From all aspects, Hairspring can be regarded as a kind of strategic movement parts. Although only 1 cm in diameter, the hairspring is the beating heart of the movement. The manufacture of the hairspring is a complicated and mysterious process. The entire Swiss watchmaking industry has always relied on one supplier, Nivarox, part of the Swatch Group … at least, until recently!
Omega Silicon Hairspring
According to industry consensus, Christian Huygens invented the first movement with balance wheel and balance spring in 1675. Since then, the successor Xiao Ji Cao Sui, the watch’s speed regulation mechanism has changed little. The escapement pushes the balance wheel, otherwise it is constrained by the balance wheel. The flow of the vibration adjustment time of the balance wheel: each time the balance wheel swings, the gear train advances a certain distance. Its function is similar to that of a clock pendulum. The slim coiled hairspring ensures that the balance swings back and forth at a constant frequency.
Basic functions of the movement gear train
For a long time, Nivarox, a subsidiary of the Swatch Group, has been a supplier of balance springs and integrated parts (escapement / speed regulation) that cannot be bypassed in the Swiss watchmaking industry. To this day, Nivarox is still the main supplier of the entire industry, because no other company can provide products with equivalent volume, quality and price. However, Nivarox’s market dominance and the difficulty of purchasing integrated parts brought about by the prosperity of the industry in the early 2000s led to the creation of alternative channels.
Today’s hairsprings are usually made of iron-nickel alloys, such as Nivarox, whose elasticity is hardly affected by temperature. Nivarox is the abbreviation of Nicht Variabel Oxydfest (immutable, non-oxidizing). This alloy is similar to the Invar alloy (FeNi36%) invented by the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Charles Eddu Guillaume.
If you want to make a hairspring, you must first combine high-tech industrial precision and manual work, and use ultra-precision metal lamination technology to produce a forged metal sheet. It takes several days to convert a metal wire into a fine hairspring through successive steps. Tolerances are usually less than 0.1 micron (100 nanometers), because small changes in the contour of the hairspring will affect the performance of the watch; a 1 micron difference will cause the movement of the movement to change for 30 minutes per day. It is then stretched and wound into a spiral shape.
Rolex Parachrom hairspring
In order to be independent of the Swatch Group, Rolex was one of the earliest brands to develop fully independent hairspring manufacturing. After more than five years of research and development, the first Parachrom hairsprings were put into production in the early 2000s. Parachrom is a niobium-zirconium alloy with an oxide coating on the outside. Its name is a fusion of ‘Paramagnetic’ and ‘chrome’ (color, Greek). One of the main advantages of Parachrom hairsprings is their non-magnetic properties. In addition, they have better impact resistance than traditional ferromagnetic hairsprings.
Although the full-scale production was later, Richemont also established its own production capacity for hairsprings. For the watchmaking giants Richemont and Rolex, this is a major issue of independence. Richemont’s hairspring production began in Lange in Germany and Jaeger-LeCoultre in Switzerland. Roger Dubuis’ integration provided another channel. Montblanc-Mervina can also make hairsprings (mainly cylindrical hairsprings for tourbillon watches), although it is not up to industrial scale. Today, Valfleurier (Group Sharing Industrial Centre) is the main movement manufacturer under Richemont. Not all Richemont movements are equipped with patented hairsprings, but the expertise and production capacity seem to be sufficient to ensure autonomy.
Atokalpa, a subsidiary of the Santos Family Foundation Watchmaking Group, was one of the first manufacturers to formulate an independent hairspring plan in the early 21st century. Today, Atokalpa produces more than 200,000 escapement / speed control parts (including hairsprings) for Vaucher and third parties each year. Its customers also include independent watchmakers and major brands such as Tag Heuer. Atokalpa is one of the most important Nivarox alternative channels, combining industrial capabilities and expertise / flexibility to develop and manufacture small batches and complex products (Rolex and Richemont do not supply hairsprings to third parties).
Concepto, a La Chaux-de-France-based movement supplier, also produces hairsprings. Concepto not only assembles the movement with its own hairspring, but also supplies third-party brands, while also using Nivarox hairspring. According to CEO Valérien Jaquet, the annual production of Concepto is about 100,000.
