Zenith’s New Watch Oscillator is Making Waves

Swiss watchmaker Zenith has created what many mechanical watch fanatics are calling the biggest improvement to mechanical watch accuracy since the invention of the balance spring in 1675. The Caliber ZO 342 is a new type of harmonic oscillator that runs at 15 Hz, which is almost four times the speed of most watches. The coolest part? It’s fabricated out of silicon using Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE), and it single-handedly replaces about 30 components.

Before explaining how Zenith’s oscillator works and why this is such exciting news, it’s important to understand why the balance spring and balance wheel were such a big step forward when they were the newest thing. The system was invented by [Christiaan Huygens], a Dutch mathematician and scientist. [Huygens] had previously invented the pendulum clock, which is widely accepted as the first precision timepiece.

Nice, simple, public domain harmonic motion.

Disturbing Forces

Both the pendulum clock and its portable cousin the mechanical pocket watch employ harmonic oscillators. These rely on a disturbing force to begin the oscillation and a restoring force to keep the oscillation in proportion to the equilibrium point.

If your physics knowledge is rusty, think back to recess instead. The swing hangs there on the playground, vertical and still. This is its equilibrium point. When you sit down and start it in motion, you provide the disturbing force. As soon as you hit the peak of your arc, the restoring force of gravity kicks in and your swing moves back through equilibrium to the other end of the sinusoidal period.

GIF via Magnus Bosse

A clock pendulum works the same way. And the balance spring and balance wheel in a mechanical watch do too, though it is a bit harder to visualize.

Winding a mechanical watch torques up the main spring and stores the power that drives the gears. This power is meted out by teamwork between the balance spring, wheel, and escapement.

Until now, mechanical watch movements have been made mostly of metal. Because of this, many factors can and do affect their precision. Magnetism, temperature, and even a watch movement’s position throughout the day can all have a detrimental effect on accuracy.

Zenith has tackled all of that in one go by replacing the most sensitive and susceptible components with a single silicon wafer. The new oscillator is a flat, one-piece unit that replaces the balance spring, balance wheel, and escapement lever. If you were to count up all the jewels and bits and bobs that go along with those components, the Caliber ZO 342 replaces about 30 pieces total.

Disturbing Silicon

So, how does this abstract, flat-pack oscillator work? Well, the nitty-gritty details are a bit vague. Searching leads to terms like ‘topological oscillation’ and ‘conformational oscillation of (the silicon wafer’s) topology’. It sounds to us like marketing speak for silicon springs.

In the diagram above, there are two tiny teeth circled in dark blue. These teeth ratchet against the escape wheel, providing the disturbing force. There are three whisper-thin blades of silicon highlighted in yellow that act as springs and provide the restorative force.

The shorter pair of blades highlighted in violet create rotational movement to drive the gears. The red blades link together the three lobes of the oscillator. These blades allow for horizontal movement while limiting vertical movement, or amplitude.

The most flamboyant of the Zenith Defy Lab limited series of watches that feature the Caliber ZO 342 oscillator. Image via Hodinkee

Flagship Watch Built Like Spaceship

The Caliber ZO 342 made its debut a few weeks ago in a new watch called the Zenith Defy Lab. As if a new kind of oscillator weren’t enough, the Defy Lab’s case is made of a new composite material called Aeronith. Up close, Aeronith kind of resembles old, silvery, pockmarked asphalt. That’s because it is made of open-pore aluminium foam stuffed with a light polymer. This process produces a material that’s lighter than carbon fiber.

Surprisingly enough, the watch starts at a “mere” $30,000. Still not reaching for your wallet? All ten that were made have already been spoken for, anyway. There’s no charge to drool over Zenith’s horologically pornographic teaser video for the Defy Lab after the break.

Main image via Hodinkee

Via r/EngineeringPorn

45 thoughts on “Zenith’s New Watch Oscillator is Making Waves

        1. +1, if i could afford one i’d still not get it, solely because of that terrible body, i get that they wanna be space age with their new material, but it just doesn’t look nice.

  1. I used to know a guy who worked for a tech company that had an IPO. Buying expensive cars is cliched, so he bought expensive watches instead. After each purchase, he would send out a watch review, like a movie review, touting its features and its emotional impact. “The translucent crystal has an impossibly deep luster, and evokes a need to venture outside where the light can truly play magic with the wonders found within.”

    Yeah, it was pretty pompous.

    1. Well, there’s no chance of rust, or any other oxidation, and it’s presumably at least a robust as any of the other tiny pieces in the watch, so I’d say the odds are good that it would last as long as any other well made and kept mechanical watch.

    1. I recall Battlemech “bones” were supposed to be formed from “foamed aluminum core covered with various composite materials, wrapped in silicon-carbide fibers, and clad in titanium-alloyed steel” [http://www.sarna.net/wiki/Chassis]. I’ve also read references to foamed titanium structures in various books

    1. If that is the only issue you have with the description of the physics, then you need to read more closely. I will say no more, as it is good enough to do the job and if I want to find more, I can.

  2. OK. I admit that, while I work in the semiconductor field (designing chips), I have no idea about the economics of this. I am used to wafers being expensive due to the 30 to 50 steps involved in making them. This looks like it would be incredibly simple to make, with maybe two or three steps, and at a large geometry. However, the number of mechanisms per die is pretty low. Assuming decent mass production, is this part eventually going to be cheap, or expensive?

  3. That watch has a feature in common with many modern watches – an almost impossible to read face. For a person with even a minor visual impairment (me) that is just a confusing mess of visual junk. My watch has a black face with wide white hands – I can read it even with my glasses off.

    High tech coupled with bad design – that’s the world today.

      1. Even before mobile phones many preferred wrist watches over pocket watches. In full sun the the phone display is worthless, and where I live there’s full sun most days. However the phone has an advantage at night but I still have to push a button the see the time, just like I do with my watch.

    1. Well, it is design.. I got a Bell & Ross BR01 Phantom that is black with black numerals and black hands.
      Sort of Hitch hikers guide.. Visible in bright sunlight and absolute darkness (ok lume!) but not at all in anything in between). I must have been mad to buy it!

    1. This doesn’t answer your questions and is pretty freaking vague to boot, but FWIW, there was a super-famous watch-designer & maker, “George” something…reading about his work, workshop (and I think he wrote a small book) was great. Might help scratch yer itch there….

  4. If I were designing watch faces I would make the design of the second hand, minute hand, and tick marks accord with the accuracy of the watch. If the watch had a high degree of accuracy then the face would have sharp minute ticks between the numerals, and the second and minute hands would have sharp points that reach the ticks. I would not have a rounded minute hand.

  5. Neat. That case material reminds me of that famous meteorite they found in Arizona or some such.

    That name Zenith though, the only Zenith I know of is an old manufacturer of CRT computer monitors of yore.

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