Silicon is an extremely common element in the earth’s crust, where it is found in the form of oxides. The pure form (>99%) of silicon dioxide (SiO2) was the catalyst for the electronic and computer revolution from the 1970s to the 1990s. Thanks to its semi-conducting properties, it opened the door to the development of microprocessors. This is the universe in which silicon came of age, before the watch industry began to take an interest, and decided to get in on the act.
In the 2000s, the CSEM laboratory launched a research programme with the aim of exploring the qualities of monocrystalline silicon, which resulted in the registration of a patent in 2002. A consortium of watch brands (Rolex, Patek Philippe and Swatch Group) then became associated with the programme, and secured a licence to manufacture and use these patented silicon technologies in watchmaking applications. At around the same time, in 2001, Ulysse Nardin launched a watch with a silicon escapement, the Freak.
Girard-Perregaux Echappement Constant L.M. © Girard-Perregaux
When it is pure enough, and has undergone a fabrication process in a “clean room” very similar to the kind of environment used for micro-processor manufacture, silicon is light, elastic and has shape memory. It is anti-magnetic and corrosion resistant, remains stable when subject to temperature changes, is extremely smooth, and therefore generates very little friction and suffers virtually no wear. For lubrication, all that is required is the ambient humidity of a watch workshop. And finally, it is manufactured via the DRIE process. It can be shaped into whatever form is required, even the most outlandish and improbable, and mass-produced. Its main disadvantage is that it breaks if subjected to stress in the wrong dimension (vertically, for a horizontal piece, for example).
The main application for silicon is in a watch escapement. The balance spring, lever and anchor wheel are the three components that benefit the most from its properties. It is there that issues such as weight, expansion, magnetism and friction are the most significant, and can cause the most damage. Rolex uses silicon for the balance springs of its women’s watches, using the trade name Syloxi. Patek Philippe uses it under the name of Silinvar, primarily for its Spiromax balance springs, but also for the other components in its Advanced Research limited editions, which pioneer the use of innovative components and techniques, some of which are subsequently introduced in its current models.
Patek Philippe Advanced Research, the new Spiromax balance spring © Patek Philippe
The Swatch Group distributes silicon components to almost all its brands, whatever their price positioning. Breguet uses them – in fact, it was a pioneer – and so does Tissot. Finally, Ulysse Nardin and Sigatec produce escapement components in industrial quantities, which are then supplied to anyone who wants to use them. Ulysse Nardin itself first and foremost, but also other brands that are not members of the above-mentioned club.
A sheet of silicon pallet forks by Sigatec © Ulysse Nardin
The impetus for adoption was primarily technological. Mass production methods had to be created for use in the watch industry. This was translated into simple, flat and generic shapes. After all, a pallet wheel doesn’t need any exotic geometry to work. The same goes for a balance spring, whose spatial characteristics are well known. But there was a second phase, which is still going strong, that turned to the exploration of new shapes.
Breguet © Breguet
One of the advantages of silicon is that it is easy to prototype. It is made using a process that resembles drawing an outline on a sheet of paper, which makes it easy to simply change the drawing and put it back in the furnace with all the other designs. It is a far cry from the complex design, casting, tempering, shaping and machining of steel alloy, and it’s what makes it possible to play around with silicon, and exploit all its qualities.
This is how we have come to see some incredible, uncategorisable shapes. In 2008, we had Girard-Perregaux and its Constant Escapement, which featured a component in the shape of an extraterrestrial butterfly between the pallet and the anchor wheels, which enhanced energy transmission. The company turned out to be a pioneer in the use of flexible componentry, espousing a principle that has since gained amazing traction in the industry. Ulysse Nardin came next with its Ulysse Anchor Escapement, which had similar benefits but with a more compact geometry.
Like a lot of other Breguet watches, the 7787 balances its smaller diameter with some unnervingly straight lugs that are just the right length — the designer managed to not make the lugs a compensatory element, something which generally still occurs too frequently on otherwise nice looking cases. Therefore, the 7787 is a relatively small watch by 21st century watch standards, but it nevertheless has sufficient presence to seem elegant — rather than apologetic. Most manufacturers tend to struggle greatly either in regards to making these layouts look great extended to above forty wide — which is just the nature of proportions — or with timid-looking, miniature watches rather than This Breguet is neither stretched, nor shy. It’s just about right.Breguet hands fulfill Breguet numerals on the dial and that by itself is a solid recipe for success. Only these two elements are similar to the signature or even a fingerprint of a genius. It’s something that has been created hundreds of years ago and has been functioning in perfect harmony since. Kudos to Breguet for not butchering the palms but keeping them the proper length — public service announcement: hands should at all times reach their individual tracks, not point at them!Things get cluttered when the other three indications enter the image — those would be the moments hand, the next phase of the moon screen, along with also the power reserve indication. Strangely, I do not mind this unorthodox layout to get a dress watch. Dress watches, and especially the ones that follow the apparel watch code as just as this one attempts, are more frequently than not worn on dull long days where everyone is wearing the identical form of clothing and shoes and watches and ties and speaking the exact same type of speak to one another. I understand today somehow it is hip to wear derby sneakers with coaching shoe soles (a vomit-inducing disgrace, in my opinion), so if you’re to perform with the “business attire” rule publication, you might also opt for something that remains classy but also puts a grin on your head every once in a while.
Le tourbillon d’Ulysse Nardin Classic Ulysse Anchor Tourbillon © Ulysse Nardin
In 2017, Zenith benefited from the joint research of the CSEM and TAG Heuer, culminating in the introduction of the Zenith Defy Lab. Here, the silicon component isn’t merely functional, it’s also demonstrative. Because of the many roles it has to play, it occupies almost the whole surface of the dial. This system uses a single piece to perform the functions normally executed by the entire regulating organ, and all at a frequency of 15 Hz.
Silicon has become omnipresent in watches. It is being considered as a replacement for some of the other springs, such as the barrel springs, which could benefit from its easily controlled and durable elasticity. It can be used to create highly complex multidimensional shapes, like the square and cloverleaf-shaped wheels of the Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Square Wheel. It can also be used to coat metal pieces, thus reducing friction. It can be welded, and coated in monocrystalline diamond. The list goes on, and new applications are continually being found.
Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Square Wheel Cube © Maurice Lacroix