Concept watches- like concept cars- can take one of two forms: either an outlandish styling exercise to win a few headlines, or a genuine preview of where a brand is headed. The TAG Heuer Mikrogirder, announced last week in Geneva, is definitely the latter. In fact, perhaps the least interesting part of the Mikrogirder story is the headline number of 5/ 10,000ths of a second. It’s easy to be blase about such a stunning achievement, but if TAG Heuer had simply reached this milestone by developing a faster evolution of the Mikrotimer (1/ 1,000ths second), then the story would not be as significant.
No, the real story of the Mikrogirder is the development of a new system for regulating mechanical watches and the beginnings of a push to change the way that Swiss watches are certified.
To get the inside word on the Mikrogirder, Calibre 11 spoke with TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, technical guru Guy Semon (Vice President of Sciences and Engineering at TAG Heuer) and lead designer Christoph Behling. The Mikrogirder is the third ultra-high frequency watch in 12 months and is certainly the most interesting.
Heuer, TAG Heuer and Fractions of Time
People unfamiliar with the history of Heuer/ TAG Heuer may wonder why the brand is suddenly obsessed with high-accuracy chronographs- and fair enough if your memory of TAG Heuer starts and stops with the ETA-powered quartz range of the 1980s and 90s. But the reality is that the brand has always been about measuring small fractions of time.
The high-frequency stars of today’s range both take their name from high-precision timers of the past. The original Heuer Mikrograph (above) was the world’s first stopwatch capable of showing 1/ 100th second accuracy. The Heuer Mikrograph (below) was a digital timer introduced in 1966 and was the world’s first timepiece capable of showing accuracy to 1/ 1000th of a second
In fact, if you go back the early 1980s, TAG Heuer sold more timing instruments than it did watches. While this heritage was pushed to the background in the early TAG Heuer years, it’s been the central focus of the last decade:
- 2003 Microtimer: First watch accurate to 1/ 1000th second (quartz)
- 2004: Timing equipment for Indianapolis 500- accurate to 1/ 10,000th second
- 2006: First mechanical watch accurate to 1/ 100th second (Carrera Calibre 360)
- 2008: First mechanical watch accurate to 1/ 10th of a second (Grand Carrera Calibre 36)
- 2011: First mechanical watch accurate to 1/ 1000th of a second (Mikrotimer)
Many people don’t know that still today there is a TAG Heuer Timing division that focuses solely on providing professional timing equipment.
The point of all of this is simple: To stand out in a crowded market, Swiss high-end brands look for ways of demonstrating their mastery of mechanical complications, whether it be a tourbillon, a minute-repeater, a moonphase or something else. Heuer/ TAG Heuer doesn’t really have a strong history in these complications (although there have been some moonphase and tide-indicator watches), but it does have a strong and credible history in high- accuracy timing, stemming from the connection with motor sport.
The point here is not that there are customers out there desperate to make sure that their eggs are boiled precisely, but that there is a reasonable belief that if you are able to make the world’s most accurate chronograph, then you should know a thing or two about making a wrist watch that keeps time accurately, even if the chronograph is never used.
The Limit of Huygens
With that context, let’s take a look at the Mikrogirder Concept.
Every mechanical watch on sale today follows the principles established by Christiaan Huygens, who is credited with developing the regulating mechanism for watches around 1660- the hairspring and the balance wheel. Energy is sent to the balance wheel which rotates in one direction, only to be brought back to its original position by the hairspring- it’s these oscillations that control the time-keeping ability of a watch and can be measured in terms of beats per hour, or in hertz.
The math is quite simple- if you want to accurately measure 1/ 100th of a second, then you need the watch to beat 100 times every second, which is equivalent to 6,000 beats per minute or 360,000 beats per hour. How do you get a watch to beat faster? Guy Semon explains:
“If you take a standard hairspring on a standard 4hz watch, the hairspring is very large. To increase the frequency, you need to cut the spring to increase the rigidity”
Jean-Christophe Babin adds: “To get more speed you lessen the angle of oscillation, the but at some point there is no longer any rotation- the movement locks”.
And this makes sense, even if you aren’t technically minded. Imagine two toy Slinky springs at the top of a staircase. The Slinky that is 40 cm tall will travel more slowly down the stairs than one that is 20cm tall…but a Slinky too small won’t go anywhere.
And in the context of watches, the point at which the Huygens system is no longer effective is around 600-700 hertz (recall that the Mikrotimer is 500 hertz). TAG Heuer have pushed the Mikrotimer to this speed, but found it unworkable, meaning that if the company wanted to move past the benchmark set by the Mikrotimer, it would need to think of a new way of regulating time.