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SILICON: THE GATEWAY TO THE FUTURE OF MECHANICAL REPLICA WATCHES?

Replica watches: In Autumn 2022, the patent that protects the industrial production of silicon handwheel springs will enter the public domain. In the opinion of many players, virtually the entire mechanical watch industry will gradually convert to this technology, raising the bar for performance while offering economic advantages.

Watchmakers became interested in silicon, a metalloid found in abundance in the earth’s crust, of which it constitutes 28%, at the end of the 20th century. Known since antiquity but isolated for the first time only in 1823, it was transformed into monocrystalline silicon by the French chemist Henri Sainte-Claire Deville in 1854. The base material for the manufacture of transistors, printed circuits and microchips, it revolutionized the computer industry and gave its birth. name to Silicon Valley.

The great interest of the watchmaking industry in this material is explained by its exceptional properties. It is elastic but not deformable, which means that when it receives a shock it moves and immediately returns to its initial shape. It is extremely hard (1,100 Vickers compared to 700 Vickers for steel), lightweight (with a density of 2.33 g/cm3 compared to 8 g/cm3 for steel), highly resistant to corrosion, and somewhat imperceptible in watchmaking, insensitive to magnetism. But it also has its flaws. It is as brittle as its cousin, glass, and sensitive to variations in temperature.

But research overcame that double handicap at about the same time that wafer technology was developed. Wafers are thin slivers of silicon from which the tiny, high-precision parts needed in watchmaking can be cut.

“A whole new dimension in mechanical watchmaking”

The first use of silicon in watchmaking was the work of Ludwig Oechslin for Ulysse Nardin with his revolutionary Freak, introduced in 2001, the first movement to include silicon components. But this pioneering achievement, done as a demo, was the exception for a while. Silicon’s first major entry into “traditional” watchmaking came thanks to Patek Philippe replica watches, which took the world by storm in 2005 with a world premiere: a monocrystalline silicon escape wheel for a Swiss lever escapement.

The announcement caused a sensation, and the press release triumphantly drafted at the time described “an innovation whose significance cannot yet be measured, but which opens up a whole new dimension in mechanical watchmaking”.

Perfect Fake Watches

Without the need for lubrication, with a more perfect and precise shape than a steel escape wheel, this silicon escape wheel was used to equip a special limited series of 100 pieces of the Annual Calendar Ref. 5250, the first series of the unit. of advanced research from Patek Philippe replica watches. It was officially offered to “a limited circle of watch collectors and lovers who are passionate about technological exclusivities so that they can be the first to take advantage of an innovation that will mark a turning point in the watch industry.”

At the time, many observers shrugged at the announcement. But what followed showed that Patek Philippe was not exaggerating and that silicon was destined to become de rigueur in the watch industry.

The consortium

Patek Philippe replica was not the only watch entity working on silicon and its possible uses. Initially, the Geneva-based company had collaborated with IMT, a microtechnology research center at the University of Neuchâtel, in its research work. But to further explore the material’s watchmaking potential, a consortium consisting of Patek Philippe replica watches, Rolex and the Swatch Group was created at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Neuchâtel.

The research carried out by this consortium resulted in the industrial production of silicon balance springs. A strategic step forward.

The great fear at the beginning was that, despite all its qualities, silicon would prove too brittle and too sensitive to temperature variations to be used as balance springs. But the solution devised thanks to their joint research was oxidation, which created a thin layer similar to a “crust” that made it more rigid and protected it from temperature variations. As a tribute to Charles Edouard Guillaume, Nobel Prize winner in 1920 for his invention of the famous Invar, which made it possible to minimize the effects of temperature on a metal balance spring, this technology was named Silinvar®.

Phased in

With this major technological breakthrough as a starting point, the consortium members developed their uses of silicon more or less rapidly. Building on its momentum, Patek Philippe replica watches introduced its Spiromax® isochronous balance spring in 2006, its Pulsomax® escapement (wheel and lever escapement) in 2008, complemented by the GyromaxSi® balance in gold and Silinvar® in 2011.

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Together, these innovations, gradually released in limited editions by Patek Philippe replica watches Advanced Research, form a comprehensive, high-tech regulating body called Oscillomax®, which debuted the same year in the self-winding extra-fine 240Q Si caliber (Q de Quantième Perpétuel or Perpetual Calendar; Yes for Silinvar®).

Here, silicon demonstrates the decisive advantages of its light weight, unusual geometry and excellent aerodynamics, which double the power reserve and allow the exceptional degree of precision of -3/+2 sec per 24h. Today, ten years later, silicon is present in 95 percent of Patek Philippe Perfect Fake Watches. Consecration, one could say.

Rolex waited until 2014 before introducing its balance spring, the Syloxi, in the women’s caliber 2236 for the Oyster Perpetual Datejust Pearlmaster 34. Made from a compound of silicon and silicon oxide, it inaugurated a proprietary geometry that optimized its isochronism. After all, the brand with the crown logo could afford to wait: when it comes to the key issue of anti-magnetism, this innovation was paralleled by the Parachrom Bleu paramagnetic balance spring that the brand had launched in 2000.

As for the Swatch Group, it went on to introduce silicon in 2009, first at Breguet, then at Omega, before gradually extending its use to almost all of its brands, including Tissot, with its Tissot Powermatic 80, Certina and Hamilton. This industrial development was spearheaded by ETA and Nivarox, the latter being, by the way, the company that supplies the vast majority of Swiss watchmakers with the traditional balance springs. The Swatch Group is successfully democratizing silicon through its industrial influence, while also taking a giant leap forward.

