Technical innovation has existed at the core of watchmaking from the very outset. After all, watches were first designed as practical answers to the question of measuring time accurately - only very recently have they become something cool to put on your wrist.
The five watches shortlisted for the Technical Innovation of the Year award are marvels of modern micro-mechanics - and often the result of years of research and development by the brightest minds in horology.
Whether they readdress old questions of how to construct a movement or pose new solutions in the form of advanced materials, these contenders have at their heart a desire to reach new heights.
These are the watches of tomorrow ready to wear today...
Ressence Type 2
At last year’s SIHH, out-the-box thinkers Ressence introduced us to the Type 2 e-Crown Concept – a watch that, frankly, was a game changer in the marriage of mechanical and smart watches.
It employs an electronic device that allows the watch to self-adjust to new timezones, set the time via a smartphone, or automatically reset after the power reserve winds down.
Designed in conjunction with iPod designer Tony Fadell, e-Crown Technology sits between the mechanical movement and Ressence’s unique display disc system.
Now, it’s here in a full-scale commercial model. The Type 2 features a curved 45mm case made of anthracite PVD titanium with the orbital-disk dial configuration that Ressence first pioneered in 2010, but really it’s all about that innovative e-Crown tech.
For the most part, the horological industry has been content to view smart watches as a separate product to its finely crafted timepieces. This is the first watch which boldly challenges that convention. Time will tell how successful it has been…
For more info, ressencewatches.com
Tag Heuer Autavia Isograph
Guy Bove is not a name that many outside the watch world will recognise. Fewer still will know that he is former-product director at Chopard, briefly creative director at the new-look Breitling (he left the company last year) and as of late last year is now the product director for Tag Heuer. His first impact on the Swiss brand is the addition of the Isograph to the legendary Autavia range.
This might not seem like a particularly bold start point, but it is certainly a statement of intent – this is, after all, a fair shift away from the Autavia we know. The time-and-date layout, featuring a bi-directional bezel and stylings that are much more pilot’s watch than they are the automotive inspired creations previously seen; a shift from “auto” to “avia” in the model’s name.
In truth, the Autavia has always set out to blend automotive and aviation in one watch, it just so happens our association leans towards the former.
This is cutting-edge technology
That being said, this is a welcome departure. There’s a number of colour options to choose from, including a really handsome gradient green with a bronze bezel, but the overall sporty chic aesthetic is enjoyable whatever your shade.
At the price point, as well, the presence of Tag Heuer’s innovative Calibre 5 movement is particularly pleasing. It features an innovative carbon composite hairspring that is not only superior to standard hairsprings in terms of reliability and precision, it also aids the production process thanks to the consistency you can create from one batch of hairsprings to the next.
This is cutting-edge technology wrapped up in one of the best Tag Heuer collections we’ve seen released in recent years. We’ll be tracking Bove’s vision for Tag’s products with great interest.
For more info, tagheuer.com
Ulysse Nardin Freak X
The Freak is one of our favourite collections of the modern era - there, we said it. Not only does it freely defy general watchmaking convention (using the movement as one of the watch hands is completely backwards), but it utilises the latest technology to boost the timepiece’s efficiency.
It comes at a price, though. The complexity of the Freak and its intricate movement assembly has pushed the price (close to six figures) out of reach for all but the most enthusiastic and well-financed watch collectors. That is, until now.
The Freak X, new for 2019, is still an expensive watch, but it now sits alongside other horological models in the £15-20k bracket. We’re not going to use the word value, but there’s a lot to be said about how much watch you’re getting here.
First things first, Ulysse Nardin has traded out the platinum of previous models for a composite made out of aeronautical-grade carbon fibre. The effect looks like forged carbon - a suitably modern aesthetic for the innovation going inside the new 43mm case (down from an unwieldy 45mm).
An innovative, highly unique timepiece
Now to that incredible movement - or, to be precise, the new UN-230 calibre. It features the same lightweight silicon balance wheel with nickel flyweights and stabilizing micro-blades as seen on last year’s model (the secret to a highly efficient and high power reserve movement), but does make some concessions in an effort to bring the price down.
Previous renditions of the Freak have been adjusted through the bezel, but the latest model employs a conventional crown. Most notably, however, is a slightly less complex movement visible on the dial - crucially, it still doubles as the minute hand for the watch but most of the wheel train is now concealed.
In a sense, the latest rendition of Ulysse Nardin’s most advanced creation is a Freak-lite - sans precious material and without some of the visual drama of the models that first put it on the map. Does this matter? In pursuit of an innovative, highly unique timepiece that is more readily available to the masses, absolutely not.
For more info, ulysse-nardin.com
Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Twin Beat Perpetual Calendar
Watch writers bang on about power reserve with (occasionally) tedious frequency, but it’s not without reason. A lengthy watch running time can prove convenient for those weekends you feel like leaving it off your wrist or fancy swapping to another in your collection, without having to worry about resetting the time the next occasion you wear it.
It’s even more crucial, however, when you start talking about complex movements like the perpetual calendar: with date, day, month and year displays to account for, it can be a right pain to set once a watch has worn down.
Our best watch in show takes this very real horological problem and solves it in the form of a unique world-first movement. The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Twin Beat Perpetual Calendar is fitted with a ‘standby’ mode that boasts more than 65 days worth of power reserve.
It works by utilising two oscillators, as opposed to the conventional one, both powered by a single energy source – one runs at a high beat (5hz) for added stability and accuracy, while the other at a low beat (1.2hz) for increased efficiency. Press the button on the left-hand side of the case and the watch will seamlessly transition from the high-beat oscillator to the monumental power reserve of its low-beat ancillary.
Vacheron’s latest piece is nothing short of revolutionary
This all sounds mightily impressive but, in spite of the two patents acting on this timepiece, Vacheron’s greatest achievement is cramming this unique watchmaking inside a highly wearable 42.mm x 12.3mm case size, alongside the esteemed Swiss brand’s usual standard of finishing.
Look closely and you’ll find a blend of intricate hand guilloché on slate-coloured gold with an openwork bottom to the dial exhibiting the inner mechanics of the perpetual calendar. There’s delicate dauphine hands and applied 18k gold indices, with the ingenious standby mode demarcations in an appealing red.
Each year, we see great examples of watchmaking evolution, but Vacheron’s latest piece is nothing short of revolutionary.
For more info, vacheron-constantin.com
Zenith Defy Inventor
“Smartphones are more accurate than any timepiece,” the anti-watch brigade tell us with tiresome naivety. This is an undisputed fact, of course, but it is also very much missing the point entirely of what so enthralls those among us for whom watchmaking is an art form. In the same way that nobody needs a Bugatti Chiron capable of topping 300mph, the pursuit of mechanical excellence is compelling enough reason to forge on and innovate.
In recent years, this pursuit in watchmaking has led to brands asking how they can improve the accuracy of their movements. For Zenith, the answer to that question is the Defy Lab.
Beneath the titanium case, you’ll find the calibre 9100 automatic movement, which operates at a whopping 18Hz with 50 hours of power reserve. Why is this important? Well, 18Hz translates into a rate of 129,600 bph - or, to put it another way, more than four times the beats of a standard 4Hz movement - which results in fewer errors and an overall more accurate movement.
Where the future lies in very high-frequency calibres is anyone’s guess for now, but Zenith should be applauded for this undoubtedly revolutionary approach to watchmaking.
For more info, zenith-watches.com