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  #1  
Old 09-12-2017, 09:33 AM
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James Elsener James Elsener is offline
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Default Plastics - a material of the future?

Yesterday, I gave a luncheon speech and one of the guests asked about plastics used in watch movements. And whether plastics could be the future in watchmaking.

Well, I had to disappoint the gentleman. Plastics in watches are rather a thing of the past. In the mid- 1950s Tissot which was then part of SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA) started developing a movement made basically from plastics.

The goal was to develop a light-weight movement made of a reduced number of components which were economical to manufacture, fast to assemble and which did not need any lubes and servicing over its entire service life of 20 years!

Out of that quest came the Tissot 2250 Autolub. It was also known under the name 'Sytal' (système total d'autolubrification / in English 'totally autolubed').

Even though the gear train was still partially made from steel the engineers succeeded on all scores. The movement had 52 components. It took only 14 semi-automated steps to manufacture and assemble the movement. The movement's weight was only 2.5 grams!

When it was presented to an astonished public in 1960, Tissot's sales director had the ingenious idea to put fully-wound movements in fish tanks. Since they were so light they drifted on the water's surface ticking away happily!

By the late 1960s SSIH decided to put the movement in larger scale production. They launched it under their low-budget brand Lanco (1970) and as the Tissot Astrolon series (1971).

The grape vine at Tissot's has it for the launch of the watches 999,999 movements were manufactured in 100 days! No mean feat when one takes into consideration the rather rough-and-tough way injection moulding of small parts like those used in watches worked back then.

The Lanco as well as the Tissot watches had all translucent cases and translucent dials. Back then planet mars seemed to be the limit and the world was swayed by the race in space. And that's what the watches looked like: from outer space.

The Lancos sold quite well in their main market South Africa. The Tissots flopped in a big way. Over the course of the five years they were made, Tissot sold not more than 50,000 pieces. By 1976 Tissot ceased the manufacturing of the watches.

Lanco had used up its share of the initial production run of the movements and Tissot still had close to 500,000 Tissot branded movements in stock. As far as I know they were all destroyed in the late 1970s.

Unfortunately, not many of the technical drawings survived either. All of the moulds are said to have been scrapped. Both the Lancos and Tissots Astrolon watches may, in my humble opinion, be called the father of the Swatch launched in 1983 and the Tissot 2250 with its 52 components is certainly worthy to be called the grand-father of the Swatch's Sistem 51 movement.

Every now and then Lancos and Tissots powered by the 2250 Autolub pop up on e-Bay and other watch auction sites. Quite a few of the Tissot as New Old Stock and most of the Lancos as used watches. I've seen some of them still working perfectly well after all those years.

Plastics in watches is definitely not a material of the future but a tried and trusted one!
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Old 09-12-2017, 09:13 PM
VMMVMMM VMMVMMM is offline
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Very interesting, thanks for sharing!
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Old 09-13-2017, 07:34 AM
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What a brilliant read, thanks James.
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Old 09-29-2017, 08:24 PM
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A fascinating bit of history that I'd never heard about before now. Seems I'll have that mental vision of these movements 'floating in a fish tank and happily ticking away' with me for a long time after this.

The thing I can never seem to understand is why this "need" exists to destroy these things, and even their means of production, such as the injection machines and molds. In truth, it seems as if the experiment was a success, at least from the Lancos perspective, so why they weren't allowed to continue with it baffles me. Perhaps Tissot was embarrassed by the cheaper brand's better performance and wanted to obliterate the entire incident from everyone's memory. We'll never know, but it sure would be fun to get a hold of a couple of these old movements and have them race against each other in the bathtub...

I'm very easily amused, as you can no doubt tell.


Many thanks for a fun & informative post, James! Perhaps someday we'll see an Edouard Lauzières watch with a plastic movement, no? I seem to recall, out of the haze and fog that are my memories of the Philippines, that there were little kiosk-type shops in Olongapo City, where they made fully-functioning mechanical watch movements from aluminum beer cans, all shoved into old-timey canned-food steel casings. And while I can't recall any having a brand name, I'm told that these high-flying little 'tymepeaces' lasted upwards of six or seven weeks before literally grinding themselves to death internally (may God rest their weary -- and dismal -- little souls...)
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Old 09-30-2017, 04:12 PM
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I would think if 3D printing has the necessary precision, plastic movements would be here sooner rather than later. Makes me wonder. I dont know enough about this technology or costs involved to discuss further.
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Old 10-01-2017, 08:24 AM
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Injection molded frames for firearms chassis was scorned by the industry - but Gaston Glock of Austria in 1981 had the last word about this in pistols. Now - almost every firearms manufacturer has injection molded striker fired pistols in their lineup.

