With his close-cropped, skull-hugging buzz cut and burly frame, the man silhouetted against the office window looks like a retired special forces operative. However, the large whiteboard that occupies much of one wall, covered in long lines of bewildering algebraic formulae linked by arrows to swiftly sketched (and, to the uninitiated eye, completely abstract) diagrams, suggests the brain of a university professor or research scientist. His desk only adds further confusion to the mystery of his identity: two model jet fighters seem to be engaged in a dogfight over a sprawling millefeuille of scattered watch movement blueprints and diagrams of coiled springs with infinitesimally different geometry. Meanwhile, his office door plaque proclaims him to be CEO.
The answer to the mystery is that Guy Sémon is all these things: a former military jet pilot, a scientist with a doctorate in physics and engineering, a movement designer and constructor, managing director of Tag Heuer and CEO of the parent company LVMH’s Watch Science Institute. As such he is LVMH’s secret weapon in the horological arms race to build watches with ever higher frequency movements, and he is justifiably proud of the advances he has made in speeding up Zenith’s legendary El Primero chronograph calibre, shortly to celebrate its 50th birthday.
High frequency has become something of an obsession in certain parts of the industry. The balance wheel of a mechanical watch swings back and forth, releasing the energy transmitted by the gear train from the mainspring as precisely sliced intervals of time: measured in Hertz (Hz) or vibrations per hour (vph), this is what results in the ticking noise of a watch. In theory, a high‑frequency watch is likely to have better chronometric performance than a lower-frequency one, and at the time the 36,000vph (5Hz) El Primero made its debut at the end of the 1960s, most mechanical watches, even chronographs, managed to get by on 18,000vph.
Because the movement was so fast, the lubrication technology of the time could not keep up. One of the problems facing El Primero in its early days was how to keep the oils where they were intended to be, rather than sprayed around the inside of the watch by the frenzied motion of the escapement. The problems posed by lubrication, increased wear on components and power consumption (a part moving twice as fast wears twice as rapidly and consumes twice as much energy) meant that for many years El Primero remained at the upper limit of movement speed. However, in recent years, new materials, new methods and new technologies have revived watchmakers’ dreams of constructing ever-faster movements.
Initially, Sémon developed a dual-train architecture for TAG Heuer, effectively placing two movements in a single case: a lower-frequency time-only one and a high-frequency chronograph, specially designed to be able to provide relatively short bursts of highly accurate time measurement of up to 1/2000th of a second. However, these were concept watches available in small numbers at high prices, whereas the new Zenith Defy El Primero 21 (from £8,300), which was launched at Basel in March and goes on sale (in three different cases) at the end of October, is a production chronograph measuring to 1/100th of a second and destined to be manufactured by the thousands.
“I’ve chosen to use the same architecture as in the El Primero 1969,” says Sémon of the hours and minutes element of the new El Primero. “It’s the same barrel, the same gears, the same mechanical chain, the same escapement, the same regulator beating at 5Hz – we just made some improvements, particularly the yield of the gears.” However, instead of using a clutch to engage the chronograph, “the new chronograph beats at 50Hz, measuring hundredths of a second with a second barrel and gear train.” And given that a movement operating at 50Hz is a voracious devourer of energy, there is a power reserve indicator for the chrono.
Montblanc has approached the high-frequency challenge in a similar way, as the brand’s managing director of the watch division, Davide Cerrato, explains. The company has been experimenting with high-frequency movements since its acquisition in 2007 of historic chronograph and stopwatch maker Minerva, which made a 1/100th of a second stopwatch in 1916. Now it has a 1/1000th of a second chronograph, the Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph 1000 (about £150,000). “We have a double escapement inside. One that is beating at 50Hz, which is the 1/100th of a second indication. And then we found a way to divide this into 10 to achieve the 1/1000th of a second,” Cerrato says.
The magical 1/1000th of a second in a production timepiece is an impressive feat, but it has been a long time coming. In 2012, three concept pieces were produced, but Montblanc discovered that precision and energy consumption were a problem. According to Cerrato, the maximum power reserve of the chronograph was just 20 minutes, of which only the first eight to 10 minutes were precise: “Because the power reserve goes down very quickly, precision can also suffer very quickly.” In 2014, it made a 1/100th of a second chronograph and this year it returned to the 1/1000th, having modified and optimised the high-frequency escapement. “We now have 45 minutes of power reserve for the chronograph, which gives very good precision for the first 20 to 25 minutes.”