Democratization in progress

Initially, silicon flywheel springs were the preserve of high-end brands because they were expensive to manufacture – around 100 Swiss francs a piece. Also, since the consortium members owned the patent, independently of each other, they all did complementary research on manufacturing processes, geometries, and different treatments, filing patents as they went along, so they could use this innovation in so many different ways. as possible and at an industrial level. All of this has had the effect of bringing the price of a silicon balance spring down today to around CHF 20.

But the initial patent on the oxidation of silicon to make it insensitive to temperature v

ariations will soon enter the public domain: in November 2022 for Europe and in 2023 for Japan. Silicon technology, with its proven reliability, will be available to all players in the watchmaking arena.

Sigatec, an important player

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And a major player in this technology, currently taking center stage, is Sigatec. Founded in 2006 and owned equally by Mimotec and Ulysse Nardin, this spin-off from Mimotec

(purchased by the Acrotec Group) is a pioneer manufacturer of silicon micromechanical components. Now with a staff of about forty employees, this ultra-high-tech

company based in the canton of Valais, with its expensive clean rooms,

is active in the watch industry, but also in the biomedical,

microfluidic and technological sectors. of connectors, producing more than a million pieces per year.

For Marc-André Glassey, CEO since the company’s inception 15 years ago,

opening the patent into the public domain represents a crucial development opportunity. “In 15 years, we have had time to acquire solid and detailed knowledge that has allowed

us to really develop this business,” Marc-André Glassey told Europa Star.

“The opening of the patent to the public domain,

which will free up the market for balance springs, is certainly promising. In addition, we are expanding our facilities by buying a factory next to Mimotec,

where we will open a new clean room, which means a very important investment. But, as always, there will be early adopters and late adopters. While some brands are already making announcements, others are taking a wait-and-see attitude. But they will all come, sooner or later.”

Silicon, transforming the watch industry

Marc-André Glassey also points to developments in demand that herald future transformations in the Swiss watch industry. “Manufacturers increasingly want ready-to-use oscillator sub-assemblies, which, given the volumes required, forces us to automate assembly. The demand is clearly directed towards a finished and assembled product”. With the silicon oscillator, the actual assembly of the movement as a whole is considerably easier. Instead of dozens of trades, one trade is enough. A change that could transform watchmaking itself.

The democratization of silicon is underway. Other patents will gradually enter the public domain: in 2023 Patek Philippe’s outer terminal curve and his “chiefs,”

which reduce rate differences, and then in 2037 the inner curve.

Does this mean that this now highly effective technology will become ubiquitous in Swiss mechanical watchmaking? Marc-André Glassey reminds us that the number one problem in after-sales service is related to damage caused by magnetism. “So anti-magnetism is a major problem, as Rolex, Tudor and Omega demonstrated with their innovations. In that sense, silicon is ideal. But in the future, the market will be divided solely between silicon springs and non-magnetic metal balance springs.”

The brands they choose will be differentiated. We can already imagine a marketing battle over the key issue of resistance to magnetic fields,

such as the joint announcement by the Swatch Group and Audemars Piguet

(in 2018) of the “balance spring” carved from a new magnetic compensation alloy called NivachronTM. .

New exhausts

But silicon is much more than steering wheel springs. This technology has also opened the door to a whole host of new approaches to monitoring throttling and leaks.best replica watches

Without going into all these innovations in detail,

let us mention the exhaust innovators made possible by the use of silicon,

such as the famous Zenith Defy Lab devised by Guy Sémon and his teams,

the Genequand Regulator presented by Vaucher Manufacture,

which marries structures based on bending with silicon technology, the Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement,

based on the instability of a warped silicon wafer, the many explorations and designs of Ulysse Nardin, or,

even more recently, Frédérique Constant’s monolithic silicon oscillator, beating at 40Hz.

Could these specific applications of silicon’s potential one day supplant the

use of silicon in the strict conceptual framework of traditional lever movement? While Marc-André Glassey professes “admiration for these systems”,

to which he actively contributes with Sigatec, his opinion is that they will remain “specialties,

niche products that are not going to replace the traditional high-tech exhaust”.

“The fields of possibility are open”

Yes, but… innovation is a continuous process whether it’s silicon or some other material, “the fields of possibility are open,” says Philip Barat, who heads R&D at Patek Philippe replica watches (an applied research department vertical and integrated that employs 150 people). 50 of them alone involved in prototyping).

“Our research focuses in particular on flexibility. We have already explored and manufactured metal bending bearings. Many things are becoming possible today. Let’s take the example of the spring, which paradoxically weakens when tightened! Other materials are also being explored, such as phosphorus, thermal treatments, levels of elasticity, etc. are being investigated. There is a lot to do in mechanics, new materials, powders, metallic glass. The future lies in new materials, increasingly finer and more efficient”.

Silicon has not yet said its last word for a long time. But now it also has to compete with other emerging or developing materials. As for the escapement, there is a chance that silicon escape wheels will become the rule in the near future.

To differentiate themselves, and backed by solid scientific, technical and economic arguments,

brands are going to invest their money in high performance alternatives. After decades of absolute supremacy of the traditional Swiss lever escapement with metallic balance spring,

are we heading towards an atomization of regulation modes in mechanical best replica watches? Only the future will tell.

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