Watches & Jewellery

Extremely timely

The world’s finest watchmakers are creating timepieces with ’super’ functionality. Nick Foulkes reports on the latest expressions of horological one-upmanship.

November 22 2011
Nick Foulkes

“We have the pleasure to inform you that on October 25 Blancpain will launch, in Dubai, a World Premiere Concept Watch, the ‘most extreme’ watch Blancpain has ever produced.” So ran an invitation that plopped through my virtual letter box recently. And what it promised was, indeed, a fairly extreme media event, involving among other things the surreal prospect of Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek addressing the world’s horologically inclined media from inside a giant fish tank.

“This brand-new and unique mechanical system will be immersed in the biggest aquarium of the world, at the biggest mall in the world, along with Mr Marc A Hayek, as well as the multi recordman [sic] apnoea diver, Mr Gianluca Genoni. This astonishing dive will be followed by a press conference, as well as a dinner in front of one of the biggest and most incredible fountain shows at the feet of the tallest tower of the world, the Burj Khalifa.”

Whatever one’s views about Dubai, it is among mankind’s more noticeable creations, an emirate that punches way above its weight when it comes to the density of its shops and the size of its attractions. As such, it is the perfect backdrop for the high-profile premiere of this, the latest in a series of extreme wristwatches that have been launched recently.

Blancpain was founded in 1735, and in the hierarchy of haute horlogerie comes just below Breguet, also run by Hayek. Since its relaunch in the 1980s, Blancpain has tended towards traditional watchmaking savoir-faire. But this new watch, the X Fathoms, about £28,000, an iteration of the Fifty Fathoms diving watch) is extreme in appearance and function, featuring one depth gauge with two hands: one capable of submersion to 90m; the other handling shallower depths in more detail, and working in conjunction with a five-minute countdown timer for decompression stops.

In terms of mechanical watches, this is as close as it is currently possible to get to an electronic dive computer. There are a handful of high-end mechanical watches with depth gauges, including examples by IWC (Aquatimer Deep Two, £11,500) and Panerai (Luminor 1950 Pangea Submersible, £10,300), but this goes a step further. Hayek, himself a keen diver, says that when Blancpain started work on this project in 2007, such a feature was extremely rare on electronic dive computers and is not universal even now.

However, taking a mechanical watch to this sort of limit is far from easy. It involved the use of Liquidmetal, an amorphous metal alloy, a special twin-case construction and close collaboration with the Ecole Polytechnique of Lausanne to develop a membrane that would translate the pressure of the water into the movement of a hand around a calibrated scale.

Until recently, a maker of mechanical watches usually demonstrated its prowess in the field of complications – and for the aficionado there is little to beat a minute repeater, chronograph and carrousel (a sort of tourbillon). Now, however, mettle is tested by watchmakers boldly going where no other watchmaker has gone before.

Early signs of the extreme watch movement (excuse the pun) began to appear three years ago in Glasshütte in the former East Germany, where the country’s small but exigent watch industry is based. Glasshütte Original chose to address the needs of its sporting customers with the launch of its Sport Evolution Impact watches (from €9,400), which would permit what it called “unrestricted use in terms of sports”, with four shock absorbers (in a material called elastomer) capable of absorbing “60 per cent of the force of an impact or other external influences”.

At about the same time, up the road at A Lange & Söhne, the first examples of a watch that could run for a month without needing to be wound were coming out of the factory, in the shape of the Lange 31 (£89,700 in rose gold, £118,500 in platinum). Power reserve is an oft-cited horological attribute, but with the 31-day power reserve, here is a watch you could take off at the beginning of August, go on your summer holiday, and put back on at the start of September without resetting it. This amazing longevity required a long mainspring (in fact, it required two mainsprings of almost two metres, or 1m 85cm to be exact); by comparison, a mainspring in a Lange 1 is 28.5cm.

However, fully wound and ready to go, this 3.7m of coiled potential energy would unleash such raw power that it would overwhelm the going train and cause the watch to seize up. Eventually, Lange came up with a constant force device that in effect released the energy in short bursts rather than in one continuous flow, which also had the favourable side-effect of maintaining an even level of torque, whether the watch was at the beginning or the end of the winding cycle.

