Men's Watches

Ahead of their time

The concept timepiece sits at the very outer limits of watch technology and aesthetics. Nick Foulkes says they’re out of this world.

September 29 2010
Nick Foulkes

“We didn’t do this for fun,” says Cartier’s CEO Bernard Fornas, answering an unasked question with his typical Messianic energy. Nevertheless, there is a smile – perhaps one of pride rather than pleasure – as he holds up a new version of the Cartier Ballon Bleu executed in shades of gunmetal and anthracite, attached to a purposeful-looking, high-performance webbing strap. “We want to continue to modernise the mechanical movement and to improve quality, durability and reliability,” he pronounces, pausing for effect between each aim.

To be fair, there are probably very few watch bosses who, if you asked them, would not want to improve quality, durability and reliability. The difference is that Fornas thinks that this Ballon Bleu, the ID One, represents a genuine horological step forward. With a case in niobium-titanium, the watch’s sleek and contemporary exterior hints at various neologisms beneath the dial. Major components are coated in ADLC (amorphous diamond-like carbon) or made using carbon crystal to minimise friction and reduce the need for lubrication, while the escapement is protected from knocks by a crystal “escapement cage” mounted on shock-absorbing blocks. However, it is the audacious statement, “For the first time, Cartier presents a watch without any adjusting; correctly manufactured and assembled from the beginning, it remains adjusted all throughout its lifetime” that commands one’s attention.

It is a remarkable claim: one of the most important activities of the watchmaker is the adjustment of the escapement: the balance wheel needs to be… well… balanced. This is achieved by adjusting the length of the balance spring, which in turn affects the balance wheel; for each balance and each spring there is an ideal correlation point when both are in harmony. Then there are all the other components that need to be assembled and adjusted until the three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of the watch’s beating heart is operating at its best.

However, using ultra-accurate manufacturing methods, Cartier says it has found a way for key components such as balance wheel and spring, anchor and anchor wheel to fit together perfectly, requiring no adjustment. New materials used, such as Zerodur and carbon crystal, resist changes that usually occur because of magnetic fields and temperature fluctuations.

The only slight downside is that we will have to wait for the adjustment-free watch to appear on the wrist. Fornas has a three- to five-year plan that sees the technological advances housed in the ID One becoming available in the brand’s series production. For now, it is a “concept watch” and, as such, is an idea borrowed from the automotive industry and one that Fornas is making the most of.

The concept car has long been a favoured method of presenting technological and stylistic innovation and has become a genre of automotive design itself, offering the big manufacturers a chance to sex up their brands and present the press and public with something radical without having to go to the trouble of putting it into production. Until recently, this has been the case with concept watches. Before reviving and running Hublot, Jean-Claude Biver was at Blancpain, the brand that he refounded in the early 1980s and later sold to the Swatch Group.

At the time, Blancpain was one of the most conservative watch brands on the market but by the end of the 1990s, Biver wanted to demonstrate that, as the new century dawned, the brand was able to express itself in a more contemporary idiom. The watch with which he chose to do that was called Concept 2000, conceived a decade ago. Biver produced a special series of the then current Fifty Fathoms executed in a mix of rubber and metal (which still look current), and the idea was to do a series a year.

However, Concept 2001 never went into production. “People didn’t support the idea,” says Biver, “and at the time customers and press accused me of not understanding Blancpain. I knew conceptually it had some sense but, practically, it did not work.” Instead, he had to wait until 2010 to present his next concept watch, created by Hublot’s specialist R&D haute horlogerie division, the Confrèrie Horlogère, headed by former BNB chief Matthias Buttet.

The first concept piece, La Clef du Temps (“the key of time”), which allows the wearer to choose the speed at which he would like the hours to pass – with a choice of slow, quick or normal time – is launched this autumn at SFr190,000 (about £119,450). “The concept watch has nothing to do with our current collection. It allows us to be free to explore new ideas,” says Biver. However, there will be practical benefits. “A lot of elements from it will flow down and enrich the normal collection, just as haute couture filters down into ready-to-wear.”

There are many reasons why Biver’s early attempt at a concept watch might not have worked and, ironically, one was timing. In 2002, Audemars Piguet launched its Royal Oak Concept (Carbon Concept, £186,470), a daring rethinking of the classic Royal Oak (£8,500). Generally held to be the prototypical concept watch, it can be said to have established the blueprint: new functions, new materials and new aesthetics.

