Saying No to Tradition for the Sake of Tradition: Patek Philippe Advanced Research

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Patek Philippe Advanced Research Program is the sort of thing that sometimes even internal communications managers at the Geneva Manufacture have difficulty conveying. For one, there’s a lot of inertia (if not outright lethargy) in the watch industry in general with the marketing strategy which we will collectively call “watchmaking tradition”. “Watchmaking tradition” has become the be-all and catch-all term for all manner of horological excess – excessive components, excessive complexity and tradition for the sake of tradition. Second, brands like Patek Philippe have become standard bearers for the flag of watchmaking tradition, for good reasons – usually heritage, history and quality; thus, any new innovation tends to be couched in those terms. But what if, Patek Philippe can re-engineer or design a process or mechanical architecture so fully that it no longer resembles anything in 300 years of watchmaking tradition? Then I suppose there’s little choice but to acknowledge that the Patek Philippe Advanced Research Program is not only a real thing but it fundamentally alters what we currently define as haute horlogerie and tradition.

Saying No to Tradition for the Sake of Tradition: Patek Philippe Advanced Research

At a recent lunch with Deepa Chatrah, General Manager for Patek Philippe Singapore, she expressed that Patek Philippe is very cognizant of the fact that opinion towards Patek Philippe Advanced Research is a mixed bag, particularly when it came to this year’s novelty – the Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5650G Advanced Research. First, the innovations aren’t particularly “sexy” in the conventional “endorsed by Taylor Swift” sort of way. Second, in highlighting the quantum leap of mechanical architecture, the Manufacture potentially alienated a group of customers and fans who have grown accustomed to the maison’s exquisite take on aesthetics particularly on the decision to partially open the dial on the new Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5650G. But whatever your personal feelings are on the matter, Patek Philippe has never been a company about slavish adherence to watchmaking tradition – as stated officially during our previous visit to the manufacture – Patek Philippe will embrace technologies that have far outstripped human capability to offer their customers better value and better approaching the company’s perfectionist ideal.

2005 Patek Philippe ref. 5250 Annual Calendar, with Advanced Research Silinvar escape wheel.

Patek Philippe Advanced Research: Then and Now

You can trace the roots of the Patek Philippe Advanced Research program from its foundations at the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et Microtechnique (CSEM) where the industry’s titans which included Rolex, Swatch Group, and Patek studied silicon components and their potential applications in watchmaking. Since 2002, Patek Philippe was officially putting the knowledge gleaned into practical use using a fabrication process known as DRIE (Deep Reactive Ion Etching) where components were cut from silicon wafers; But silicon is susceptible to temperature variations one can argue and this is where the “Invar” from Silinvar is derived. A portmanteau of Silicon and invar – invar is itself a shortened name from the term “invariable” used to describe the unique properties of Charles Guillaume’s unique nickel-iron alloy with “invariable” expansion regards of temperature.

By 2005, the Silinvar Escape wheel was born and rather than keep their development in some factory prototype, it was introduced in the Ref. 5250G. A year later, Patek introduced Spiromax, a Silinvar balance spring which accompanied the Silinvar Escape wheel in the Ref. 5350R.

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar ref. 5350

Spiromax balance spring isn’t just some new fangled spring material, it was developed to provide superior performance to the traditional Breguet overcoil which has been used for centuries. With Spiromax, there’s better isochronism while being proportionally smaller and thinner plus the added properties of amagnetism, shock resistance and gravity.

In 2008, Pulsomax, an entire Silinvar escapement assortment found its way into the Ref. 5450P. By 2011, Oscillomax comprising a new Gyromax-Si Silinvar balance wheel and redesigned Silinvar escapement wheel and lever introduced a monumental leap in chronometry and precision for the company.  With 17 patents in total, Patek Philippe has pushed, if not broken boundaries which traditionally define classic watchmaking codes.

