How Omega Defeats the Mechanical Watch’s Enemy No. 1

This is a watchmaking revolution! While Omega is already gearing up for industrial-scale production of this technology, most of its competitors are still half asleep.

Magnetic fields are present everywhere these days and have by now become Enemy Number 1 of the mechanical watch. The wristwatch has got over many teething troubles. Dust-proofing and water-resistance are no longer issues, nor is oil that hardens too fast, entailing short servicing intervals. Knocks and jars of all kinds scarcely disturb a modern watch movement any more than high or low temperatures. What remains is these invisible fields that are all around us and are increasing almost every day. Indeed, magnetic fields are omnipresent! Generators of magnetic fields that represent a threat to wristwatches include the invisible fasteners of handbags, accessories and various fitments, electronic gadgets, kitchen equipment, telephones, cordless phones, smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers, radios, loudspeakers, cars, airport security-check devices and much more. For example, if you use an iPad with the original Apple Smart Cover, you are dealing with over 30 magnets altogether. There are more than twenty of them in the Smart Cover, and ten more in the iPad itself. Simple everyday use of an iPad brings your wristwatch into continual proximity with powerful magnetic fields.

You may think that is laughable. I don’t!

Only a few weeks ago, the Bloomberg news agency reported that 8,000 of the world’s leading doctors and specialists attending a congress of the “Heart Rhythm Society” in Denver had warned of the dangers of the iPad. Patients with a cardiac pacemaker who laid the iPad down on their chests in bed, for example, suffered a stoppage of their pacemaker. Now even Apple is strongly advising anyone with a pacemaker to avoid holding the iPad too close, and to take special care not to go to sleep inadvertently with their iPad lying on their chest.

What effects do magnetic fields have?

A mechanical watch contains hundreds of different components, and they all display different characteristics when exposed to a magnetic field. Some are unaffected: They are made of amagnetic materials. These materials also have no magnetic remanence: after being exposed to a magnetic field, they do not become little magnets themselves. However, many materials used in a watch movement are ferromagnetic in character, and these store magnetic energy and thus have magnetic remanence. Let us now imagine a potpourri of components, with different characteristics, repeatedly exposed to magnetic fields of various strengths over a period. A particularly sensitive part is the hair-thin balance spring. With each beat of the watch movement, it pulls the balance wheel back, ensuring perfect, harmonious oscillation behavior. This generates the rhythm for the gear train, dividing up the continuous force supplied by the spring barrel into seconds, minutes and hours. As long as a balance spring is allowed to oscillate without interference, the rhythm is even and the watch will run accurately. The torque moments involved are unimaginably small, so that even the tiniest perturbation will cause discrepancies. Should the coils of the balance spring start to attract or repel each other, because they have become magnetized, the delicate play of forces in the balance mechanism will cease to be in equilibrium, and rate deviations will increase. In the most extreme case, individual coils of a hairspring can attract each other so strongly that they stick together. A complete coil of the balance spring would thus be bridged, severely reducing the effective length of the spring and causing the watch to run extremely fast. Sooner or later, the delicate mechanism of the watch movement, in which tiny torque moments interact throughout, will accumulate increasingly varied magnetic fields. At first, these will exert “only” a considerable influence on running accuracy but, as time goes by, they will inevitably reach the point where the tiny motor stops. In powerful magnetic fields, however, the movement will usually just stop at once and refuse to start again.

As a general rule, watches that do not stop under the influence of magnetic fields of given intensity and do not exceed rate deviations by more than a certain limit after exposure to magnetic fields may be described as “antimagnetic”, in accordance with DIN standards. According to standard DIN 8309, mechanical watches (of movement diameter larger than 20 mm) are considered to be antimagnetic if the rate deviation of the watch after exposure to a magnetic field of strength 4,800 A/m (corresponding to 6 mT) is no more than ± 30 seconds per day. Furthermore, the watch must not stop while under exposure to a magnetic field of this intensity. However, the value given in DIN 8309, set very low at 4,800 A/m, does not provide sufficient protection in practice.

The problem was identified very early on

When electric power took over our housekeeping, generating ever-increasing quantities of magnetic fields, many watchmakers wondered how far it would be possible to protect timepieces from them. As early as 1888, IWC, under the management of Johannes Vogel Muster, produced a 16- and 19-line non-magnetic watch movement for the Non-Magnetic Watch Company. To this end, the balance wheel, balance spring, escape wheel and pallet fork body were made from a palladium alloy, the fork from bronze and its arms from gold. Later on, protection against magnetism took on prime importance, especially for military applications. As the modernization of aircraft cockpits progressed, this too represented an increasing accumulation of magnetic field sources. For this reason, IWC developed a professional pilot’s watch for the German air force in the late 1930s, its 19-line center-seconds 52 T.S.C. caliber movement newly encased in a dial, movement holding ring and inner case back made of soft iron. The soft iron inner case produced by completely sheathing the movement in soft iron parts in this way would from then on be standard on IWC’s pilot’s watches and constitute a new standard for many watches with magnetic field protection.

