Can we discuss silicon in watchmaking?

Rick Hufnagel

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Hello and good day everyone!

It's a privilege to ask questions to such a diverse group of collectors and watchmakers. I am excited about this forum and thank you Dr. Jon for moderating it.

I've read about how silicone components are such an improvement from the standard materials. For the most part, hairsprings seem to be the most popular silicone components. Touted to be more stable than their metal counterparts with magnetism (obviously) and temperature. Recently Dr. Jon showed us a watch where the escape wheel and the hairspring are made of silicone. The manufacturer, Damasko, has some promotional videos on this, but no explanation.. no how's or why's... A hairspring, I can certainly see the advantages, but an escape wheel? That was very interesting to me.

Much of what is read or viewed on the internet is promotional material created by the manufacturer. Marketing.

So I suppose I have a few questions.

Can someone elaborate on how exactly silicone is a better material for the job?

Are there any watchmakers here who have had real life experience with these silicone parts? How do they hold up in respect to wear? Do they become brittle with age? Maybe it's too new of a thing for discussions on degradation.

With a new forum on contemporary watchmaking a discussion about silicone had to come up sooner or later, and since it was on my mind I figured it would be fun to get the ball rolling. With this group consisting of such a diverse group of occupations, I'm excited to hear what everyone thinks.

From my own point of view, as someone who has been fixing things for a living (and for fun) for 20ish years... The world has become a throw it away and buy another sort of place... is this where silicone is heading? Will these new watches be around and keeping time in 100 years like the Elgin in my pocket?
 

Dr. Jon

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I bought a Damasko watch with a silicon balance spring and escape wheel. The advantage of silicon for balance springs is that the springs are made with a very high level of precision which enables them to be deigned for isochrony.

Also, for reasons I do not know, every one using silicon is also running them free and that me to to avoid sharp bends at the regulator pins. The springs are made precisely enough that they runb very close rte on installation. The balances are at least on mine are beryllium copper.

Mine is the most isochronous watch I have seen. Its rates are within 1 second per day in each of the six positions. I checked it on my timing machine when fully wound and 30 hours down.

The claim for silicon escapements is that they can run for over 5 years without re-lubrication.

Time will tell on aging, but Nardin began using this technology 20 years ago. There silicon is a very stable material but its fatigue properties are open to question. I suspect we would know if the 20 year old Nardins were failing, but they are expensive enough that perhaps they have not been worn that long.
 
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Dr. Jon

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I have associated silicone with silicon compounds. It is commonly used in flexible plastic-like cooking things like baking sheets, and micro wave oven cook ware. It is also a form of high temperature oil for vacuum pumps and other applications. Silicon is in the same chemical group as carbon and higher temperature analogs of "organics" are often made by replacinte carbon with silicon. SOme watch people refer to their silicon products as silicone, which I take to mean other element are mixed inbut this is a surmise.
 

Tom McIntyre

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Since the conflation of siliicon and silicone is so common, I have essentially given it up as a pet peeve.

One of the reasons for the superiority of silicon structures is that we have developed a very large multibillion dollar industry based on etching shapes and controlling the composition of silicon alloys for making all modern electronic circuits.

The watch industry has gotten a windfall of technology from the semiconductor industry.

Both silicon wafers and other mechanical structures made of "metallic" silicon alloys, and silicones, which are polymers of mostly silicon and oxygen chains have silicon as a major element.

For whatever reason, I cannot recall, I always expect silicon objects to be black. The gold color on the hairspring and balance of Jon's watch prevented me from even noticing the material the first time I saw it.

Rich, if you like we can remove the trailing "e" from the instances in the first post where you misspelled silicon
 

Dr. Jon

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I have been researching Thomas Earnshaw who was active in the late 1700's to early 1800's known for his spring detent escapement and inventing the methods used to make bimetallic balance wheels.

His arch rival John Arnold had invented balance springs with terminal curves and locked earnshaw out of using them. Earnshaw invented tapered balance springs and beat Arnold in open competition to supply the chronometer for Captain Bligh's second voyage in 1791. I have not been able to determine whether Earnshaw used a tapered balance spring on that chronometer but it is interesting, at least to me that the tapered balance spring which is the key to the silicon flat spring is an invention of Earnshaw's.
 

Wimberleytech

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Applying semiconductor fabrication technology to mechanical watches is, well, odd to me. What is the goal? Is it to make a watch that is accurate to within 0.1 s/d? Well, we have that already in quartz watches (or digital watches if you dont care about analog) and even better on your Apple watch (which can present an analog display).
I will put on my helmet and prepare for incoming!!
 

Dr. Jon

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Watchmakers have always applied the latest and greatest technologies.

With all the whiz bang, it's still a mechanical watch but electron beam forming enables a new degree of precision.

My Damasko watch has a silicon spring free sprung. It is the most isochronous watch I have ever tested. Its rate are within one second per day of full wind when 60 hours down.

Its escape wheel is also silicon and they etched their name into it. It works very well and its a lot of fun.

Others are making new escapements and making watches that run in entirely new ways.
 

Roy Gardner

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I've heard that after some amount of time, replacement silicon watch components might become near-impossible to find. I figure by then, affordable 3D silicon printers will be available for home use.

The silicon escapement in a Zenith Defy Lab is very interesting. The world of micromechanics, sometimes using silicon foundry equipment that is too obsolete to make modern microcircuits, has been taken advantage of by some clever watch designers.
 
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Wimberleytech

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To be clear, I am not a Luddite. I spent 40+ years in the semiconductor industry as an IC designer/manager/author/professor/inventor/founder/expert witness... But for watches and clocks, the beauty is not in the accuracy, but with the design. Yes, there is some brilliant work noted in the references above--truly to be admired, but IMHO it is a solution to a problem that does not exist. All the accuracy one could ever want already exists and it is mostly silicon based and it is on your arm or in your pocket. I think the attraction to mechanical watches and clocks, and perhaps the reason this forum exists is that we can work on them, tweak them, fix them, and admire them. You will not repair a silicon micromachined watch.
 

Tom McIntyre

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Most, but not all wristwatch collectors are focused on the case design and dial and other visible components, but that is not all of them.

Some like Jon are really interested in how they work and the technology of the inside. I think that those of us who have been in love with pocket watches for a long time are interested in what is happening now as new ideas are introduced.
 
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Dr. Jon

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Here is another example and I agree it is a solution in search of a problem.

This kind of thing is made possible by the interest and funding of enthusiast collectors. I am not one of them for the most part but I very much like the idea of supporting living artisans and engineers.



 

Wimberleytech

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Of course, as an engineer, I love this kind of stuff--from the engineering and physics point of view. But it stops there.

The earlier post saying that many watch enthusiasts focus on what they can see is an excellent point. Clearly the market understands this because you find quartz watches selling for many hundreds and even thousands of dollars when the quartz movement inside is, meh. Yeah, maybe 7 jewels, but...
 

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Hard Life for Wristwatches by Roy Gardner