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Changing the game in watchmaking

When the Swiss watchmaker states ‘Manufacture’, it means that the watchmaking brand is fully integrated, in-house, for the development and manufacturing of the watch movement and its components. It is a term that collectors and watch enthusiasts keep an eye out for, as for all things technical, the aficionados of micro-engineering are drawn to a ‘manufacture’ brand like moths to a flame. To put it simply, when it comes to watchmaking, the value of a timepiece is always judged by ‘who’ makes it. 

The long rule of manufacture status, brings names like Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, De Bethune, Urwerk, and the list does not end there. But rarely does the name Frederique Constant come amongst them. Is it because the brand, by the virtue of its ethos, stands to provide a ‘manufacture’ movement, sans any frills or the heavily marketed heritage campaign, keeping its promise – to offer quality Swiss watches at competitive prices, with the aim of democratising luxury Swiss Made watches?

Frederique Constant, to their credit, have developed and executed 30 movements, themselves. Yes, we live, we learn but now, we cannot ignore. For Frederique Constant, the horological underdog, has changed the game in watchmaking for the current times, but the innovation they have brought about, will change the course of the future of mechanical watchmaking.

Unveiling a technological breakthrough in the field of precision timekeeping, Frederique Constant redefined the principles of mechanical watch regulation. The novelty watch, Slimline Monolithic Manufacture, delivers industry-leading precision by ticking ten times faster than most mechanical movements. Etched from silicon, its oscillator replaces an assembly of several parts and eliminates many of the major weaknesses of mechanical watches. Thanks to its specific design and reduced size, the revolutionary high-frequency oscillator has been designed to fit inside a traditional movement configuration. Housed inside a 40mm case with an aperture on the dial to view the oscillator, this cutting-edge technology is available at a price that respects the brand’s commitment to accessible luxury.

The way mechanical watches are regulated has not changed during the last three centuries. The invention of the sprung balance in the 17th century has exerted a lasting influence on mechanical watchmaking. Since then, mechanical watches have relied almost exclusively on the sprung balance. Consisting of a thin, coiled spring attached to the balance wheel, it allows the balance to oscillate back and forth at a constant frequency. In doing so, it controls the speed at which the gears of the watch rotate and influences the rate.  Although it has been improved over time, the principle of the sprung balance has remained unchanged and virtually unchallenged for over three centuries. The energy (stored by a coiled spring in a watch) is released in discrete bursts by the regulating organ, which is composed of an escapement and an oscillator. The escapement transmits impulses to the oscillator (the balance wheel for the vast majority of mechanical wristwatches). The escapement, in turn, is regulated by the oscillator. Each oscillation, therefore, allows the gear train to advance or “escape” a determined amount. Compliant or flexible mechanisms are the next big thing in watchmaking and open a new realm of possibilities. Given the elastic properties of certain materials like silicon, it is possible to create compact, precise monolithic single-piece components to replace some of the assembled mechanical parts. Frederique Constant now uses these flexible, jointless structures in the design of its revolutionary oscillator. A groundbreaking concept and a breakthrough in the field of precision mechanical timekeeping, the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture is equipped with a movement ticking at an astounding 288,000 vibrations per hour, ten times faster than most mechanical watches!

Frederique Constant replaces the 26 components of its standard assortment with a single component fitted with two regulation weights. Made of monocrystalline silicon, the Monolithic oscillator also integrates the escapement anchor in its flexible structure. Three novel innovations distinguish the oscillator:

  1. A revolutionary small-size one-piece oscillator. Thanks to the geometry of flexures and masses, it is possible to produce for the first time a flexible pivot oscillator in the footprint of a traditional balance wheel
  2. An ultrathin oscillator with a new anchor system. The escapement anchor is incorporated into the oscillator and, for the first time, its function is integrated into the flexures allowing a substantial reduction in size while keeping all the functions in one thin silicon layer
  3. Adjustment weights to regulate the flexure oscillator just like those used on a traditional free-sprung balance. Watchmakers can easily fine-tune the frequency and precision by simply turning two weights

Thanks to the clever engineering of the oscillator’s flexures and geometry, Frederique Constant’s team reduced its dimensions to the size of a conventional regulator and increased its frequency for enhanced accuracy. While many traditional mechanical movements operate at a frequency of 28,800 vibrations per hour, the Monolithic Manufacture represents the first Swiss-made mechanical watch oscillating ten times faster at an astonishing 288,000 vibrations per hour, or 40 Hz. Despite this high-speed frequency, the efficiency of the mechanism delivers a substantial 80-hour power reserve.

