In the annals of modern watchmaking, the drive for innovation has been a constant. From the first tourbillon by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801 to the debut of carbon and silicon components more recently, watch brands have jockeyed for position in the field. Since 2001, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève’s Aiguille d’Or prize has been bestowed annually upon pioneers for forging new ground. During this millennium, 12 key innovations have thus far made their mark on the art and science of keeping time. With the Basel and SIHH watch fairs almost upon them, and likely to reveal a host of fresh horological innovations, we outline those which have impressed us most so far in the 21st Century…
2001: Ulysse Nardin Freak
INNOVATION: A new escapement design. GENESIS: The Freak’s movement parts could not be manufactured with the materials that were considered standard at that time (aluminium, steel and brass), prompting Ulysse Nardin to begin experiments with silicon. That and a new front-and-centre escapement designed by Ludwig Oechslin introduced a vastly different way of displaying time.
2002: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Watch
INNOVATION: A sprung tourbillon bridge and dynamograph. GENESIS: The tourbillon bridge acts as a functional spring, protecting the delicate movement. The function selector at 6 o’clock enables the disconnection of the winding stem from the tourbillon, protecting the mechanism from potential damage caused by external shocks to the crown.
2003: Franck Muller Revolution 2 Tourbillon
INNOVATION: The world’s first multi-axis tourbillon wristwatch. GENESIS: Franck Muller’s team leveraged modern manufacturing to effectively miniaturise the biaxial tourbillon carriage clocks developed by Anthony Randall and Richard Good in the late ’70s.
2006: Patek Philippe Ref. 5350R Advanced Research
INNOVATION: The Spiromax hairspring. GENESIS: To reduce wear, magnetism and the need for lubrication, the Spiromax hairspring was created using Silinvar, a silica-based material developed by Patek with Rolex and the Swatch Group. Patek’s first applications came with its Silinvar escape wheel, the success of which led to the creation of a non-metal hairspring.
2009: Jaeger-LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie
INNOVATION: The longest and most complex chiming of a wristwatch (also equipped with a perpetual calendar and flying tourbillon). GENESIS: A combination of new gong shapes, new alloys and a reworked movement architecture based on the design practices of the Duomètre line – which relied on one gear train to regulate timekeeping and another, the complications – led to the development of the Grande Sonnerie.
2010: De Bethune DB28
INNOVATION: Floating-lug case design. GENESIS: After the successful fabrication of a silicon-and-palladium balance wheel as well as several other innovations used in its Dream Watch 1, De Bethune turned its attention to case design with the DB28. Pivoting from a central point on either side of the watch case, the DB28’s free-floating lugs adapt to any wrist motions and trim excess weight from the case.
2012: HYT H1 Black
INNOVATION: Hydromechanical wristwatch. GENESIS: After launching the micro-fluidic technology firm Preciflex (and locking down a few key patents for fluid distribution), the founders of HYT turned to the famed Renaud et Papi to create a calibre that could be mated to their hydraulic system. This innovative marriage of mechanics and fluids resulted in the ideal “water watch”.
2012: Richard Mille RM 056 Tourbillon Chronograph Sapphire Felipe Massa
INNOVATION: The first production sapphire watch case. GENESIS: Although its hardness makes it difficult to cut and machine, sapphire crystal proved the ideal material to showcase Richard Mille’s technical prowess. After roughly 1000 hours of machining, forming and polishing sapphire case components, this extraordinary timepiece emerged.
2013: Jaquet Droz Charming Bird
INNOVATION: Miniaturised, chirping automaton in a wristwatch. GENESIS: Saluting its automaton clocks of the 18th and 19th centuries, Jaquet Droz created what looks like a wrist-worn version of a cuckoo clock. Carbon pistons and compressed air stored in sapphire tubes work like a music-box mechanism to create chirps and control the hand-painted bird’s gestures.
2013: Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement L.M.
INNOVATION: A silicon-blade constant-escapement mechanism that maintains accurate and equal amplitude over a six-day power reserve. GENESIS: During his stint at Rolex, the escapement’s inventor, Nicolas Déhon, built 20 prototypes using a Nivarox alloy that was unequal to the task. At Girard-Perregaux, he realised that silicon offered the ideal solution.
2013: Urwerk EMC
INNOVATION: Electronic monitoring and user adjustment of performance. GENESIS: Urwerk engineered both a balance wheel capable of being read by an optical sensor and a compact, case-housed generator that powered a small processor, enabling the EMC to measure and report the difference between the timing rates of the movement and the reference oscillator. Users can adjust the timing screw on the caseback to optimise performance.
2017: A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Perpetual Pour Le Mérite
INNOVATION: Combining five particular complications into a single masterpiece: a tourbillon, fusée chain, a chronograph, a rattrapante function and a perpetual calendar – a feat deemed impossible by many. GENESIS: Starting from an earlier Pour Le Mérite calibre, Lange built the perpetual-calendar mechanism around the tourbillon to conserve space and recessed the tourbillon deeper into the movement, ensuring an optimal and efficient organisation of complications.