My informants tell me the US Army's new pistol - Sig-Sauer P320 will come into service as the M17/18 with the recently released contract.

Fiberglass and injection molded polymer- over a ss frame.

While the barrel and movement remain steel - weight has been dramatically decreased ...

101 Airmobile Division will field the first batch in 2018

http://taskandpurpose.com/armys-new-...tol-huge-step/
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Old 10-06-2017, 10:22 AM
Ed_Phelan Ed_Phelan is offline
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Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the history of plastics in watches, the development is something that I have been very intrigued about. Although, I was a little confused as to whether you (James) feel that plastic in watches while still used today as an important component, was a disaster that stemmed from a lack of sales and subsequent destruction of stock and plans. Or, did this phrase of development lead us to the likes of the Breitling developing the Avenger Hurricane’s housing entirely out of plastic?
(https://gizmodo.com/breitlings-first...rtu-1765463172)

I personally feel that the latest developments in strength and construction of plastic, while not new to watches, is beginning to place fresh emphasis on the use of plastics that might start to push the market in a new and innovate direction.
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Old 10-06-2017, 05:09 PM
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Welcome to the forum, Ed! Nice to see a new face!
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  #9  
Old 10-16-2017, 05:36 AM
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Dear Ed,

Thanks for your comments.

Well, when SSIH started the development plastics were the flavour of the day. Plastics came with the same aura and accolade digitalisation carries today.

The chemicals involved where rather crude compared to today's. Hence the limited possibilities plastics came with back then.

Where SSIH scored big-time, however, was with the injection-moulding involved in manufacturing such small parts. No-one had ever attempted that before. Without the building-up of the know-how of injection-moulding such small parts the Swatch would not have been possible. The know-how SSIH had built-up in this field launched an impressive industry in Switzerland. Companies like Weidmann-Plastics, Riwisa, Netstal-Maschinen would never have been possible without the base research carried out by SSIH.

Nicolas Hayek sen. was asked by the banks which had lent huge sums to SSIH to come up with a plan to restructure SSIH in 1981. You bet that his company Hayek Engineering analysed in detail the intellectual property of SSIH. Being an engineer by training he must have immediately recognised how valuable the patents in the field of plastics were. The more so that between the start of the development and his report chemicals used in plastics and thereby technical properties had developed in bounds and leaps.

Over time the usage of plastics in the watch industry has grown considerably. When I started out movement holders were still made of metals. Some two years later most of them were made of plastics. Movement parts in many watches have been made from plastics since the late 1960s. Probably the most famous component is the reset-lever in the chrono movement family 7750. To save on costs it was designed and made of plastics. Metal was never even considered.

However, the market place seems to give a higher value to watches made from metals. That's why most watch companies were and still are rather shy to share where and how they used and use plastics. The Autolubs seem to have fallen in this value abyss, too.

To this day plastics are covered by a kind of cheapy nimbus cloud and frowned upon. Most attempts to share with consumers how far plastics have come fall on deaf-ears. Even the Breitling Avenger Hurricane which caters to the aviation minded set of the market is far from being a commercial success. One would believe that a watch that uses advanced plastics like the Breitling would become a success with people being in the know what today's plastics are able to accomplish. After all many, many components in today's aircrafts are made of high-tech plastics.

I once contemplated making a watch case from Kevlar plastics. Our family's brand would, however, never be able to convey such a material from a brand position point of view. Alas, this holds true for most watch brands. So, I do not expect the usage of plastics to increase in the near future. The branding of watches is running against that
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With a heartfelt 'And Times Doesn't Go Simply By'
from Switzerland's watch making region the famous Jura Mountains range

James Elsener
Owner of Montres Edouard Lauzières
http://www.edouardlauzieres.com
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