 

This shows the construction of a case with a soft iron inner case realized for the IWC Ingenieur. The latter acts as a Faraday cage and can protect the movement up to an intensity of 1,000 gauss, or 80,000 A/m.
This shows the construction of a case with a soft iron inner case realized for the IWC Ingenieur. The latter acts as a Faraday cage and can protect the movement up to an intensity of 1,000 gauss, or 80,000 A/m.

 

The figure shows how the soft iron inner case works. The magnetic fields are diverted round the watch movement.
The figure shows how the soft iron inner case works. The magnetic fields are diverted round the watch movement.

 

Weak points in this construction are any openings, such as the date window.
Weak points in this construction are any openings, such as the date window.

 

In the ordinary way, magnetic fields cannot be seen. In this computer simulation, the different flux densities are shown as a spectrum of colors: red shows a high flux density, blue a zone with no magnetic field.
In the ordinary way, magnetic fields cannot be seen. In this computer simulation, the different flux densities are shown as a spectrum of colors: red shows a high flux density, blue a zone with no magnetic field.

 

At strengths exceeding 1,000 gauss, or 80,000 A/m, the protection afforded by a soft iron inner case breaks down.
At strengths exceeding 1,000 gauss, or 80,000 A/m, the protection afforded by a soft iron inner case breaks down.

 

Omega has banished all ferromagnetic components from the new movement. Thus equipped, the new “8508” caliber can now resist magnetic fields of over 15,000 gauss.
Omega has banished all ferromagnetic components from the new movement. Thus equipped, the new “8508” caliber can now resist magnetic fields of over 15,000 gauss.

 

Notably in the 1950s, a whole series of new watch models were presented, now targeting a new group of customers: engineers, technicians, chemists, pilots and doctors – all sorts of people who routinely had dealings with magnetic fields. The IWC “Ingenieur” was among them, as were the Omega “Railmaster” and also the Rolex “Milgauss”. The IWC featured a protection level of 80,000 A/m (= 1,000 gauss), the Omega resisted over 900 gauss and the Rolex 1,000 gauss. It was not by chance that all these professional watches were grouped around the 1,000-gauss level, as protection by a soft iron inner case reaches a ceiling in the neighborhood of 1,000 gauss or 80,000 A/m. Under the influence of a stronger magnetic field, this kind of Faraday cage becomes magnetically permeable.

Omega’s technology is a revolution

So it is not surprising that until recently there has been no genuinely better solution than a soft iron inner case. And this is still burdened with the drawback that it makes the movement casing quite thick, and prevents the manufacturer from making the movement visible through a sapphire crystal case back. Of course, the recent development and industrialization of the silicon balance spring has brought a significant improvement compared with balance springs made the traditional way, as silicon is well known as an amagnetic material.However, all the other ferromagnetic movement components described earlier still remained to be eliminated. In close and exemplary collaboration between Swatch Group engineers of ETA, ASULAB, Nivarox FAR and Omega, a new Omega caliber has now been created in which all the ferromagnetic components have been systematically replaced with amagnetic ones.

From left to right: Mathieu Oulevey, project manager at  ETA, Thierry Conus, Head of Research & Development bei ETA, Raynald Aeschlimann, Vice President Omega, Head & International Sales Director, Jean-Claude Monachon, Vice President Omega & Head of Product Development, Michel Willemin, CEO Asulab.
From left to right: Mathieu Oulevey, project manager at ETA, Thierry Conus, Head of Research & Development at ETA, Raynald Aeschlimann, Vice President Omega, Head & International Sales Director, Jean-Claude Monachon, Vice President Omega & Head of Product Development, Michel Willemin, CEO Asulab.

 

The basis used was the “8500” caliber with a coaxial escapement, a silicon Si14 balance spring and a titanium balance wheel. The new amagnetic caliber, certified by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC), is called the “8508”. Its balance wheel oscillates at 25,200 vibrations per hour, or 3.5 Hz, and it has a power reserve of 60 hours.

 

Silicon Si14 balance spring
Omega Silicon Si14 balance spring

 

Silicon Si14 balance spring and a titanium balance wheel.
Silicon Si14 balance spring and a titanium balance wheel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now for the clincher: It can withstand magnetic fields of over 15,000 gauss! This is stated specifically on the dial. However, Omega has proved in repeated external tests conducted at great expense that the figure is actually considerably higher. There are even hushed whispers of as much as 30,000 gauss. That is no longer so easy to test, though, as a specialist organization has to be brought in for the purpose each time. In contrast, 15,000 gauss can be measured by the Swatch Group internally whenever necessary, so Omega guarantees this value as a minimum.

