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The History of Jewels in Watchmaking

The use of jewels in watchmaking dates back to the early 18th century, when watchmakers began to realize the benefits of using hard, smooth gemstones to reduce friction in their movements. The first jewel bearings were made from natural gemstones, such as ruby and sapphire, which were painstakingly cut and shaped by hand. The introduction of synthetic rubies in the early 20th century revolutionized the industry, making jewel bearings more affordable and accessible.

Over time, the number of jewels used in watch movements increased, peaking in the mid-20th century when watchmakers began to use jewels not only for their functional benefits but also as a marketing tool. Today, the number of jewels in a watch movement is less indicative of its quality than in the past, but their presence still speaks to a commitment to traditional watchmaking techniques.

The Role of Jewels in Watch Movements

Jewels in watch movements serve two main purposes: to reduce friction and to serve as bearings for the gear trains and other moving parts. The jewels are typically placed at the points of highest friction – the pivot points where the gears of the watch meet the plates and bridges of the movement. By reducing friction, the jewels help the watch to run more smoothly and accurately, and they reduce wear on the movement, increasing its lifespan.

The type of jewel used can also affect the performance of the watch. Rubies, which are most commonly used, have a hardness second only to diamonds, making them highly resistant to wear. They are also unaffected by most chemicals and temperature changes, making them ideal for use in watches.

The Number of Jewels in a Watch Movement

The number of jewels in a watch movement can vary greatly, from a few to over 30. In general, a basic hand-wound or automatic watch will have at least 17 jewels, which is considered the standard for a fully-jeweled movement. These jewels are used in the key areas of the watch that experience the most wear and friction, including the balance wheel, the pallet fork, and the escape wheel.

However, more complex watches with additional features, known as complications, may require additional jewels. For example, a chronograph may have up to 25 jewels, while a highly complicated watch like a perpetual calendar or a minute repeater may have over 30 jewels. It’s important to note that more jewels does not necessarily mean a better watch – what matters is how well the watch performs and how well it is made.

The Manufacturing Process of Watch Jewels

The manufacturing process of watch jewels is a complex and precise one, requiring a high level of skill and expertise. The process begins with the creation of the synthetic ruby material, which is made by melting aluminium oxide with a small amount of chromium to give it its characteristic red color. This mixture is then allowed to cool and harden into a large crystal, which is then cut into smaller pieces.

These pieces are then shaped into the specific sizes and shapes needed for the watch movement. This is done using a process called lapping, which involves grinding the jewel against a spinning disk coated with a fine abrasive. Once the jewels are the correct size and shape, they are polished to a high shine and then carefully inspected for any flaws or imperfections.

The Use of Synthetic vs. Natural Jewels

While natural gemstones were used in the early days of watchmaking, today, almost all watch jewels are synthetic. Synthetic rubies offer several advantages over their natural counterparts. They are much more affordable and readily available, and they can be manufactured to a consistent size and quality. Additionally, synthetic rubies are actually harder and more durable than natural rubies, making them better suited to the demands of a watch movement.

Despite these advantages, some luxury watch brands still choose to use natural gemstones in their watches, either for aesthetic reasons or to uphold traditional watchmaking techniques. These watches are often highly prized by collectors and can command a premium price.

The Placement of Jewels in a Watch Movement

The placement of jewels in a watch movement is a highly precise and carefully planned process. Each jewel has a specific location in the movement, and the exact placement can have a significant impact on the watch’s performance. The jewels are typically placed at the pivot points of the watch’s gears, where they serve as bearings and reduce friction.

However, the jewels can also be found in other parts of the watch movement. For example, in an automatic watch, jewels may be used in the rotor mechanism, which winds the watch. In a chronograph, jewels may be used in the pushers and switches that control the stopwatch function. The placement of these jewels requires a high level of skill and precision, and it is one of the factors that sets luxury mechanical watches apart from their less expensive counterparts.

The Impact of Jewels on Watch Performance and Value

The use of jewels in a watch movement can have a significant impact on the watch’s performance. By reducing friction, the jewels help the watch to run more smoothly and accurately, and they can extend the lifespan of the watch. However, the number of jewels is not the only factor to consider when evaluating a watch’s performance. Other factors, such as the quality of the movement’s construction and the accuracy of its timekeeping, are also important.

While the number of jewels in a watch was once a key indicator of its value, this is no longer the case. Today, many other factors, such as the brand, the materials used, and the complexity of the watch’s features, play a much larger role in determining its value. However, the presence of jewels in a watch movement can still add to its appeal, as it speaks to the craftsmanship and tradition that goes into each luxury mechanical timepiece.

The Misconceptions About Jewels in Watches

There are many misconceptions about the role of jewels in watches. One common misconception is that more jewels means a better watch. While it’s true that more jewels can reduce friction and increase the lifespan of the watch, there is a point of diminishing returns. Once a watch has enough jewels to cover all the key friction points, adding more jewels will not significantly improve its performance.

Another misconception is that the jewels add to the value of the watch. While it’s true that jewels can add to the cost of producing a watch, they do not significantly increase its resale value. The value of a luxury mechanical watch is determined by many factors, including the brand, the materials used, the complexity of the features, and the condition of the watch.

The Future of Jewels in Watchmaking

The use of jewels in watchmaking is a tradition that dates back centuries, and it is likely to continue into the future. While advances in technology have led to the development of new materials and techniques, the basic principles of watchmaking remain the same. The use of jewels to reduce friction and wear in a watch movement is still as relevant today as it was in the past.

However, as the watch industry continues to evolve, we may see new uses for jewels in watchmaking. For example, some watchmakers are experimenting with using diamonds, which are even harder than rubies, to further reduce friction and improve performance. Others are exploring the use of jewels for aesthetic purposes, incorporating them into the design of the watch in new and innovative ways. Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that jewels will continue to play a vital role in the world of luxury mechanical watches.

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