But in devising such a watch, Lange had created another high-class problem: winding the watch would take ages, hundreds of turns that would give the wearer a raw thumb and forefinger. In this case the solution was not found in new materials but in horological history: the watch is wound with a key, 31 turns of which are enough to power the movement for a month.

Another watch so extreme that user interface becomes difficult was presented in March by Tag Heuer. The Mikrotimer Flying 1000 (a concept watch) is a mechanical watch capable of timings accurate to 1/1,000th of a second. Intellectually, it is more or less impossible to grasp what a thousandth of a second is like; it is a scintilla of time almost too small for thought to inhabit. However, for a watchmaker it means coming up with a movement capable of 3.6m beats per hour, which according to Tag’s CEO Jean Christophe Babin is a feat akin to pushing a Formula One engine “from 20,000 revs to 200,000”. Tag was able to create an assembly that for around three minutes is capable of this level of performance; so in addition to the regular functions of a watch, the wearer can also access the functions of an ultra-high-frequency chronograph, albeit only for a short time – but long enough, says Babin, to time a Grand Prix car around a circuit.

If anything, the real challenge came in making this information clearly understandable to the wearer. Until recently, the majority of mechanical chronographs had difficulty in showing anything smaller than one-fifth of a second; so the requirement to show minutes, seconds, tenths, hundredths and thousandths of a second was an immense challenge. The solution involves consecutive readings of inner and outer scales on the dial, a subdial at six o’clock, and hands that move at vastly different speeds – from the green hand that moves so rapidly it becomes a blur, to the relatively stately minute hand.

At least the extreme nature of the Mikrotimer is just a little tricky to get the hang of; there are some watches so extreme that to get the most out of them the wearer has to be dead to be able to tell the time. Take, for instance, the Oceanographic 4000 from Hublot (£18,600), launched in June and capable of withstanding the pressures of life – or, in the wearer’s case, death – four kilometres beneath the sea. The watch is born out of Hublot CEO Jean Claude Biver’s longstanding friendship with the Prince of Monaco, and a tribute to the principality’s Musée Océanographique.

“The story started with a challenge,” explains Biver. “How could we honour our partnership with the museum by making just another diving watch? So we tried to make the deepest-diving watch, because the museum has entered a new deep-sea exploration programme. It is the museum’s biggest programme for the next few years, so we decided that we had to do a diver’s watch for deep-sea conditions. That is how the 4000 was born.” That, and the fact that in 2008 Rolex launched a watch capable of functioning at 3,900m (DeepSea, £7,070). “Because of Rolex we went to 4,000m,” Biver acknowledges. “If Rolex had been 1,900m we would have gone to 2,000m.”

However, this horological one-upmanship (or should that be one-downmanship?) was not easy to achieve. One significant issue was the machinery – or lack of it – to simulate the conditions at 4,000m underwater. “We had to ask a company to build us a machine where we can test our watches up to 5,000m.”

Such a watch is essentially about case construction of immense solidity, which brought its own unique set of difficulties. For instance, the sapphire crystal alone is 8mm thick. “It is ridiculously thick,” guffaws Biver, “and we had to make quite a few anti-reflective treatments, otherwise you would have had difficulty seeing the time.” Most troublesome was the caseback; tolerances had, of course, been precisely worked out before, but given that this was new territory for casemaking, the calculations were confounded again and again. “We had to make the caseback much thicker than we at first supposed; even in titanium we found that it bent under the immense pressures. We kept strengthening and it kept distorting; in the end it took five attempts to get right.”

The result is a watch that can function under conditions that would kill the wearer, at depths where only a submarine could go. But I know what you are thinking: what if the submarine were to catch fire? Happily, Hublot has been working on what you might call preventative horology. As well as the 4,000m watch, it has come up with a flame-retardant watchstrap (about £176), fitted to its Ayrton Senna special-edition timepieces. Everyone can appreciate the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the next time one is caught in a blazing vehicle or trapped inside a burning building facing certain death, at least one’s watchstrap will survive.