Taking the Pulse of the Machine ; Escapement Mechanism Is Once More a Focus for Design Experiments

By Lankarani, Nazanin | International Herald Tribune, November 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

Taking the Pulse of the Machine ; Escapement Mechanism Is Once More a Focus for Design Experiments


Lankarani, Nazanin, International Herald Tribune


While some watchmakers are experimenting with new materials, others rely on traditional techniques to bring the measure of time to heights only dreamed of by the master, Abraham-Louis Breguet.

In their pursuit of precision, the holy grail of horology, a number of independent watchmakers have turned their attention this year to improving the escapement, the heart of the watch.

It is a challenge that has fascinated watchmakers since the 18th century, when the traditional lever escapement first appeared. While some are experimenting with new materials, others rely on traditional techniques to bring the measure of time to heights only dreamed of by the master watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet.

"For 600 years, and up until the quartz revolution, giving the correct time was the main preoccupation of watchmakers," Francois- Paul Journe, the founder of F.P. Journe watches, said by telephone from Geneva. "Since then, many brands have made watches that have been more or less technical or recreational."

"For us, it is not about making toys," he said. "It is still about telling time."

True to his company's motto, "Invenit et Facit," or "Invented and Handmade," Mr. Journe has equipped his latest creation, the Chronometre Optimum, with a revolutionary escapement design.

The Chronometre Optimum, the latest addition to the brand's Souveraine Collection of haute horlogerie, was first shown this month in Geneva. Parisian watch lovers can see it at the Salon Belles Montres, which opens this week at the Carrousel du Louvre.

The watch has what Journe calls its High-Performance Bi-axial Escapement, a patented two-wheel direct impulse escapement that functions without oil and is the only direct impulse escapement to start up on its own. According to a company news release, it has far greater output than a majority of escapements: 50 hours without loss of amplitude.

Eliminating the lubrication issue is an exceptional feature of Mr. Journe's new mechanism. Anchor escapement mechanisms, most commonly used in Swiss mechanical watches, regulate timekeeping using a mechanism that generates friction and must therefore be lubricated.

Such mechanisms are plagued with problems associated with the volatility of lubricants, Mr. Journe said. "When the oil is gone, functionality problems arise," he said.

His mechanism eliminates friction by reducing internal pressure, he said, even though it is made of steel. "It is all about working with a light touch," he said.

Over the years, watchmakers have tackled the question of efficient escapement mechanisms. Notable among them was the late George Daniels, the inventor of the coaxial escapement in the 1970s, a mechanism that improved the performance of mechanical watches by virtually eliminating the need for lubrication.

Dual-wheel escapements have been designed before, namely the "natural" escapement invented by Breguet, but most suffered from interference by wrist movement. "Most attempts to make dual-wheel escapements were stopped at the end of the 18th century," Mr. Journe said. "For me, it was taking an old idea and making it new."

True to the same principles, the Finnish-born watchmaker Kari Voutilainen has designed a two-wheel escapement for both his 2- Eight model displayed this year at Baselworld and its predecessor, the Vingt-8.

"These models both have a new escapement with two wheels and direct impulse to the balance through the impulse roller and jewel," Mr. …

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