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Sorting the Novel Assortments

This is a short note on one of the more important recent innovations in horology. It pertains to the assortment, which is a collection of parts regulating the release of energy from a watch's mainspring. In detail, the assortment consists of the escape wheel, balance wheel, hairspring, anchor lever (usually) and pallet stones. I've now seen two similar, and major, innovations in this portion of a watch mechanism. I was initially confused about the similarities and differences between these two mechanisms, so I thought I would briefly outline them. Two watches represents the start of a potential trend, so this is probably worth doing.

In 2017, Zenith announced the Defy Lab, a watch (pictured here with a black strap) featuring the wholesale replacement of a traditional assortment with an oscillating wafer of silicon (see picture).
Top: Zenith Defy Inventor, Bottom Left: Zenith Lab,Zenith Bottom Right: Silicon Oscillator Credit: Zenith
The price of this reference, available in only 10 examples, was roughly $30,200. The Zenith oscillator is large in comparison to an assortment, having approximately the same diamater as a dial (in contrast, traditional assortmants can squeeze within a much smaller diameter). In 2019 Zenith "commercialized" this highly limited release with the Defy Innovator (pictured with a blue strap, reference 95.9001.9100/78.R920) priced at $17,900.

The specifications on the Defy Inventor are very impressive and in keeping with Zenith's accomplishments in the field of high frequency movements, such as the El Primero. The oscillator runs at 18 hz (129,600 bph), more than 4.5 times the typical frequency of a mechanical timepiece. As you would expect, this results in enhanced precision. The Defy Inventor was case-tested and chronometer certified by Timelab, with reports of accuracy ranging from .3 to .5 seconds per day. The power reserve is 50 hour. This implementation of a silicon oscillator was created under the leadership of Guy Semon (a PhD holding physicist) in the Research Institute for the Watch Division of LVMH. You can watch a video about the development efforts here.

Despite these advantages, observers did note that something might be lost with the rapidly "quivering" and flashing oscillator visible through the skeletonized dial. Traditional assortments have an almost relaxing and soothing impact on the observer. In contrast, Zenith' oscillator can seem frenetic and less peaceful. There were also rumors that regulating the Defy Lab / Inventor was a challenge for Zenith.

This week, Frederique Constant (FC) introduced three versions of its Slimline Monolithic Manufacture.
The Federic Constant Slimline Monolithic Manufacture.
Interestingly, FC also adopted the silicon oscillator as a replacement of the assortment. In this rendition, though, the oscillator is much smaller in diameter and also features adjustable weights. These, reputedly, make regulation more straightforward. You can see the FC's oscillator through a "heartbeat" window positioned at 6 o'clock on the dial. A watchmaker still requires a special tool to measure the accuracy of the movement. The Slimline Monolithic Manufacture is far more accessible for buyers, with a starting price of approximately $5,276. Amazingly, this movement runs at an even faster pace, at 40 hz (288,000 bph). At more than 10x the frequency of a standard movement, FC claims the Slimline Monolithich Manufacture achieves chronometer-grade accuracy. It's remarkable that FC was able to round out this package with an 80 hour power reserve. Interestingly, FC's version of a silicon oscillator was developed by Flexous, a Dutch startup.

The watch community has not had a chance, yet, to form an impression of the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture "in the metal." The smaller diameter oscillator may help address concerns that this technology is less pleasant to observe "ticking" away. What's remarkable to me is that, approximately three short years ago, a watch with a silicon oscillator was priced at five figures and extremely limited in production. Today, that price has decreased by a whopping 83%. The technology has decreased in size while seemingly improving by a factor of 2x or more (from 18 hz to 40 hz). The innovation has diffused internationally and to another brand. This is an incredibly rapid pace for innovation in the watch industry. It is akin to the type of competition we more often see in semiconductors and computer processors. Also, competition in horological innovation typically does not involve offering more for a lower price. We'll have to stay tuned in order to see if this nascent development transforms into a permanent trend.

Right, the new assortments are sorted.

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