Watchmaking is generally, and rightly, thought of as an incremental enterprise. The modern mechanical watch often boasts technical features, especially in terms of materials science, that watchmakers of the past could only dream of, but the basic principles have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. (As much as I enjoy making this point, it occurs to me that maybe we shouldn’t take it too far; a bottle rocket and a Falcon Heavy both operate on the same principles, but unless you’re unusually delusional, you wouldn’t be confused about which can reach low Earth orbit). A mechanical oscillator, driven by a device called an escapement, which has the function of both driving the oscillator and counting its oscillations is the heart of any mechanical watch and has been at the heart of mechanical horology ever since the first verge-escapement tower clocks began their slow, labored ticking away in the darkness nearly a thousand years ago.
In a quartz watch, the oscillator is driven by a minute electrical current, and the phenomenon called piezoelectricity keeps a tiny quartz tuning fork vibrating, while an electronic circuit counts the oscillations and sends signals to a tiny motor that moves the watch hands (or to an LCD display). Still, the principle remains the same. Occasionally, however, a new technology comes along which, if not transformative in terms of time-telling technology, at least demonstrates that watchmaking is far from exhausted creatively, and the new Accutron watches are both a re-imagining of existing technology and a demonstration that new engineering solutions can still make a dramatic difference in the experience of time. Today, Accutron (which despite its past association with Bulova, is being launched as an independent brand by the Citizen Group) has debuted two new models – the Spaceview 2020, and the Spaceview DNA.
The new Accutron watches are, fundamentally, quartz watches, but they do not so much represent a refinement of quartz timekeeping technology as they do a use of the quartz resonator as a jumping-off point for an aesthetic re-invention of such technology. The Accutron movements use a unique-to-watchmaking electrostatic drive system, which, coupled with design cues taken from the Accutron Spaceview tuning fork watches from the 1960s, makes for a fresh and visually engaging experience.
The Electrostatic Drive System: How It Works
The news about the technology broke last year at Baselworld (at, in fact, what would be the very last Baselworld ever, unless things change very much), and at the time, we covered the principles behind the movements pretty extensively. But I think it’s probably worth revisiting some of the special features of the movements in brief today, now that the watches are officially released in their finalized designs.
The electrostatic drive system in the new Accutron watches – there are at launch two models, the Spaceview 2020 and the Spaceview DNA – use the attraction and repulsion of electrical charge in order to both generate electrical current and to generate mechanical energy. The stepper motors in a conventional quartz watch, which get their name from the fact that they move the hands in incremental, discrete steps, rather than in a smooth unbroken motion, are despite their tiny size still basically conventional electric motors, which rely on electromagnetic interactions. A standard electric motor has two basic components: These are the rotor, which rotates, and the stator, which doesn’t; usually the rotor is inside the stator, which is either composed of permanent magnets, or coil-wound electromagnets. When you turn the motor on, current passes through the rotor, creating a magnetic field, and the attraction and repulsion of the induced magnetic field in the rotor, and the magnetic field in the stator, causes the rotor to turn.
By contrast, an electrostatic motor does not rely on magnetic fields at all. In fact, you can make an electrostatic motor at home out of simple household materials, which doesn’t even require a battery – instead, you just have to provide a source of static electricity, like a balloon rubbed against a cloth. The simplest version of an electrostatic motor consists of a rotor that sits in between two electrodes. An electrical charge flows from one electrode onto the rotor and is discharged into the opposite electrode. As the rotor passes each electrode, it acquires a charge identical to the electrode and, as like electrical charges repel each other, the rotor turns (if you are struggling to fill the hours and you want to make an electrostatic motor at home, you only need a plastic cup, some aluminum foil, and a few other household items).
In the new Accutrons, there is both an electrostatic motor, which drives the seconds hand, and two smaller electrostatic generators, which provide the charge necessary for the rotor to turn; these generators also charge an accumulator which provides current for the conventional electromagnetic stepper motors that move the hour and minute hands. The electrostatic motors have, as you’d expect, a rotor and a stator. The rotor turns quite rapidly, and its turbine-like blades in motion offer a very striking visual effect – this is one of the most visually dynamic experiences you can get in any modern watch, mechanical or quartz, and the flickering play of light on the rotor as it turns is mesmerizing, if not downright distracting.