Precision Engineering Paramagnetic Hairspring (with Breguet End Curve)
Precision Engineering AG, an independent subsidiary of Henry Moser (a subsidiary of the Meilang Group), is the third largest manufacturer of hairsprings supplied to third parties, with an annual output of approximately 55,000 pieces. Founded in 2001, Precision Engineering AG is a division of Straumann SA (alloy technology dating back to the 1930s, patented by Reinhard Straumann). In 2016, Precision Engineering AG introduced a new alloy: PE500. This is a niobium-titanium alloy, which is oxygen-friendly, anti-magnetic, impact-resistant, and has adjustable advantages.
Companies capable of manufacturing (traditional) hairsprings also include:
· Festina Group, which has many watch and jewellery brands, especially the movement maker Soprod.
The group led by Miguel Rodriguez recently took over Technotime, and before the company went bankrupt, it also produced hairsprings.
· Broadway, it is understood that the brand is self-sufficient.
E2O Innovation, a sister company of Schwarz Etienne, assembles patented hairsprings for branded movements and now also supplies third-party customers.
Schwarz Etienne hairspring
In recent years, silicon has been revolutionizing traditional watchmaking. Abrasion-resistant, lightweight, anti-magnetic, thermally stable, and excellent elastic properties. Silicon material has excellent performance in manufacturing hairsprings. However, only a few brands can master silicon hairspring technology, which is different from other silicon parts.
Athenaeum was the first to introduce silicon hairsprings, thanks to Sigatec (Mimotec joint venture), which specializes in silicon microdevices. Athens Watch has been developed in the field of silicon hairsprings and has accumulated unique expertise. On the other hand, Rolex, Patek Philippe and Swatch Group joined hands with the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microelectronics Technology Research (CSEM) for joint research and development. They disputed with Sigatec over a patent for silicon hairspring technology, and the parties eventually reached an agreement (although detailed terms were not disclosed in 2013).
Breguet Spiral Hairspring
Silicon hairspring-an interesting strategic alliance that combines the three watchmaking giants of Swatch Group, Rolex and Patek Philippe through the Swiss Electronics and Microelectronics Technology Research Center (CSEM). Breguet silicon hairspring is the joint research project. Results. In addition to Breguet, other brands under the Swatch Group, such as Omega, also use silicon hairsprings. In 2006, the advanced research department of Patek Philippe launched Spiromax © hairspring. In 2014, Rolex released Syloxi © hairspring.
The Swiss Center for Electronics and Microelectronics Technology Research (CSEM) patents will expire in 2021, at which time the technology will be released from restrictions. Of course, companies such as Atokalpa are researching and building expertise in the field of silicon hairspring manufacturing. There are also other high-tech materials that have been used in hairspring manufacturing, although production is still limited. For example, the Cartier concept watches ID-One and ID-Two are equipped with hairsprings made of Zerodur © (a high-tech glass-ceramic composite).
At Baselworld 2017, Zenith launched the Defy El Primero 21 watch, equipped with a hairspring made of carbon-based carbon nanotube composites. Zenith’s parent company, LVMH Group, has applied for and obtained a patent for this technology (material). Under the umbrella of the LVMH Group, with the support of Jean-Claude Beaver, the way to master such movement parts is innovation. LVMH said that the group is increasing investment efforts to build facilities and develop products.
Genequand escapement and unconventional oscillator (yellow part)
In addition to traditional balances and hairsprings, watchmakers also designed ‘unconventional’ oscillators. In recent years, with the development of new escapement mechanisms and the performance potential provided by silicon materials, these oscillators have been able to achieve higher vibration frequencies to improve accuracy or reduce movement energy consumption. Among them, the latest innovations replacing traditional spiral hairsprings include: TAG Heuer’s linear oscillation and chip structure (Mikrogirder watch), De Bethune’s acoustic resonator, and the flexible sheet structure of the Parmigioni Senfine concept movement … … Soon after, there is the revolutionary innovation of Zenith without balance wheel and hairspring. So stay tuned!