Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Angus Davies chats with Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute about his role, the work of the scientific institute he runs and the company’s recent work on carbon-composite hairsprings employed within the new Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph.

This interview with Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute includes a detailed discussion of the production of carbon-composite hairsprings and why they proffer additional benefits over Elinvar and silicium alternatives.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

TAG Heuer can trace its origins to 1860 when Edouard Heuer opened his first watchmaking workshop. From the outset, the company demonstrated a capacity to innovate. In 1887, the Swiss firm patented the ‘oscillating pinion’. When a chronograph is actuated, the pinion couples the chronograph with the main gear train. This mechanism is still employed on many chronograph movements to this day.

The inventory of the company’s patents is extensive. It includes the Heuer water-resistant case (1895), pulsometer dial (1908) and Mikrograph (1916), to name but a few. In 1969, Heuer, in collaboration with others, unveiled the first self-winding chronograph movement, the Calibre 11. Eager to create a further point of differentiation, Jack Heuer chose to house the innovative movement within the world’s first water-resistant square case. Thereafter, the legendary Heuer Monaco was born.

Ingenuity is at the heart of the TAG Heuer paradigm. This is the company that created the Mikrogirder, a mechanical chronograph capable of measuring time intervals to a precision of 5/10,000th of a second. The Monaco V4 sets aside convention, employing belts and ball-bearings instead of wheels and pinions.

This capacity to imagine, and subsequently produce, innovative watches defines this company,  justifying its motto, ‘Swiss Avant-Garde Since 1860’.

In the latter part of 2017, the Watch Division of LVMH Group established the TAG Heuer Institute. This organisation carries out extensive research, looking into new materials and technologies that can confer advancement. The research facility not only serves the needs of TAG Heuer, but also its sister-brands Hublot and Zenith.

In January 2019, TAG Heuer unveiled its new Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph, equipped with a carbon-composite hairspring developed by the TAG Heuer Institute. This patented technology confers numerous benefits including high shock resistance, perfect isochronism and ‘optimal thermal behaviour’ to name a few.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute. Mr Sémon was formerly the General Director of TAG Heuer and has been responsible for many of the company’s innovations over the years. I was keen to hear the thoughts of this man who has demonstrated an ability to deliver ingenious technology for the betterment of watch lovers.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Interview with Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute (GS) by Angus Davies

AD: Can you explain your role with the TAG Heuer Institute?

GS: I am the CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute which is a scientific institute dedicated to improve technology and science. It is a sister company of TAG Heuer and TAG Heuer is one of its clients, however, it is a company in its own right.

As part of my role, I help TAG Heuer explain the technologies employed on new products. For example, I was in Geneva in January, supporting TAG Heuer, explaining the technology found on its novelty (the Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph).

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

AD: Can you provide details of your background in the watch industry?

GS: Prior to my role as CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute, I was the Managing Director of TAG Heuer for three years, before that I was responsible for the company’s research and development programme.

AD: What can you tell me about the TAG Heuer Institute?

GS: The facility represents a significant financial investment. The company employs 30 scientists from 12 different countries and is comprised of approximately one third physicists, one third engineers and one third mathematicians.

Our objective is to develop science relating to watchmaking. We also have the capacity to expand our role outside of the field of watchmaking. However, at the moment we are focussed solely on watchmaking. This in itself is a very large field of study.

My current objective is to improve mechanical movements. The most important part of a mechanical movement is the regulator. Today, the regulator is based on a balance wheel and a hairspring. My goal is to improve the regulator within a mechanical watch in order to provide more substance and added value for the client.

We are not a university institute researching science, we do research to add value to watches for the benefit of our clients.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

AD: You have already done extensive work on hairsprings. Will your research extend to other areas of a watch? For example, case technology.

GS: The door to other areas of research is not closed. However, in research you have to select the main topics you wish to focus upon. My focal point is regulation, looking at accuracy, the power-reserve, spring thickness, etc. Regulation is a very large field and at present my plate is full. However, in the future we may well look to make improvements in other areas such as cases.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

AD: With regards to the new TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph, can you tell me a little bit about the research which went into the carbon composite hairspring?

GS: TAG Heuer is the largest producer of tourbillons in Switzerland. Furthermore, 100% of these watches are certified chronometers. Having developed the new carbon-composite hairspring, it seemed the Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon was a suitable vehicle for demonstrating this technology.

It is important to consider the relationship between the balance wheel and the hairspring. Consideration has to be given to both stiffness and inertia. With regards to the spiral (hairspring), there are two existing technologies Elinvar, a steel alloy from 1930s, and silicium (silicon).

When using Elinvar, it is difficult to improve the accuracy of this type of hairspring because it needs to be attached to the balance wheel axis using a hand fitted collet. This is a very tricky operation and, therefore, it proves difficult to improve accuracy using this approach. The position of the hairspring and gravity also influence precision.

