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 3D printing started becoming a thing, the world took notice because of its widespread benefits to all kinds of different industries. And if you think the only people using this technology are the ones printing in their garages for personal projects, you are in for a surprise. The basic theory for 3D printing is this: unlike a traditional milling machine that starts with a block of material and works to remove the unnecessary parts, 3D printing joins or solidifies material to create a threedimensional object, designed using computer-aided design (CAD) software.
For watchmakers, this type of tool may not be useful in creating the final product, which still requires the craft and finesse of human hands, but it does help immensely in the prototyping stages. With 3D printing, it makes it that much easier for watchmakers to design and test out parts when creating unorthodox movements. A great example of this would be Parminigani Fleurier’s newest Bugatti Type 390 watch.
The Type 390 was created to coincide with the delivery of the latest Bugatti Chiron car. The movement or engine powering this watch is the PF390, a brand-new movement created by the brand for this watch. It has 302 components, split between seven layers within a cylindrical calibre – which also has a flying tourbillon – and the timekeeping information has to be transferred to a horizontal plane where the dial and hands are.
Then, there is the case of the Type 390 that had to be designed to house this crazy movement while still being comfortable on the wrist. The case was created by Les Artisans Boîtiers – one of Parmigiani Fleurier’s manufacture divisions – to be able to showcase the brilliance of the movement with large openings topped with sapphire crystal, and an ability to pivot by up to 12° along the movement’s main shaft so it adapts to different wrist sizes.
The research and development portion of this would have been significantly longer if not for the 3D printers used not only during prototyping, but also to print the components that can’t be done on a traditional CNC machine. Brands like IWC, Officine Panerai, Richard Mille and Roger Dubuis all admit to the benefits of 3D printing when it comes to creating watches like nothing else on the market.