The electrostatic generator system’s rotors are driven by an oscillating weight in a fashion more or less identical to that found in an automatic winding system in a mechanical watch.
Accutron And Spring Drive: A Brief Comparison
An immediately obvious comparison can be drawn between the Accutron electrostatic system and the Seiko Spring Drive system, but while both feature a smoothly gliding seconds hand, the two systems are in fact almost completely different in nearly every key respect.
Both rely on quartz resonators as the timing basis for the watch, but there the similarities end. The Spring Drive watch has a conventional mainspring and gear train, no battery or capacitor/accumulator, and at the end of the gear train, a glide wheel which acts as both a generator to produce the current necessary to operate the quartz timing package and power the integrated circuit, and as a braking element which controls how fast the gear train turns.
As the entire gear train is controlled by the glide wheel, all three hands move in a continuous fashion. In the Accutron, by contrast, there is no mainspring nor is there a conventional gear train. The electrostatic generator takes the place of a mainspring in terms of providing motive force; there is an accumulator/capacitor for storing electrical energy; the seconds hand is driven by an independent electrostatic driving system; the hour and minute hands are propelled by stepper motors.
The aesthetics of Spring Drive watches and Accutrons are almost diametrically opposed as well. Spring Drive watches are resolutely an exercise in horological neoclassicism and, at the high end, share much of the same basic values, in terms of finish and execution, with conventional fine mechanical watchmaking. The Accutrons, on the other hand, are a kind of exercise in technical retro-chic, which at the same time puts the movement technology itself center stage. There is perhaps no country in the world in which the intersection of almost sci-fi-level postmodernity intersects with deeply ingrained tradition than Japan, and it seems to me that the Spring Drive and Accutron watches, while both are based on proprietary and essentially unique technology (at least in the horological world), each emphasizes one or the other aspect of Japanese culture in different ways.
Past, Present, And The Spaceview 2020 And Spaceview DNA
If you’ve followed the development of the Accutron electrostatic technology, or if you’re a vintage Accutron fan, or both (as seems increasingly likely), you’re undoubtedly aware of the roots of the design of the new watches in the original Accutron Spaceview. The original Spaceview was not intended for sale at all – it was a demonstrator model, whose purpose was to appear in ads and in store display windows. The Spaceview showed off not only the forward gliding motion of the seconds hand, but also the distinctive green baseplate and contrasting copper coils for the tuning fork, as well as the transistor essential to the operation of the watch.
The original Spaceview’s seconds hand actually does not, strictly speaking, glide smoothly forward, but at 360 steps per second as the tuning fork indexes the drive wheel, the increments are invisible and the illusion of smooth movement is perfect. The idea in producing the Spaceview, which at first was only available in a gold case, was to simply put the movement on display, but in doing so, Bulova had, unintentionally, discovered a novel aesthetic as well. The Spaceview became more than just a window into a new technology – it became a celebration of that new technology as well, and for the new Accutron watches, that aesthetic has been reproduced with the electrostatic drive system, with surprisingly high fidelity.
The more traditional of the two new models is the Spaceview 2020, which has standard straight lugs and which is close in many respects to the overall look of the original. The straight lugs and round case connect to a number of vintage models (of which there were dozens upon dozens, I should add), and the green, red, and orange color scheme of the original Spaceview is present as well – in the new Accutron 2020, the copper coils of the original are replaced by the drive coil for the stepper motor. The seconds hand is red in the new model, as in the original, but thinner in order to provide less resistance to the lower torque provided by the electrostatic drive system, relative to the tuning fork system. The Limited Edition comes as a boxed set of 300 pieces, with the book, Accutron: From The Space Age To The Digital Age. It’s pretty close to the non-LE except for the green rehaut.
The other new model is the Spaceview DNA. The DNA model will probably impress most enthusiasts as the more modern of the two, although it still draws on the original 1960s design for inspiration and uses the same general design (and of course, the same movement technology). Where the DNA differs is in the shield-shaped case and hooded lugs, and also in the colors of the movement plate – there are a total of four DNA models, three of which have plates in a dark slate color and one has a movement plate in a vivid electric blue.