Silicium hairsprings are nice because they prove convenient to use. They are made using technology from the electronic industry and produced in large, clean rooms. They are made using a complex chemical process. The spiral is costlier but, more importantly, it is also very fragile.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Image – Carbon+ 150 system by CVD Equipment Corporation, USA

Four years ago I began a search to find a superior material for hairsprings. I sought to create a new material which was very smooth and flexible, like a polymer material, but keeping the features of metal. To achieve this goal, I created a composite of two forms of an element (allotropy).

Carbon is a very common element. On one side it is a very poor material, like graphite, an amorphous material. On the other side you have diamond, very hard and strong. However, when you look inside both of these materials they are the same, carbon atoms. The difference is the arrangement of the elements. On one hand you have an amorphous structure and on the other hand a crystalline arrangement. Carbon nanotubes have very interesting properties, but when we change the scale from micro to macro, we lose its benefits.

Our hairspring is made with a new material with new properties. The main property relates to Young’s modulus, the elastic modulus. The Young’s modulus for our material is 25 GPa, while for steel it is 200 GPa, meaning our material is much more elastic.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Image – Carbon+ 150 system by CVD Equipment Corporation, USA

We made various calculations using computer simulation in order to identify the optimum geometry and period for the spiral. After making these calculations, we transferred the design of the spiral to a silicon wafer. This was not because it was silicon, but because it was very flat and very clean. Using a special, metallic pen filled with an ink rich in iron atoms, we drew the spiral on the wafer. This proves a very precise method, 100 times more accurate than the tolerances typical of silicon engraving.

The spiral is now marked on the wafer. It is very small, we can actually place 330 spirals on one wafer. The wafer is then placed in a large machine, we have two. It was engineered by us and made in the US. The machines are the only ones in existence and are exclusive to the TAG Heuer Institute.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Image – Carbon+ 150 system by CVD Equipment Corporation, USA

After placing the wafers in the machine, we create a chemical reaction at 950°C in an atmosphere free of oxygen. We have to extract the oxygen from the machine because it is very explosive. We introduce two gases, hydrogen and ethylene, the latter is very rich in carbon atoms. The process breaks the ethylene molecules to produce three carbon atoms. These atoms are free, very excited and they are attracted to iron atoms, the carbon atoms grow upon the iron atoms, forming smooth tubes called carbon nanotubes.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

Image – Carbon+ 150 system by CVD Equipment Corporation, USA

After two hours, you have nanotubes forming a spiral. However, they have no mechanical properties. If you put your finger on the spiral and scratch it, the spiral is destroyed. Therefore, we have to create a second chemical reaction. Here we put carbon atoms between the nanotubes. This is what makes it a composite.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

The resultant material is non-magnetic, strong, chemical neutral, flat, which is helpful for a watchmaker, and the collet is already attached to the hairspring, simplifying production and enhancing accuracy.

Normally in watchmaking when we adjust the frequency of the balance, we add masselottes to the balance wheel or use a raquette (index adjuster). With silicon it is not possible to use a raquette, however, with a carbon-composite hairspring, it is.

Closing remarks

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute is a modest chap. It is only by trawling the web that I discovered he has a PhD in Physics and that formerly he has worked in both academia and the defence industry.

A key benefit of working outside of the watch industry is that it can bring a new perspective to a traditional domain. During his time as Director General of TAG Heuer and, prior to this, Vice President of the Swiss brand, he oversaw some highly innovative products.

Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute

In his current role, Guy skilfully guides the TAG Heuer Institute forwards, eager to ‘develop science relating to watchmaking’. He employs 30 scientists, from different fields and different locations, who work together in synergistic union. The Institute also employs a small number of watchmakers, bridging the gap between science and shop floor watchmaking. It is this blend of skills and cultures which provides the medium for creativity to flourish.

During our conversation, Guy said on a couple of occasions, ‘We are not watchmakers. We are scientists’. This is not meant to slight watchmaking’s establishment. Guy is too polite for that. However, as a scientist his role is to challenge convention and pursue advancement, rather than simply accepting the status quo. Arguably, this is the raison d’être for TAG Heuer Institute.

Guy Sémon and his colleagues have already shown their technical prowess, creating the patented carbon-composite hairspring technology. Nevertheless, it is clear chatting to the Frenchman, that there are many additional areas where his team of scientists can enhance the performance of mechanical watches. Indeed, during our conversation, he stated his goal as ‘delivering innovations for existing complications’.

At this juncture, I am not privy to Guy’s to-do list, however, I suspect it could include work on other escapement components and possibly even mainspring technology. One thing is certain though, change is inevitable. I suspect the TAG Heuer Institute will be at the vanguard of any new era in horology and its client, TAG Heuer, will continue to be known for its avant-garde approach to watchmaking.

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