WatchTalk with Michael Biercuk
Michael (@mjbiercuk) is a Professor of Quantum Physics & Quantum Technology and the Founder & CEO of Q-CTRL, a quantum technology company. He is originally from the USA where he grew up in New York and pursued a pretty standard overachiever trajectory: undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a PhD in Physics from Harvard. All of his studies were conducted during the dawn of a new research field trying to harness quantum physics – the physics of very small things – in building a new class of “quantum computers.” After his PhD, he worked in the US Department of Defence agency or DARPA (which invented the internet among other things) helping them build new efforts in quantum computing, and then worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with the (later) 2012 Nobel Laureate in Physics, working to build quantum computers with individual atoms. He became an expat and moved to Australia in 2010 to start his career as a faculty member at the University of Sydney. His team has focused on a special area within quantum computing called quantum control: learning how to make systems that obey the strange rules of quantum physics do useful things.
How did you first get into watches?
The obsession with watches started pretty young but matured seriously and came back with a vengeance about 7 or 8 years ago.
When I was a kid I remember furtively buying a swatch off of a second grade classmate for $4 in quarters, and keeping the watch in school. Around the time I bought my first “legitimate” (i.e. my parents knew) digital watch, which I rapidly destroyed by taking it swimming in the ocean under the mistaken belief it was waterproof. This one was followed by a series of ~$10-20 casios over the next few years.
But then the interest more or less went dormant around age 10. I had a “nice” Skagen that I bought in high school, and my mother bought me a very beautiful Movado museum watch around the time I earned my PhD. Nonetheless, it was just an accessory rather than a passion.
This changed when I became a professor. Somehow my interest in building new quantum technologies aligned with the notion of mechanical watches as both pieces of art and technological marvels. The first serious piece I bought (and I still have) was a Rolex Milgauss. It was perfect because it’s so robust and because I work with large magnetic fields in my lab – the Milgauss’s antimagnetic construction made a lot of sense from a practical perspective, and Rolex somehow translated to “grown up” in my mind.
It’s been downhill from there as I moved towards high horology.
Could you briefly take us through what’s currently in the rest of your watch collection?
My current collection consists of two kinds of watches – “Quality” and “Sentimental”.
A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph, white gold/ black dial, pulsation scale
F. P. Journe Chronometre Bleu
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra-thin Moonphase, steel/silver dial
Rolex Deep Sea Sea-Dweller, black dial
Rolex Milgauss GV
Skagen Annual Calendar Titanium – the first “expensive” watch I bought with my own money in ~1995.
Movado Museum Classic on Bracelet – a gift from my family around my graduation from the PhD.
An impressive line-up, and a very balanced collection. What is your approach to watch collecting – do you curate or buy with your heart?
My purchases are inspired by both heart and head. As my purchasing power increases, to some extent things are shifting towards “heart.” Nonetheless, all purchases are preceded by extensive research and lengthy periods of indecision.
I’ve thought about being “strategic” in purchases in an attempt to build a collection with greater value than the individual pieces. Something unusual like “exclusively time-only watches” or “blue dial variants”, but I find that I am not driven by resale value. When I purchase I hold, and want to focus on purchases that provide satisfaction in the long term.
The start, as you heard was pragmatic. The next was partly so – the Rolex DSSD. I wanted something a bit more sporty that could legitimately be worn during exercise. But I didn’t just want a Sub. The DSSD combined the practical with some absolutely stunning aesthetics – I love how the domed crystal meets the rounded profile of the rotating bezel. It’s an amazing watch, and while clearly not something that fits everyone, or every occasion it worked for me.
All this time, however, like any collector, I was already pining after the next piece. I assumed it might be another Journe or a Lange next, but then my path shifted clearly and forcefully in the direction of Lange.
I had always loved their pieces. The subdued aesthetic, the formality, the extraordinary movements and complications, the finishing. I loved that I could almost logically understand the pricing – that the hand finishing of parts of the movement took enormous time, or that double assembly was costly – in a way I could not understand or justify with other luxury brands. The combined focus on technicality and “perfection” really spoke to me as a scientist.
I had done a TEDx event in which I highlighted the links between high horology and modern quantum physics, which featured some filming at Watches of Switzerland in Sydney. That got me invited, on a whim, to a Lange dinner a few months later. And then everything changed. I began a relationship with Senior Management including CEO Mr Wilhelm Schmid and Asia Pacific MD Gaetan Guillosson. That led to a number of discussions with the marketing team at HQ. We built what I felt was a wonderful rapport and began exploring a collaboration on the intersection of quantum physics and high horology. I was a guest at the manufacture and attended SIHH with the team, but embarrassingly still did not own a Lange (I’m a scientist not a banker). Of course the Maison generously provided loan watches for events, but this is not the same as owning a piece.
As our relationship grew I knew that I had to make the investment for myself and eventually sprung for the 1815 Chronograph. I was quite seriously considering the Grande Lange 1 (black dial/white gold) and the Lange 1 Timezone (white dial/white gold), but felt that I wanted to both “upgrade” in terms of the complication and that a Lange chronograph is really at the pinnacle of high horology. I ultimately decided that the stealthy black-on-black chronograph dial for the 1815 was aesthetically more aligned with my preferences than the more obvious Datograph.
Moving forward it’s clear I’ll be sticking with Lange and building out a collection of pieces (and likely some others in parallel). I’m just not sure which (Zeitwerk Striking Time is what I have my eye on, though one day I know I’d like a Handwerkskunst piece).
