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From tourbillon to atomic: the battle to tell the time

by Michael Weare
5 March, 2011
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Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email: michael@clicktempus.com

Tourbillon 01

While some of the world’s most exclusive and brilliantly engineered mechanical Swiss watches aim to achieve accuracy of +/- 2 or 3 seconds per 24 hours, you can pick up a radio controlled Casio cheapy and have accuracy to one second in one million years. So why are Swiss watches so admired?

You either get or you don’t get the thrall of superbly crafted and meticulously engineered mechanical Swiss-made watches. When quartz watches swept the watch world in the late 70’s and 80’s offering greater accuracy for a fraction of the cost, it very nearly put paid to centuries of Swiss watchmaking tradition. Ironically the quartz movement was originally developed and then rejected by the Swiss watch industry. Following years of severe decline it took the introduction of the Swatch watch in 1982 by Nicholas Hayek, to return the attention of mainstream consumers back to Swiss-made watches.

One of the important lessons learned is that Swiss-made watches have always been much more about the joy of the horological journey rather than the final destination. A wrist watch is worn close to the skin, and so the watch becomes a very personal object. As Harvard University professor D.S. Landes stated:

“When a mechanical watch is bought, one buys a name, a heart and the know-how. A fine movement, in particular if it is complicated, has the art and the grace of a living thing. The wheels whirl and engage. All the edges are carefully cut-back and bevelled. The screws are sometimes heated until they take on a dark electric blue hue… In comparison, a watch with a quartz movement can be regarded as an instrument giving the time and sometimes an accessory of style but never as a “jewel” emphasising the know-how of the watchmaker.”

So when atomic or radio controlled watches were introduced to the mainstream market in 2002, things were altogether more relaxed. The global watch market had matured to a level where there’s a niche for every manufacture from mid to high level mechanicals, low to high end quartz and then the hybrids such as quartz/atomic watches.

Junghans

Tourbillon 02

It was German brand Junghans who led the way in atomic watches. It has built a name in the industry for accuracy and quality, through their use of radio control technology.

Their watches contain a radio receiver that regularly checks for the current time from the Frankfurt transmitter, and some are solar powered. The practical upshot of this is that you never need to adjust your watch (it even corrects for GMT/BST changeover), it’ll never need a new battery, and it’s never loses more than a second.

Tourbillon 03

Casio

Tourbillon 04

Then Casio, no stranger to housing radio antennas in its watches having released the first GPS watch in 1999, released their first watch capable of atomic synchronisation , the GW-100 Waveceptor watch. In 2002 they followed that with their first solar atomic watch, replenishing its energy via exposure to the sun.

Radio signals

From the early days of radio communication it was recognised that radio signals were a great method for conveying precise time. In 1905 the US Navy began transmitting time signals at Noon from Washington D.C and in 1910 France followed suit broadcasting signals from the Eiffel Tower at midnight. So it made sense to transmit time signals from Atomic Clocks once the technology became available. Nowadays signals are transmitted from the US, Germany, France, the UK and Japan.

Atomic watches have a signal indicator which lets you know not only the signal strength but also whether synchronisation was successful. It’s a good idea to check this indicator in the mornings because atomic watches are pre-programmed to receive signals during the night. This is because the antenna is small and there is less interference at night. When you move to an area where there is no signal, your watch will go blank until the regular quartz mechanism kicks in. An Atomic watch uses a quartz movement though its display may be digital or analogue and is either solar or battery powered.

So today you have the luxury of choice; total accuracy from functional atomic watches at an affordable price, or dazzling skill and workmanship from brilliantly conceived Swiss-made watches that can range from within reach to beyond reason.

Michael Weare | Website

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email: michael@clicktempus.com

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