While we certainly endeavor to cover a wide range of watches here on Worn & Wound, there’s no doubt that there’s a certain bent toward what many refer to as tool watches, or watches that are designed for a particular, functional purpose, as opposed to objects that are made purely for aesthetic pleasure. There are a lot of reasons for this – these watches tend to naturally fit into the price point we cover, for one. But ultimately it comes down to something as simple as “we like them.”
In the realm of tool watches there are many different technologies that are used to make these timepieces “tough,” in whatever way you want to define that term. This story is the first in a series where we’ll cover some of those technologies in depth, going through their history, the watches they’re used in, functional benefits, and a dive into the tech itself.
First up: watches with antimagnetic properties.
Mechanical watches, simply because of the materials that they’ve always been made of, are uniquely susceptible to magnetism. And magnetic forces, in our modern world, are everywhere. It’s no wonder that something of a cottage industry has sprung up around the production of watches and watch components that are resistant to magnetism. If you’ve had the unfortunate experience of dealing with a magnetized watch, you understand the value inherent in these technologies.
The classic symptom of a magnetized watch is unusually too-fast timekeeping. Balance spring coils, when magnetized, can stick together, reducing their travel back and forth, causing the watch to beat much faster than it should, resulting in timekeeping that will typically be noticeably off. Depending on the age and materials used in the watch, and the level of magnetism the watch is exposed to, a watch can even stop entirely when heavily magnetized, definitely a frightening moment for the wearer. Many, many objects produce magnetic fields. Loudspeakers, for example. Computer harddrives. Medical equipment. Even cell phones.
While it’s relatively simple to demagnetize a watch (tools that can easily do the job are easily purchased for well under $ 100 on eBay and elsewhere), that hasn’t stopped the biggest names in the watch industry from pushing the technological envelope as far as it will go. Telling the story of antimagnetic watches, it only makes sense to start with Rolex, the biggest name of them all.
The Milgauss, Rolex’s stab at a watch for scientists working with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), was introduced in 1956. That watch, the reference 6541, was rated to withstand magnetic fields of up to 1000 gauss. More typical watches of the time period could only handle magnetic fields of around 50-100 gauss, so this was a significant improvement. Rolex achieved this high level of magnetic resistance by enclosing the movement in a soft iron cage, also known as a Faraday cage. This method put a relatively simple scientific principle to work in the Milgauss, and is still the standard for making watches with high levels of anti-magnetism. Faraday cages can be found in watches by Sinn, Damasko, Bremont, and other brands.
While other Rolex sports watches get much of the attention from watch media, auction houses, and the like, the Milgauss solved a genuinely confounding problem for watch wearers, and it could be argued that it’s antimagnetic properties make it a more useful tool for more people than a dive watch that can plunge deep beneath the ocean or a chronograph that is designed to calculate your relative speed. Because it went out of production for a long period of time before the modern incarnation of the watch was introduced in 2007, early versions are highly collectable.
Rolex was not the only watch brand interested in antimagnetic watches in the 1950s. IWC actually beat Rolex to market with their antimagnetic watch, the Ingenieur, in 1955 (the Milgauss was produced in very limited numbers expressly for CERN scientists in 1954). Those early Ingenieurs were marketed towards engineers and scientists, and used the same type of soft iron enclosure that the Milgauss did to protect against magnetic fields. The Ingenieur was very much a classically styled watch, evoking what we now think of as that quintessential mid-century look, with dauphine hands accenting a spare and highly legible dial, and a case featuring slightly long and just barely curved lugs. There’s nothing about the early Ingenieur that screams “tool watch,” except perhaps the logo, which features a stylized impression of a lightning bolt, alluding to the antimagnetic nature of the timepiece.
