4 minutes

Better Than Perfect – Overengineering in Watchmaking

By Tom Mulraney
Better Than Perfect - Overengineering in Watchmaking

Once upon a time, the humble wristwatch played a critical role in man’s unrelenting quest to conquer the world around him: air, land, sea, and even space. An indispensable tool, watches aided researchers in numerous scientific discoveries, accompanied explorers as they climbed to the highest peaks and plunged to the lowest depths, and helped sea captains and pilots navigate their way around the globe. It was a fruitful time for watch development. After all, necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and functionality, accuracy, and reliability were the top priorities.

The technical advances came quickly, such as increased water resistance, louder mechanical alarms, and more accurate timekeeping. However, somewhere along the way the advent of modern technology changed everything, superseding the wristwatch with specialized equipment that was cheaper, more accurate, and more functional. Undeterred, many of the world’s best known luxury watch brands continue to demonstrate their prowess in terms of technical advancements, over-engineering watches to perfection simply to prove that they can.

(Much) More Than You Need

Perhaps one of the best examples comes in the form of the Rolex Sea-Dweller dive watch and its larger sibling, the Rolex DeepSea. The Sea-Dweller has a rich maritime history, and although some people still like to wear one while diving, these days it is very much a status symbol. Crafted from aerospace-grade 904L stainless steel, the Sea-Dweller’s hefty, 43-mm case is waterproof to 4,000 ft (1,220 m) and features a helium escape valve to release trapped gas from the case as the diver ascends.

The DeepSea, on the other hand, is waterproof to a mind-blowing 12,800 ft (3,900 m). It’s worth noting that the world record depth for free diving (diving without scuba equipment) is only 830 ft. Suffice to say, if you plan to go any deeper than that, you’ll be taking some pretty high-tech equipment with you.

Patek Philippe Grand Complication 5208
Patek Philippe Grand Complication 5208, Photo: Patek Philippe

However, mechanical watchmaking is about more than just exploring new frontiers. Equally as important is practical functionality, relatively speaking of course. The Patek Philippe Ref. 5208, for example, offers a minute repeater, a monopusher chronograph, and an instantaneous perpetual calendar with aperture displays, all in one lovely platinum package. Individually considered, these are three of the most complex complications in mechanical watchmaking.

Successfully uniting these complications in one watch is a feat that can only be achieved by the world’s most talented watchmakers, of which there are very few. The fact that all this information can be quickly and easily displayed on a smartphone is irrelevant. The Ref. 5208 has transcended simple time-telling to become mechanical art.

Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Pour Le Mérite
Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Pour Le Mérite – View offers on Chrono24

Of course, a watch doesn’t need to look complicated in order to be complex. No one knows this better than German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, who have demonstrated their mastery of understated complexity with the time-only Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite.” As modest and straightforward as this watch may seem, its movement is highly complex and consists of 915 individual components, including a high-precision fusée-and-chain transmission, which is rarely implemented in wristwatches.

The goal here is to ensure an even delivery of power to the movement as the mainspring unwinds. Working like an infinitely variable gearbox, the fusée-and-chain equalizes the waning force of the mainspring and makes sure that the movement always receives a constant amount of energy. This keeps the watch running at an exact rate, therefore improving its accuracy.

Less is Difficult

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic, Image: Bulgari

Overengineering doesn’t just mean creating watches that are more robust or more complex, however. Sometimes it’s what you are able to take away that makes a watch so special. The Octo Finissimo Automatic from Bulgari demonstrates this point admirably. Unveiled at Baselworld 2017, it instantly lay claim to the title of the world’s thinnest automatic movement. At just 2.23 mm thick, the new caliber BVL138 decisively beat the previous record of 2.45 mm held by Vacheron Constantin’s caliber 1120.

Practically, this doesn’t mean much to anyone outside of the hardcore mechanical watch movement community, but a really thin movement means a really thin watch overall – just 5.15 mm cased up. Presented in a 40-mm case crafted from sand-blasted titanium, the Octo Finissimo Automatic features the classic circle in a square design the Octo collection is renowned for.

With the omnipresence of smartphones and smartwatches, the mechanical wristwatch has taken on new importance as a symbol of status, taste, and wealth. Sure, a cheap quartz watch may be more accurate, but can you take it diving 4,000 ft below sea level? Is it elaborately decorated or so exceptionally complex that it makes your head spin? Of course not, which is why we will always love and cherish our over-engineered mechanical masterpieces. They serve as constant reminders to us of the ingenuity and creativity of mankind – and they look damn cool.


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About the Author

Tom Mulraney

Growing up in Australia in the 1980s and 90s, there wasn’t much of a watch scene. There was only one authorized retailer of high-end watches in the city I lived in …

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