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Let us not forget that 15,000 gauss is 15 times more than the IWC and Rolex models mentioned above can withstand. That is quite something! And when you know that in any case the actual Gauss number is considerably higher, there is little more to be said. Whatever you intend to do with your watch, it will accompany you unflinchingly, as the 41.5 mm special-steel case is also water-resistant to 150 meters.

Not a special model, but the beginning of large-scale manufacture

The real trump card is this: the new Omega “Seamaster Aqua Terra >15 000 Gauss” is NOT an artificially overpriced special model, and is not even a limited edition. It is simply the model that Omega considered worthy of the launch of this new technology. The price difference compared to the “Seamaster Aqua Terra” with the standard “8500” caliber, which is still a current model, is not even 1,000 euros. From now on, all Omega’s in-house movements will be modified and/or developed in this direction, so that Omega’s entire range of models will be amagnetic. Industrialization is already fully underway. At the Omega head office in Biel, the estimate is five years. By then, all the company’s model lines will have been converted.

This is what the Omega “Seamaster Aqua Terra >15.000 Gauss” will look like. Outwardly, it is scarcely distinguishable from the current Seamaster model. There is just a little yellow incorporated in the seconds hand and the minute circle.
This is what the Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra >15.000 Gauss will look like. Outwardly, it is scarcely distinguishable from the current Seamaster model. There is just a little yellow incorporated in the seconds hand and the minute circle.
The “Seamaster Aqua Terra >15.000 Gauss” can withstand magnetic fields of over 15 000 gauss. That is 15 times more than a Rolex “Milgauss” or an IWC “Ingenieur” can resist. Using this new technology enables Omega to dispense with a soft iron inner case and also to reveal the watch movement through a sapphire crystal case back.
The Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra >15.000 Gauss can withstand magnetic fields of over 15 000 gauss. That is 15 times more than a Rolex “Milgauss” or an IWC “Ingenieur” can resist. Using this new technology enables Omega to dispense with a soft iron inner case and also to reveal the watch movement through a sapphire crystal case back.

 

This may read like a science-fiction novel today, but it is soon going to pose serious problems to Omega’s competitors. Until now, the topic of magnetism has received scant attention, for good reasons, and only a few exasperated employees of all watch brands have much to say about it. But all that is soon going to change: just wait and see what happens when the Omega worldwide communication and advertising machine starts up and brings this aspect into full focus. Then the joke will be over! This unique selling point is going to persuade very many buyers to opt for an Omega. Its respected competitors are going to break out in a real cold sweat, even Omega’s gigantic rival, Rolex.

The Swatch Group has handed Omega a gift beyond price. It is a revolution in watchmaking, however ingeniously the competition may play it down. And a further point: It is going to be very difficult to improve the classic mechanical watch again in this way in the long term. The chroniclers of the future will write that it was Omega that accomplished this revolution.

 

The photo shows the Omega “”Seamaster Aqua Terra >15.000 Gauss” at the presentation of this new technology. Standing on it is a magnet with a field strength of 5,000 gauss; it failed to affect the Omega in any way. Models of other brands with protection up to 1,000 gauss that were subjected to the same test that day simply stopped. Their movements were so severely impaired that they could not be induced to start again even after the magnet was removed.
The photo shows the Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra >15.000 Gauss at the presentation of this new technology. Standing on it is a magnet with a field strength of 5,000 gauss; it failed to affect the Omega in any way. Models of other brands with protection up to 1,000 gauss that were subjected to the same test that day simply stopped. Their movements were so severely impaired that they could not be induced to start again even after the magnet was removed.

 

Taken from my post published the 17th January this year, I again invite you to listen to the interview with Jean-Claude Monachon, Omega VP and head of product development. And PLEASE do also discover what role I personally played in the development of this new movement and antimagnetic technology… 🙂

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/75322902?secret_token=s-c5lmJ” params=”auto_play=false&show_artwork=false&color=ff7700″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

 

Jean-Claude Monachon, Vice President Omega & Head of Product Development
Jean-Claude Monachon, Vice President Omega & Head of Product Development

 

These two videos, also taken from my post from the 17th January this year, show what happened when we “stressed” the new Omega “Seamaster Aqua Terra >15 000 Gauss” with a magnet with a strength of 5000 Gauss…

 

The first video shows how we measured the magnetic strength of the magnet …

 

The second video shows that 5000 Gauss had NO influence on the watch …

 

 

 

More from Alexander Linz

16 Comments

  • Quite a philosophical discussion going on here but what I would really like to know is the difference between the 8500 and 8508 and how significant that is with regards to the 15,000 Gauss because it would seem that the 8500 is already a movement that has already taken strides in becoming anti-magnetic.
    Omega watches are excellent because they utilise technology optimally to produce a good reliable product.

