Challenge a watch enthusiast to dip his $100k-plus baby into any body of water like a hungry kid dunking an Oreo into milk, and you’ll be returned with a look mixed with utter loathing. Water has long been considered the mortal enemy of watches, one that’s been countered with by extensive research on keeping them as hermetically sealed for as long and deep as possible. Yet one manufacturer has chosen to let water into its watches, going beyond tolerating it to completely revolutionise the concept of time. The result is a niche that no other has yet to come close to achieving.
Meet HYT, and its hydromechanical watches.
The crazy visionaries
For a watchmaking company that was only established in 2012 deep within a tiny town called Neuchâtel, HYT is considered a baby in the illustrious Swiss watchmaking industry. Amongst the 34,000 inhabitants in the region were nuclear engineer Lucien Vuillamoz and entrepreneur Patrick Berdoz, whom along with two other partners would go on to start the brand out of the seemingly simple vision of integrating liquids and mechanics together — the Superman and Kryptonite of the industrial world.
The hybrid concept sounds like a far-fetched one, yet it’s also strangely natural. Watchmakers have long sought mechanical fluidity in their timepieces for centuries, as accuracy relies almost entirely on the smooth operation of the whole mechanism. Using liquid to measure time, however would prove to be entirely different ball game that would end up uniting elements from medicine, hydraulics, and even nuclear physics. It was uncharted territory for the four crazy visionaries.
The ebb and flow of time
And so the rebellion kicked off with the H1, HYT’s first official release. The modernist concept took flight at Baselworld 2012 within an equally bold, futuristic case that left little to the imagination. Preciflex, manufacturer of liquid indication devices for medical and automotive fields — and not coincidentally sister brand of HYT — helped with the complex mechanism.
The principle defining HYT would ultimately hinge upon using two contrasting immiscible liquids, one of them fluorescent. Both flow from bellows that push and pull the liquid in a capillary to indicate time. The bellows are in turn regulated by pistons in the mechanical movement; compressing the first reservoir pushes the fluorescent liquid up the tube, which displaces the other liquid into the second reservoir. The constant hydraulic pressure comes to an end at 6 o’clock, when the retrograde system pushes the fluorescent liquid back to its original position.The crescent-shaped meniscus then makes its steady ascend around the perimeter of the watch again.
It’s as groundbreaking as watch innovation goes, but Vincent Perriard, chief executive of HYT, humbly credited the age-old principle of the clepsydra — an ancient device (Greek for “water clock”) that uses a constant flow of water to measure time. The “modest recreation” would later go on to win the innovation prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, and Best Concept Awards at other prestigious shows.
Unlike many nouvelle horlogerie manufacturers who rely on advertising to get noticed, HYT chose to instead invest heavily in research and development. Not that they needed the extra attention; the watches spoke — almost shouted — for themselves. Such a focus led to the H2 being born merely a year later. The technical bar and credibility of the brand was raised with an overhauled interface and movement — the latter was redesigned by Giulio Papi, watchmaker and technical director of Audemars Piguet (Renaud & Papi). He also won best watchmaker awards at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève — twice.
Six years on, and the now-iconic luminescent green goo from the H1 has since spawned other colour variations, while the line-up has burgeoned with newer generations.
Launched at SIHH 2018, the H2O deserves special mention for taking the visually arresting concept to the next level with its cloche-like sapphire crystal, giving an intriguing lateral view of time’s progress with digits, markers and arrows at the side instead of the top. Two limited editions of 25 numbered examples each were released, one swathed in black with a noxious bright green fluid, while the other sees a silver case with deep blue liquid.
HYT’s theatre of time isn’t restricted to spherical cases. In 2015, the H3 was launched with the same system, but displayed linearly with the two bellows on the far left and right. The melodrama is doubled here, for every six hours the four-sided bar beneath the capillary rotates to reveal the next set of numerals as the fluid resets. The retrograde theme continues with the minutes display — also linear in orientation — when the hand jumps back to 00 every hour. Ensuring the mainspring isn’t overtaxed and the power reserved isn’t drained by this extravagant show is another engineering hurdle.
The Skull series took the brand down a darker, albeit more playful route. Delicately bending the thin glass tube around the sinister motif wasn’t the only challenge; so was making the left eye indicate the running seconds, while the right eye, the power indicator. Nonetheless, the watch remained legible, wearable, and highly collectible despite not explicitly indicating the minutes.
The horological world might be bound by century-old traditions that have been passed down from generations and beyond, but once a while the unceasing imagination of a visionary pushes through the noise to shake up the market.
Little surprise then, that it’s by a watch brand whose raison d’être is producing hydromechanical timepieces.