Patek Philippe Advanced Research released two innovations this year, housed in the Aquanaut Travel Time ref. 5650G, and people are freaking out. With good reason, I might add, because the two innovations in question – an improved Spiromax and a new timezone-advancing mechanism – have far-reaching implications that are completely obscured by their deceptively simple appearances. Thing is, this is not going to be a discussion of the watch. At all. This is one of those instances in which I care far less about the watch than what it means. It doesn’t happen a lot, but never underestimate the power of Patek Philippe to come up with something that takes up permanent residence in your thoughts (in an Aquanaut case, no less!) and will keep you up at night.

Springing Forward

Unless you’ve spent far too much time deep in the arid landscape of technical watchmaking, it’s unlikely that you get why some people seem so bothered about isochronism. I mean, I get it, too. So, the balance doesn’t oscillate in perfect half beats, with optimal amplitude or good concentricity, or whatever it is the technical guys like to bang on about.

Why is this a problem? Let’s take a real-life example. Say you’ve got a lovely swing set in the garden. You want to have a good time on the swing. But one side of the swing is shorter than the other, so your centre of gravity is continually misaligned with the swing’s plane of oscillation. You’re twisting about, wasting energy trying to keep the swing going — you are not having a good time. Same thing goes with a movement hairspring; if it doesn’t breathe concentrically, its centre of gravity is shifting about relative to its axis of rotation, energy that could have gone into increasing amplitude is wasted in returning the system to dynamic equilibrium, and no one is having a good goddamn time, believe me.

Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut Travel Time ref. 5650G

Good time (and good times) can only be had by all with a perfectly isochronous hairspring that oscillates with perfect geometric concentricity, with its centre of gravity and centre of rotation perfectly aligned in all planes. That’s too much perfection to ask for — the reality is that we are all subject to the laws of physics, and reality is the Harry Potter to perfection’s Voldemort. Neither can live while the other survives, and all that.

The truth is, the hairspring that breathes with perfect concentricity does not exist, and we have gravity to blame for that. All you have to do is have your hand hanging down by your side; the plane of oscillation in your watch hairspring is perpendicular to the ground, the half of the hairspring currently positioned below the hairspring arbour is sagging while the top half struggles like Mr Blobby attempting a chin up. Now, of course this is an exaggeration. These effects of gravity aren’t as noticeable as all that, because hairsprings tend to be fairly light objects. (It’s those bastard balance wheels that drag them down.) Nevertheless, these effects do kind of ruin any sort of hairspring aspirations towards perfection. Also, not to state the obvious, but the fixed hairspring stud is doing no one any favours here either.

You know what else is a physical impossibility? A hairspring that has its centre of oscillation and centre of gravity at the same point. Unless the arbour has a cross-sectional diameter of zero, it just ain’t happening. Of course, there are ways around this — there are non-hairspring oscillators that have a virtual pivot, as it were, but let’s not torture ourselves by getting into all that right now. Sufficient unto each day is the evil thereof, you know.

The new Spiromax used in the ref. 5650G.

At this point, it’s starting to become abundantly clear why the new Patek Philippe Spiromax balance is such a big deal. The first outing of the Spiromax in 2006 featured a section on its terminal curve that was thicker than the rest of the coils. This compensated for the non-concentricity of the hairspring by altering the deformation pattern of the hairspring at its outermost coil. The new Spiromax has increased the thickness of a section of its innermost coil as well, and this change specifically addresses the disparity between the hairspring’s centre of gravity and centre of oscillation. Now, you know and I know that making any change at all to the geometry of an object will allow you to mess around with its centre of gravity, but it’s just easier and more precise to do it nearer the current centre of gravity. So, by changing the way the innermost coil deforms, the new Spiromax mimics the geometry of an ideal (and impossible) hairspring. How neat is that?

As a side-note, I’d like to point out that Patek Philippe terms these thicker hairspring sections as “bosses”, as in “Patek Philippe’s new Spiromax hairspring features an inner boss near the integrated collet”. I’m unfamiliar with this use of the word “boss”, a word more closely associated in my mind with hours of Red Bull-fuelled levelling up in dungeon RPGs on the Xbox, but what this does do is give me several prime opportunities to go pun-crazy with the “LikeABoss” hashtag on social media when discussing the new Spiromax, so colour me pleased on this point.

I want to emphasise that none of what Patek Philippe did with the new Spiromax hairspring is as anywhere near easy as I seem to have made it sound, and I’d like to clear up any misconceptions resulting from my regrettable (though irrepressible) glibness. Hairspring technology is among the most esoteric branches of expertise in watchmaking, and any sort of innovation in this field is driven by cutting-edge research and a deep familiarity with micro-engineering, materials science, dynamic systems, molecular nanotechnology and good old-fashioned horological tradition. It’s massively cool and insane in equal parts.

