For eight years Swiss movement house Vaucher Manufacture has been developing a revolutionary new silicon escapement from kitchen table prototype to commercial wristwatch. James Buttery talks to Vaucher Manufacture’s director of product development, Florin Niculescu.
Parmigiani Fleurier’s presentation at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie was already one of the highlights of the annual Geneva show. The brand, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, had already dazzled its audience with the Tonda Chronor Anniversaire, an in-house split-seconds chronograph with solid gold bridges and a six-figure price tag.
But the brand, headed by Michel Parmigiani and financed by the Sandoz Foundation, weren’t finished yet. Jean-Daniel Dubois, chief executive of Vaucher Manufacture, took centre stage and spoke in the kind of tone that lets you know you’re about to hear about something very special.
Vaucher Manufacture is the movement manufacturer that makes Parmigiani Fleurier a true watchmaking manufacture, part of a group of companies owned by the Sandoz Foundation that ,between them, produce almost every component that goes into a Parmigiani watch.
What Dubois revealed was the successful industrialisation of an idea that was first conceived in 2004, an entirely new type of escapement developed to exploit the physical properties of the chemical element, silicon, and create a wristwatch with unheard of power reserves, weeks rather than hours.
Using silicon components within escapements is, in itself, nothing new. Ulysse Nardin, Breguet, Maurice Lacroix, Frederique Constant and now Tissot are just a few of the watch brands that have adopted the use of silicon – referred to in Swiss French circles by the French word ‘Silicium’ – within their escapements.
But the majority of these examples simply replace metal components with silicon equivalents, Vaucher’s work developing the so called Genequand Escapement goes much further than that.
“We use silicium,” explains Niculescu. “But we do not use silicium in the same way our competitors do, we do not use it to replace a metal component. We use it for its physical specification, in how it allows us to manufacture, and for its elasticity.”
The system was first conceived 12 years ago by now retired Centre for Electronic and Microtechnology (CSEM) physicist Pierre Genequand. He had been experimenting with silicon for use in aerospace applications when he realised that its properties lent it to use within escapements. Silicon does not require lubrication, it is elastic and far less influenced by temperature and magnetism than traditional steel components.
Genequand constructed the first prototype on his kitchen table before revealing it to colleagues at CSEM.
The regulator is vastly different from the omnipresent Swiss Lever Escapement used inside almost every mechanical watch produced today as Niculescu explains: “For the first prototype we increased the frequency to 12Hz. Our first concern was to prove this system would work in the dimensions of a regular watch, we did not concern ourselves with absorbing shocks or [addressing] temperature variations. That we addressed with the second prototype that we showed in Geneva [at SIHH this year], we had to increase the frequency from 12 to 16Hz and reduce the weight of the balance wheel to be able to absorb shocks without breaking the silicium parts.”
Now called the Senfine – Esperanto for endlessly – this escapement puts all mainstream ‘high beat’ mechanical escapements in the shade if you discount TAG Heuer’s now defunct experimental Mikro project. The revered El Primero from Zenith ticks along at a breezy 5Hz, Chopard released an 8Hz movement while the Senfine doubles that frequency with 16Hz or 115,200 vibrations per hour. For perspective the balance wheel inside the majority of watches moves at 4Hz or 28,800vph.
Another characteristic of the balance wheel that is radically altered by Senfine is the amplitude or the arc of movement the balance wheel travels through in one complete oscillation. In conventional Swiss Lever Escapements amplitudes will certainly be three figures, normally between 200 and 300 degrees. Sefine has an intentional amplitude of just 16 degrees. The result of this high frequency and low amplitude is an escapement that’s a bit of a blur compared to the sedate rocking of a 3Hz (18,800vph) lever escapement.
The unusual characteristics of the escapement’s motion are due to its equally unconventional geometry. A single silicon component combines balance wheel, balance spring and pallet fork. The balance wheel has no supporting central staff, which is one of the main sources of friction-based inefficiency in a traditional movement. Instead, the Senfine’s balance wheel is suspended from two blade springs which provide the return inertia and create a virtual point of rotation.
Despite Genequand having no practical grounding in horology, his pallet fork design nearly replicates the ungainly gait of John Harrison’s 18th Century Grasshopper Escapement, which itself was designed to reduce points of friction to a minimum. To bring Senfine to this stage has required the co-operation of the Swiss Centre for Electronic and Microtechnology (CSEM) and Parmigiani Fleurier’s movement house, Vaucher Manufacture. With a working prototype in hand, focus now turns to ironing out remaining issues, complying with COSC standards and industrialising production within the walls of Vaucher.