You mentioned “the intersection of quantum physics and high horology”. Can you elaborate on this, i.e. how might quantum physics come into play with high horology or mechanical watchmaking in general?
These two fields are actually deeply intertwined, despite the outward appearance of divergence. To start, what is quantum physics? It’s the set of rules governing nature at very small size scales – single atoms, single particles of light called photons. Indeed, with this knowledge it isn’t obvious that mechanical watchmaking has any relation to quantum physics, but at many levels we see correspondences and linkages.
Quantum physics is perhaps the most successful physical theory ever developed. The “rules” we find within it make computers work and power our information economy. But today’s technology, as amazing as it is, only uses the most superficial knowledge of quantum physics. There’s a whole new class of technologies which take advantage of the entire pantheon of strange predictions that we find in quantum physics – things that for many years scientists thought were nothing more than strange math. Predictions that say matter has to be described as behaving both as particles (like billiard balls) and as waves (like ripples in a pond). That reality on tiny size scales is totally different than what we know from daily experience.
And this now presents a new opportunity. Harnessing this strange physics as a new resource for technology promises to be as transformational in the 21st century as harnessing electricity was in the 19th.
Amazingly, the first real application of quantum technology is timekeeping. Atomic clocks achieve a very regular “tick” by leveraging the strange quantum physics we find in individual atoms.
As another point of contact, atomic clocks have enabled GPS – something all of us employ nearly every day. Global positioning works because of our ability to precisely tell time over long periods. And this is exactly the same as the development of marine chronometers centuries ago which inspire some of the most accurate mechanical watch movements today.
But there’s even more excitement when it comes to the most advanced research in quantum technology today. My company, Q-CTRL, builds solutions to stabilize quantum systems as they tend to “break” due to interference from their environments. We solve what is likely the most pressing and fundamental challenge in bringing quantum technologies like quantum computers to reality. And the manner in which we do this shares the same fundamental physics as that used in the tourbillon!
The tourbillon – one the most impressive “pseudo” complications in high horology – uses something called dynamic control to “average away” the effects of the pull of gravity on the balance wheel of a mechanical watch. By rotating the balance wheel 360 degrees once per minute, the distorting effects of gravity are spread out in time and the watch’s rate accuracy is stabilized. We use nearly the same form of dynamic control in order to “average away” interference from a quantum system’s environment. By effectively rotating the quantum systems (mathematically instead of mechanically) we gain similar benefits in terms of stabilizing the quantum system, be it an individual atom or a special electrical circuit.
Even today our research field, and the work Q-CTRL is doing to build a new quantum industry, are directly tied to developments in high horology.
Manufacturers like Richard Mille and Hublot are industry leaders in materials (e.g. Hublot’s “vibrantly coloured ceramics”) and technology (e.g. Richard Mille’s RM053-01 cable-suspended movement). Do these brands appeal to you as a watch collector and a physicist?
I think it’s important to distinguish substantive innovation from innovative marketing and brand positioning. As a CEO I really appreciate some of the commercial strategies and successes from these brands.
Are there any indie brands other than F.P. Journe that speak to you? What do you think separates indie brands from mainstream brands?
I’m a fan of a number of independent brands. Overall I find that the product strategy of an independent can be quite different – in an extremely exciting way – relative to the larger brands (even low-volume super-luxury brands like Lange). The priority can be placed on products that speak to the watchmaker and may find only an extremely limited niche market, rather than something that has to be commercially successful enough to sustain the business. Building only a dozen or two pieces can free the watchmaker to pursue creative directions that are just different, even relative to more conventional limited editions. Again, as a CEO and an academic scientist I appreciate both perspectives.
In this area I respect and admire a great range of manufactures. However I am really drawn to Moritz Grossmann, Grönefeld, & Hajime Asaoka.
How has the social aspect of watch collecting (joining enthusiast groups, attending GTGs, brand events etc.) impacted your growth as an enthusiast so far?
I have to admit that I had a strange entry point into this aspect of watch collecting. My first ever watch event of any kind was a private dinner for about 15 guests with the CEO of Lange, Mr. Wilhelm Schmid. I am quite certain that’s not a natural progression for a collector, but it is how I started. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have continued on that level, regularly attending brand events (primarily Lange) and even being invited as a guest of Lange to attend SIHH 2018. It was quite an amazing experience.
I find that I meet some of the most interesting people from around the world through watches – from fellow scientists to tradesmen in the construction industry. The shared affinity for high horology actually helps bridge what could otherwise be significant social divides. Participating in brand and industry events alongside fellow enthusiasts remains my absolute favorite part of my aspiring professional interaction with the sector.
Moreover, with Lange, I’ve had the distinct experience of being treated as a member of a family. It’s an exceptional thing to travel around the world meeting fellow enthusiasts and interacting with so many kind and passionate employees of Lange, all of whom are excited to meet collectors and friends of the brand.
If money is no object, name one watch you’d like to get your hands on, and why.
Because of my professional affinity for tourbillon watches I’m impossibly torn between the Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon and the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. If Lange ever did a Zeitwerk Minute Repeater Handwerkskunst with a tourbillon, it would be that for sure!
Last but not least, what sage advice would you offer to those who are new to watch collecting?
I don’t like to give advice but want to encourage people to find something that appeals to them. Whether it’s quartz, digital, or high horology, it doesn’t matter so long as *you* enjoy it. The corollary is that in my view it’s important to recognize that Instagram is not reality, and that the connectivity benefits of social media are often counterbalanced by a corrosive tendency to emphasize ostentatious displays of wealth over thought or substance. The collector’s community is much kinder and more engaging that it first appears for those with real passion.