As the 2016 Olympics draw to a close, it’s apt to recall the Olympic motto – Citius, Altius, Fortius. If ever there was a credo which professed constant evolution and improvement- ” “Faster, higher, stronger” would not only fit the bill but in an act of historical symmetry and poetry, the ethos of Omega, maker of the world’s first METAS certified Master Chronometer and sponsor of the Olympic Games.
Visiting the Omega Factory
For Louis Brandt, the foundations of Omega were set over 200 years ago, beginning with the industrialisation of the production process for pocket watches in 1892. Faster, stronger, more reliable – volume of pocket watches increased as did their reliability as Omega beat a path up to a seat among the Big Three of the watch industry and into the record books as a winner of multiple precision awards. The Olympic games needed a reliable supplier of timekeeping instruments and Omega fit the bill to a tee.
For close to 20 years, the Omega factory has managed to mass produce George Daniels’ connoisseur’s escapement. For the 30 years prior, the connoisseur’s escapement or co-axial escapement was a horological pipe dream – chronometrically precise, horologically robust and birthed in the impending death throes of an industry and craft, hopelessly outclassed by a tiny quartz crystal. Thus, it was perhaps the dream of a lifetime for any watch journalist to be granted access to the Omega factory.
METAS and the quest for the perfect movement
Invented around 1974 and patented in 1980, George Daniels’ Co-axial escapement is a modification of the lever escapement with some features of the detent escapement yet it was a complete departure from the conventional escapement. Highly complex, revolutionary and lubrication-free (almost), Daniels’ new escapement was the synthesis of his dream to eliminate sources of timekeeping error and ultimate reliability. Still, resting on your laurels is the antithesis of the Olympic (and Omega’s) creed and so each evolutionary step towards horological perfection required visionary insight.
Beginning in the 1950s, early pioneers of the modern age had to figure out how to deal with ever increasing ambient magnetic fields from the growing number of machines. With widespread use of the electric train system, time keeping became problematic and imprecise due to the effects of magnetism. What began in the Omega factory as an earnest goal of ensuring trains and train conductors had precise time was to have far reaching implications.
At the time, the solution was in-elegant but effective – stop the magnetic field from ever reaching the movement. To that end, the Faraday cage was a soft iron shield which redirected the forces of magnetism away from the vital calibre. But Mr. Hayek, founder of Swatch Group (of which Omega became a part of) wanted to make an evolutionary jump: not so much protecting the watch but rendering the watch completely immune to the effects of magnetism.
By 2013, the Omega factory would announce the first fully amagnetic calibre – the 8500 calibre and it would become the foundation for a movement which would soon earn the vaunted METAS certification. When the 8500 calibre was launched, the campaign was an anathema to the watch industry. Billboards splashed with visuals of only the cold steel alloys and bridges of the movement rather than the sex appeal and attractive aesthetics of a complete watch. So proud was Omega of their new calibre that they decided to introduce the vital organs of the watch rather than present a new face. It was then that people realised that you are buying the full spirit and the technology that took years to develop. 160 years of history with 600 different movements, the 8500 was considered one of the best, if not perfect, movements in the world. Paying a visit to the Omega factory in Villeret was our chance to see how over 600,000 watches approaching such perfection could be built at scale.
Inside Omega: Symbiosis (wo)man & machine
While many still struggle with the definition of what a “manufacture” is, that is to say, a maker rather than mere purveyor of components for movements; we are proud to say the Omega factory can be considered one, even if naysayers and critics complain of the shared facilities with ETA. In honesty, even if ETA does share a name with Omega on the exterior walls of the factory, the shared ownership by Swatch Group makes them one and the same. Even by corporate distinction, the ETA facilities serve Omega exclusively.
“Can the assembly-lines run without human intervention?” – the host looks at me incredulously for even asking
The milling and CNC machining of movement blanks takes place in the same facility- as a matter of precision, both sides of the mainplate are machined simultaneously rather than one side at a time previously, to meet precise tolerances. From there, entire floors of clean rooms where assembly “operations” take place occur in lines of machines and equipment. Each assembly-line handles 40 operations. People go to the movement and perform a specific operation at each line. The same operator cross-trains and has the capability to go from station to station and its possible to handle a singular movement from start to finish.
While Omega’s production methodologies seem unusually cold for something associated with high craft and artisanship, the man (but mostly women) is integral to every step of the process even if a high tech delivery system of special trays and RFID chips move each set of movements and components to the appropriate workstation along the assembly-line. Traffic lights similar to what you see in along the thoroughfares of any modern city govern the impending arrival and departure at all relevant stages of assembly from lubrication to screwing. Green and red are quite self-explanatory and blue is sort of the “amber alert” indicating that there’s a bottleneck or potential error in the system.
