In late March of this year, the watch world was promised something new. Not simply a new collection or an update to a classic model – a huge number of which were to come from many of the world's best maisons during the week-long Watches & Wonders showcase a fortnight later – but an innovation by a Swiss watchmaker that was described as having the potential to turn the world of watch mechanics on its head.
The watchmaker in question is Frederique Constant – a brand set up by Peter and Aletta Stas in Geneva in 1988 and named after each of their great-grandparents, with the aim of selling accessibly priced Swiss-made watches, often made with in-house movements, and with a progressive approach to both mechanics and design. And the watch is the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture: far from merely an updated design, it features a new and incredibly high-tech movement, the FC-810, which all but tears up the rulebook on mechanical watchmaking. Or so it claims.
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The news felt prescient to me in particular. If you'll allow me to digress: as part of my relatively recent journey into watch collecting, I'd just bought my first Frederique Constant, the Classics Heart Beat Moonphase. As well as its semicircular moonphase subdial, it has a feature I was drawn to immediately: an aperture window at 12 o'clock that the brand terms the 'Heart Beat' owing to its showcasing of the balance wheel, the 'beating heart' of its automatic movement. Frederique Constant's Heart Beat is credited as being among the first skeleton apertures, and while it's now a more or less commonplace feature, it was considered by many to be a new and striking addition to the dial when it was first added to a Frederique Constant watch in 1994.
As well as the Heart Beat, the Classics Heart Beat Moonphase also features distinctive Roman numeral indices, as well as beautiful hobnail guilloché that covers the area just inside them. And while it goes without saying that none of these features are unique to Frederique Constant in the modern day, they've definitely come to be thought of as some of the brand's defining features.
The movement beats at 288,000 vibrations per hour, ten times faster than most other mechanical watches on the planet
The new Slimline Monolithic Manufacture, it should be said, is not a direct descendant of the Classics Heart Beat Moonphase. They're part of different collections, for a start. But I noticed immediately that it does share a lot of that classic Frederique Constant DNA, and a lot of what drew my eye to the Classics Heart Beat in the first place. Like the latter, it has complications at 12 and six – in this case there's a date subdial on top, while the new aperture window is down below.
There are other differences, too: the brand's logo is pushed to the right of the centre wheel pinion to allow for the circular oscillator; the Monolithic's bezel is smooth, not stepped, in line with the rest of the Slimline collection; and the crown is rounded, too. It comes on a leather strap, and available with a blue dial with silver hands and indices, as well as the white-dialled variant.
Aesthetics aside, the major difference between the two, of course, is the headline-grabbing movement. While the Classics Heart Beat Moonphase uses the FC-335 – a fairly regulation, ETA-powered movement that features 26 jewels, a 38-hour power reserve and ticks eight times per second – the FC-810 manufacture calibre is an altogether different beast: unlike the Classics Heart Beat Moonphase, the aperture here provides a view into a movement in a class of its own – built around a single-piece silicon oscillator beating at 288,000 vibrations per hour. In real terms? Around ten times faster than most other mechanical watches on the planet. It's not just a new style of movement; in many ways, it's a brand-new approach to the very principles of watch mechanics.
The Frederique Constant Slimline Monolithic Manufacture – in pictures
Created in collaboration with Dr Nima Tolou, founder and CEO of the horological tech company Flexous, its benefits aren't just limited to the speed of operation: the monocrystalline silicon used to make the oscillator is anti-magnetic, more gravity-resistant and lighter than traditional materials. Alongside the modifications to the new movement to accommodate the rapid pace of the oscillator's pulsations, it all adds up – in theory, at least – to a movement that's harder-wearing and more reliable than one made according to traditional mechanics. What's more, for a creation that could leave a genuine, indelible mark on the watchmaking world, made in-house by a Swiss manufacturer, it's not even that expensive: one of its 810 limited-edition run (in stainless steel, at least) comes in at under £4,000. "Accessible luxury" might be how the brand often markets its watches, but this is genuine, accessible innovation.
With that said, will this watch, with its high-speed, high-tech silicon oscillator, change the face of watchmaking across Switzerland and the world and be copied by watch brands far and wide? Will it remain simply a quirky and ambitious addition to the Frederique Constant collection? Or will it rest somewhere in between? That remains to be seen. But what's evident is that, just like its signature Heart Beat in the early 1990s, it's a progressive, ambitious and innovative addition to the world of watches by a brand that always wears its heart on its sleeve. Or on its dial, to be more precise.
From £3,995; frederiqueconstant.com