Since the 1970s, to mention electricity in the same sentence as fine watchmaking has been not so much to transgress a taboo as to commit an act of heresy. After Swiss watchmaking’s near annihilation by battery-powered quartz watches that were slimmer, cheaper and more accurate than traditional mechanical timepieces, the industry built its comeback on a fundamentalist rejection of electricity in haute horlogerie that was almost Amish in character.
However, slowly things began to change, and in 2010 the thoughtful, provocative and, alas, now late Gino Macaluso, then president and chairman of Sowind Group, chose to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Girard-Perregaux quartz watches by introducing a limited edition Laureato watch with a quartz movement. The decision to put quartz – hitherto almost a dirty word – in the spotlight in this way provoked much comment and debate at the time, but decades had passed and the culture of mechanical watchmaking was sufficiently well established for newer mechanisms to be discussed. And since then the arrival of the smartwatch – in particular the Apple Watch and the Tag Heuer Connected – has widened the debate on the place of electronics in watchmaking.
Had Macaluso lived, I would have been fascinated to see how he would have embraced the arrival of high‑end electromechanical watches, which, it must be made clear, are a very different proposition to common battery-powered watches. Mechanics and electrics have coexisted before, but such timepieces have tended to be outside watchmaking’s VIP zone, either appearing in less expensive watches such as Tissot and Tag Heuer, or non-Swiss brands, viz Seiko’s Spring Drive. But then in 2013 I was shown a very early prototype of a watch by Urwerk.
I like Urwerk; as a brand it is something of an enfant terrible with a penchant for a space-age aesthetic combined with innovative mechanical time displays. But next year Urwerk will be 20 years old, and the brand has developed a certain authority in the field of independent, innovative watchmaking, far greater than an annual production of barely three figures would suggest. What I was shown was an early version of a watch that would become the 2014 Grand Prix-winning EMC (Electro Mechanical Control; from £100,000).
Although fully mechanical in its functions, the EMC also features a tiny integrated circuit board and a minute optical sensor above the balance to measure the frequency. This allows the wearer to check on the isochronism and, having determined whether the watch is slow or fast, adjust the rate by turning a small screw on the caseback. Crucially, the electrical power is mechanically generated, via a Lilliputian hand crank set into the side of the watch.
Far from being a threat to mechanical watchmaking, this timepiece is a horophile’s dream, as Urwerk’s co-founder and chief designer Martin Frei explains. “I asked the watchmakers ‘What can a watch say about itself other than what is already indicated?’” Looking around the workshop, Frei’s eye alit on the timing machine with which watchmakers test the accuracy of a piece, and decided he’d like to have it shrunk and put inside the watch. Remarkably, this is what they managed to do, creating a watch that can check its own health in terms of vph (vibrations per hour) and amplitude.
It is, says Frei, all about the spirit in which the admixture of electronics and mechanics is carried out. “One has to do things in the same spirit as watchmakers did in the past, and you can’t exclude other technologies.” As Frei sees it, “the shock in the 1970s somehow put the whole industry into a kind of conservative retreat. I have nothing against this, but because it is kind of a taboo, it makes it tempting.” However, he warns that “if you use electronic parts, you have to do it with an important concept – we use electronics to draw the wearer closer to what is inside their watch”, adding that Urwerk will be making a piece in a similar hybrid spirit to celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary.
Over at Piaget comes the arrival of the Emperador Coussin XL 700P (£56,500), a watch that celebrates the 40th anniversary of Piaget’s first in-house quartz calibre. In many ways it’s like a mechanical watch with mainspring and gear train, but instead of a traditional escapement there is a disc set with two magnets that oscillates due to the magnetic field created by six coils. This generates a tiny current that is fed to a quartz regulator, which governs the speed of the movement. Although completely different to the EMC, there is a similarity of spirit in that the electric current is not battery generated, but created mechanically when the watch is wound.
“To most people it is going to be an automatic movement with the difference in the way that it is regulated: it is a mechanical watch with extreme precision,” explains Piaget’s CEO Philippe Léopold-Metzger. He admits some collectors may find it controversial, but argues that “from time to time you have to bring modernity and improvement to the old ways”. However, he believes that Piaget would not have had the credibility to bring out such a watch had it not spent “years working hard on mechanical and automatic movements”.
In other words, it is a question of legitimacy rather than gimmickry and the addition of a new dimension to mechanical timekeeping. For Nicolas Bos, CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, introducing electricity into the heart of a mechanical watch adds an another aspect of wonder to the house’s so-called “Poetic Complications”. In the Midnight Nuit Lumineuse (price on request), the night sky is depicted on the dial, and at the touch of a button set into the case at the traditional eight o’clock position, a constellation of “stars” – cabochons of vitreous enamel on the dial – lights up.
“There were three ‘dream’ elements we wanted for the watch,” says Bos, citing movement, as found in watches such as the Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux (from £101,600) and the Midnight Planétarium (from £182,900); sound on a par with that produced by repeater watches; and now light. “When you work with jewellery, you try to evoke light, but this was not just to create light for the sake of it; this idea revisited the theme of astronomy that we have developed over the years, and it was our dream to have the stars light up at night.” Significantly, when he briefed his R&D department, “I asked them if there was a way to do this and keep within the bounds of the mechanical movement.”
Working with young engineers from the EPFL technical university in Lausanne, Van Cleef explored different options for turning mechanical energy into light, with the additional complication of wanting to light several points at the same time. Eventually, it was one of the simplest options that seemed the best: a piezoelectric system that, explains Bos, draws its power “directly from the mechanical movement”.
Far from distancing itself from the traditional mechanical watch, Bos feels that this system simplifies the concept of electricity, breaking it down to a series of mechanical events that the watch wearer controls. It is also worth noting that piezoelectricity is a more venerable concept than the wristwatch, having been discovered in 1880. “It is more Tesla and Edison than IBM technology,” says Bos, “with something nostalgic about it, which is in a way what we all look for in mechanical watches.”