September 15, 2015

The next day began much like the previous one, with a delicious breakfast at the hotel of scrambled eggs, fruit, juice, etc. We took the bus to the factory again and jumped right into the other part that regulates the watch: the balance wheel.

The balance wheel on a timepiece is attached to the hairspring. It makes sure that the hairspring is in balance while it spins at a consistent amplitude. The balance wheel is regulated throughout the manufacture of a Patek Philippe. If at any point it is not in balance, the weights are changed or a correction plate is added for any amplitude irregularity. Patek measures the balance at four different positions: with the crown up, crown down, crown left and crown right. These corrections are called Dynamic Poising. Later, Fine Tuning takes place by adding the Masse Slots, and by turning these weights, a very precise level is achieved. Throughout the rest of the of the assembly of the watch, they continue to test the amplitude regularity, eventually in its final quality control once it is cased up as well.

The balance wheel and spring have gone through quite a long history. In 1675 the balance spring was invented. This was the first regulation used in pocket watches of its kind. Over 100 years later in 1795, the Breguet spring was invented. This was revolutionary because it allowed the hairspring to open and close concentrically. It achieved this, however, by wrapping the end of the coil over itself, called an overcoil. And while the concentric open and close of the hairspring is achieved, it does require more space vertically in the movement. Again over 100 years later, in 1897, the Invar spring was invented. But it was not until 2005 that Patek invented its Spiromax hairspring. The Spiromax is special for a few reasons. First, it is made of Silinvar, which is a silicon material that is anti-magnetic. Like the Breguet hairspring, it has concentric deployment. However, unlike the Breguet, the Spiromax achieves this concentric deployment without an overcoil, and instead uses a slightly wider end coil. It is rust free and has improved isochronism, which is the equal amount of turn in both directions. Lastly, it is also three times lighter than a traditional hairspring, which reduces the sensitivity to centrifugal force and gravity. It truly is a marvel of modern engineering.

Breguet hairspring and Spiromax

Along with the hairspring, Patek invented a new balance wheel and escape wheel. In 2008, Patek developed the Pulsomax escape wheel and lever in Silinvar. The escape wheel is the quick tick-tock of the second hand on the watch. In the case of Patek Philippe, it occurs so rapidly it is a sweeping second hand. But if you slow it down and look closely there is a very quick tick-tock that results from the hammer back and forth of the escape wheel. The Pulsomax achieved a 15 percent increase in energy transmission, make the movement more accurate. It is lubricant free, anti-magnetic and rust-free. Next, in 2011, the Gyromax balance wheel in gold and Silinvar was invented. The geometrical shape improves the aerodynamics of the balance wheel, which given the rotation of the balance wheel, is extremely important to reduce. And similar to the other Silinvar products, it is anti-magnetic and rust-free.

Pulsomax, Gyromax and Oscillomax

You put the three of these new inventions together and you have the Oscillomax. This is improved global performance of the timekeeping of the movement and was first introduced in the Patek Philippe ref. 5550P. Patek continues to research ways to make it more economically, so that they can put it in more and more of their movements.

After learning the theory in the classroom, we then went and toured more of the manufacture and met with the people who actually perform these tests. The gentleman who assisted us explained how they put the timepiece in all of the above positions, and a microphone is able to decipher the slight changes in amplitude while a machine is able to then take those readouts and determine how far off it may or may not be in each position. My grandfather was kind enough to let me wear his Patek Philippe ref. 5034, and since I was there I thought it might be fun to test a real-world simulation with a Patek that had not been serviced in some time. I took my watch off and tested it, and sure enough, it fell within the exact range required to leave the Patek Philippe office. For me, this is another example of what you can expect from Patek. Even after many years, and most likely not being worn too often, the movement kept perfect time.

What followed was one of the highlights of my trip. We were introduced to Greg, one of the watchmaker trainers. Here we were going to learn if we have what it takes to become a watchmaker. We were to take apart and put back together the gear train and final bridges of the movement 215, one of Patek’s most basic movements. Watching Greg assemble the movement was like watching Federer play tennis. He completed the task with ballet like grace and robotic precision. Then it was our turn…and suffice it to say I do not think I will be moving to Geneva to become a watchmaker anytime soon. The most challenging part of the exercise was of course putting the movement back together. Specifically the final piece of the gear train was adding the escapement, underneath one gear already placed. Using tweezers it took some time, but I was able to complete the movement, albeit one of the last ones, to the satisfaction of Greg.

We were late to lunch because we used up so much time learning and asking questions. Once again, lunch was a delicious three-course meal in the Patek Philippe cafeteria. I don’t know how everyone there was so skinny with how delicious the food is. And on top of that you have the Swiss chocolate…but I digress.

The afternoon exercise made me appreciate even more how difficult each and every task is that goes into a Patek Philippe. I mentioned before how Patek places emphasis on every minute piece in its watches, including those parts one does not see. Well we learned this firsthand when we chamfered, buffed and hand finished a piece that allows for there to be two positions when setting a Patek, setting the time and setting the date.

In order to complete this task, we had to take what was a right angle on the edge of this piece and chamfer it to a 45-degree angle —  by hand. This is much harder than it sounds. Without any type of assistance creating this angle is difficult enough, but we also had to keep it consistent around curves on the part, edges, straight edges, etc. Once we had satisfied Greg, we then buffed the chamfered surface to a mirror finish. Again, it seems simple until you are holding the tool and part in your hand. But, if you push too hard you buff too much, too lightly and it doesn’t get polished, all while moving around corners, straight edges, etc.! Finally, the easiest part is adding vertical polish lines with a hand polishing block. While this was the easiest aspect, it was still quite difficult to make them perfectly vertical, especially since it takes a few times to apply the lines. I think this could be something I could learn and master, but doing this day-in-and-day-out takes a special type of person, so again, I will not be moving to Geneva.

Next on the docket was learning more about the different calibers offered by Patek, and how to identify the movement based on the caliber. Barring any exception, each number and letter detail a specific characteristic in the movement. For example, Patek has a caliber CH 28-250 IRM QA 24H. The CH precedes the numerals because it is a principal characteristic for the movement. 28-250 describe the diameter and thickness of the movement. And the IRM, QA and 24H are secondary characteristics of the movement. So this movement is a chronograph (CH) that has secondary characteristics of a power-reserve indicator (IRM), annual calendar (QA), and a 24-hour indicator (24H). The diameter of the movement is 28mm and the thickness is 5.20mm. Every reference Patek Philippe produces will be indicated in a similar fashion. And despite their limited production, there are currently 17 calibers (15 for wristwatches and two for pocket watches) that are included in 50-movement references.

Dinner that evening was outstanding. We ate at Windows, which overlooked Lake Geneva from a beautiful old world dining room with chandeliers and candelabras. We ate fois gras, tuna and delicious cheesecake. I did not partake in the after-dinner espresso that night, as I was once again stuffed to the brim with delicious food. After dinner we walked back to our hotel and hung out in the lobby bar for a few hours. Most nights I tried to stay up until around 2 a.m. when I could make a FaceTime call back to the states to see my wife and daughter. It was so challenging being away from them but those calls made it bearable.