We can’t think of another watch that can trace its origin to neuroscience experiments at Harvard, but that was the seed for Ressence’s Type 1 Squared X, the fourth and final limited-edition in Collection X, marking the Belgian niche brand’s 10th anniversary in 2020.
About three years ago, professor Christopher Harvey at Harvard’s department of neuroscience contacted Ressence to express his appreciation for their unconventional timepieces. While he wasn’t in a position to buy one, he did want to use their unique time displays in experiments to research how quickly and accurately the brain can process a time reading with different indications.
“The idea of colors as an information carrier comes from the crash course I got from Professor Harvey,” says Ressence founder Benoît Mintiens. “Using color to express information is extremely powerful – think of how red equals heat or danger. With a color, you don’t need to read and decode encrypted information like digits or even a pictogram.”
With that, Mintiens’ imagination was off and running. He conceived a new Time by Color system using 48 ceramic balls in four contrasting colors – yellow, light gray, blue, and black – each representing 30 minutes. With only 24 balls visible on the dial at a time, the balls freely flow through a bi-level channel like a string of pearls as the hours pass from morning to afternoon to night, emitting different color combinations depending on the hour.
“This is communication by color,” says Mintiens, who notes that precision was not the point – indicating an hour was precise enough. “In 24 hours, you see all the color combinations and every hour exhibits the same colors, so color can be a perfect hour indicator on a watch.”
How’d they make it? Below, Mintiens explains.
Step One: Sketch It Out
Benoît Mintiens, Founder of Ressence
“This primitive sketch illustrates the concept – nothing more than that, but it’s nice because it is really the first drawing. I remember I was in a restaurant in Neuchâtel having a discussion with my supply-chain manager. We were brainstorming on how to design a mechanism that would pull a chain of balls. After a few iterations, the mechanical concept came out. I remember pushing for more simplicity. It is easier to make complex things than simple things that offer the same value.”
Step Two: Make A Prototype
“Ressence watches use a lot of ball bearings. All the discs run on ball bearings instead of jewels like normal watches do. So we have a lot of experience using ball bearings, and that was an asset. It seems simple, but not when you consider the scale and precision you need to apply it. It requires a lot of precision to run well.
“The prototype used translucent balls because it was only to test the functionality and fine-tune the length of the path and diameter of the tracks to eliminate any jams or blocking so everything runs smoothly. You cannot have any friction in a watch or it stops running.”
Step Three: Have a Ball
“We have a contractor in Switzerland that makes the ceramic balls. These components are extremely precise in size – 0.9dmm, the thickness of a pen nib. When we assembled the first pieces with the ceramic balls, they had to go back to the supplier because we required them to shave off 1 micron from the diameter. It’s just amazingly precise. But they have to be. With 48 balls, even a tiny variance gets multiplied 48 times and would create gaps between them that would cause jams.
“They are formed from colored powder that is compressed using heat and pressure, a bit like a pill. That is not the case for a metal ball with a coating on it. After five years running, even the best coating will wear off. Ceramic is very light as a material, and it is very smooth, so there is no friction. It’s a material that really corresponds to the application.”
Step Four: Keep The Wheels Turning
“These are the main components of the display system. On the bottom is the main part with the double tracks, and in the middle is the donut-shaped piece with the numbers 24 and 8 that covers the balls on the inner track.
“The round part with the indicator is the central disc that completes a revolution every eight hours, because I wanted to keep the logic of splitting the day in eight-hour sections – people generally have 8-hour sleep and 16-hour wake cycles. Underneath that piece is the gear that drives the balls. It has two points where it grabs the balls and makes them rotate as the wheel turns. The teeth of the wheel, a kind of gear, are specially shaped, a bit like the chain on a bike. These teeth grab the balls like bike gears grab the chain. This central gear turns, driven by the movement of the watch, and it makes the balls run around in their track. The colored balls are in the upper right corner.
“The biggest technical challenge is getting the length of the track right – it must be super precise, and it’s not all in one plane – if you don’t get that right, you won’t have free play and it will not run. We designed a specific ball-shaped milling tool to make that component. The balls on the outer track are in a circular tube, with a slit on top that is slightly narrower than the diameter of the balls, so they cannot slip out.”
Step Five: Tweeze It
“The watchmaker places the balls into the track using standard tweezers and a tabletop machine that is typically used to press a gear onto an axle or to press a stone into a bridge. The process doesn’t take very long; it’s completely open so you can easily position them all into place. It is important that the positions of the balls are correctly indexed according to the time the watch displays, much like indexing hands to align at 12 o’clock.
“The four colors follow each other showing a maximum of three at any given time. The yellow and light gray balls represent early and late morning hours while the blue and black represent afternoon and nighttime hours. For example, at midnight, the series of black balls have passed and you start to see the first yellow balls which build up until 6 AM, when half the balls are yellow and half are black. The yellow balls are followed by light gray balls, so by noon, the display is light, but starts to flow into the blue balls in the afternoon hours. At 6 PM, the display with light gray and blue balls starts to go darker as the black balls emerge.”
Step Six: Cover It Up
“The cover is placed at the center of the dial to hide half the balls on the lower inner track. We show only half the balls, representing 12 hours, at a time so the display evolves with time. If you show everything at once, you don’t have an evolution, so you need a part hidden and a part you see.”
Step Seven: Finish the Job
When the indicator disc is placed on top, the entire color display assembly is complete. It measures 1.5mm in diameter.
Step Eight: Admire Your Work
The Time by Color system fits into the olive-green dial of the 41mm titanium Type 1 Squared X. The display retains its north-south positioning as the dial turns on the Ressence Orbital Convex System (ROCS), the patented in-house horological unit consisting of discs that continually orbit around one another. The 24-hour color display is complemented with a larger 12-hour disc display, another disc indicating days of the week, and minutes indicated around the periphery with a pointer hand.
For more, visit Ressence.