The word innovation is so often used and abused in the watch industry that it loses its true meaning. But the development Frederique Constant is unveiling today is an authentic horological breakthrough. A prodigious feat of engineering that relies on the principle of compliant mechanisms, the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture is regulated by a revolutionary flexure pivot oscillator beating at an impressive frequency of 40Hz. Today MONOCHROME provides in-depth coverage of this unprecedented development with our article, video and live photos.
The way mechanical wristwatches are regulated has barely changed in centuries. To be more precise, not since the invention of the balance spring over three centuries ago. The basic operating principle is the following. Energy is stored by the mainspring inside the barrel. The energy is released via the gear train that drives the hands. The speed at which the gears rotate is controlled by the regulator that comprises the escapement and the oscillator. The escapement transfers energy to the oscillator (the balance wheel and its coiled hairspring) via impulses. In return, the oscillator regulates the escapement. Its oscillations unlock the escapement at a regular rate allowing the gears to rotate and the mainspring to unwind progressively.
Today, the vast majority of watches are regulated by a Swiss lever escapement and a balance wheel. Very few watchmakers have challenged this type of regulator. Although a few new escapements have appeared in the past, the Omega Co-Axial escapement is the only other type of escapement currently produced at an industrial scale. And there have been even fewer developments regarding alternative oscillators. Apart from rare non-commercialised concepts, (or in limited quantities) the sprung balance wheel remains the exclusive time basis for mechanical wristwatches.
This gives a measure of the importance of the fascinating development Frederique Constant is presenting today. Developing a new typology of oscillator means exploring uncharted territory. To do so, Frederique Constant used a technology that is not per se new but whose application in the field of watchmaking yields amazing potential: compliant mechanisms.
Compliant mechanisms – also known as monolithic or jointless structures – use the elastic properties of a material to affect the motion of mechanical components. These one-piece, compact, and precisely produced components replace several mechanically assembled parts. The absence of mechanical coupling eliminates contact, play, friction, wear, lubrication or dispersions.
The Frederique Constant Monolithic Oscillator
For Frederique Constant, the idea was to replace a traditional regulator with a monolithic flexure pivot oscillator that integrates the anchor. The traditional oscillator, composed of over 20 components, is substituted by a one-piece silicon oscillator fitted with two regulation weights working in conjunction with the escapement wheel.
The revolutionary design oscillates with a low amplitude of only 6 degrees (versus ~300 degrees for a regular balance wheel). It can reach an impressive frequency of 40Hz or 288,000 vibrations/hour compared to the 4Hz of 28,800 vibrations/hour in most modern mechanical movements, including the traditional manufacture calibres produced by Frederique Constant.
The Frederique Constant Monolithic is not the first flexure oscillator: the Parmigiani Senfine concept, the Ulysse Nardin Freak Next, the Zenith Defy Inventor concept are other notable examples. Yet, the Monolithic oscillator incorporates several innovations in relation to its design and geometry. The escapement anchor is incorporated into the oscillator, and, for the first time, this function is integrated into the flexures. This enabled a substantial reduction in size -in line with the footprint of a traditional balance wheel – while keeping all the functions in one thin silicon layer measuring 9.8mm in diameter and 0.3mm in thickness. Another specificity is that the oscillator is fitted with adjustment weights, just like those used on a traditional free-sprung balance. Watchmakers can easily fine-tune the frequency by simply turning these two weights.
As you would expect, silicon is the perfect material to craft such an avant-garde component. The DRIE manufacturing process allows for the production of ultra-precise and complex shapes. With the tribological properties of silicon, no lubrication is required, and wear is minimal. There is no fatigue effect and moreover, it is a lightweight and amagnetic material.
Together with this revolutionary oscillator, Frederique Constant’s development team had to develop a brand new movement capable of coping with the breakneck speed of its frequency. The result is the new automatic FC-810 movement, Frederique Constant’s 30th calibre. To handle the frequency, the gear train had to be re-engineered, and it was fitted with a fourth wheel (instead of three traditionally). Despite the 40Hz frequency, it comes with a healthy 80-hour power reserve.
Given the unprecedented nature of the escapement, the traditional Witschi devices that rely on the ticking sound of the movement are inoperative. To calculate the average rate in seconds per day, laser cameras taking 250,000 images per second are used.
A Technological Partner, Flexous – The Dutch Connection
The Monolithic oscillator is the result of a three-year joint development project between teams at Frederique Constant and Flexous resulting in a dynamic exchange of high-profile, multi-disciplinary expertise. Flexous is an independent horology technology company located in Delft, The Netherlands, which specialises in flexible watch parts. They design, conceive and produce innovative watch parts and partner-up with like-minded watch brands to develop flexible mechanisms from concept to product and supply in volume. Flexous strives to position itself as the most forward-thinking, innovative technology provider in horology, and they are well on their way with this new revolutionary project. More details at flexous.com.
The idea behind the Monolithic Oscillator was born from an encounter between Peter Stas, co-founder and former CEO of Frederique Constant, and Dr Nima Tolou, founder and CEO of Flexous, an innovative horology-oriented technology branch of YES!Delft, a leading Dutch tech incubator. Following their encounter, the Frederique Constant team commissioned Flexous to produce a unique, flexible oscillating system with distinctive specifications.
The Frederique Constant Slimline Monolithic Manufacture
The first model powered by this groundbreaking movement is the Frederique Constant Slimline Monolithic Manufacture. Presented in a 40mm round case, the new watch comes in rather classic attire with a hobnail pattern on the dial and printed Roman numerals paired with Breguet-style hands. However, the opening at 6 o’clock offers a view of the groundbreaking oscillator. The pointer date at 12 o’clock brings a pleasing symmetry to the dial layout. As you would expect from a movement beating at a 40Hz frequency, the motion of the seconds hand is continuous and perfectly smooth (captured perfectly in our video).
Flip the watch over, and the exhibition caseback offers an unimpeded view of the new calibre FC-810. The decoration is traditional with Geneva stripes and perlage, and the oscillating weight is skeletonised. The movement is very close in architecture to the traditional manufacture movements of the brand, without the regulating organ, of course.
With the introduction of this unparalleled oscillator, we are dealing with the true essence of mechanical timekeeping and chronometry. The technical specifications of the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture are outstanding. Its innovative design and reasonable size bring notable improvements to previous solutions. Last but not least, this cutting-edge technology is offered at a surprisingly affordable price. At this price level, the aim is not to present laboratory prototypes but to undertake serial production to make this innovation available to as large an audience as possible.
Although the brand does not communicate on the ultimate rate deviation achieved per day (movements will be regulated with -4 +6 tolerances, which is similar to COSC specs), the frequency used yields much greater potential in this respect. Definitely, something to keep an eye on. For now, kudos to all the people involved in its remarkable development.
Availability & Price
The Frederique Constant Monolithic Slimline Manufacture will first be offered in three limited editions: 810 pieces in stainless steel with a blue dial, 810 pieces in stainless steel with a silver-coloured dial and 81 pieces in 18k pink gold. The price is set at EUR 4,495 in steel and EUR 14,495 in gold.
For more information, please visit frederiqueconstant.com.