The Co-Axial Escapement: an Horological Hit

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The co-axial escapement—generally regarded one of the most significant contributions to mechanical horology in the past two centuries—will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary as Omega’s flagship technology. Omega presently equips nearly all of their watches with the co-axial escapement, and without it Omega may have never developed their ambitious Master Chronometer program.

An Omega Master Chronometer must meet ultra-high performance criteria, thus trouncing COSC specifications, but Omega’s true opponent in the battle for mechanical supremacy is Rolex’s Superlative Chronometer program. Inside the antiseptic, bright white factories of Rolex and Omega you’ll find ranks of lab-coated, loupe-eye’d technicians toiling away in an escalating horological arms race. Rolex has typically held the technical and marketing advantage, but the co-axial escapement has empowered Omega to challenge The Crown’s long-standing dominion as the preeminent mass-producer of luxury watches. Crucially, having secured the patent for the co-axial, only Omega can deploy it.

You Turned Down The Beatles?

George Daniels (image via Danielstrust.org)

The inventor of the co-axial escapement, George Daniels (1926-2011), has been repeatedly honored as the most important watchmaker since Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823). In 1974, Daniels unveiled his masterpiece, the co-axial escapement. Foreshadowing a wide-sweeping inability for people to understand his achievement, it took Daniels a full six years to secure a patent, at which point he shopped his device around to companies like Patek Phillipe, but—perhaps due to the ascendency of quartz—no one bought in. Such rejection is reminiscent of record labels turning down The Beatles; “There’s no future for guitar bands,” one A&R man famously misjudged. Oops.

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“That story satisfied a mounting desire among horology fans to not only witness, but also to participate in and to own, a significant development within mechanical watchmaking.”

It wasn’t until well into the mechanical watch revival of the 1990s that the head of Swatch Group at the time, Nicholas Hayek, recognized the subtle genius of the co-axial movement, thought it right for Omega, and acquired the patent. In 1999, Omega released a DeVille with an ETA 2892 coupled to a co-axial escapement. Dubbed the Caliber 2500, this movement made headlines across the watch industry, and, more importantly, it caught the public’s attention and won their hearts. Omega had a hit on their hands.

Omega Cal 2500, the first Omega production caliber to feature a co-axial escapement.

But why, exactly, was the co-axial escapement such a smash hit? Sure, it’s a brilliant device, but how exciting, really, is a third pallet lever? Even storied watch houses failed to get excited about it for more than a decade. Like most legit inventions, the technology of the co-axial escapement is somewhat rousing, but it’s the genius—and by genius I mean the individual as well as their intellectual prowess—that astounds us. With a pitch-perfect marketing campaign, Omega finally made the significance of Daniels’ achievement broadly obvious. That story satisfied a mounting desire among horology fans to not only witness, but also to participate in and to own, a significant development within mechanical watchmaking. There was, quite literally, no other mechanism that could deliver history in the making without costing more than a rather large house. For a subculture that gets high on mechanical wonderment, we’re talking serious appeal.

What’s In A Name?

I’d place co-axial up there with fuel-injected, micro-processor, high-fidelity, and solid-state —all names that caught the public’s attention and helped launch their affiliated technologies into popular use. The word co-axial gracefully rolls off the tongue, and the phrase co-axial escapement is downright fun to say. Semantically, the phrase is just opaque enough to pique our curiosity without scaring us away; we all know what co-axial means…kinda…and Omega’s publicity machine knew it and thusly primed watch journalists to generate countless articles explaining the thing. We watch-heads, in turn, gobbled it up like wedding-reception caviar.

George Daniels’ personal Speedmaster Mark 4.5 with a modified Cal. 1045. This was the first prototype to be fitted with a co-axial escapement (Image via Sotheby’s).

History on Your Wrist

“That it took 250 years for this invention to emerge is staggering, especially given all the other technological advancements going on during these truly disruptive centuries.”

Historically speaking, because it had been well over two centuries since a newsworthy leap in mechanical watchmaking had come to market, the spirit of upheaval was undeniably alluring. As such, the co-axial escapement perfectly embodied Omega’s retro-futurism; the very idea of a new escapement connected Omega to a much deeper horological history while simultaneously asserting that the mechanical/analog era was not only ongoing, but racing forward. It was an intoxicating message. Add in Omega’s Master Chronometer program with its new laboratory, unrelenting standards, and liberal use of novel materials like silicon and a-magnetic alloys, and the co-axial escapement is just as exciting, relevant, and fun to say today as it was back in 1999.

