mistake by one of the operatives can mean an entire production run of the finished items has to be discarded. So being able to replace these operatives by a machine was a huge financial saving in manufacturing industries.
Although the tools produced by these new machines were made to extremely fine tolerances, the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s was in no hurry to adopt this new technology because it was too busy closing factories, selling spare parts for scrap value and scouring the employment ads for janitorial positions. But there were a few folks who not only thought that the Swiss watch business HAD a future, but saw how that future could be radically different and immune to the changes imposed by the quartz revolution.
The Vintage Revolution
What showed them the future, was the past; in 1974, a tall Italian with wild locks and a winning smile started a company called Antiquorum with the vision of selling vintage watches in the same way that other auction houses sold fine art. Less than a decade later, as the Swiss Watch Industry was crashing, Osvaldo Patrizzi’s Antiquorum was holding six auctions a year across three continents and its success had convinced two major auction houses to also get involved. What was selling for increasing amounts were the complicated pieces – minute repeaters and perpetual calendars, the very watches made by the craftsmen who were leaving the industry in which they saw no future.
While companies were collapsing in the Jura and the hammer was falling in Geneva, in Neuchâtel two engineers had a vision of how the industry could marry the skills of Swiss watchmakers with quartz technology. Remember, this was the end of the 1970s and most of the great Swiss watchmakers had been making slim, elegant watches for a few years and these were at the opposite end of the timekeeping spectrum to the average quartz watch. The two watchmakers – André Beyner and Maurice Grimm of Ebauches SA – had an idea for a quartz watch which would not only be thin and elegant, but one which would change the way watches were made.
Any watch comprises four distinct components: a power source; a regulating mechanism, which turns that power into units of time; a transmission system connecting the regulator; and the final component, the display. Everything from a sundial to Greubel Forsey’s latest creation can be separated into these four components. The brilliant idea of the Neuchâtel team was to split the components horizontally rather than stacking them vertically on top of one another.
The new watch design was rectangular and the case was split into three areas – a central dial area and two smaller areas, one above and one below the dial – by placing a tiny battery in one area and the electronics in the other meaning that the overall depth was governed only by the height of the centre pinion and the single wheel below it. The reduced height was further aided by the decision to abandon the centuries-old convention of plates and bridges. The case was machined from a solid piece of gold, resulting in a shape like the lid of a shoe box, the components were fitted into their respective areas, then the dial and hands and finally a thin sheet of sapphire glass was fitted to close the watch.
Rise of the Machines
At 1.98mm thin, the (aptly named) Delirium was the slimmest watch in the world and sold well, but the truth was that the small market for high-end quartz watches was not going to save the Swiss watch industry and, as if to emphasise that fact, Beyner and Grimm both left Ebauches SA. But with time on their hands, they looked around and noticed that two companies in Switzerland were now getting into the EDM business and this gave them an idea. They went back to work, and over the next few months, worked this idea into a patentable form, filing Swiss patent 7961/80 on 24 October 1980; their design for an ultra-slim, self-winding wristwatch.
By using the same idea as in the Delirium (that of rearranging the normal components in an unconventional way they were able to drastically reduce the height of the watch. While dispensing with plates and bridges is possible in an electronic watch, it had never been tried in a mechanical one The breakthrough was to use the case as the mainplate of the movement with a single large bridge as the other support for the pinions. The other eureka moment came with the realisation that a winding rotor does not necessarily have to go through 360 degrees, as long as it can move the winding wheel one click at a time.
They used a very heavy pendulum with a limited swing of only about 15 degrees, the height of the movement was kept as low as possible by sinking the majority of the pendulum’s weight into the case-back and the efficiency increased by using two of the heaviest and densest metals known – platinum and iridium. The case/movement combination only became possible because of the new electronic erosion machines, which were able to produce such precisely finished parts. Because the case/movement was one piece, it was not possible to make it on conventional machinery and then hand finish it – it had to come from the machine fully-finished and only the electronic erosion machines could do this.
The patent was assigned to Ebauches SA, which decided that the market for slim gold dress watches had dried up and that there was little point in manufacturing it. They also had the problem of being a company that made movements for other companies to install in cases. That was not a possibility with Grimm’s idea – in essence there was no movement, it could only exist as a complete watch and Ebauches SA had no experience in selling watches so quietly shelved the idea and Beyner and Grimm went back to looking at what was not only possible, but practical.
Three years later, as EDM precision developed further, Beyner and Grimm came up with an intriguing idea; what if they tried to use a machine to make a tourbillon cage? No milling or boring machine was capable of this, but close tolerances and excellent surface finishing were the raison d’être of EDMs. So they gave it a try, and, in just over a year, they had a working tourbillon – and not just any working tourbillion: As a “proof of concept” they had made the world’s smallest tourbillon, only 7.2mm in diameter and weighing just over one tenth of a gram.
One of the basic rules of technology is that when you take one untried mechanism and combine it with another untried mechanism, you don’t double your potential problems, you square them. Undeterred, Beyner and Grimm decided to add their new tourbillon cage to the slim automatic rejected by Ebauches SA a few years earlier. After a considerable numbers of false starts, they got it up and running and built a series of prototypes to prove the viability of the concept. Normally such prototypes are kept locked away in the manufacturer’s archives, or even destroyed, but in this case Beyner and Grimm’s final prototype appeared at auction as lot 200 in the May 2016 Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: THREE, complete with much of the documentation. The watch fetched SFr.30,000.