The Spiromax as used in the ref. 5350 in 2006 (above), the ref. 5550 in 2011 (bottom).

The Right Time

Let us be real here. I adore new stuff. We all do. New stuff is exciting, new stuff is sexy, new stuff is more fun to think about at night when you can’t get to sleep. Case in point: see above. Close on the heels of this adoration, however, is my calm and abiding affection for the things that have stuck around and served us well and that are getting relevant updates because we care.

Case in point: Patek Philippe’s integrated monobloc timezone corrector mechanism. In terms of impact, the difference between the hairspring innovation and the timezone corrector of Patek Philippe’s Advanced Research department is that the regulating organ of a watch is still one of the densest areas of horological research and development today. Display correction pushers, not so much. They ain’t broke enough for anyone to want to fix them, as opposed to the exasperatingly alluring yet imperfect hairspring.

That said, one of the most exciting areas of research in engineering today is the evolution of complex actions out of integrated forms. Instead of multi-component mechanisms prone to malfunction and with multiple points of potential failure, compact and elegant solutions made possible through increasingly sophisticated machining processes and deeper understanding of mechanical dynamics are much preferred. Applications range from harnessing solar energy in the aerospace industry to nanotechnology-assisted drug delivery in pharmacology. Researchers at MIT are studying the ancient Japanese art of origami to mine its potential for transforming two-dimensional materials into three-dimensional, flexible and reactive structures. (I mentioned MIT just so you believe me when I say this stuff is super legitimate. It’s true as well — Google it.)

The flexible mechanism of the 5650G's time-zone setting device is visible through an aperture in the dial.
The flexible mechanism of the 5650G's time-zone setting device is visible through an aperture in the dial.
The flexible mechanism of the 5650G's time-zone setting device is visible through an aperture in the dial.
The flexible mechanism of the 5650G's time-zone setting device is visible through an aperture in the dial.

The classical method of advancing indications — such as a timezone display, or a calendar, or a moonphase, or seriously just whatever — usually involves lots of blade springs, chunky levers, articulated slot joints, advancing wheels or levers, pawl-and ratchet mechanisms (unidirectional) or star-wheel-and-sautoir mechanisms (bidirectional). Hopefully that previous sentence gave you a giant pain in the neck, because that would help you accurately understand the nature of these conventional corrector mechanisms. Patek Philippe’s Advanced Research has come up with a beautiful steel frame, with criss-crossing steel filaments flaring out into high-mass extremities, that condenses a bunch of components into a single efficient beast that is simultaneously robust and elastic. It has reduced a set of 37 parts to a system of 12. Fewer components mean less friction, less oil floating around the movement and less space needed. I’m by no means a giant enthusiast of minimalism, but this has got me convinced that less is definitely more.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most groundbreaking innovations in watchmaking we’ve seen recently are closely tied to this concept of integrated flexible single-component mechanics. The Constant Escapement of Girard-Perregaux, for one. The Ulysse Nardin Anchor Escapement, for another. (Remember what I said about the regulating organ in horological R&D? It’s so hot right now.)

How the Patek Philippe Advanced Research timezone corrector mechanism differs from its philosophical peers is that it focuses on something that is considered less cool than escapements. It is Derek Zoolander and escapements are Hansel. I have mad appreciation for this analogy, because in a further parallel, the Patek mechanism is milled from old-school horological steel instead of being manufactured from upstart silicon. This is incredibly significant, because it shows us that interesting developments don’t have to be tied to exotic materials and prohibitively expensive production processes. They can be adapted to existing technology, which means that widespread application can result, which reinforces the importance of innovation as a democratising force.

There seems to be this completely self-sabotaging mentality in this industry that the responsibility for driving modern watchmaking forwards should rest squarely on the shoulders of the biggest companies. Perhaps they do have a larger share of the burden, just like how those who have reaped the greatest advantages from society also have a duty to bear a heavier tax burden. With great power comes a bunch of Marvel Comics superhero righteous stuff like that. But innovation has never really been interesting for pure innovation’s sake. This is why the work of Patek Philippe Advanced Research is so important. Meaning and consequences are what it’s all about. Because after all, what do we all want? Carefully researched, cost-effective and progressive change! When do we want it? In good time!

The back and front views of the calibre 324-S-C-FUS that powers Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut Travel Time ref. 5650G.
The back and front views of the calibre 324-S-C-FUS that powers Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut Travel Time ref. 5650G.

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