Feature: 5 Insane Watches You Won't Believe Exist
Despite being centuries old, watchmaking still has the capability to surprise even today. Whilst it is fundamentally a celebration of the past, that doesn’t stop watchmakers applying a different lens on watchmaking to suggest what could have been. This many-worlds approach to watchmaking has yielded some of the strangest and most interesting concepts ever—and here are five of the best.
Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept
Famed manufacturers of the ultra-thin watches of the 20th century, Piaget took the approach to the extreme for the Altiplano Ultimate Concept. Limited by the traditional construction of a mechanical watch, previous entries into the thinnest watch category had bottomed out at just under 4mm—but Piaget had ideas to take its next watch to half that.
This required a fundamental redevelopment of how a watch is constructed, eschewing a centuries-long process to eek out every last micron. Where a typical watch has a movement suspended within a case, with a case back closing the rear and a crystal on the front, the Altiplano Ultimate Concept was built directly through the front of the watch onto the case back, which was formed as one piece with the case.
Even with this new design, to make it work the case back had to be a staggering 0.12mm thick, which required swapping from steel—which would have bent immediately—to a cobalt alloy that was so hard and difficult to work with that Piaget had to upgrade all of its tooling. The tolerances were so tight and the components so fragile that each part had to be custom made to fit, like blueprinting an F1 engine. No two are alike.
But new techniques present new challenges, some never seen before in watchmaking. With the final movement complete in the case, Piaget watchmakers sealed the movement within by placing the 0.2mm crystal—the thinnest ever made—in place—but there was a problem. The timing, which had been dead on, was now completely out of whack. The watchmakers took the crystal out and the watch ran fine again. The balance wheel, running very close to the crystal, wasn’t fouling. It was a complete mystery.
Turns out that the balance wheel was beating so close to the crystal it was generating a static field, which was magnetising the balance spring and causing it to bind, throwing the timing out. It was the first time in watchmaking history that problem had ever occurred. An application of anti-static coating and the watch was complete, 2mm thick and 22g—including the strap—in weight. A new world record.
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Carbon3 EX0752
Watchmaking has, since the turn of the century, been a hotbed of testing for advanced materials most frequently seen in motor racing and aviation. Titanium, aluminium and even exotic metals like magnesium have all been found in watchmaking in the pursuit of making the lightest watch ever.
But one material went unused, at least in any real sense: carbon fibre. This extremely strong, very lightweight material is one of the most cutting-edge out there, but its extreme difficultly to work with has prevented its use in watchmaking for quite some time.
The first real use outside of decoration was with the 2007 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Alinghi Team, which featured for the first time a forged carbon fibre case, but since then the use of the material has stagnated. That is until the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Carbon.
Like Omega’s take on the ceramic Speedmaster, Roger Dubuis has gone all-out in its use of carbon fibre. It’s in the case, of course, but it’s also in the bracelet too, every single link an ashy, marbleised nugget of lightweight carbon fibre. The movement does not go without either, the plates sandwiching it all together also carefully wrought from forged layers of carbon fibre. Throughout you can see the almost organic pattern, sliced and diced in different directions to give the watch a completely unique look and feel.
The net result? A total weight, despite being 45mm, carrying a bracelet and featuring a tourbillon as well, of just 81g, about half that of a Rolex Submariner.
Breguet Double Tourbillon 5349PT/2Y/9YV
Since the late 90s, the tourbillon has been making something of a resurgence in watchmaking, a demonstration of skill and expertise in the form a device so clever and complex that it’s developed something of a cult following.
These days, however, every watchmaker and his dog has a tourbillon in their collection. I mean, you can even get respectable tourbillons from China for $500. And so for Breguet, inventors of the tourbillon, it meant something had to be done to protect its reputation as one of the finest watchmakers on the planet.
For the $850,000 Breguet Double Tourbillon 5349, you could say that Breguet took the easy way out and simply added a second tourbillon. They wouldn’t be the first to do this and they most certainly won’t be the last, either. But there’s more to the 5349 than that, because look closer and you’ll see that, straddling the two tourbillons, is the hour hand—which means that the tourbillons move.
Not only does each tourbillon carriage perform one rotation every sixty seconds, as is traditional for a tourbillon, both also orbit the dial once per day in order to carry the hour hand on its epic journey. Every time you look at the dial, the tourbillons will be in a different place, dutifully carrying out their task of keeping time.
It’s a solid platinum hammer laced with thirty carats of diamonds to crack the almost insignificant walnut that is directing the hour hand, and it has been mastered with exactly the kind of excess you’d expect from a Breguet.
Ulysse Nardin Freak 020-88
But when it comes to using the movement itself to direct the hands, the crown for most insane, out-of-the-box, lateral thinking has to go to Ulysse Nardin. It’s not just the way this watch tells the time that’s crazy, however—everything it does is just absolutely mad.
We’ll start with how it’s set. You’ll see there’s no crown to wind or set the watch, so how exactly is that done? To set it, the engraved plaque at the bottom needs to be lifted, like the secret lever to a hidden room, and then the bezel can be turned to point the hour and minute hands. To wind it is not too dissimilar. Flip the watch over, grab the case back and twist. It won’t unscrew like it might on other watches; instead it winds the mainspring, a massive thing visible through a little window.
That is all very high on the madness scale, but it’s nothing compared to the simple act of telling the time. Most watches separate the regulation of the time, the ticks and tocks that make it accurate, from the hands themselves, offering a clean, readable experience free of unnecessary clutter. Not here. Here those things are one and the same. The movement is the minute hand, with the whole thing traversing the dial once per hour.
What that means is that the escapement—which, by the way, is also unique for its twin escape wheels with four points of contact—is contained within a rotating mechanism that spins once per hour—and that makes it a tourbillon. This watch is just so out there that it doesn’t have a tourbillon on the dial—the dial is a tourbillon.
A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split 424.038
Our last insane watch may look the most traditional, but it’s far from it. For years, German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne has set itself on a path to achieve two things: exceptional, innovative watchmaking and timekeeping excellence. With the Triple Split, it’s done both, and then some.
As far as timekeeping excellence goes, the chronograph has always been a benchmark. On-demand recording of time has made heroes, set records and marked history, and the pursuit to achieve utmost chronograph perfection continues to this day, long after the introduction of electronic and even atomic timing devices.
One of the big conundrums for on-demand timekeeping is the split. It’s possible with a chronograph to time a racing lap, for example, of a single individual. Start the chronograph at the beginning of the lap, stop it at the end and there’s your lap time. Even consecutive lap times can be recorded with the aid of a flyback chronograph, which combines the act of stopping, resetting and starting again all into one button.
But what if you have two or more racers? They will both start at the same time, but getting to the finish line together is very unlikely. A chronograph needs the ability to split time, keeping the master time running whilst pausing a secondary display to read each lap from, a display that can catch up to the master time. A split second, rattrapante or double chronograph complication can do this, but just for the seconds.
So what happens if the lap takes more than a minute? Well, it took A. Lange & Söhne’s 2004 Double Split to figure that out, layering a secondary mechanism onto the first that could pause the minute hand and let it catch up again. But then, in 2018, the watchmaker went one step further with the incredible Triple Split.
The Triple Split added yet another layer of Inception-like complexity, dividing the mechanism once more to split the hours. With six layers, 567 parts and a £150,000 price, this seemingly ordinary watch is anything but.
Five watches, five incredible approaches to watchmaking. You could consider mechanical watchmaking to be in its twilight years, yet that doesn’t seem to have stemmed the flow of creativity at all. If anything, it’s at its peak.
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