The appeal of a luxury timepiece has little to do with being able to tell the time. They are signifiers of status, wealth and taste (or the lack of it) and the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars/pounds/euros that they cost can be justified to some extent by the use of precious metals and gemstones, or the history of hundreds of years of artisanal craftsmanship that some brands possess. Then there is a whole other level of horology that transcends even these considerations. Where "value" is judged in a similar way to modern art. Where timepieces are created in strictly limited numbers around a unique conceptual design using cutting-edge materials and extraordinary mechanical skill. Urwerk is a Swiss watchmaker that has prospered at these lofty heights for ten years and its latest creation admirably demonstrates the attributes required of these astonishingly expensive mechanical masterpieces.
The UR-110 ZrN Torpedo is the rarest incarnation of Urwek's UR-110 model with only 12 being manufactured. The ZrN designation refers to the fact that the case top surface is vapor-deposited with Zirconium Nitride, an extremely hard and corrosion resistant coating usually only used in industrial tooling. Urwerk describes the effect thus, in the usual flowery prose that accompanies products at this level: "Reflecting an ethereal pale yellow light from its incredibly tough surface, this new timepiece in the horological firmament was designated UR-110 ZrN, aka 'the Champagne Supernova'". Yes quite.
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The UR-110 series movement is unique, though a development of the Urwerk "orbiting satellite" concept first seen in the UR-103 of 2003. The "complication" (or gimmick if you like) of these movements is that the time is fully readable using only a 120 degree arc of the face. The idea in the original 103 design was to be able to tell the time whilst driving without taking your hand off the wheel. With the 110, the dial arc is oriented in the direction of the hand so that you can discreetly tell the time by poking out a small portion of the watch from the cuff of your (hand-made) shirt. These justifications are pure nonsense of course but they have motivated some extraordinary miniature engineering.
The visible part of the movement comprises a central bearing about which three satellite "torpedoes" rotate. The torpedoes consist of a pointer and a square-section barrel. On each of the four faces of the three barrels is an hour number, making twelve in all. The torpedoes sweep past the 120 degree arc that shows the minutes, one after another, with the barrels rotating to show the correct hour. Clever. The new development on the 110 series is that the torpedoes are contra-rotated so that they always face the same direction. There is a video on the Urwerk site that demonstrates the movement in action.
Added complications to the movement include a seconds indicator, a day/night indicator and an "oil change" indicator. Yes, you have to send off the watch for servicing every few years. On the reverse of the watch glass windows display the two miniature "turbines" that use air pressure to regulate the self-winding mechanism and reduce strain on the movement.
If you really have to know the price it's US$135,000 (€100,000/£85,000).
We have no "need" of mechanical timepieces. For telling the time look no further than a 99 cent plastic LCD from China. For precision, the timer in the GPS chip of your smartphone is by far the most accurate and up to date timepiece that you possess. Should the analog readability of a dial be desired then there are thousands of cheap quartz wristwatches that are surprisingly accurate and run for years on a single battery. But all that is beside the point. Timepieces at this level are works of engineering art and you don't need to have the means to purchase them to be able to appreciate their existence.View gallery - 16 images