The electrostatic movement has its own designation – it is the caliber NS30-Y8A, running in 28 jewels. Actual manufacturing of the Accutron movements takes place in a Miyota facility in Nagano Prefecture, Japan (Miyota is a Citizen Group company, as is Accutron), and assembly is done under highly controlled clean room conditions in a climate-controlled area set aside specifically for manufacturing the movements.
Cases are all 316L stainless steel (and all have a water resistance of 30 meters), and all watches have domed sapphire crystals as well. Prices, as you might expect for low production timepieces which showcase a new technology, are higher than for a conventional quartz watch, although not necessarily especially high for the degree of technical innovation and design innovation. They start at $ 3,000 for the Spaceview DNA in black and gold, and top out at $ 4,000 for the limited edition.
Initial Impressions On The Wrist
These are fairly large watches – the Spaceview 2020 watches are 43.50mm in diameter, and the DNA watches, 45.10mm; case thickness is 15.40mm. They are, however, surprisingly light, despite the size and the conventional case materials. This is partly due to the lightness of the movement itself and partly due to the fact that there seems to be quite a lot of space under the crystal and within the watch itself.
If one of the deciding criteria when considering a watch purchase is how much fun it’s going to be to wear, the Accutron watches are kind of irresistible. The combination of an open dial and exposed movement, with the gliding red seconds hand, large size, and flickering play of light on the electrostatic drive and generator rotors, means that the Accutrons are more or less guaranteed to generate interest and not just for other watch enthusiasts. Folks who would never consider themselves watch lovers, and even those generally indifferent to watches, are probably going to find themselves asking Accutron owners about their watches. In this sense, the new watches are what the original Accutron was called, in that famous Mad Men pitch scene – not just a timepiece, but a conversation piece as well.
A final question to consider is whether or not these are a revolution in timekeeping – I think the answer is both yes and no. A detractor might say that, after all, while the drive technology is new to watches, it’s first of all not new per se, and secondly, that the Accutrons are fundamentally quartz watches that don’t offer anything radically different from any other modern quartz watch. A proponent, however, would argue that, while the basic regulating technology is not new, the new-to-wristwatches electrostatic drive system, in combination with the re-interpretation of the original Accutron aesthetics, produces a watch in which the synergy of the various elements gives you an extremely enjoyable, and for an enthusiast most interesting, horological experience which cannot be had elsewhere.
I wrote about nostalgia, not too long ago, in the context of monopusher chronographs, and while the drive technology in the Accutrons is new, they are also a surprisingly poignant exercise in nostalgia as well. My father had an Accutron watch, which he bought around 1970, and it was fascinating to me, at the time, to put it to my ear and hear that distinctive 360Hz hum. The new Accutrons are silent acoustically, but they speak in their own way to a very particular and very special time in horology, when the future seemed a place of unlimited potential, and not just the Earth, but the sky and even other worlds were the limit when it came to travel. These watches evoke that world for me as well, and also a world in which travel is an essential and indispensable part of human education and experience. That may sound like a lot of freight for a watch to bear, but I can’t look at these guys without remembering the last time – many months ago – that I was able to visit Tokyo and wander through the neon riot of Shinjuku, deeply grateful to be there. If watches are most valuable for the connections they make between our present, the past, the future, and the world around us, I think there’s a lot to be said for all the dots connected by the new Accutron watches.
The Accutron Spaceview DNA and Accutron Spaceview 2020 watches: cases, 316L stainless steel, 30 meters water resistant; diameter 45.10mm (DNA) or 43.50mm (2020); thickness, 15.41mm. Movement, Miyota/Accutron caliber NS30-Y8A, quartz resonator with dual stepper motor and electrostatic drive system for the hands. Straps, leather (2020) or rubber (DNA) with folding buckles. Spaceview 2020, $ 3,450; Spaceview 2020 Limited Edition, $ 4,000. Spaceview DNA, grey/blue, grey/black, grey/gold-tone, and grey/silver tone models all $ 3,300. For more, visit Accutronwatch.com.
All photos exclusively for HODINKEE by Tiffany Wade.