Wristwatches are becoming something of an anachronism, like phone booths and VHS tapes. Almost everyone carries a phone with them at all times, and phones keep very accurate time by checking in (indirectly) with an atomic clock [source: USAToday]. There's no need to wear a separate time-keeping device when something that's already ubiquitous does an excellent job of it. As a result, electronic wristwatch sales have been relatively flat for the last decade, while mechanical watch sales have recovered nicely from a sharp blow dealt by the economic downturn of 2008 [source: Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry FH].
The funny thing about the watch industry, though – sales numbers as a whole (in dollars) have steadily gone up, with 2011 sales representing a five-year high. How is that possible? Since watches no longer serve a practical purpose for most people, watches have taken impracticality to absurd levels, becoming intricate works of mechanical art for people with an appreciation for fine craftsmanship (or artifacts of conspicuous consumption for people with more money than sense, if you're feeling especially cynical).
Why do we care about the recent history of watch-making? Because the subject of this article is one of the most intricate (and conspicuous) wrist watches available. The C1 QuantumGravity by Swiss watchmaker Concord is a bulky device filled with complicated mechanisms, glowing tubes and elaborate connections. The retail price is $480,000, and it keeps time just as well as your $50 cell phone.
If you want to know what could possibly make a watch cost almost half a million dollars, read on.
A Brief Overview of Mechanical Watches
The C1 QuantumGravity is a mechanical watch. That is the heart of its appeal. Most inexpensive watches have been digital since the 1970s; using the properties of quartz crystals, electronic watches can be mass produced at low cost, yet keep very accurate time. Mechanical watches have become specialty items, sought after for the same reasons hand-crafted musical instruments or hand-painted figurines are. To understand what's so special about the QuantumGravity, we need to know a few things about how mechanical watches work.
Mechanical watches are powered by a spring (called the mainspring) that gradually unwinds, releasing the stored energy to move the gears of the watch. The mainspring can be wound manually or automatically, via a weight that turns a winding mechanism as the wearer moves his or her arm. As the mainspring unwinds, it moves the gears which in turn move the hands of the watch.
The key component of a mechanical watch is called the escapement. The escapement is what converts the unwinding of the mainspring into steady, precise movements that translate to accurate timekeeping on the face of the watch. There are many different types of mechanical escapement, but they essentially cause a gear to turn a specified amount, then "lock" against a pivoting mechanism of some kind. Then the pivot moves and the gear turns a small amount again, until it locks again. This is the process that actually causes the ticking sound of a mechanical clock.
Gravity can affect the accuracy of an escapement, which means that if you hold a watch in one position, or leave it sitting on a nightstand, it won't be as accurate. This led to the development of a mechanism called a tourbillon. A tourbillon is like a cage that the escapement rests in. The cage rotates, typically once every minute, as part of the watch's movement. This prevents gravity from acting on the escapement in only one direction even when the watch is in one place.
Another mechanism that can be added to mechanical watches is one that keeps track of the power reserve. The mainspring in a wound watch can store enough energy to run the watch for 24 hours up to a week, depending on the model of watch. A power reserve indicator measures the tension left on the mainspring and translates it into the movement of a dial that shows the wearer how long the watch will work before it needs to be rewound.
Now that we understand some of the basic mechanisms in a mechanical watch, we can figure out what makes the QuantumGravity so special.
The C1 QuantumGravity, Down to the Second
The QuantumGravity takes up a fair amount of wrist real estate. It's 48.5 x 57.5 millimeters across, and 22 millimeters deep. However, the case is made of titanium and white gold, and most of the internal mechanisms are made of aluminum, which keeps the weight to a minimum. It also features a lugless design, meaning there are no bulky attachment points for the wrist strap -- the strap is made of black rubber and screws directly to the case. Concord claims that machining the case alone required "400 hours of fine adjustment." It's made of 511 parts, including 42 jewel bearings.
The watch has to be wound manually, and it has a three-day power reserve. The power indicator on most watches is a horizontal dial. The QuantumGravity uses the mainspring's tension to press on a small cylinder. This cylinder pushes up a small volume of green liquid, and the remaining power can be measured by the level of the liquid in the watch's "energy tank."
There are two large extrusions on the side of the watch. One takes the place of the second hand. The other is the winding mechanism. With a push of a button, a small hatch opens. The hatch itself becomes the knob you twist to wind the watch.
Another door opens on the back of the case, revealing the gear train that makes everything work. Open architecture is one of the main aesthetic features of this watch -- there are large, visible open spaces within the case, and the face that shows the minute and hour hands only takes up a small proportion of the overall face of the watch. Or, as the hilariously overwrought marketing copy from Concord puts it, "The dial has also been contaminated by this urge for maximum openness. Although it strives to display the flight of hours and minutes, its focus is on empty spaces."
The escapement is contained in a bi-axial tourbillon, meaning it rotates in two directions at once at all times. That tourbillon is contained in a transparent chamber that actually extends outside the main body of the case, where you can watch it turn. After all, what good is a ridiculously expensive watch if everyone can't see that it's a ridiculously expensive watch? An arm extends from the face to the tourbillon, connected by a series of small wires, like a cable-stayed bridge.
Concord states the retail price of the watch is 500,000 Swiss francs, and it's listed at U.S. $480,000. However, you can find it at online specialty watch dealers for the bargain price of $360,000 [source: Gemnation].
I have to be honest: This is the ugliest watch I've ever seen. The enormous size screams, "I'm desperately insecure!" almost as loudly as the pretentious mechanics and outrageous price tag, and the glowy power reserve indicator with its "ENERGY TANK" label just looks silly. Luckily, I'll never have to worry about it, since this watch costs several times more than my house.
- Concord. "C1 QuantumGravity – Time Suspended." Press Release.
- Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. "Swiss watch exports: World. January-May 2012." Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry FH, June 2012. (Accessed July 11, 2012.) http://www.fhs.ch/script/getstat.php?file=a_120105_a.pdf
- Gemnation. "Concord C1 QUANTUM GRAVITY TOURBILLON Mens Wristwatch." (Accessed July 12, 2012.) http://www.gemnation.com/watches/Concord-C1-QUANTUM-GRAVITY-TOURBILLON-C1-QUANTUM-GRAVITY-16691.html
- Jamieson, Bob. "In the iPod and Cell Phone Age, Who Needs a Watch?" ABCNews, Jan. 18, 2006. (Accessed July 10, 2012.) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1518077#.T_3oa_WlGVq
- Kantor, Andrew. "Ultra-accurate clocks are all around us." USAToday, Oct. 22, 2004. (Accessed July 10, 2012.) http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/andrewkantor/2004-10-22-kantor_x.htm
- ProfessionalWatches.com. "Concord C1 Quantum Gravity Power Reserve Tourbillon at Baselworld 2009." (Accessed July 12, 2012.) http://vimeo.com/3971697