Employing a novel escapement design courtesy of George Daniels, Omega’s new caliber breaks cover by NG TJENG JAW
It was the roaring ’90s – not a long time ago, but it was the time when the Swiss watch industry had recovered nicely from the quartz shock and most traditional brands were quite complacent with the improving business. Then, all mechanical movements were based on the century-old, traditional Swiss lever escapement, and most independent watchmakers were also less marketing savvy than they are today. However, one of the most respected independent watchmakers for the few very serious watch connoisseurs was undoubtedly George Daniels.
George Daniels is an English gentleman of excellent taste. He is financially independent and lives a comfortable life with his loving wife. He enjoys the finer things in life, loves supercars and is a most atypical watchmaker.
When Daniels experimented with co-axial escapements – a revolutionary escapement without the need for lubrication and maintenance – the brilliantly innovative work was perceived as a ludicrous attempt to re-invent the wheel by the close-minded industry. Without the resources of a big brand, Daniels was assumed to have approached a few big brands for support. However, his new escapement development received no serious interest, except from Omega.
Omega vice president and head of product development, Jean-Claude Monachon, told us that the industrialization of George Daniels’s idea was more complicated than expected. Together with his technical team led by Michael Bourquin, Omega had to go through a lot of experimentation, modification and prototyping to make the co-axial work. One of the major hurdles was the very demanding precision in components, and the Swatch Group has had to develop and invest in a completely new line of machines, just to make production possible.
The resulting first Omega Co-axial Caliber 2500 was, in many ways, a technical breakthrough when it was officially launched in 2000. The movement requires very little lubrication, and is highly chronometric, extremely reliable and requires much less maintenance than its competition. While the huge investment in money and time eventually paid off for Omega when it became highly successful, initial reactions from the media and collectors alike were disappointingly lukewarm.
The production process at the Swatch Group is highly integrated within the group. Despite the impressive Co-axial, Monachon recalled Omega being questioned for using ETA movements. “It is our philosophy to constantly improve the quality of our watches,” said Monachon. And unknown to the public, the seven-year-long project for the new and improved caliber 8500 family of movements had been initiated.
The objective of the new development was to create a new workhorse movement reserved exclusively for Omega watches, on which many modular complications can be built upon. The project focused on the nitty-gritty of basic improvements in the precision, durability, reliability, ease of maintenance and regulation of the watch.
The movement is now powered by two spring barrels in series, reaching a power reserve of more than 60 hours and, more importantly, ensuring the excellent stability of the amplitude for the first 24 hours. While not exactly new, one step in the new direction is the free-sprung variable inertia balance wheel with more sturdy bridges housing the escapement to ensure a more accurate and easier regulation of energy transmission, and at the same time improve the durability of the watch. In addition, a special time zone function is now incorporated into the movement, where the hour hands can be set independently from the minute hands to enable quick time zone changes while traveling. This, however, should not be confused with a two time zones watch.
This family of caliber 8500 is used in the new Omega De Ville Hour Vision basic automatic models with annual calendar, big date, power reserve indicator, small seconds and GMT. Chronograph models will be launched within the next three years. Further complications are also planned for the year 2010 and beyond.
The new De Ville Hour Vision has several breakthroughs in the case and dial technology. The ring-shaped sapphire crystal case mid-section, sandwiched between the top and bottom metal case sections, is impressive. As late as a few years ago, due to its unusual hardness, sapphire crystal could only curve in one direction and odd-shaped sapphire crystal production was impossible. Swatch Group CEO G. Nicolas Hayek told us that the unusual sapphire crystal ring could only be made by its subsidiary, Comadur S.A. “We supplied the sapphire caseback to Corum for their Golden Bridge,” said Hayek, and he doesn’t think that anyone else is capable of doing the same.
The whole idea of using the sapphire crystal in the mid-section of the case body is to allow light to pass through the case-sides of the watch from practically any direction. The movement is well-lit when viewed from the case-side and from the sapphire caseback, and it caused a stir of emotion when viewed with ambient light from the windows, as if the lighted movement with its oscillating balance wheel is somewhat alive. The fact that the three-part watch case is water-resistant to 100 meters and shock-proof to 5,000 G (the acceleration due to gravity) added to the luster of the watch.
The dial with the machine-applied solid gold hour indices, grooved rhodium hour track, gold date window frame and gold Omega logo also appear to be of the highest quality. “Nivarox had to develop a new machine from scratch just to make machine-applied indices of this quality,” claimed Hayek. When inspected using a loupe, the applied hour indices look impeccable, even though they weren’t applied by hand.
Aesthetically, the blackened screws, balance wheel and mainspring barrels contrasted well with the rhodium-plated movement plates and bridges. According to Monachon, the screws are coated with black nickel; the balance wheel, black chromium; and the barrels, DLC (diamond-like carbon).
When asked why silicium components were not used in the caliber 8500 family, Monachon told us that while the silicium parts development is at full steam within Omega, it is still far from reliable. Omega imposes very high standards in terms of watch reliability. “We do not want any component that doesn’t work 100 percent, or is unreliable. There is no watch with silicium component that is 100 percent working with tested reliability,” Monachon explained. When asked if that includes watches signed with famous brands that are already in the market, Monachon answered in the affirmative.
In an admirable show of honesty, Monachon cautioned that although calibers 8500 and 8501 were completely designed within Omega at Granges, Switzerland, it is dangerous to call the movement completely in-house. Without the help and assistance of Comadur, Nivarox, ETA, Rudin and Frédéric Piguet – all part of the Swatch Group – the success of this caliber and the De Ville Hour Vision would not have been possible.
From the improved aesthetic and industrial quality, combined with the aggressive pricing strategy, some industry observers are guessing that Omega is planning to declare war on “king” Rolex in the mass luxury watch segment. However, Hayek has made it clear to us that he is not competing with Rolex. “The perception is historical; the brands have been competing with each other and it is a legacy.” Hayek further reiterated that Omega does not intend to take market share from anyone. What is clear, however, is that Hayek intends to compete strongly. “Omega has to fight for its market share and is constantly exposed to competition,” he said. Hayek also hinted at other strong players – for example, Rolex – who are not accustomed to competition and innovation. “Being a strong leader is always dangerous as you can become complacent and be too comfortable.
“It is clear that Rolex has a turnover between CHF 2 billion to CHF 2.5 billion a year,” Hayek says. He also reminded us that this turnover includes Tudor. Omega’s turnover, in contrast, is CHF 1.4 billion to CHF 1.5 billion, and the Swatch Group had a turnover of more than CHF 5 billion in 2006. And as the clearest sign of his ambition, Hayek concluded, “Omega is No. 2 in this segment and we want to be No. 1.”
A non-Swatch Group brand manager familiar with the Swiss retail industry laughed at any attempt to challenge Rolex. “Rolex is king and shall be king in the foreseeable future. By focusing on Rolex, Omega risks leaving behind the CHF 2,000 to CHF 3,000 watch segment entirely to TAG Heuer.” Well, realistic or not, the aggressive posture of Omega can only add adrenaline to the already exciting mass luxury segment. And by all accounts, Omega’s new aggressive product and distribution strategy has been doing extremely well. Doubt if you will, but never underestimate the vision and determination of G. Nicolas Hayek. H
The case is multi-part and incredibly complex. But this multi-part construction also gives us the liberty to do combinations of materials that we think will be well received. IWC CEO, Georges Kern
Photo: Roberto Rubalcava
First published in Tiempo de Relojes | Tiempo de Joyas