For over two decades Christophe Claret has pushed the physical boundaries of watchmaking. His latest creation, the X-TREM-1, forays into magnetic fields to create a watch that suspends both time and belief.
Christophe Claret's latest wristwatch is exceptional in many ways: wrist-wrapping 'curvex' case and movement, inclined tourbillon, retrograde hours and minutes, torque-equalising dual barrels and quick-set hours. But the X-TREM-1's main claim to fame is that it is the world's first wristwatch with no physical/mechanical connection between the movement and the time indicators. Hours and minutes are displayed by small metal spheres floating up and down transparent tubes on each side of the case.
The case of the X-TREM-1 is bead-blasted black PVD-coated titanium; with either white gold or rose gold highlights surrounding the unique magnetic displays either side of the watch.
First of all, a disclaimer: I take umbrage with the fact that Christophe Claret makes seriously complicated watchmaking look too easy. Producing an excellent simple wristwatch is an incredibly difficult undertaking and one I appreciate immensely. Christophe Claret demeans that work by creating incredibly complex, and often playful, wristwatches that cock a snook at generally accepted horological limitations. His Dual Tow has rubber conveyor belts plus a striking chronograph; the Adagio boasts cathedral gongs and a GMT; and Claret's 21 Blackjack is a wrist-borne mobile casino.
And now we learn that Claret considers those his 'tame' models because he felt that the new model deserved a completely new collection called X-TREM, the first of which is the aforementioned flux-flanked X-TREM-1.
The X-TREM-1 uses a revolutionary system of magnets to indicate the time on the side of the watch, positioning the spheres to mark the hours and minutes.
The first thing that struck me about the watch wasn't the plethora of technical innovations or its floating balls; it was the very comfortable size and shape of the watch on the wrist. The dimensions of the case - 41x57mm - belie both the eye and the arm. The curvex titanium case and movement baseplate - machined on Claret's new 16-axis CNC machine, presently the most sophisticated CNC machine used in horology - wraps very comfortably around the wrist, even a chicken-leg wrist like mine, so the case does not physically feel long.
Then the angled tourbillon at the bottom end of the relatively slim 15mm high case, the angled quick-set hour pusher at the top and the transparent tubes either side of the case visually shrink the length and width. The X-TREM-1 both looks and feels like a much smaller watch than it is. It actually looks elegant.
Due to Claret's innovation with magnets, the X-TREM-1 is the first wristwatch that has no physical connection between the movement and the time indicators.
On the ball
Magnets and mechanical watches haven't been natural partners - until recently at least - because the rate/precision of the movement is dictated by the isochronism (regularity) of the oscillations of the balance spring and a magnetised regulator doesn't behave as it should (see Timothy Treffrey's article on magnetism and watches on page 36). A (sensible) watchmaker would never consider embedding magnets in the movement, which is just the sort of challenge Claret found irresistible. That said, it wasn't easy; the X-TREM-1 required three years of development, including a full year for the magnets and magnetic fields. The secret was in precisely focusing the magnetic fields outwards and away from the movement.
Hours and minutes are indicated by hollow steel balls moving along transparent sapphire tubes either side of the case: hours on left, minutes on right. Both are retrograde in that on reaching the top, they instantly fly back to zero. Controlling the positions of the metal spheres are two tiny magnets that move up and down each side of the movement pulled by easily adjustable surgical silk threads. The steel balls can be shaken out of the fields of its magnets, but they are quickly attracted back into position.
The hours can be quickly adjusted by a quick-set pusher at the top of the case, with each push advancing the ball a full hour. Apparently the tactile feel of the pusher is based on a computer keyboard.
The hand-wound watch draws its energy from two barrels, enabling the use of the innovative and sophisticated display without affecting the rate of the tourbillon and subsequently the accuracy of the watch.
In the centre of the 'dial', the two mainspring barrels - the top for powering the indications, the lower for the tourbillon regulator - can be seen through the smoked crystal. The uncapped barrels turn as they are simultaneously wound via a folding key on the back of the watch. A second key on the back sets the time. Having separate springs powering the timekeeping and the indications maximises precision by eliminating drops in balance amplitude that would occur if the indications were taking their power from the same mainspring as the regulator.
Another aid to improving the timekeeping is an innovative secondary escapement that transfers power every 22 seconds from the indicator spring to the regulator mainspring to provide the latter with a much flatter torque curve, which gives more constant power to the balance. That special escapement also ensures that the retrograde indication mainspring will never be empty while the tourbillon is still running.
And while that flying tourbillon was originally inclined at 30° for aesthetic reasons - Claret wanted the tourbillon to be clearly seen and appreciated face-on without having to tilt the watch - it was discovered that timekeeping is improved as the angle minimises the balance being in the two positions with the greatest variations in rate, ie. flat and vertical, while at rest (a characteristic Greubel Forsey uses in all movements for the same reason).
The flying tourbillon, inclined at a 30° angle, allows the wearer to appreciate the intricacies of the movement while, allegedly, improving the timekeeping properties of the watch.
Sphere of influence
So the X-TREM-1 is comfortable on the wrist, looks and feels much smaller than it actually is, should be an accurate timekeeper and has a world-first system of magnetically operated time indications. However, how easy is it to tell the time? The answer: Pretty damn good. The large hour and minute numbers are actually etched into the sapphire crystal and filled with Super-LumiNova so that they are big, bright and highly legible. The metal balls are easily seen beside their respected time scales by day, and twin bands of Super-LumiNova running along the movement-side of the tubes so that the balls are also highly legible in the dark. And if the shape of the ends of those tubes reminds you of something, it may be the headlights of a Porsche 911, Christophe Claret's favourite car.
I have to admit to being a fan of these types of extreme concept-type watches. However, it is usually more of an intellectual appreciation for pushing horological boundaries than a "wow, that's something I can see myself wearing". The X-TREM-1, though, is a watch I would be happy to have strapped to my wrist, but with prices from SFr.264,000, that's unlikely to be anytime soon.
Further information: www.christopheclaret.com