Watches You Should Know

Before the Rolex Milgauss, This Unassuming Watch Pioneered Anti-Magnetism


June 3, 2020 Watches By Photo by Analog / Shift
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Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Tissot Antimagnétique.

If your otherwise trusty mechanical watch isn’t running quite right, it may be the victim of an invisible enemy. No, not Covid-19, but rather: magnetism. It’s all around us and has presented a challenge to watchmakers for ages, the solution to which is the antimagnetic watch movement. And despite the existence of more prominent examples of antimagnetic watches from prestigious companies like Rolex and Omega, a humbler timepiece called the Tissot Antimagnétique predated them by decades.

What’s the big deal about magnetic fields we can’t even readily detect and their effects on watches? While antimagnetic properties might not sound as exciting as hardcore water resistance or exotic case materials, it’s important stuff to consider. At least, it’s important if you want your watch to keep accurate time. But it’s also interesting to note that watchmakers were aware of and addressing the problem of magnetic fields well before electric devices that generate them were even common in society, as they are today.

When Tissot introduced its Antimagnétique in 1930, an antimagnetic pocket watch by Vacheron Constantin was already 15 years old — and research and experiments relating to anti-magnetism in watchmaking are recorded as early as 1846. And while it’s common for technology to have first been introduced in pocket watches before finding its way into the smaller movements of wristwatches, Tissot’s claimed its Antimagnétique specifically as the first antimagnetic wristwatch, which was significant.

Detailed technical information on the Antimagnétique is scarce, but Tissot appears to have used a similar solution to anti-magnetism as Vacheron Constantin. It’s magnetization of the regulating mechanism — and especially the delicate balance spring — in watch movements that causes problems (learn more about it here and how to fix it yourself here). Some materials hold a magnetic charge more than others or not at all, and a 19th-century watchmaker intending to address the effects of temperature on balance springs discovered that palladium was also highly antimagnetic.

It seems that using a palladium alloy in the watch movement did the trick both for Vacheron and Tissot. The brand’s materials don’t say precisely how many gauss the movements could withstand — but they do note that the magnetic resistance of Tissot’s watches was “corroborated by numerous scientific studies commissioned to the Swiss laboratory for watchmaking research of Neuchâtel, an independent body.” The brand further installed “chrono-electromagnet” testing equipment in its own facilities.

Now considered “collectible,” there were many watches that carried Tissot’s Antimagnétique label (in its distinctive Art Deco font) on the dial between 1930 and the 1950s. In fact, the technology was “gradually applied to the whole Tissot collection,” according to the brand. The very earliest examples were rectangular or tonneau-shaped, and the round models that are more familiar and palatable for today’s tastes came later.

Resistance to magnetization was later important for WWII pilots who needed highly accurate watches that could operate in the significant magnetic fields generated by aircraft. Later, watches of the 1950s such as the Rolex Milgauss were aimed at scientists and engineers who worked with high-tech equipment, and they used a different approach to anti-magnetism: a Faraday Cage around the movement, which protected the entire apparatus.

Even today, when a mechanical watch goes in for routine servicing, one of the first things the watchmaker does is test it for magnetization. Improving watches’ resistance to magnetism continues to drive horological innovation, but the material leading the way is now silicon — used for the balance spring of some modern watches from Tissot and its Swatch Group sibling brands. Not only are the Tissot Antimagnétique watches historically significant and available in a wide range of iterations with different looks, but they’re relatively affordable and available to collect — inexpensive tokens of the co-progress of horology and science.

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Zen Love

Zen Love is Gear Patrol’s watch writer. He avoids the snooty side of the watch world, and seeks out food in NYC that resembles what he loved while living in Asia for over a decade.

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