Watchmakers are close to getting an atomic clock on your wrist

Since the rise of electronic timekeeping in the 1970s, attempts at harnessing circuit-board precision to improve traditional watchmaking have been few and far between. Seiko’s Spring Drive, launched 20 years ago, remains the most prominent example, replacing the traditional escapement with an electromagnetic regulator to manage the precise delivery of energy through the movement. Piaget revealed a similar concept with its 700P movement in 2016, though it was only used for an extremely limited run of watches in its cushion-shaped Emperador line. More interesting is the Electro Mechanical Control (EMC) device that high-end indie URWERK launched in 2013. It uses a minuscule electronic unit, powered by cranking a tiny lever, to monitor the performance of the watch. The unit has an optical sensor around the balance wheel, a quartz oscillator (acting as a comparative reference rather than part of the timekeeping) and a micro-computer to process differences between the two. Should it be out by a little bit (as mechanical watches inevitably often are), its rate can be fine-tuned to be faster or slower by turning a screw on the back of the watch. Frederique Constant Hybrid Manufacture Behind the Hybrid Manufacture’s trad 42mm dial lies an automatic mechanical movement with an integrated battery-powered digital module for activity and sleep tracking, fitness coaching, a worldtimer and more, all controlled via an app. From £2,995 Case: Stainless steel, rose-gold-plated stainless steel. Movement: FC-750 Manufacture Hybrid Calibre Lydia Whitmore The line between digital and analogue becomes considerably more blurred, however, with the new Type 2 e-Crown from Ressence, a small company based in Antwerp, Belgium, founded by industrial designer Benoît Mintiens. Its watches are best known for their orbital dial displays in which the markings themselves rotate around each other. The idea behind the e-Crown, which was announced in January in concept form, is straightforward enough: that by connecting a mechanical watch to digital timing technology via Bluetooth, it can automatically set itself to the correct time and have its timekeeping accuracy maintained. READ NEXT Chanel's new watch movement is made using chemical 3D printing Chanel's new watch movement is made using chemical 3D printing By LAURA MCCREDDIE-DOAK To make this happen, Ressence called on the services of Tony Fadell, Nest founder and designer of the original iPod. The former Apple executive helped devise a system that effectively sandwiches an electro-mechanical “nerve centre” within the workings of a normal Ressence watch. Between the traditional automatic movement and the mechanical module Ressence makes to control the orbital dial display is a cluster of 87 tiny components. Connected via a printed circuit board, these analyse the hands’ position and, if the watch has stopped after being put down for a period, set the display to the correct time. It receives this information via Bluetooth from a specially developed smartphone app. Ressence E-Crown Developed with help from Nest founder Tony Faddell, the e-Crown connects traditional watchmaking mechanics with digital technology via Bluetooth to automatically set the time and maintain its accuracy Lydia Whitmore All it takes to set the watch is a simple tap on the crystal, which activates the e-Crown. It will also monitor the watch once a day to keep it to the most accurate setting. Most ingeniously, though, the e-Crown gets the 1.4 joules of power it requires from a kinetic generator activated by wrist movement, as a mechanical watch does. If it has been off the wrist and not moving, a system of small shutters open to allow in light that powers photovoltaic sensors just enough to get it up and running. Innovative though this is, the idea of using an exterior agent to set a watch’s time and ensure its accuracy is nothing new. In 1793, horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet devised a chronometer pendulum clock with a dock for a pocket watch. When docked, the watch would be wound and set by the clock. Breguet named this the Sympathique to reflect the interactive relationship between watch and clock, and made a handful of pieces for European Royalty, including the future George IV. URWERK's Atomic Master Clock (AMC) system docks a watch inside a "portable" atomic clock URWERK is re-imagining Breguet’s idea of a watch with a separate master control unit as the most accurate device available today. Its Atomic Master Clock (AMC) system, announced in 2018 but still in development, docks a watch inside a portable atomic clock that resembles something James Bond would race to disarm in order to save the world. Like the EMC, the AMC analyses the wristwatch’s rate and automatically regulates it. It also synchronises its timekeeping with the master clock and rewinds the movement. The circuitry remains outside the watch, but the piece itself is set with precision that mechanics alone could never muster – the clock is accurate to within one second every 317 years.