A Brief History Of Silicon In High-End Horology
When Ulysse Nardin released the Freak watch with a silicon escapement in 2001 (above), it polarised the industry. One camp championed the revolutionary material and architecture that gave traditional watchmaking a royal kick in the posterior. The other camp was unconvinced, thinking silicon components to be a novelty.
Things Escalated Quickly....
Fast forward to 2005. That year, Patek Philippe debuted a special version of its Annual Calendar Ref. 5250, equipped with a silicon escape wheel. The industry seemed to stir. If a stalwart like Patek was throwing its weight behind this newfangled technology, perhaps there was potential after all.
Patek followed with a second limited edition Annual Calendar (Ref. 5350, pictured below) in 2006, this time with a hairspring made from Silinvar, a patented silicon-based material produced in partnership with the Swatch Group and Rolex. That same year, another stalwart, Breguet, throw its hat into the ring. The brand introduced Calibre 777Q with a silicon escape wheel and lever, and the Calibre 591A, which featured a full silicon assortment – escape wheel, lever and hairspring – an industry first.
Suddenly, silicon’s future looked bright. With a host of highly desirable structural properties – lightness, hardness, corrosion resistance, temperature fluctuations and magnetic fields – it was a viable alternative material to brass components. Most importantly, because it didn’t generate friction like metal, it didn’t require lubrication. This made it perfect for use in a balance assembly and escapement, as it made the resulting movement more precise, and servicing the watch that much easier.
In 2014, two of the most significant innovations unveiled at Basel were based on silicon technology. First up, Ulysse Nardin’s Ulysse Anchor Escapement. “What’s fantastic is that we don’t have any anchor shaft, anchor bridge, or pivoting mechanism. So the anchor is floating in the air, minimising friction,” explains Ulysse Nardin COO Pierre Gygax. “We hope that it will make the performance of the watch even better. But we’re not delivering it to the market yet because we need to prove its reliability and shock resistance.” In 2015, the Anchor Escapement found a home in the Anchor Tourbillon watch.
2014 also saw the introduction of Rolex’s Syloxi hairspring, named after the material from which it’s made (silicon and silicon oxide composite). The material is a co-patent with Patek Philippe, the Swatch Group and Ulysse Nardin. With it, Rolex developed the geometry and architecture of the hairspring to optimise its performance.
As Rolex’s first silicon hairspring, it was unusual that the brand chose to incorporate it into Calibre 2236, which powers the women’s Datejust Pearlmaster pictured below. According to Rolex, the Syloxi hairspring is meant to complement, not replace, the existing Parachrom hairspring, which equips all men’s models.
It's Not Just The High-End Brands Now...
Silicon’s early adopters were the conglomerates and independent luxury brands, which could afford to finance research and development into this field. The cost of producing silicon components was also prohibitively expensive. Manufacturing was dominated by one company, Sigatec, which is co-owned by Ulysse Nardin. But that didn’t deter mid-luxury brands like Maurice Lacroix, which used silicon to develop the much-hyped square wheel on the dial of its Masterpiece Roue Carree Seconde.
Among other mid-level luxury brands to take to silicon components is Frederique Constant. In 2014, it launched a new manufacture movement, the FC-945 Silicium Heart Beat Calibre, with silicon escape wheel, anchor, plateau, and parts of the gear train. According to brand founder Peter Stas, one of the reasons for this increased use of silicon is due to price reduction. “They (Sigatec) dropped the prices nicely. And now that we’ve produced it on a ‘mass’ scale (5,000 kits), it will be interesting to see the results,” he says.
Will The Hype Last?
Despite this increasing democratisation, there are those who doubt that silicon will be adopted by the mass brands. Silicon components necessitate high-tech wafer technology, which may well be outmoded in the future, leaving the watches of today irreparable 100 years on. It’s a view shared by independent watchmaker Philippe Dufour.
“I restore a lot of old watches, and the escape wheel is never worn out. It’s always in perfect condition,” he says. “I think it’s important that the big brands are using these new technologies. But somebody has to prove that the new material is better than the old one.”
Silicon may have its share of detractors, but with more brands jumping on the silicon bandwagon, it looks set to become an industry mainstay. Today, Sigatec is already laying the groundwork to absorb this expected surge. “They’ve been planning for this,” says Stas. “I was there two months ago. They have one wafer machine now, but they also have the space where they will put the second machine once the first one reaches capacity.”
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