It is said that there is no such thing as a new idea, that every one borrows from another before it, tracing all the way back to the very first independent and creative thought. That may be true, but sometimes, albeit rarely, an idea comes along that is as close to original as is possible to be. In 2009, one of those rare ideas took its first steps to becoming reality.
Industrial designer Benoît Mintiens had, up to that point, dedicated his career to developing other people’s creations. His solutions were brilliant and inventive, his skills evident in the work he produced, but nevertheless he was still a cog in a machine, and he wanted to be something more. That something became Ressence. When challenged by a friend to design a watch, Mintiens did more than simply design it—he built it. No one had ever seen anything like it before; it was that elusive original idea that evades all but the brightest minds.
Being a Belgian man, Mintiens was keen to inject some of the tradition and ideals of his own country into an industry dominated by the Swiss. There’s a legend in Antwerp—Mintiens' hometown—of a mythical giant called Antigoon who charged a toll for crossing the Scheldt river. For those who refused to pay, Antigoon cut off one of their hands and threw it into the water, but eventually Antigoon met his match and had his own hand cut off and tossed away. From the Old English for hand and to throw comes hand wearpan, which eventually became Antwerp. For the people of Antwerp, the hand is their symbol; Mintiens wanted that symbol to become a core part of his watch as well.
That hand became the Ressence logo, however Mintiens wanted it to hold a deeper meaning for the brand. A watch has hands, he thought, hands that are the very essence of timekeeping, and have been for centuries. What if a watch could do without hands, like Antigoon, whose own hand was cut off and thrown into the river? The result was the Type 1001, a watch that stunned critics around the world. It had no hands, that much was obvious, yet somehow it read like a traditional watch.
Each sub-dial has two portions: one that rotates clockwise and another that rotates anti-clockwise
The largest component of the dial, within which the sub-dials will be seated and the gearing mechanism attached
The gears are manufactured using the same layer-forming process used to manufacturer microchips
Using a sequence of revolving disks, Mintiens was able to portray the transition of time in a two-dimensional medium that closely mimicked that of a standard watch dial. The regulator style—that separates the hours, minutes and seconds—formed the basis of the layout, with each unit receiving its own disk. The disks, being seated among one another, revolved in a mesmerising display, moving around the limits of the dial in a seemingly organic and fluid pattern.
But there is more to Ressence than simply one good idea. Mintiens’ experience allowed him to take the concept and refine it, leading him to the Type 1 and Type 3. The Type 1 is an evolution of the Type 1001 and improves upon the original in almost every aspect: the polished titanium case is smaller and monobloc in construction; the twenty-four–hour disk has become days of the week; and most importantly the crown has gone. In a design move that accentuated the pure aesthetic of the watch tenfold, Mintiens realised that he could use the curved rear crystal as a wheel to wind and set the watch, thanks to the unique way the watch is driven.
Using a custom-made movement from ETA, the watch only requires one pinion from the movement, one source of drive, where a normal watch would require three. The secret’s in the dial, beneath which a conical drivetrain of gears—each one formed using technology designed to manufacturer microchips to unprecedented tolerances—transfers the power from that single pinion to each disk at the correct speed. Because of the accuracy in the manufacturing process, the gear train moves with almost zero resistance, requiring very little torque to drive. Think about it: the Type 1 achieves the same power reserve as a watch that’s only required to move three spindly hands, despite rotating the entire dial.
But the ingenuity doesn’t stop there: in 2013, Mintiens introduced the Type 3, which added the date to the outer edge of the dial. But look closer, because there’s more to it than that—the dial is now seemingly on the front of the crystal, almost like a screen. Using a layer of oil, Mintiens cancelled the refraction of the air gap to create this mind-bending illusion. The aesthetic of the Ressence concept had reached a new peak, but one that came with many engineering conundrums.
The reverse of the dial, awaiting the gearing mechanism that will drive all of the sub-dials
With some of the gearing added, the angled mesh can be seen clearly. This saves space for the movement
Fully assembled, with the magnetic strips that will receive the driving force from the other side of the seal
The first was the containment of the oil. Sealing the case itself was not the issue—rather the submersion of the balance in the viscous oil. Somehow, the oil-filled dial needed to be kept separate from the movement while maintaining the transfer of power through the seal. The solution was to dispense with mechanical force and use magnetic instead: the pinion from the movement drives a series of magnets that pull opposing magnets on the other side of the seal.
The next issue was temperature. Like air, oil expands with heat, but unlike air, expanding oil is not so easily compressed. Likewise, cooling oil will contract, forming a bubble within it. Mintiens’ answer was a series of tiny gold-plated bellows that could expand and contract to absorb the changing volume of the oil. With each sealed dial-unit filled with oil at 0°C, the bellows give the watch a formidable operational range up to 80°C.
The award-winning Type 3 is Mintiens’ crowning jewel for Ressence, but he isn’t stopping there. Judging by the speed at which he has developed the company and the product, and the response he has received from the public, there’s a lot more to see yet. I can’t wait.