The familiar octagonal bezel was made from titanium, while the body of the case made use of an aerospace industry alloy of cobalt chrome and tungsten called Alacrite 602. The multilevel dial was partially cut away, with a sinuous tourbillon bridge on one side mirroring a linear power reserve calibrated in barrel turns on the other. The crown did not need to be pulled out to set the hands; rather a push-piece selected whether the crown wound the watch or moved the hands, while the torque of the mainspring was indicated by the “dynamographe”. And then there were things you couldn’t see, such as the fact that, instead of brass, the plates of the movement were made of titanium. Its launch date was symbolic too – 2002 marked the 30th birthday of the original octagonal steel Royal Oak watch.

The success of the Royal Oak Concept lay not so much in the watch itself, which was difficult to produce and only ever made in limited numbers, but in the interest it aroused both from customers and within the industry. A concept watch demonstrates creativity and imparts a profile and a sense of prestige that normal, more affordable and wearable, production cannot. The power of the concept watch to deliver horological credibility is amply demonstrated by the example of Harry Winston’s Opus series. These avant-garde watches produced in small runs (this year’s Opus X is limited to 100 pieces at SFr210,000; about £130,500) have done more than anything to establish the American jeweller as a watch brand too.

But the concept watch can also add lustre to a long-established brand. Take, for instance, Tag Heuer, which enjoys a reputation as a solid maker of hundreds of thousands of mid-market chronographs per year. In the past few years it has boosted its standing as a horological innovator by launching a series of concept watches. Tag Heuer’s CEO Jean Christophe Babin believes that his is “the only brand in this league that can also do what very, very famous manufacturers or single watchmakers do”. Among the aspects of Babin’s concept programme are the balance wheel that does away with a spring and functions using opposing magnetic fields, shown at this year’s Basel watch fair; and the shock absorbers that made their début last year in a concept version of the classic Monaco (now produced commercially as the Monaco Twenty-Four Calibre 36 Chronograph, £7,900).

And it is the Monaco case that houses the most famous of his concept watches: the belt-driven Monaco V4 (£66,500), developed by Tag Heuer from an invention by independent watchmaker Jean François Ruchonnet. Moreover, the length of time it has taken to bring the V4 to market (the watch was launched in 2004 but was only delivered last year) shows just how experimental the technology showcased by concept watches can be.

And it is this experimental spirit of research that Jaeger-LeCoultre invokes with its Extreme Lab watches. “At Jaeger-LeCoultre we use the concept watch for two objectives: to bring together various projects we are working on, and to motivate all the team to achieve one target,” explains Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Jérôme Lambert. He cites as an example his Extreme Lab 1, which was embarked upon with the object of creating a watch that required no lubrication.

“It is about full optimisation,” he says, speaking with justifiable pride about “all the work done with the reduction of friction in Extreme Lab 1,” which includes the use of ceramic ball bearings. Moreover, he is keen to stress that this is a real watch rather than a prototype, delivering a few every year (priced at £155,000). This year Lambert presented his Extreme Lab 2 (from £34,400, pictured on opening page). Having mastered the lube-free watch, he aimed to optimise the chronograph and, accordingly, his new concept watch showcases a number of innovations. No aspect of the Extreme Lab 2 is deemed to be beneath optimisation; for instance, the micro-adjustable buckle comprises 20 separate components and is protected by a patent filed by the Le Sentier-based brand.

But the most remarkable thing about the concept watch is not the individual advances that have been made in mechanical timekeeping, but how rapidly the whole notion has been adopted by an industry that is, at heart, very conservative. Indeed, it could be argued that with such specialist low-volume watchmakers such as MB&F (from £52,000), Urwerk (from £49,000) and Greubel Forsey (from £215,000) – brands that operate at the outer limits of horological aesthetics and technology – we don’t just have concept watches, we now have concept brands.

And then there is the change to the very character of watchmaking. It is interesting to note that much of the progress heralded by the concept watch results in the removal of once-integral parts of watchmaking – both processes and components – as with Cartier’s adjustment-free balance wheel, Tag Heuer’s spring-free escapement and Jaeger’s no-lubrication watch. It gets one wondering just how much more will be removed from the concept watches of the future.

At this year’s Salon International Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, I was given a sneak preview of a timepiece so advanced that it barely existed, at least in terms of its weight. The aluminium and lithium movement of Richard Mille’s new RM 027 (£359,500), developed for the tennis player Rafael Nadal, is suspended inside a case of carbon composite, using an innovative shock absorption system. The result is a startlingly light wristwatch (it is expected to weigh under 30g when finished, including the strap). I closed my eyes, picked it up and genuinely felt as if I were lifting a resin model of a watch into which someone had forgotten to put the movement. It was the perfect example of the wearable lightness of concept watchmaking.