“Our facility showed this kind of regulator in front of scientists in September 2014,” said Niculescu. “But for us it was very important to show it in Geneva this year because we want to show that the brand has been behind the production since the beginning.”
“It was a pleasure to show this fantastic technology in Geneva and create an enthusiasm, because for the last 130 years the regulator did not really change, it evolved because of technology but there was no real revolution.”
For the time being Senfine is an escapement looking for a movement. Senfine – which is currently between 4.5 to 6 times more power-efficient than a standard lever escapement – has been developed while attached to a standard mechanical movement. However, once the regulator has been finalised an entirely new movement will be built specifically for it.
“Once we know 100% the efficiency of each component we will know exactly the amount of barrel energy we have to put in and that will give us the necessary space to add this energy and that can be one, two or three barrels.”
This is where Senfine’s low-power consumption will be most noticeable to the person wearing it on their wrist. With the single, standard mainspring barrel the prototype currently uses, Vaucher is confident of a 45-day power reserve and suggest twin barrels could last 70 days.
It’s entirely possible that, with three barrels, Senfine-based watches from Parmigiani Fleurier – which has exclusive rights – might only need to be wound four times a year.
Such a watch would be an attractive proposition; an advanced timepiece that is undeniably mechanical and yet possesses most of the convenience of battery-powered quartz.
Technology will be as important in supporting Senfine as a commercial reality as it has been in developing it. Existing timegrapher equipment cannot accurately measure the Senfine’s escapement for servicing and repairs and so a parallel project at Vaucher Manufacture has been working to develop the machinery necessary to support Senfine throughout its lifetime.
“It’s one of the challenges for us as well, to provide to our commercial distribution all the tools in time. But, of course, at the beginning the numbers will be small and we will carry out all diagnostic and analysis work on the watches in Switzerland” Niculescu explained. “But once you take away the oil and you give up the friction in the movement you can imagine we can extend the length of time between services.”
For the engineers at Vaucher Manufacture the experience has been inspirational, with the lack of traditional barriers encouraging its designers to look differently at other components and consider how they might be improved.
But for all the technological advances that Senfine represents, Parmigiani is a watch brand with its roots in restoration, indeed one of the founding reasons the brand was initially established was to safeguard traditional craft techniques, a move into silicon watches conceived by physicists might be a step too far for Parmigiani’s customers.
“This new Senfine will never replace what we produce today, explains Niculescu. “We will create a specific collection to promote this revolutionary regulator. In the beginning Michel Parmigiani said we will never use [silicon] in our watches, but when he said that it was clear he didn’t want to use [silicon] to replace metal components, because metal is very important for us in terms of decoration. Mr Parmigiani was very clear we are open to use new technology, but we will never give up our roots or our facilities that produce metal components.”
But having been almost solely concerned with the properties of silicon for the past eight years, the team at Vaucher Manufacture has made inroads towards applying decorative techniques to silicon using the same lasers they use to remove material in the balancing of components.
The two prototypes shown at Baselworld – one behind glass, the other on the wrist of Vaucher Manufacture chief executive Dubois – are both two hand designs. Such a high frequency movement would offer the smoothest of second hand sweeps – outside of Grand Seiko’s quartz-regulated Spring Drive watches, of course.
“It’s almost continuous, the movement,” says Niculescu. “It’s hard to perceive the steps of the escape wheel. For us to put a seconds hand in, we have to line-up the inertia of the second. For the time being we are concerned just with the hour and minutes, but of course we are thinking to show new options like power reserve or a seconds hand. That will be part of the evolution of the product.
“Our goal is still 2018 to show something sellable. But we learn something new every day. If we have to delay for certain reasons then we will delay it. It’s a new product, we do not have any financial constraints to launch and we will not penalise the product for any reason.”
Over the last 12 months The Luxury Report has heard it said repeatedly that luxury watch brands are having to give customers more reason to make a purchase, given current market conditions. Rolex has extended it Superlative Chronometer accuracy standard across its entire collection, Omega has promoted its Co-Axial movement to Master Co-Axial while Parmigiani Fleurier has developed an entirely new escapement. Once ready for market in two years time, the Senfine will give Parmigiani a true USP, something few other watch brands can claim to offer.