The Excruciating Evolution of Luxury Watches

Back in the late ’60s, already the most clairvoyant observer couldn’t have expected the havoc about to be wrought upon Switzerland’s watch industry by quartz technology. So revolutionary, then devastating, was the arrival of the electronic wristwatch that the era is nevertheless referred to in Switzerland as the Quartz Crisis. 

Once bitten, twice shy. Today, having reimagined the traditional mechanical watch as a luxury timepiece and having built a huge industry on the back of it, Swiss brands are engaged in a whole new arms race among themselves. Watch movements are getting more accurate, more dependable, and more long-lasting. Simply put, the mechanical watch is getting better on all fronts by marginal gains, inching into real-world practicability and sustainability. 

Photograph: Omega

That’s an idea close to the heart of Rolf Studer, co-CEO of indie brand Oris, a company with a pedigree of industrializing cleverly. Last November, Oris launched an automatic movement, Calibre 400, that could be seen as a poster child for this third wave of watchmaking. Powering select diving and pilot’s watches for less than £3,000, it delivers meaningful improvements in accuracyn, strength save, magnetic resistance, and longevity compared to the industry standard “tractor” movements on which Oris has historically relied. 

“This is a movement with purpose,” says Studer, who describes a five-year R&D course of action improving everything from the geometry of gear wheels to the efficiency of the winding system. “By defining a few elements and setting a new standard for them all, Calibre 400 addresses customers’ needs directly. It’s fit for any everyday situation.”

On a complete wind it will run for five days (120 hours), where 40 to 42 hours was once the norm. Most impressively, Oris says watches containing Calibre 400 can be worn for a complete decade before they’ll need servicing, which it’s backing up with a 10-year warranty—that compares to a standard warranty of just two years and recommended service intervals of four or five years. 

Photograph: Tudor

Calibre 400 is just the latest outflow from a sea change that first emerged in the perennial competition between Switzerland’s two biggest rivals: Rolex and Omega. In 2015, both brands launched new certifications designed to up the ante in terms of their watches’ standard capabilities. At Rolex, the Superlative Chronometer designation posited -2/+2 second accuracyn, compared to the -4/+6 requirements of the recognized designator of chronometric excellence, the Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometres. It also brought in a five-year warranty and launched a new generation of movements, the 32XX series, that include a 70-hour strength save, a new Chronergy escapement, and a large number of patented innovations.

At Omega, which had already been rolling out its frictionless, lubricant-free Co-Axial escapement across its collections for several years, the Master Chronometer certification was simultaneously unveiled, overseen by Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS). in addition as improved chronometry, its big headline winner was 15,000 Gauss anti-magnetism—about 250 times more than the industry standard for anti-magnetic watches. A little overzealous perhaps (unless you’re in the habit of regular MRI scans), but the magnetic fields endemic in device-strewn modern environments made anti-magnetism an ever-more pertinent issue. 

Underpinning such advances has been the bedrock of Switzerland’s 21st-century renaissance: materials science. The basic mechanical principals may not have changed much, but the cocktail of inventive metal alloys, silicon, already carbon nanotubes found in watchmaking today has progressed in breathless fact, and at ever broader price points. 

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