But while Beyner and Grimm knew the watch could be made in quantity if needed, they realised that there were two vital questions. Firstly, who would make it – none of the Swiss watch companies had yet made the investment in the new machinery. Secondly, was there actually a market for a tourbillon wristwatch – not only had one never been sold commercially, but fewer than 20 wristwatch tourbillions had ever been made, so this was probably the very definition of an untried market.
The first hurdle to be crossed was choosing a manufacturer. It could only really be one of the three grande maisons – Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet. Patek was ruled out as too conservative and of the remaining two, Audemars was the obvious choice as the new watch was very slim and AP was known for ultra-slim movements, the “9 douzième” holding the record as the world’s thinnest movement for many years. In addition, Audemars was still run by the founding family and so the decision path was very short.
The advantages to Audemars were many. It didn’t need a huge investment, as the case/movement and tourbillon components could be produced by the prototyping company who had done the work for Beyner and Grimm, while the assembly would be done by their underemployed master watchmakers. But the key advantage was that it would put AP back on the top of the tree once again – the first company to make a self-winding tourbillon as part of its regular production. And, at the Basel Fair in 1986, Audemars launched the Ra Tourbillon Automatique, initially in yellow gold and later in platinum.
It is interesting to look at the differences and similarities between the production watch and lot 200. The major difference is that the production watch is turned through 180 degrees compared to the prototype, the production version has the tourbillon at the top and the pendulum at the bottom, which is not only aesthetically pleasing but gives prominence to the tourbillon, which (after all) was its key feature. Obviously the watch does not bear the name Audemars Piguet – in fact there is no name on it at all, instead where a brand name should be on the finely guillochéd dial, is an applied shield. The observant viewer will recognise the Ebauches SA logo – Beyner and Grimm’s previous employer, now known as ETA.
Over a production run of nearly two decades, Audemars sold around 350 of the Ra Tourbillons. This may not seem like many but it is important to understand that this was more than half of all the tourbillons ever made in the previous two centuries.
Opening the Floodgates
I am making the case that the Ra Tourbillion was the most disruptive watch the industry had ever seen, not only was it produced with technology never previously used in the watch business, but it proved that tourbillons could be produced in quantity. Whilst the design of the watch made the tourbillion carriage the focus of the dial, with the gold or inlaid mother-of-pearl rays radiating from it, the tourbillon aperture, now a feature of almost every tourbillon watch sold, was not a design decision, rather it was an engineering one; if the dial had covered the tourbillon, the watch would have needed to be a millimetre or so thicker.
The introduction of Audemars’ tourbillon soon opened the floodgates, almost every Swiss watch company, most of the German ones and now even Seiko and a couple of Chinese firms have tourbillons in their range. The reason so very few were produced initially was not only because they were extremely difficult to make, but also because the only possible use they had was in observatory tests where their intrinsic design meant that positional errors cannot be detected, even if they were actually there.
In real life, the tourbillon is a pointless, energy-sapping decoration with its extreme delicacy impacting upon the robustness of the watch. Perhaps if the tourbillon had been invented by a lesser person than Breguet, then we might feel free to criticise it. We still carry around in our heads the idea that the it is the ultimate expression of the watchmaker’s art, but should we feel this way when the Chinese companies will sell you a fully functioning tourbillon wristwatch for less than $1,000?
To move from horology to philosophy, the question arises, has the EDM democratised complicated watchmaking or has it devalued it? I think that the answer depends on the company you are examining. For example, look at Patek Philippe and Blancpain who have completely different ways of marketing tourbillon watches. Blancpain places tourbillons in almost every model line in their catalogue and displays almost every one of them through a cut-out in the dial, while Patek keeps tourbillons for their most exalted models with none visible through the dial.
Patek aside, the tourbillon has become the watchgeek equivalent of a diamond dial, a “hey look at me” statement which reached its apotheosis in the Concord C-1 Tourbillon Gravity, where the tourbillon cage was moved from the dial to the outer edge of the watch case, all the better for the owner to be able to flaunt it.
So the irony is that while the Electro Discharge Machine has revived the fortunes of the high-end Swiss Watch industry, it has done so at the same time as it has disposed of the great craftsmen who built its reputation; so, if you will forgive me, I would like to dedicate this piece to James Pellaton, Albert Potter, Alfred Helweg, Richard Good and Andre Bornand, the otherwise unsung heroes who built the reputation of the tourbillion.
As for the individuals mentioned previously, Osvaldo Patrizzi built Antiquorum into the world’s leading watch auction house, until he was discharged in a boardroom coup, when he promptly formed another one; André Beyner went on to teach in Lausanne and in 2004 he was awarded the Gaia prize, the highest award in Swiss watchmaking. Maurice Grimm stayed with tourbillon design, producing the Central Tourbillon for Omega who introduced it to the world at its centenary celebrations in 2004.
But the Ra Tourbillon, arguably the most disruptive watch that Switzerland has ever produced, is almost forgotten today; the Grimm/Beyner idea of dispensing with plates and bridges is no longer used anywhere in Swiss haute horlogerie, but it lives on in one small corner of the watch business. It is the basis of every quartz Swatch watch ever made, meaning that a design conceived to save the Swiss watch industry from the assault of cheap quartz watches became the idea behind another cheap quartz watch, which in its own way, did save the Swiss watch industry.