In the past 16 years, the watchmaking industry has gone through more challenging changes than the whole of the twentieth century. The introduction of quartz watches in 1970 was one of the few major improvements of the twentieth century and introduced cheap quartz timepieces. Since 2000, watchmaking brands have been focusing on mechanical timekeepers and have been bringing out several revolutionary innovations. The launches of smart watches from electronics giants since 2015 have also caused new challenges.
Jaeger-LeCoultre – The Gyrotourbillon – the first spherical tourbillon
In 2004, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture brought out the first-ever cylindrical balance spring composed of two carriages mounted on axes set at a 90° angle.
That watchmaking innovation was the only mechanical device which enabled a wristwatch to be free from the adverse consequences of the earth’s attraction on its precision whatever its position. In the nineteenth century, Abraham-Louis Breguet had created a tourbillon mechanism which had enabled pocket watches to cancel out the detrimental influences of gravity. However, that mechanism was only effective for pocket-watches which sat upright. The Jeager-LeCoultre spherical tourbillon brought wristwatches the same benefits that Breguet’s classic tourbillon had offered to pocket-watches. If you examine it closely, we can see that it works like a spinning-top. The exactness of a watch became for the first time completely independent of its position.
Through its first Gyrotourbillon, the brand turned the watch industry upside down. The complexity, the speed and the beauty of that mechanical innovation was a tribute to the fine watchmaking industry. Jaeger-LeCoultre went further when the brand decided to include it in the rotating case of its famous watch, the Reverso. (1)
Credit: Jaeger LeCoultre website
Zenith – The Gyroscopic module called “Gravity Control”
In 2008, with its Gyroscopic module called “Gravity Control”, Zenith introduced the most ever revolutionary watchmaking technical achievement of the twenty-first century.
Zénith went further than Jeager-LeCoultre demonstrating that a wristwatch would get the ultimate accuracy if its regulating organ was maintained in a horizontal position, to cancel out the effects of gravity’s earth. The brand, thus, equipped its wristwatches with a constant horizontal regulating organ working as a pendulum. Going further than spherical tourbillons, the Gyroscopic “Gravity Control” still remains the only technical feat which enables wristwatches to keep as much precision.
With that breakthrough, Zenith pushed the limits of complexity further, and the Christophe Colomb Academy, collaborating with the brand, won in 2011 in Geneva the prestigious and highly coveted prize of “Best Complicated Watch”. (2)
Credit: Zenith Website
Omega – Seamaster Aqua Terra > 15 000 Gauss
In 2013, Omega launched its Seamaster Aqua Terra > 15, 000 Gauss, a watch resistant to magnetic fields greater than 15, 000 Gauss.
For centuries, magnetism was a significant issue that challenged watchmakers. Then, with increasingly magnets present in daily lives through new technologies, timepieces are sometimes exposed to a too high level of magnetism. Until 2013, watchmakers had shielded the movements with inner protective cases, which was only resistant to the effects of magnetic fields up to 1, 000 Gauss. The Seamaster Aqua Terra is composed of a non magnetic movement – non ferrous material – and thus do not require any protective case.
That technical achievement has been a revolutionary improvement for the watchmaking industry which definitely solve the disorders related to magnetism. (3)
Credit: Omega Website
How do fine watchmaking brands deal with the rise of digital watches?
Since 2013, with the launch of the Samsung Gear, and 2014 with the first-ever Apple Watch, the smart watch market has been thriving and has had an impact on the fine watchmaking industry. In 2015, for the first time, the sales of smart watches exceeded the Swiss watch sales – 8.1 millions of smart watches for 7.9 millions of traditional watches. So, in 2015 some fine watchmaking brands like Swatch, Tag Heuer and Montblanc, reacted towards this new trend creating digital watches as well. (4)
Credit: Apple Website and Chronotempus Website
Montblanc went further being the first-ever brand to create a smart watch maintaining the mechanism of a traditional watch. Indeed, the Maison unveiled during the 2015 International Fine Watchmaking Exhibition, the TimeWalker Urban Speed e-strap, a mechanical watch equipped with an e-strap including a touch-sensitive screen connected to the smartphone via Bluetooth. This innovating e-strap from Montblanc enable us to read our emails and messages, see incoming calls, find our smartphone with the Find Me app, remotely monitor music, and follow our physical exercises. (5)
Credit: Montblanc Website
However, few fine watchmaking brands have reacted towards the rise of smart watches. Some questions still remain: Are smart watches threatening the fine watchmaking as quartz watches did in the seventeens? Are digital watches and mechanical timekeepers two different markets? Are they complementary?
According to Richard Mille, these markets are distinct: smart watches are far from the expectations of the traditional consumers, but both markets can be complementary. For him, people could wear a smart watch, that he considers useful, on one wrist and a mechanical timepiece on the other one. (6)
Since 2015, smart watches have benefited from a huge marketing power, which has enabled them to be booming, but it is still too early today to assess their potential success in the future. However, whatever the result, a mechanical timekeeper will remain a lasting investment while a smart watch will become obsolete in few years. So, some of us would claim the fine watchmaking industry do not need to be afraid of these new generation items. Other would reply the fine watchmaking brands will adapt their timepieces to the market and will create new innovating watches as they already did before. Whatever the scenario, like the last sixteen years, many innovations are still expected for the twenty-first century in the fine watchmaking industry.