Time moves on: watches and technology

High-tech timepieces are making waves in the watch world and pushing the industry forward. Adrian Hailwood picks out five that are leading the way

The watchmaking industry is a conflicted place; on one hand the brands pride themselves on their history and the traditional, hand-crafted nature of their products, and on the other there is a drive to utilise ever more exotic materials to improve some aspect of accuracy, utility or durability. Add on the fact that the 1969 launch of quartz made mechanical watches obsolete from an accuracy and reliability point of view, and that smart watches may threaten to do the same for complicated digitals, and you can see that technology offers much to be excited/worried about, depending on where you stand. Here are my top five watches that embrace high-tech in fascinating ways.

It is a tribute to Patek Philippe that it can maintain the traditional hand-finishing skill used by watchmakers for centuries and at the same time push the boundaries of what is possible with new materials and techniques. It was an early adopter of silicon technology, first using it in 2005 and progressing to a full silicon assortment (balance, spring, lever and escape wheel) by 2011. This year it added a further tweak to its balance spring, but the big news was a component that used good old steel. The complex mechanism that allows the GMT hand to be adjusted forwards and back had been replaced by a single steel component that, like the silicon module in the Zenith below, uses the inherent springiness of the material to avoid additional parts, friction or the attendant need for lubrication.

It’s not often that a watch brand claims to dramatically improve a 340-year-old technology, but that is the bold assertion regarding Zenith’s new creation. Certainly, the Defy Lab’s movement is radical in both appearance and construction. The balance, balance spring and lever are combined into a single slice of wafer-thin silicon that sits behind the skeleton dial and spans the entire movement, simplifying construction and reducing friction. What makes this movement so different is the shift from the rotational movement of a conventional balance, where high amplitude is good, to a vibrational rotation of this semi-rigid structure, meaning that amplitude is minimal. Such a small movement back and forth means that the frequency can be high, increasing the accuracy of the watch.

The problem with many high-tech watches is that they can look garish if they put all the tech out front, or boring if they hide it behind a traditional face. With the Octo Finissimo Automatique, Bulgari has managed to produce a watch that looks cutting-edge, achieves the goal of being the thinnest automatic watch in current production, and yet maintains style and simplicity. The bead-blasted titanium case with matching grey dial and sharp black hands and markers put me in mind of an e-ink reader such as a Kindle, giving it a high-tech design language, even
if the movement is conventional.

Richard Mille started as the ‘Racing Machine for the Wrist’, firmly rooted within F1. For the brand’s latest project, the wheels are back on but the engine is absent as this is a watch for the cyclist. Designed in collaboration with Alan Prost, F1 legend-turned-cycling-fanatic, this watch features a unique, manually operated totalliser to allow the wearer to add up all the miles travelled over the course of a season. To accommodate this complication, the movement had to be reworked into a more compact form with the tourbillon and barrel now on the same axis. The case is the now-familiar and almost indestructible carbon TPT(R) crafted into an ergonomically precise shape for comfort while riding.

While purists may fret, the Apple Watch does tell the time and is the most advanced iteration of the smart-watch genre yet, so it must make the list. The inclusion of cellular capability on the premium model takes it one step closer to being a stand-alone gadget rather than just a slave-screen for the phone, but you still can’t use it without an iPhone to set it up. The Apple Watch offers an impressive amount of technology alongside its time-telling ability and its ‘connected’ nature means that accuracy is never going to be an issue. The only drawback I can see is that with voice calls, music streaming and sleep tracking, when are you supposed to charge the thing?