The balance spring is probably the single most difficult component of a modern wristwatch to manufacture. Balance springs must perform with, as much as possible, unvarying characteristics irrespective of temperature changes, the presence of magnetic fields, the influence of gravity in different positions, and so on. To date, the making of balance springs, either in Nivarox-type alloys or in silicon, has been restricted to a few specialist manufacturers, all of which have been based in Europe (or, in Germany or Japan, depending on the brand).*
However, for the last few years, business partners Nicholas Manousos and Kiran Shekar have been developing, at Columbia University, the ability to manufacture silicon balance springs here in the United States. They've just announced that in collaboration with F. P. Journe, their balance spring has been tested and validated in an F. P. Journe Chronometre Bleu.
The Chronometre Bleu by F. P. Journe, as seen in our 2014 Three On Three.
F. P. Journe said, "I am delighted to see that watchmaking research continues, especially so far away from Switzerland. I have enjoyed watching this company grow since my first visit to their laboratory three years ago, and I look forward to continuing to work with this group of horological entrepreneurs." Manousos commented, "We are grateful to Franc?ois-Paul for his ongoing support and guidance, and look forward to continued collaboration. This is an exciting time for the entire watchmaking industry, as nanotechnology makes possible horological innovations that were only dreamt of in the past."*
The balance springs are produced at Columbia University's Columbia Nano Initiative Clean Room, which is a fully-equipped micro- and nano-fabrication lab. In addition to balance springs, Firehouse Horology has created silicon gears as well. The team is rounded out by well known collector and internationally known watch expert William Rohr, Director of Strategy & Business Development.
Why the name Firehouse Horology? Manousos says, "The name Firehouse Horology is from our first manufacturing space, an old firehouse in Manhattanís Upper East Side. When Columbia Universityís renovated nanofabrication laboratory opened, we switched gears to focus on silicon, but the name Firehouse Horology stuck."
F. P. Journe visiting the fabrication facilities used by Firehouse Horology.
There were major technical hurdles to overcome, says co-found Kiran Shekar, but one of the biggest obstacles was simple credibility. "One of our biggest challenges was getting people to believe we were actually manufacturing hairsprings from scratch by ourselves. Given the current state of the American watchmaking industry, there is quite a lot of skepticism, perhaps fairly so, when somebody claims they are making something here in the U.S. Thatís partly the reason we decided to start with the hairspring as our first product. Proving we could make one of the most difficult parts in a watch, and make it well, would give our manufacturing ability some credibility right out of the gate."
Silicon balance springs; image, Firehouse Horology.
Shekar adds that in nanofabrication, bigger is sometimes actually harder. "Mastering the Bosch etching process (also known as Deep Reactive Ion Etching) was also a serious challenge." he told us. "There are a large number of variables that contribute to a successful etch, so itís necessary to find the right balance between all of them. In a nanofabrication clean room most users are *thinking in terms of nanometers, but for watchmaking our parts are much bigger (millimeters). That means longer etches, which makes this multi-variable balancing act noticeably tougher."
Needless to say, the ability to create silicon balance springs is highly technically challenging, and involves processes not easily mastered on a small-scale entrepreneurial footing. The fact that balance springs could in the future be sourced from a US-based manufacture, may in the future have a significant impact on the creation of a real industrial base for watchmaking here in the USA Ė as well as giving manufacturers around the world access to an additional supplier of this critical component.*
For more info, visit Firehouse Horology online.*
Note: Nicholas Manousos is HODINKEE's Technical Editor. HODINKEE has no business relationship of any kind with Firehouse Horology.