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Feature: Silicon In Watchmaking

For a long, long time, watch movements have been made primarily of metal. But there's a new kid in town, a so-called wonder material that claims to be completely anti-magnetic and require zero lubrication: silicon. But is it as good as the watch brands would have us believe?

First and foremost, you have to ask the question, 'Why?'. Mechanical movements have been in existence for hundreds of years, been redundant for almost half a century—so why, now, after all this time, is it worth investing in new, modern materials to make them from?

The last time this happened with any real significance was the introduction of the electronic regulator—quartz—and we all know how well that turned out. Silicon may not be quite the revolutionary change a shard of crystal with a current running through it was, but it's certainly making waves.

The movement works, doesn't it? Has done for years. To develop it further is, really, rather pointless; it's never going to exceed the capabilities of its modern equivalent, not by a very, very long shot. This doesn’t necessarily mean brands shouldn’t still try, however. Bear with me here.

Think about the electric car: it's widely considered to be the future of motoring in what is a rather analogous switch from the mechanical engine to a simplistic, battery powered motor. The electric car is, range anxiety aside, an inherently better device: better acceleration, greater efficiency, quieter operation—it's a no-brainer.

Does that mean the combustion engine has been thrown out the window? No. But why not, if it makes no sense? Because it's a visceral, emotional, stimulating thing—and it will likely continue to be so for many years to come. You'll commute in your self-driving electric pod in the week and crank some pistons at the weekend. Will you want that combustion engine to keep on being developed? You'd hardly say no to more power, higher efficiency and better service life, would you?

You see, it's important to understand that the mechanical movement hasn't always been a robust thing; for a long time it was delicate, susceptible to magnetism, short on power, manually wound—it's only through constant, incremental development—a lot of it very recently—that it's become as good as it is today. The question is, can silicon make it even better?

As a material, silicon looks like a chunk freshly broken off a T-1000 Terminator unit—but despite its looks, it's not a metal—well, not quite. It's actually a metalloid, an element with properties that sit somewhere between the metal it looks like and the non-metals it behaves like.

It's a bit of a vague term, but silicon is a bit of a vague material, and joins five other elements in this strange no-man's land on the periodic table. Identity crisis aside, silicon's uses are numerous, found in high-tech ceramics, synthetic polymers, steel refinement, semiconductors—and it's not only one of the most abundant materials in industry, but also in the universe, eighth after nitrogen.

For watchmaking, it's silicon's ability to act as a metal with none of the drawbacks that is so appealing. But what are those drawbacks? Primarily magnetism and friction. Magnetism is an obvious problem when it comes to something as delicate as a hairspring. It sticks the spring together, effectively making it shorter, speeding up the timing dramatically. It's a vulnerability that's affected by phones, computers, televisions, speakers—everything in the modern world is pretty much out to get the mechanical movement.

And friction—friction is affected by tolerance, temperature, position, material, corrosion; so much so that a lubricating oil is required to prevent excessive wear. And the more friction there is, the more energy is wasted, and the bigger the power source needs to be.

So, what does silicon do to prevent all this? Well, for starters it's antimagnetic, so that deals with that. And it's hard, so it can be fashioned into delicate shapes without fear of wear. It's corrosion resistant, too. It's also self-lubricating, so oil isn't needed, and neither are jewels. It can be made to incredibly tiny tolerances using Deep Reactive-Ion Etching, which means extra material can be cut away to reduce its already minimal mass. It's even highly shock resistant.

We haven't even got to the fascinating bit yet. Everything that's just been described sounds distinctly un-metal–like, but because silicon is a metalloid, it can also be fashioned into a spring. It may be harder than steel, but somehow, it demonstrates the same elasticity.

And because silicon can be formed so precisely, it allows watchmakers to demonstrate never-before-seen concepts, like Breguet's double balance spring, two silicon coils that chase each other into a spiral to provide double the regulating power.

It seems like silicon has suddenly—if you'll excuse the pun—sprung up out of nowhere, what with brands like Patek Philippe getting in on the action, but the truth of it is that the material has been used for almost two decades already. And the other truth of it is that watchmaking has never stood still, growing and evolving to incorporate technologies like high-tech alloys, complex machining and automation, stuff with lasers. There will always be companies that stick to the tried and true, but if we continue to want cheaper, better, sturdier mechanical watches, the only direction is forward.

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