If those first Ingenieurs were classic but unremarkable in terms of their appearance, that changed significantly in the 1970s, once Gerald Genta was charged with a redesign of IWC’s antimagnetic watch. His interpretation was bold and expressive, and completely in line with the 70s style that he helped create with the Royal Oak and Nautilus. Genta’s 1976 redesign of the Ingenieur landed the watch squarely in the sports watch category, with an integrated bracelet and a large, angular case. The Ingenieur has since gone through a series of tweaks, but the current incarnation of the watch shares clear DNA with Genta’s 1970s version – it’s still a big, impressive, sports piece, and is often a vehicle to showcase technical advancements in IWC’s watchmaking, even if it’s no longer explicitly all about antimagnetic qualities.
Modern antimagnetic watchmaking has become quite a bit more sophisticated and widespread than what we saw in the 1950s. While Rolex continues to use a soft iron cage in their current production Milgauss, magnetic resistant watches these days rely more on individual components of the movement having antimagnetic qualities than simply protecting a “normal” movement from magnetic fields.
Perhaps the best modern example of this manufacturing strategy is Omega’s Seamaster Aqua Terra 15,000 Gauss, credited as the first watch with a completely antimagnetic movement. Released in 2013, much of the tech behind this watch has trickled down to other watches in the Omega lineup, the Swatch group in general, and the industry more broadly. The idea here is relatively simple: cut off the opportunity for a movement to become magnetized by using components that can’t become magnetized.
The silicon hairspring used in the escapement of the Aqua Terra 15,000 Gauss was novel upon introduction, but has relatively quickly become somewhat normal in watches across price spectrums as the cost of manufacturing these components has come down considerably. Omega themselves have normalized this type of watchmaking, with almost all of their watches using co-axial movements carrying METAS certification, which certifies that the watch is resistant to magnetic fields up to 15,000 gauss, an amount of magnetism you are simply not likely to encounter outside of a highly specialized scientific environment. This means that relatively common, mass market Omegas like the Seamaster Professional 300, for example, carry the same outrageous magnetic resistance as that initial highly resistant Aqua Terra, and far more magnetic resistance than the original and, for the time, extremely impressive magnetic resistant watches of the 1950s.
But Omega’s proliferation of METAS certified, and thus highly antimag watches, is far from the only instance of how this technology has found its way into much more common and consumer friendly watches, almost as an afterthought. We looked at the Tissot Gentleman Powermatic 80 Silicium back in February, for example. As the name of the watch would imply, it uses a silicon hairspring that incorporates technology similar to that in much more expensive METAS certified timepieces from their Swatch group sibling. It should be noted, however, that while Tissot claims their silicon balance spring offers greater resistance to magnetic forces than a typical Nivarox balance spring, these watches are not METAS tested to 15,000 gauss. That said, silicon certainly offers an improvement in magnetic resistance, and potentially has other benefits in the areas of longevity and durability. The retail price on the Gentleman Powermatic is just $ 775, which really underscores just how widely this type of watchmaking has been adopted.
Antimagnetic watches currently exist on two fronts: watches that use magnetic resistant materials in the movements themselves, and watches that use movements made the old fashioned way, but resist magnetic interference through the use of a Faraday cage or materials used in the case. Sinn, for example, has paired watches with soft iron cages to cases made from titanium in their EZM series. Titanium has naturally magnetic resistant properties, and tends to do a better job than stainless steel of reducing the magnetism that builds up naturally over time (watches, to a certain extent, are magnetizing and demagnetizing all the time, on their own, depending on the type of environment they are in).
Some watch enthusiasts debate the merits of the extreme magnetic resistance found in watches made in the Omega style. Purists point out that Rolex and other brands are able to achieve levels of magnetic resistance using old tech and classic watch manufacturing techniques that are completely adequate, even for the work being done at CERN as we speak. The Rolex process, it can be argued, still incorporates real watchmaking skill, while the introduction of silicon is more about the widespread adoption of new materials that can be produced at scale.
Regardless of which side you come down on when it comes to antimagnetic watchmaking (or, if you choose not to pick a side at all, but embrace antimag watches of all stripes) there’s an appeal to these watches beyond their practical attributes. They are, in many ways, a pure expression of a love for science, being that they were originally intended for members of the scientific community, and represent genuine scientific advancement through the years.