At BaselWorld 2011, TAG Heuer brought out the Mikrotimer Flying 1000, which followed on the heels of the Carrera Mikrograph introduced just two months previously. Obviously, TAG Heuer created a lot of buzz with this introduction, but the important thing to remember is that it is a concept watch — which means that it’s still under construction. One reason for its early introduction as a concept watch rather than a production model may well have been the old rivalry with LVMH sister brand Zenith: TAG Heuer simply wanted to be first this time.
The Carrera Mikrograph is an integrated chronograph that can measure 1/100th of a second using a frequency of 360,000vph (50Hz). The secret of this speed lies in the fact that it has two spring barrels, two gear trains and two oscillation systems — one set running the movement at 28,800vph, and the other running the chronograph beating at 360,000vph. This dual-control system allows for full engagement of the stopwatch function without interfering with the watch’s function, and ensures less wear and tear. The chronograph has a power reserve of 90 minutes.
The Mikrotimer Flying 1000 operates the same way, but its chronograph is 10 times faster, beating at 3,600,000vph (500Hz). While the watch itself has a standard power reserve of 42 hours, the chronograph, whose hand can show 1/1,000th of a second (if your eye can follow), only has a power reserve of 150 seconds.
TAG Heuer says this frequency is more than three times faster than the pistons of a Formula 1 engine cranked to maximum speed. One of the elements making this possible is the fact that there is no balance wheel. “Its absence eliminates all forms of isochronous errors normally caused by this conventional watch movement component such as dilatation and inertial imperfection,” said CEO Jean-Christophe Babin at BaselWorld. The hairspring developed together with component manufacturer Atokalpa is conceptually based on an existing balance spring, but boasts optimized rigidity and reduced length, providing static stability and extremely high dynamism with limited dilation. According to the company, it also reduces effects by gravity and shock while its low amplitude increases isochronous precision. Dynamic lever-wheel transmission generates a hyper-velocity impulse unencumbered by slippage. In other words, the lever literally rebounds off the escape wheel instead of the usual sliding motion.
Finally, the Mikrotimer Flying 1000 uses a “Launcher-Hub-Brake system” that TAG Heuer has registered for a patent. Made possible by the increased rigidity of the balance spring, it is controlled by a column wheel. Starting the chronograph activates the launcher by putting it in solid contact with the radial escapement. Stopping pushes the launcher onto the hub, instantly halting the movement of the spring. This is nothing like the self-starting balance-wheel/balance-spring systems conventionally found in mechanical movements.
Girard-Perregaux offered chronometers beating at 36,000vph in the 1960s. It was this brand which set the current universal quartz standard frequency by setting its own quartz movement to 32,768Hz in 1970. In 2008, it introduced its mechanical Constant Escapement with unusual geometry and two escape wheels. The so-called escapement spring is perhaps its most important component, comprising a silicon frame, a connecting blade — thinner than a human hair — and one of the impulse levers in one piece. The other impulse lever and the winding lever are crafted in LIGA nickel. Girard-Perregaux calls this a constant-force escapement since it delivers constant power to the oscillator, constant amplitude and a constant rate. It also needs no lubrication. Girard-Perregaux has not yet determined the final frequency with which it will beat, but it has been successfully tested up to 7Hz — though the company explains that this is not necessarily the limit. The brand’s unofficial plan is to launch a watch containing it in 2013.
In 2009, Audemars Piguet launched a serial-production escapement beating at 43,200vph (6Hz). While almost all other non-lubricated escapement styles contain components crafted in new materials, this one proudly utilizes only traditional materials. Creator Giulio Papi confirms that Audemars Piguet (Renaud & Papi) uses nickel-phosphorus LIGA-manufactured components in the prototyping phase, but that the final components are traditionally stamped and then finely polished and ground to achieve the same angles and degree of fineness. It is the new geometry of the components that actually negates the friction and allows them to be non-lubricated. “To increase frequency speed, there are two problems: lubrication and the inertia of the components, specifically the escape wheel,” Papi explains. “Our escapement doesn’t need lubrication because it works without friction — an important point to understand — for which reason it can use traditional materials without lubrication.”
Papi also confirms that his company continues to experiment with escapements and faster frequencies. “For 43,200vph, we can still use steel, but if we want to increase the speed, we need a lighter material — if only to decrease the inertia,” he explains. “We are looking for a strong and light material to make an escapement wheel for higher speed,” Papi confirms as he hints that he continues to experiment with silicon in this endeavour. “Just for the sake of experimentation, to see and to learn.”
What goes around comes around, and Zenith continues to innovate. It should thus come as no surprise that Zenith has also been working on an even higher-speed escapement than its standard chronograph: an El Primero beating at 50Hz (360,000vph), which the company plans to reveal at the end of this year. “We feel it is a gain to push the current limits of the watch industry,” then CEO Jean-Frédéric Dufour explains. “If you’ll recall, the Striking 10th allowed not only the new possibility of reading 1/10th of a second on the dial, but to make this function possible, it was necessary to create and patent an escapement system integrating silicon wheels. The same principle is true for the frequency of 360,000vph. Increasing the frequency is not only to increase the difficulties associated with manufacturing it — increasing the high frequency makes the end product exceptional far beyond proportion.”
Unlike TAG Heuer’s Mikrotimer Flying 1000, the 50Hz El Primero will have only one balance and one escapement. Until then, we can only speculate what the outcome of this incredible research and development phase will be — other than being a chronograph. “This mechanism will be produced and sold, so we are not speaking about a concept model. This fact, of course, increases the number of technical improvements that need to be perfected,” Dufour promises.
High Speed Escapements, Part 1: History and Future
High Speed Escapements, Part 2: A Field Survey
Adapted from an article by Eizabeth Doerr, co-founder of Quill & Pad, in REVOLUTION’s archives.