Balance Wheel and Escapement
Almost a century after Huygens introduced the balance wheel, the English watchmaker Thomas Mudge introduced the world to the so-called Swiss lever escapement, which right up until the present day has performed the role of the wristwatch “brain” – it controls the release of energy stored in the mainspring and basically ensures that the mechanism keeps ticking at the same speed. From the time of their inventions until today, the watchmaking industry has developed and presented a fair number of balance wheel and escapement variants with the use of modern materials. Still, the mechanics of functioning practically hasn’t changed through these several centuries:
Almost all similar mechanisms have been developed on the basis of Huygens’ invention: the spirally wound spring in the balance wheel. The traditional balance wheel and escapement are usually assembled from approximately 30 metal parts
The traditional balance wheel and escapement are usually assembled from approximately 30 metal parts, which have to be connected so that their expansion due to changes in temperature does not influence the functioning of the system, they have to be as resistant as possible to influences of the magnetic field, and above all, the contacts between different moving parts have to be appropriately lubricated to prevent energy loss.
Modern horology overcomes these obstacles with the use of new metal alloys resistant to temperature changes and magnetic fields. Nevertheless, challenges, involving lubricants, component parts wear, and energy loss on account of numerous movable parts and their relatively high weight, remain in the form of limitations to the power reserve, mechanism precision, and the need for regular servicing, setting, replacement or lubrication of moving parts.
Many watchmakers have been using silicon for certain parts of their mechanisms.
More interesting alternatives to the traditional materials include Glucidur, a compound of copper, beryllium, and steel; highly corrosion-resistant tantalum; and various mixtures of ceramics and carbon, for the balance wheel spring, for example, Nivarox, a mixture of steel and nickel, or the practically indestructible material Parachrom used by Rolex.
Various surface treatments are also very interesting since they improve the properties of the metal. Furthermore, for almost a decade now, many watchmakers have been using silicon for certain parts of their mechanisms for it has been established as a light, durable, antimagnetic material extremely resistant to temperature changes which, in addition to everything else, does not require the use of lubricants.
In certain models, Rolex and Tudor use it for the balance wheel spring, while it has also replaced metal in the production of escapements in this year’s Panerai LAB-ID and Breitling’ Superocean Heritage Chronoworks. Regardless of how well a classical movement is made, from which material the balance wheel spring or escapement are made, the limitations involving accuracy and energy inefficiency of the base still remain.
Regardless of how well a classical movement is made, from which material the balance wheel spring or escapement are made, the limitations involving accuracy and energy inefficiency of the base still remain.
In recent decades, the world of traditional horology has proven that it evolves and moves in its own rhythm and especially that it strives towards tested and therefore reliable solutions which are, in their pursuit of mechanical perfection, continuously improved and upgraded. The same goes for the brains of timepieces – the balance wheel and escapement.
This year these have experienced changes that promise exceptional progress and open many possibilities in the direction of higher efficiency, and primarily of punctuality of mechanical wristwatches.