If you break it down, what really defines a mechanical timepiece? At its most basic level, it only needs three core components to function: a power source, a regulator to moderate the release of energy and a display system to translate that into something readable by the wearer. The most complex of the three would undoubtedly be the regulating organ and it’s staggering to realise that the most common form of system used, even today, is the lever escapement, invented by British clockmaker Thomas Mudge back in 1755. That’s more than 250 years ago and, yet, most luxury mechanical watches today are still governed by the same principle.
Over the years, mechanical engineers have found ingenious ways to build upon this basic principle, adding on functional complications like the chronograph, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, tourbillon and more. Although, back when they were invented, these complications were considered a necessity, they are more of a vanity today, adding more to the aesthetic and emotional appeal of a watch rather than functionality. And this shift in watchmaking philosophy happened when the industrial revolution gave way to the information age.
It started with the Quartz crystal that allowed production of a more accurate timekeeper at a fraction of the original cost. Then, as the digital revolution happened, watches could suddenly do so much more than just tell time: they could connect to phones, track the wearer’s location via GPS, recharge itself with the power of the sun and more. As technology advanced, so did the functionality of these watches.
So where does that leave the old-school, (mostly) handmade, mechanical watch? It became a luxury product, one that appealed to the emotional side of people rather than the practical. But it’s not to say that since the 1800s, the mechanical watch has remained exactly the same. Sure, there is a huge element of craft involved in the assembling and decorating of these watches, but with advancement in technology, many watchmakers are integrating them into the mechanical watches of the 21st century. Here are but a few.
When it comes to luxury timepieces, scuffs and scratches, especially on the crystal, represent a bane to owners. Thus, watchmakers are always in pursuit of finding new materials that can withstand the onslaught of everything the elements have to offer, and the sapphire crystal has become one of the industry standards when it comes to surface hardness. That being said, a harder material may be more impervious to scratches, but it is this same characteristic that makes it that much harder to work with; imagine then, trying to make an entire case out of sapphire.
This is the sort of challenge that is right up Hublot’s alley. As a young brand, it prides itself on embodying the Art of Fusion, and what this really means is that it is putting traditional watch movements into cases made of materials that have never been used in the watch industry. It has one with a cement bezel, a carbon fibre-esque material called Texalium, its own super-hard version of gold (Magic Gold) and, of course, a watch with a case made entirely out of sapphire.
To be fair, Hublot wasn’t the first manufacture to make a watch case out of sapphire but what it has managed is to successfully industrialise the process. Where other brands that made sapphire cases had to price them north of six figures and only in small quantities, Hublot has managed to offer its watches at about the USD60,000 mark and in quantities of 500 to 1,000 pieces for each variant.
Sapphire is the second hardest material after the diamond, with a level of 2,000 Vickers. In order to successfully produce large number of these sapphire cases, Hublot invested several million Swiss francs in machinery. Through a partnership with another Swiss company, Hublot engineers were able to find a way to not only mill but also polish these cases so it retains the intended effect of being crystal clear. Since then, it has also been able to offer different colours of sapphire cases, something that is currently unique to Hublot in the entire watchmaking industry.