But the ability to run a mechanical chronograph capable of timing incredibly small intervals of time is just one application of high-frequency technology, says Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard. This year, Chopard launched the Superfast Power Control Porsche 919 HF (high-frequency) Edition (£12,440) at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Until this year’s launch the technology had been restricted to two limited runs in the LUC line, Chopard’s Haute Horlogerie collection. “LUC was the testbed – or the incubator,” says Scheufele. “But the idea is to be more industrial in the approach, because I think it’s just a great technology for sports watches.”
Scheufele is an understated man so there are no big-headline numbers in terms of frequency, nor are there extravagant claims about accuracy to three decimal places. After six years’ work he is satisfied that 8Hz, twice the speed of many of today’s movements, offers a sensible and reliable balance between the goal of improved performance and the problems of power reserve and component wear. “We came to the conclusion that 8Hz to 10Hz is the perfect range. A higher frequency would proportionately give us many more problems to solve and not bring enough advantages.”
For Scheufele, one of the chief benefits of a higher-frequency movement is increased resilience when it comes to shocks: “If a balance wheel is moving faster, there’s a better, scientifically proven, chance that if subjected to a shock it will return to its original frequency more quickly, because an object that is moving faster has more energy and is therefore less sensitive to interference.” And the beauty of new materials, such as silicium, is that oil spray is eliminated: “At this high speed you would have projections of oil to places where it’s not needed. But with silicium, you don’t need lubrication.”
One of the great proselytisers of low-friction silicium, or silicon, escapements was the late Swatch Group chief Nicolas G Hayek. Accordingly, Breguet, one of Swatch’s most prestigious brands, was an early adopter of the technology, announcing a 10Hz chronograph, with a single gear train and escapement, five years ago. Since then it has enhanced shock resistance, combining the high-frequency escapement with magnetic pivots for the balance wheel in the 2014 Grand Prix-winning Breguet Classique Chronométrie (white gold, £30,400, and rose gold, £30,000). As its name suggests, the watch is classic-looking, except for the frantically fast 10th of a second subdial at one o’clock, a visible indicator of the high-frequency technology that also makes an appearance in the famous Marine line (from £161,300) relaunched at Basel in March.
But even as high-frequency escapements are poised to enter many more watches, a new generation of even higher frequency movements is being born using avant-garde technology that reimagines the regulation of watches. One route is harnessing the power of magnetism: Breguet is conducting research into magnetic escapements, and Denis Flageollet co-founder of independent maker De Bethune, claims that “a magnetic oscillating system opens the door to frequencies as high as 20,000Hz”.
So far, these are experimental projects rather than actual watches. However, with the launch earlier this month of the Zenith Defy Lab (price on request), things are set to speed up. Guy Sémon’s latest creation for Zenith, the “monolithic regulator”, is a high-frequency (15Hz) system of just one piece, to replace 31 separate components of the traditional regulating organ that need assembling and adjusting. “No balance wheel, no spiral, no shafts, no friction, no lubricant, no assembly, nothing. It is just one piece: it’s a plate with different parts but in one monolithic form,” says Sémon. “Using deformation of quartz, it’s possible for just one part to perform the full, very complicated mechanical function of the regulator. The theory is known as compliant mechanics. And I mix it with numerical calculus.” He believes this technology has put him on the path to developing a 5,000Hz movement.
Unsurprisingly, these new developments needed external expertise that Sémon found at Delft University of Technology, and over the past four years, he has built a crack team of scientists, engineers and physicists from as far afield as Utah. “Last year, we won first prize at a very big congress specialising in theoretical mechanics. From a scientific point of view, it’s revolutionary.”
Indeed, according to Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH watch division: “It is the biggest revolution since 1675.” That was when Christiaan Huygens introduced the sprung balance, which reduced the margin of error in pocket watches from 45 minutes to just a few minutes a day. “What we have done could only be done today thanks to technology. In the last century, no one would have been able to do it, because we didn’t have the knowledge, didn’t have this mathematical model and didn’t have the materials. This is nothing less than the future of tradition.”
It may have taken 342 years, but watches are finally picking up speed.