COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Timeless technology

In this age of electronics, mass production and rapid product obsolescence, you might be surprised to learn of a resurgence of a product category that relies on handmade parts, hand finishing and hand assembly, much like the traditions dating back to the 19th century.

In contrast to electronic products that are built in minutes and replaced in months, these timepieces typically take weeks or months to build and last for a hundred years or more.

I recently visited two watch manufacturers that have been instrumental in the industry's revival, Glash?tte Original (www.glashuette.de), located in the former mining town of Glash?tte, Germany, near Dresden, and Patek Philippe (www.patek.ch) in Geneva, Switzerland. Each company can trace its history back 150 years. Today each makes watches that rely on traditional methodology combined with modern manufacturing techniques to produce some of the most amazing and mechanically complex products imaginable.

With the commercialization of the low-cost quartz watch in the late 1970s and '80s, many had predicted the demise of the Swiss watch industry that had been built upon manufacturing precision mechanical timepieces. The pundits surmised that quartz watches, being much more accurate and much less costly, would make mechanical watches extinct. While the Swiss watch industry did go through a severe downturn, watch manufacturers created their own quartz watch capabilities with brands such as Swatch to rival the Japanese competition.

But something strange happened along the way -- the resurgence of the mechanical watch industry. Companies on the brink of bankruptcy were reopened, some under new ownership, and many with an infusion of new capital. Today many of these companies are prospering, and the mechanical watch industry has been growing steadily. Some watchmakers are even revered as rock stars by watch collectors. Today, there are dozens of companies striving to produce the most complex of mechanisms while promoting their brands as being truest to past tradition. That tradition relies on the basic designs used in pocket watches from the 18th and 19th century, designs not unlike what are used today.

Some of the renewed interest by customers may be a rebellion against the cold, electronically precise circuits encased in perfectly molded plastic housings. Or perhaps it is a fascination for tiny works of precision engineering art. Having a mechanical engineering background, I've developed an interest with mechanical watches precisely because most other mechanically complex products have been replaced with electronic circuits.

Mechanical watches are constructed of metal plates, levers, cams and springs, often 200 to 1,000 parts, depending upon the number of functions. The basic mechanism relies on a spring's tension to rotate a wheel back and forth, which then rotates little gears, some smaller than the head of a pin, transmitting this energy to turn the hands of the watch, change the date and perform other functions. Self-winding watches add a mechanism that causes a weight to move as the watch is worn, thereby winding the spring automatically. These devices are typically accurate to one part in 100,000 or a couple of seconds per day.

While in the past these parts were made by hand, today they are often made by modern machinery, the same type used for making intricate parts for such things as disk drives. Yet to get the perfect finish, each part is still polished by hand, even the spaces between the gear teeth. Alongside the modern computer-controlled machining equipment are experts using boxwood wheels, as used in the 19th century, to apply the finish to the metal plates.

Computer-aided programs running on workstations are used to assist with the design. These programs allow the parts to be made even smaller and more precisely, and to simulate the performance of new designs. The software generates the part information, which is sent to the machinery to be fabricated. Other computer-controlled devices measure the critical dimensions of every part. As a result, it has become possible for watch designers to add new features to the watches and to make them even smaller. There are watches now that display, in addition to the time and date, the day, month and year, phase of the moon, sunrise and sunset times, and even the position of the planets. One of the more popular categories, perpetual calendar watches, display the day, date and month, compensating for months of different lengths, and for leap years. While this would be trivial to do using electronics, it is quite a feat of engineering to do this with just gears and levers.

The history of these companies is intertwined with politics. While Glash?tte Original has been in business since 1849, it suffered under the communist regime of East Germany. After the reunification of Germany, a resurgence of the German watch industry began that now is comparable to the Swiss. In just a decade Glash?tte Original has become one of the premier watch brands and was recently acquired by the Swatch Group (PNK: SWGNF), owner of brands such as Swatch, Omega, Blancpain, Breguet, etc. Glash?tte produces about 8,000 watches per year that range in price from $2,500 to $100,000.

Patek Philippe, a family owned business, is located in Geneva. Founded in 1839, it is considered to be the premier traditional watch manufacturer. Their product line includes some of the most complex mechanical watches ever made, with watches that have fetched millions of dollars in auctions. Their products range in price from $5,000 up. They have recently opened a new facility containing some of the most modern equipment, and employing some of the most experienced watchmakers.

There are a number of Web sites that provide more information. At www.thepurists.com, you can find detailed articles on the different companies, timepieces and a wide range of discussions. Other good sources are the Web sites of some of the leading mechanical watch companies, such as Lange and Sohne, Audemars Piguet, Ulysse Nardin, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC.

Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars for a timepiece that is less accurate than a $100 quartz watch? Because they consider the timepiece to be both a work of art and technology that will work for a century or more. This provides a sense of tradition and permanency in contrast to today's disposable products that become obsolete every six months. I find that refreshing. Besides, why should women get to wear all the cool jewelry?


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

User Response
0 UserComments