The Future is Antimagnetic

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As reported yesterday by Watches by SJX , Swatch Group plans to equip the entirety of its catalog with antimagnetic hairsprings. According to the announcement, there will be two types of springs. One will be silicon, which has shaped up to be the benchmark for antimagnetic hairsprings, and the other is Nivachron, a relatively new alloy developed by Swatch Group and announced last year. Nivachron will make its debut this month inside the new Swatch Sistem51.

The Antimagnetic Race

Silicon has experienced a major push within the industry, especially in the last two decades. But it’s not just about combating magnetism. Silicon is prized for a number of reasons, among them thermal stability, resistance to corrosion and wear, and lightness. Given these advantages, silicon has since expanded into other movement components like escape wheels and pallet forks.

We’ve also seen truly revolutionary developments with silicon in recent years. One in particular came in 2017, when Zenith announced the Defy Lab and its movement, the caliber ZO 342. It did away with many traditional movement components in favor of a single silicon element (etched from a silicon wafer) that essentially acts as a harmonic oscillator.

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Some other serious brands not focusing their attention on silicon have developed their own antimagneitc springs, like Grand Seiko did years ago with their Spron 610 alloy. Some watchmakers are also looking to the future and other alternatives to both silicon and metal. A couple of weeks back, for example, TAG Heuer unveiled the technically awesome Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph, which features a hairspring made of pure molecular carbon graphene.

A Fight Breaks Out

Of course, the behemoth that is the Swiss watch industry is a far cry from the cottage industry of yesteryear. It’s highly competitive, secretive, and, at times, overly aggressive. While silicon has indeed seen increased use in recent years, its wholehearted adoption has been stymied by legal issues.

Currently, only a handful of companies have the legal right to use silicon hairsprings. Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Swatch Group, which collaborated on a joint venture with CSEM (Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique), hold a patent that won’t expire until 2021. Ulysse Nardin holds its own patent through its partnership with micro-component manufacturer, Mimotec.

One of the biggest developments at SIHH last year, at least in the realm of the sorts of watches we like to cover here on Worn & Wound, was the announcement of the Baume et Mercier Clifton Baumatic, which introduced a new in-house movement with a silicon hairspring for under $3,000.

However, Baume et Mercier, being a Richemont brand, had to abandon its silicon pursuits. According to Watches by SJX, who spoke to a handful of industry insiders, Richemont was approached by CSEM, Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Swatch Group, and, under threat of legal action, was asked to cease their use of silicon hairsprings. They did.

Looking beyond 2021

With the CSEM patents set to expire in 2021 at a time of increased innovation in the watch industry (2020 is a big year for the ETA movement crunch, and we’re already seeing the big houses moving away from third-party, mass-produced movements), silicon is likely to become an industry standard in just a few short years. So that begs the question—when silicon is the standard, what’s next? The need for brands to better their products and to differentiate themselves from competitors will undoubtedly lead to further developments—some of them will be truly groundbreaking, à la Zenith’s silicon oscillator, and others are likely to be highfalutin marketing hype. Nevertheless, I think we’re in for some really neat things down the road.

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Ilya is Worn & Wound's Managing Editor and Video Producer. He believes that when it comes to watches, quality, simplicity and functionality are king. This may very well explain his love for German and military-inspired watches. In addition to watches, Ilya brings an encyclopedic knowledge of leather, denim and all things related to menswear.
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