That it took 250 years for this invention to emerge is staggering, especially given all the other technological advancements going on during these truly disruptive centuries. In a stroke of Omega-centric irony, we put men on the moon before we figured out how to significantly improve the centuries-old pallet-lever escapements inside their watches. Granted, the co-axial escapement will not ring in sweeping geo-political change like lever-escapement equipped marine chronometers did in the 1700s, but the invention and subsequent dissemination of the co-axial escapement via Omega has unexpectedly updated that legacy. Wearing a co-axial equipped watch feels significant.

Flip ‘Em the Bird, George

The way a co-axial escapement works has been thoroughly covered over the past couple of decades, but a quick refresher is in order. In the simplest terms, George Daniel’s found a way to reduce the knocking-around that goes on in a standard two-lever pallet escapement as it locks and frees the barrel spring. Daniel’s mechanism transfers the work of freeing the locked pallet levers onto a third lever that engages a separate escapement cog. Because the second cog shares its axis (or arbor) with the main escapement cog, he named it co-axial (picture two wheels mounted to the same axle). In more technical terms, the co-axial escapement generates radial friction rather than sliding friction. This means (theoretically) zero lubrication and  significantly longer service intervals. It may not sound like much, but Daniels solved a centuries-old problem. That he did it alone is just badass.

Co-axial left; Swiss lever right.

That third lever has always reminded me of an extended middle finger, a bit of anthropomorphizing that the nerdiest sector of my odd noggin concocted to celebrate what I consider to be the most punk thing to come out of the UK since the Sex Pistols. I’d totally wear a George Daniels tee-shirt, especially one featuring him flipping the bird.

The following video features George Daniels himself explaining how the co-axial escapement works, and how it differs from the Swiss lever escapement.

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Toppling The Crown and Surpassing The Zenith

While Rolex continues to tweak their traditional two-lever escapements, adding high-tech, proprietary materials and lubricants incrementally, the biggest news out of The Crown each year still seems to be tiny aesthetic concessions to the public’s long-standing desires. Omega also plays the aesthetic-tweak card, but—by virtue of the co-axial alone—they can boast two decades of aggressive mechanical innovation that Rolex simply can’t answer. For Omega, this is an immeasurable advantage.

“Simply put, Daniels’ is the better story—it’s more human, more humble, more historical, and, somehow, more horological.”

Perhaps the only mechanical development that’s truly ahead of the co-axial is Zenith’s Defy Lab laser-etched, low-amplitude, high-rate, silicon oscillator (found in Caliber ZO 342), a movement that has guaranteed Zenith’s place in the history books. But the Zenith oscillator is materially, and thus emotionally, disconnected from the centuries-old problems that the co-axial escapement solved. In essence, Zenith has literally removed the components that were causing the problems, rather than modifying them successfully. The charm of the co-axial is that one genius tinkered away on his bench like a watchmaker of yesteryear, and he grappled with the problems of yesteryear, too. Zenith, on the other hand, deployed the resources and bravado of an ultra-modern corporation, and while there’s no denying the significance of Zenith’s achievement, their silicon wunder-oscillator does fail to trigger the admiration and affection we watch-heads have for anachronistic mechanical devices and the lone geniuses behind them.

Although I am indebted to Ryan Schmidt, author of The Mechanical Wristwatch Handbook for the insight (see The Worn & Wound Podcast Ep. 52), I agree that Jean-Claude Biver’s swagger undermines our perception of the significance of the Zenith Cal ZO 342. Biver had the thing drone-delivered through a morass of flashing lights and canned heavy metal into the hands of bescarfed women who handled the watches like flight attendants passing hot coffee to the window seat. Then Biver megaphonically proclaimed, “It took 342 YEARS to make this movement! 342 YEARS!” Compare that to Daniels’ protracted struggle to present the co-axial escapement to a wider audience and, indeed, the allure of the humble genius is apparent. Simply put, Daniels’ is the better story—it’s more human, more modest, more historical, and, somehow, more horological.

Omega’s Feisty Incrementalism

Omega’s new state-of-the-art facility.

Omega’s new facility is purpose-built to advance their Master Chronometer program, and it endows George Daniels’ legacy with the full-on technical and financial backing it truly deserves. The impressive Cal. 8058 movement already boasts a record-shattering electro-magnetism resistance of 15,000 gauss, and the strict, computerized 6-position testing of these movements indicates that Omega is feisty about continuing to improve the co-axial. My sense is that Omega will remain faithful to the old-school spirit of the co-axial, and that they will respect its prestigious lineage along with their own, working fiercely but incrementally toward that age-old impossibility known as perfect mechanical timekeeping.

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.
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