The idea behind the Monolithic Oscillator was born during an encounter between Peter Stas, co-founder and former CEO of Frederique Constant, and Dr. Nima Tolou, founder and CEO of Flexous, an innovative horology-oriented technology branch of YES!Delft, a leading Dutch tech incubator. Following their encounter, the Frederique Constant team commissioned Flexous with the production of a unique, flexible oscillating system with distinctive specifications. The new topology of the flexures and masses has permitted the creation of an unprecedented compact size for a flexure pivot oscillator (9.8mm in diameter and 0.3mm in thickness). For the very first time, the anchor has been integrated within the flexure. The revolutionary design combines high frequency (40 Hz) with low amplitude (6° versus ~300° for a regular balance wheel). 

The choice of material for the oscillator eliminates key weaknesses of traditional sprung balances. Monocrystalline silicon is 100% anti-magnetic, resilient to oscillations in temperature, less sensitive to gravity and four times lighter than a regular assortment. The absence of mechanical coupling means a lower generation of friction and wear on the parts. Consequently, less power is needed to drive the escapement wheel and the oscillating system. This results in reduced force between the components: 2.5 times less torque/couple is generated. In particular, the energy waste related to the stop and go motion of the Swiss lever escapement are eliminated. Finally, yet importantly, silicon does not require lubrication. This enhances the long-term reliability of the escapement and avoids the oiling demands generated by high frequency.

The rate regulation is performed using adjustment weights, just like the system used in a traditional free-sprung balance. The setting system is extremely precise, dividing time intervals in hundredths of a second versus tenths of a second for regular mechanical movements running at a 4Hz frequency. 

Given the innovative design of the escapement, the traditional devices to measure the rate of the movement (which rely on the ticking sound of the movement) are inoperative. To calculate the average rate in seconds per day, laser cameras taking 250,000 images per second were used.  It soon became apparent to Frederique Constant’s watchmakers that a traditional gear train could not cope with the breakneck speed of a 40Hz regulator. This led to the design of a completely new base movement – automatic calibre FC-810 – capable of performing with the speed of the new silicon oscillator. The entire kinetic chain had to be re-engineered, and the gear train was fitted with four wheels between the barrel and the escape pinion, instead of the three wheels found in a conventional movement.  However, the efficiency of the regulator still manages to deliver a substantial 80-hour power reserve.

In a regular mechanical movement beating at 28,800 vibrations per hour, the seconds hand makes eight moves to complete one second. With the FC-810 Monolithic Manufacture calibre, the seconds hand performs 80 moves per second. It delivers the smoothest possible motion of a second’s hand as it ticks faster than the eye can see!

Presented in a 40mm round case, the new watch features an elegant dial with a guilloché/stamped hobnail pattern, printed Roman numerals paired with Breguet-style hands. The signature Frederique Constant Heart Beat was the perfect model to showcase the pulsating oscillator of the watch in an aperture at 6 o’clock. The pointer date at 12 o’clock creates a classic counterpoint to the high-tech oscillator at 6 o’clock.

On the reverse side, an exhibition case-back offers an unimpeded view of the automatic FC-810 calibre. Its traditional decoration combines Geneva stripes with perlage, and the oscillating weight is open-worked.

This model of Frederique Constant is available in three limited editions: 810 pieces in stainless steel with a blue dial, 810 pieces in stainless steel with a silver colour dial and 81 pieces in 18k pink gold.

So, while the brands out there were busy re-working the traditional lever-escapement, by introducing new-age materials to the key components, to make them more friction resistant and anti-magnetic, Frederique Constant, the racehorse which no one bet on, went on to win the derby. Musée International d’Horlogerie, please make note, for one of the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture watches, rightfully belongs in your display, to show the future generations, to how mechanical watchmaking transformed in 2021.

Coming from a family of watch enthusiasts and pioneers, Kari, as fondly identified by the watch-community, has been a part of this mystical world of horology for almost two decades now. From watch magazines to books to Internationally acclaimed watch shows, Kari has founded, initiated and pioneered various such endeavours.

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