To minimise human error, each movement arrives at the appropriate workstation with the correct angle presented for the relevant operation to be performed. From there, the technician/watchmaker applies the relevant components either by memory (which is usually the case due to experience) or in accordance with the detailed list: to simplify the process, a train of component boxes arrive in sequence of installation.
A human hand touches nearly every stage of the assembly process- for components like the bridge, the first screw is secured with a high tech torque sensitive screwdriver so there’s no over-screwing while an specialist robot arm secures the remaining screws via automation. That said, for operations which involve the escapement assortment consisting of Si-14 balance spring and master co-axial escapement, the process is completely by hand.
Producing the Perfect Movement: Master Co-Axial
When Nivarox first invented the heat resistant alloy for balance springs, it was the watch industry’s “sliced bread” moment, it fundamentally solved the huge array of issues which came from thermic expansion and contraction. The silicon hairspring has since taken over that role of “greatest innovation in watchmaking” – like the alloy balance spring before it, it is not only resistant to temperature changes but also magnetism. Finally, it could be produced in the exact form required of it. Simply put, it was “precision in a bottle” – the Omega factory had perfected the effects of a Breguet over-coil spring and replicated it in an industrialised balance spring. The original springs were only found in small numbers due to difficulty of industrialisation but Hayek and by extension, Omega’s vision, was one which could finally reach that vaunted precision with scale. It was revolutionary. That said, kudos do not belong to Omega alone. It is the work of the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et Microtechnique (CSEM), in turn backed by Swatch Group, Patek Philippe and Rolex.
On the spectrum of watchmaking, decoration for the Master Co-Axial doesn’t approach obsession like those from the Glashutte region. However, the METAS certified master chronometer calibre is in every sense of the word “cutting edge” – in that sense, it can be considered artisanal because of Omega’s relentless pursuit of perfection.
As the movements near completion at the end of the assembly-line, a blank working dial is fitted on the movement sans winding rotor before it heads off to COSC or Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronometers. The reason is simple- the tests may be impartial but the humans judging these tests might be swayed by the power of Omega’s logo on an actual dial. That said, most movements submitted to COSC (including those from the likes of Rolex and Breitling) pass COSC anyway. In that sense, the lethargy and cynicism over COSC certification is understandable. And in that perspective, while METAS certification from the independent laboratories within Omega’s Bienne headquarters is a completely mind-blowing new standard, there is inevitable inertia simply because it’s currently a one horse race consisting solely of Omega for the moment. Also, our host is quick to clarify that while the testing lab is within Omega HQ, METAS or Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology is still a government institution presiding over scientific measures for all of Switzerland.
Those Mind-Blowing METAS standards: A Summary
1. Chronometry or Average Daily Precision
A 4 day test which checks the daily precision of the watch in realistic conditions in addition to the six axis positions of a standard isochronism test. The watch is also subjected to alternating temperatures and exposed to magnetism of at least 15,000 gauss. It is tested while magnetised and then once more demagnetised, and a photograph is taken during each phase before being checked for accuracy against UTC time (a digital clock on the wall in the lab).
2. Movement test while exposed to 15,000 gauss magnetism
While the initial tests include the watch in its entirety, this test examines the calibre alone in the same axis positions while magnetised. It takes 30 seconds in each position and the movement is checked using a microphone (listening to the beat rate). It must still achieve basic COSC standards.
3. Watch test while exposed to 15,000 gauss magnetism
Self explanatory, the entire watch is subjected to the test. It must still achieve basic COSC standards.
4. Deviation after exposure to 15,000 gauss
This study is undertaken to determine the average deviation between days 2 and 3 of the 4 day test. The result shows the average of the daily precision during and after exposure to high magnetic fields.
5. Water Resistance
Self explanatory, the watches meet the stated expectations of water resistance. For some, like the Planet Ocean or Ploprof series, they are expected to exceed for reasons of safety during actual dives to accommodate user errors.
6. Power Reserve
Self explanatory but this test not only checks for the ability to run the length of the stated power reserve but also tests for isochronism at each level of the remaining power reserve to check for deviation. It’s important that each watch runs precisely even if the spring is near entropy.
7. Deviation of rate between 100% and 33% of power reserve in six positions
8. Deviation of rate in six positions
While watches are tested by Omega employees, METAS staff actually audit every step of the process. In the end, the watches leave the labs keeping time within deviation of 0 to +5 seconds a day, whether in regular running or during periods of high magnetism. That way, the owner will not only never run late (since the watch only runs 5 seconds faster) but can reasonably expect a functional watch even if he was dancing in front of the largest concert speakers known to mankind. METAS certification is available to any brand which seeks it, but for now, Omega is the only one which can achieve it – that is ultimately a double edge sword – no one likes to watch Usain Bolt run solo. After all, there must be competition for any objective standard or world record to matter.