Patek Philippe ref. 5550 Perpetual Calendar with Advanced Research Silinvar balance

Contextually, classic high horology watchmaking…

A lot of modern luxury watch production is relegated to CNC, stamping and wire cutting machines machines – most are fully automated, some are operator guided but most are somewhere in between. Traditionally, the balance spring, balance and escapement are typically some of the few things a watchmaker would reserve to either hand finish or bend or at least work on – with Patek Philippe Advanced Research, LIGA and DRIE techniques preclude these options because the computer guided machine reproduces the components exactly as envisioned – for many respected independent watchmakers – notably Greubel Forsey’s  (in collaboration with Dufour and Boulanger)  Naissance project and Max Busser “brass and steel interpreted with modern eyes” philosophy, these highly industrial techniques defy classic watchmaking, yet, at the same time, one has to wonder that as the first alloyed balance springs and sapphire crystals came to fore, were these new materials and production techniques denounced as not vaunted symbols of high horology as well?

Stephen Forsey’s Naissance

Today: The Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5650G “Patek Philippe Advanced Research”

Baselworld 2017 Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5650G Advanced Research is a departure from silicon, or more accurate Silinvar based research and into another sacred cow of complicated architecture and multiple components. Instead, the Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5650G Advanced Research offers an entirely new system (patent pending) for activating complications through an integrated flexible spring-lever system.

Called a “compliant mechanism”, Patek Philippe took the divisive step of exposing this new method of actuation by opening a portion of the dial and showing onlookers what the Geneva manufacture has accomplished with steel and high tech manufacturing. The “Compliant” in the name refers to how thin strips of steel flex and then return as the button is pushed, advancing the world time mechanism forwards and backwards.

While the method of producing this “complication” is high tech (given the lack of ‘play’ and the tight tolerances, only a computer-aided machine could produce that), the method of finishing is what traditionalists like Busser and Forsey would endorse – completely hand-finished and possibly one of the most annoying and challenging things a watchmaker could complete given the ridiculous angles and complete lack of plane surfaces.

Is it really a complication though?

Totalling 12 parts, that’s 25 fewer components compared to the traditional 37 piece mechanism, Patek Philippe is seriously asking you to consider whether a complication needs necessarily be complex for complexity itself. We believe it’s a question that has been answered by men like Habring and his simplified split-seconds chronograph on 7750 base – with no gears, pivots and little ‘play’, this mechanism has no need for lubrication and enjoys better durability which leads us to the next expression of Advanced Research from Patek Philippe.

Is this the advent of a tourbillon-free Patek Philippe?

There’s no greater, more visible symbol of high horology then a tourbillon. Conceived as a vanguard against gravity’s effects, it was engineered for superior rate stability and precision. That said, developments for Patek Philippe Advanced Research offers a glimpse of a future where a tourbillon is not only anachronistic but a complete anathema as well – a new inner terminal curve on their Spiromax balance spring. With the addition of the inner terminal curve, Patek Philippe creates a balance spring which mirrors its center of gravity right with the balance’s to excellent isochronism equivalent to -1/+2 seconds per day comparative to their tourbillon’s -2/+1 second per day. Given the relative rarity of tourbillon watches, to have this sort of precision in series production watches is quite unheard of and quite possibly – a herald of a tourbillon-free future at Patek Philippe?

It might seem hyperbole now but when you consider modern escapements, even those not approaching Patek’s level of advanced research, they are already approaching tourbillon levels of precision, what happens to the tourbillon when one does? The tourbillon will most likely remain in one form or another but the marketing speak around it will definitely change as a result. At Patek Philippe, one of the industry’s most respected brands in terms of provenance, saying no to tradition for the sake of tradition is emblematic of humanity’s progression from sundial to wristwatches.

Patek Philippe, 5650G_001-DET, Advanced Research


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1 Comment

  1. Tony Gedalovitch on

    Why do people keep on about tourbillons, they do not belong in a wrist watch where they have little if any effect on the positional error as the watch is in almost constant motion, which in itself mimics a tourbillion.