  • Bullshit…
    Omega invents an ennemy and the solution.
    Weak magnetism is everywhere and does not hurt anything.

  • Congrats on your article and I like the discussion with Mezdis. We will see who is right but agree with Alexander that Omega has a USP in their hands. First one with a date indicator, first one where you can see the movement from the back. Now, i think a lot of people do not know how exposed we are at magnetic issues every day. I think just from a designer point of view and price range this is going to be a success. Bear in mind that IWC and Rolex are more expensive then the price indication in the article. Omega must know something which we do not know. They are not just designing a new movement and then changing their WHOLE RANGE with this if they are not sure of the success. They do market research and customer research like no other.

  • Thanks for the article. I especially liked the demostration videos. One picture is worth a thousand words. I suppose the only thing I was hoping for that did get shown was competitor’s watches being stopped, or at least thrown off, by the magnet. I sort of understand Omega’s decission not to show that so as to not embarass those other manufacturers.

    • No way to film this … But I can tell you that I saw it and I can affirm you that several well known watch models stopped right away … Sometimes 1000 Gauss are just not enough 🙂

  • Alex,
    First, thank you for this brilliant article! And second, congratulations to Omega for this achievement! I know what it takes to make a whole movement antimagnetic and agree that it is a great effort.

    However, I do not agree with these two points:
    1) I don’t think that magnetic fields are the enemy nr. 1 for mechanical watches. While it is true that magnetic fields are all around us (in an increasing number), the problem of a magnetized watch is very easily solved. It takes 5 seconds to demagnetize a watch and you can even do it yourself if you have the right (inexpensive) equipment. In contrast, water tightness, scratches, dints and lubrication problems are issues that usually need a costly service. So, for me as a customer, I’d rather have a magnetized watch than a watch with water inside…
    2) I don’t think that many customers will buy Omega watches just because of this anti-magnetic advantage. In my opinion, there are many higher rated reasons to buy a certain watch model.

    I want to make clear that I really acknowledge Omega’s effort. However, I do not really share your overwhelming enthusiasm for this specific achievement.

    • With a demagnetising devise (e.g. Elma Antimag 2) you can only demagnetise until a certain level. If the watch is really “hurt” by magnetic fields the watchmaker will have to dismantle the entire watchcase and movement and demagnetise each part individually. With 100 ++ parts in a modern caliber this takes time and costs a lot of money.

      I have an Elma Antimag 2 in my office and I demagnetise every watch before I wear it and after… And still I was able to “destroy” one so heavily by exposing it to strong magnetic fields that it had to be serviced afterwards …

      Lubrication, water tightness and scratches are no more issue in my eyes …

      I am also sure that this is an USP that will help to sell many more watches … Just wait until Omega starts its communication campaign …

      • Honestly, I am more than happy to wait and see. And if Omega would totally shift the whole watch market with what you call “a revolution”, I will be the first who says: Chapeau!

        However, I still do not agree with your arguments. If they would be true (and anti-magnetism would be a strong USP), IWC and Rolex would have sold hundred-thousands of Ingenieurs and Milgausses… They did not, which is a proof, at least for me, that other properties of a watch are more important for a customer.

        • The IWC and Rolex mentioned are particular watches and quite thick. They are very technical watches and not everyone’s taste. So why should they sell better?
          Omega’s technologies goes a step further: every Omega movement will be totally antimagnetic in the near future and you will not see a difference in between the old and new movements. No soft iron inner case, no other protection hiding the beauty of the movement, no thicker watches, no need to make special editions, just a common technology…

          • It’s a really interesting discussion 🙂
            I think you disproved your own argument. You are corrent that Ingenieur and Milgauss are not everyone’s taste. However, despite of the “USP” of having anti-magnetic properties, they are not sold in large quantities. Ergo, design is more important than magnetic protection (see point 2) in my first post).
            Why should this be different for Omega watches? Omega watches will look exactly the same as before. Hence, people buying Omegas and people that like the design will continue buying Omegas. But people that do not like the design will not buy a watch just because of the anti-magnetism. As it is true for the two aforementioned models.
            But let’s just wait and see… 😉

  • Great interview and video Alexander. Thank you! Omega is really one if not the most dynamic brand of the Swatch group these last few years.

  • You wrote that Calibre 8508’s balance wheel oscillates at 25,200 vibrations per second or 3.5 Hz, but I think it is actually 25,200 vibrations per hour and not 25,200 vibrations per second.

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