Experimented with since the 1990s, silicon made its horological breakthrough in the Ulysse Nardin Freak in 2001, which used two escapement wheels in the material. The Swiss watch industry quickly jumped on the silicon bandwagon, and today you have to look hard to find watches that are not using silicon for escapement parts, shock resistance or hairsprings. Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Girard-Perregaux, Swatch Group brands from Breguet to Zenith, Hublot, IWC, Harry Winston, Laurent Ferrier, Panerai and many more are all using silicon parts in various degrees. But what is so attractive about this material grown in a lab atom by atom until it reaches the desired shape? To start with, these pieces can be mass-produced to an extent, made from identical wafers of silicon, ensuring the quality is exactly the same for every piece. This is not always the case for handmade parts. Rolex, Cartier and Tudor … why is there a global luxury watch shortage? Then there are the properties of silicon, which are extremely helpful for watchmakers innovating ever more complex movements, being antimagnetic, non-corrosive and non-deforming, removing the need for lubricants and improving precision. Silicon also allows further room for innovation as it can be shaped or moved in ways traditional materials can’t. “In 2005, when we first launched the Advanced Research programme, I thought the traditionalists did exaggerate. Indeed, it was only about changing tiny parts in the movement from classical materials to silicon in order to improve the precision of the timepiece – this is why I was totally for it!” says Thierry Stern, CEO of Patek Philippe. The brand has its own in-house version of the silicon development, which it calls Spiromax. Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, founder of watchmaker Agenhor, makes innovative movements and watches for brands like Van Cleef & Arpels, Hermès and H. Moser & Cie. Fiercely traditional, Wiederrecht is reluctant to accept some brands have embarked on the silicon train. Mark Wahlberg’s blinging watch collection, from Rolexes to Patek Philippes “For an entry-level price point brand, it makes sense,” Wiederrecht admits. “But for the finest makers of Swiss horology? No, this takes away from the magic of handmade – and handmade is what collectors around the world want to pay for,” he says passionately. Jean-Marc’s son Nicolas, who has taken over the daily running of the family business together with his brother Laurent, has a somewhat more pragmatic view. “The use of silicon parts? As long as it is not the hairspring, then it’s OK, I think. A silicon hairspring is very good for Swatch Sistem 51, but not fine for fine watchmaking. Why? A good watchmaker is not able to touch and make a fine-tuning of the hairspring – thus the use of silicon takes away one of the key elements from watchmaking. Watchmakers should be able to fine-tune a hairspring. With a normal hairspring you can work on it centuries from now, and a watch should be able to pass through generations.” Why are waiting lists for luxury watches getting even longer? Unlike the revolution driven by high-end brands, the latest in silicon technology – the Monolithic collection – was presented in November 2021 by Frederique Constant. Pim Koeslag, until very recently technical director of FC, as well as of the sister brands Alpina and high-end Ateliers deMonaco, all owned by Citizen Group since 2018, explains: “The Monolithic movement, unique for Frederique Constant, replaces 26 components of the balance wheel, hairspring and anchor with one silicon disc with four straight flexing rods. The disc only spins six degrees, and at 288,000vph it beats 10 times as fast as a normal 4Hz movement.” The innovation was developed together with Flexous, a company spun off from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Koeslag’s native country. And this development is visible to the naked eye. Unlike the normal hacking second-hand that we know from mechanical watches, the second-hand moves at 80 steps per second, perceived as smoothly as on an electronic watch. And since silicon is so light, they have been able to more than double the power reserve compared with their standard movement, to an impressive 80 hours. 5 most expensive watches and jewellery worn by Korean stars, ranked At the other end of the silicon spectrum we find another Dutchman: Anthony de Haas, director of product development at A. Lange & Söhne. “We don’t need silicon because we don’t do mass production. We have 500 people who make 5,000 watches per year,” he says. To de Haas, employing silicon has nothing to do with antimagnetic properties – which is often used as a main argument for making hairsprings with silicon. “Of course magnetism can affect the hairspring, but there are other parts that are more in danger when it comes to magnetism. My personal opinion is this: the big brands use silicon hairsprings because it is easy. It comes from a wafer, and after you put it in your watch, a watchmaker doesn’t need to regulate it. So with this technology you don’t need to train watchmakers to do the regulating. 5 best new timepieces with time zone options for luxury travellers “For Lange, it is important to keep the old technologies alive – today there are only a few people around that can bend a traditional Breguet overcoil at the end of a hairspring, and we train watchmakers to do this. OK, this may sound very conservative, but a mechanical watch is made with technology that is 300 years old and for us it is important to keep doing what we do. We also know that a watchmaker will be able to service a traditional watch 100 years from now – with these other materials used by other brands today, I am not 100 per cent sure.” This reinforces Jean-Marc Wiederrecht’s argument about the value attached to handmade pieces. When you compare the amount of work for silicon parts and traditional parts that require double assembly, we are talking hours, sometimes a day or more at the bench for a single movement. Add to that the painstaking hours of polishing and bevelling the pieces by hand. “We like to make things nice by hand, and silicon is made by a machine. I am fine with those who do it, but it is simply not what we do. Our task is to bring our watchmakers to our level – not to descend to the level of traditional watchmaking,” says de Haas. But he also sees a positive side of the current development: “Everybody and every brand should do their thing. More diversity is exactly what the watch industry needs.” Want more stories like this? Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .