The story of the US-based Barrelhand Project 1 begins as it should, with one student’s Swiss-born muse- the ever incredible Urwerk UR-202. Karel Bachand was an 18 year old engineering student, having been seduced by his “holy grail of watchmaking engineering and art” with little money to finance such an acquisition, his disappointment drove him to replicate the UR-202. Using 3D CAD software, Bachand learned, step by step, mistake by mistake, the incredible process which allowed Urwerk’s celebrated “satellite time” to operate. His journey was chronicled by industry blog – ABlogToWatch.
Urwerk took notice a few weeks later and sent a sponsored ticket to Bachand to visit them at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva where founders Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei spent 2-3 hours each day to talk watches with the wunderkind. The visions and dreams of independent watchmakers like Baumgartner and Frei can be infectious and soon, Bachand parlayed the knowledge gleaned from the master watchmakers and time spent building the dial-side and time display side elements of the Urwerk UR-202 into his own personal vision for timekeeping – the Barrelhand Project 1.
Hands on with the Prototype Project 1
But first, here’s some context to the article. I first had a chance encounter with Karel at an event in Silicon Valley, and that was when I got to know both the watch and more importantly, the watchmaker. He revealed the plastic cased timepiece, and apologetically reiterated numerous times that it would look way better in metal. But the prototype was more than sufficient to bring out some “wows”.
Barrelhand Project 1: A Threat to Swiss Watchmaking from the USA?
Barrelhand’s mission is to create beautiful and unique time display machines with a retro-futuristic vibe. The Barrelhand Project 1 features a 12 point geneva gear jump hour, and linear cam path minutes developed in-house. The keywords being “developed in house”.
Barrelhand timepieces carry a story far removed from standard watchmaking and will be documenting the entire project publicly from early sketches to production and everything in between. This transparency allows people to see exactly what they are getting and all the work that goes into each piece. Documentation also gives the wearer a deeper understanding of their timepiece and prevents the watch from being subject to unjustified profit mark ups that we are all too familiar with in this industry.
Project 1 is currently on its 23rd prototype iteration and is set to release a small production of full metal examples at the end of 2017. Unique time displays have long been reserved to the six-figure range due to the amount of time and funding required in creating new movements and complications. But through lower cost prototyping and lean research methodologies, costs are kept low and expensive iterations minimized.
These cost savings are passed on to the end consumer, as its Bachand’s vision to make accessible modern complicated timepieces to more watch lovers.
The watch uses a linear minutes display inspired by sci-fi from the 60s. Linear minutes have been done in the past on other haute Horlogerie brands such as HYT’s H3; however, the mechanism to actuate it was to be entirely different. The inspiration came from a vinyl record and how the needle follows a groove to slowly makes its way towards the center of the album. Using this design, a cam curvature was calculated which could glide a pin up and down to linearly display minutes. This path is engraved into the cam plate and rotates around, creating a beautiful dance of motion which spans the whole dial of the timepiece.
Linear Minute System
This method of actuating the minutes had not been attempted prior, thus many challenges arose during its development. Different curvatures were tested to maximize the traveling distance while minimizing the contact angle. Another challenge is assuring that the force remains constant throughout the trajectory as the pin is pushed up and down in the path.
So how exactly does the mechanism account for differing levels of torque at different display positions? An innovative yet simple solution was in the use of a cam and pin design. As the pin of the linear guide gets further from the central axis, the contact angle is reduced. Likewise, as the pin travels closer to the center of the movement its contact angle increases.
The system achieves two important results. A constant torque throughout a full rotation, and a linear display that tracks the minutes accurately. The linear minute guide glides upon two stainless steel rails, indicating 0-30 minutes on its way down and 30-60 minutes on its way back up. The linear minute guide has an underside pin which tracks the groove of the rotating cam plate.
Geneva Gear Intermittent Hour otherwise known as the Jumping Hour
One of the setbacks to traditional jump hours is that they are comprised of many components and the time cannot be set backwards. The Geneva gear has been used in watchmaking for centuries, mainly for date complications. By implementing this mechanism, the number of components needed was reduced tenfold while allowing the time to be set both forward and backward. The equations needed for designing Geneva gears are relatively simple, however they become much more complex the smaller the gear is scaled and as you increase the number of points the gear needs. Most Geneva gears have 4-5 points however in this case 12 were needed, 1 for each hour. The issue with this is that with more points, the gear grooves get more and more intricate and the walls become much thinner. Substantial effort was spent fine tuning the Geneva gear dimensions to optimize durability and reduce friction.
DMLS Crown Release System
To continue the retro-futuristic theme the crown is designed to sit at the top of the watch, housed within a 10-piece rocket-thruster assembly. Instead of prying the crown to pull it out, the crown release system allows the wearer to adjust the time with the simple flick of a switch. The concept is simple but gives the wearer functional interactions with the watch which is one of the latest ‘characteristics’ of modern mechanical watches. MB&F has its cockpit opening on the HM6, the URWERK EMC has a charging handle and more…
By sliding the lever out, the crown is disengaged and goes from winding mode to time setting mode. The entire crown release system is manufactured using the latest DMLS Steel 3D printers commercially available. These machines start out with a large bed full of ultra-fine steel powder. A laser beam then targets and binds this powder layer by layer until the final component is produced. This component gives the wearer a unique tactile experience with an exterior mechanism fully 3D printed in stainless steel.
The Barrelhand Project 1 uses a heavily modified Swiss Eterna 3901m with 60-hour power reserve. In the initial iterations, the prototype was build using a unitas 6497. Given the additional layers and myriad of parts that have to be moved as opposed to just a set of hands, the availability and release of power was my first question when handling the watch.
But according to Bachand, the release of power proved stable during testing, concerns of power reserve were also addressed. That said, the module parts were made of polymers on the prototype and their weight may change when using the final materials; potential challenges down the road.
It is heartening to see young watchmakers who are passionate about their craft, a good relief from the myriad of Kickstarter ‘minimalist’ watches. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that the deterrence is high for the young watchmakers, given the lack of resources for R&D. Low budget, insufficient access to machinery and the time costliness that comes with being a one-man show create high barriers for new entrants. That said, a glimmer of hope lies in the improvement of technology and a whole new ecosystem that promotes entrepreneurship. Perhaps more watchmakers may find greater incentive going the Banchard route and create real advancements in watchmaking.