In the 1970s, the watch industry went through what is commonly referred to as the 'quartz crisis'. Quartz watches – those powered by an electric battery – were technically more accurate than traditional mechanical watches, and could be produced far more cheaply.
As such, many mainstream brands started churning out these watches in huge numbers. With such an influx of high-end time-tellers, the market bottomed-out, and amidst a price war that saw luxury watches become easily affordable, several high-end brands almost went out of business.
Fast forward almost half-a-century and mechanical watches are back in favour. Having learnt its lesson, the high-end watch industry is almost exclusively mechanical these days. And while some of the larger brands still deal in quartz technology, it's reserved solely for watches on the bottom of the horological spectrum.
Mechanical watches, it seems, are here to stay. But that's not to say that the watch world has turned its back on embracing new technology. Far from it, in fact. For about a decade now, watchmakers have been looking to new ways to power their movements and indicate the time. Some use orbiting satellites (URWERK), others use rubber belts to drive cogs (Claret and TAG Heuer) and some use bulbous domes and unique shapes to magnify watch faces (MB&F).
But the team behind HYT (the Hydro Mechanical Horologists) have been thinking along different lines. Unlike anything previously seen in the watch world, HYT uses fluorescent liquids housed inside crystal tubes, pushed by bellows and pistons, to tell the time. What's more, the whole thing is powered by traditional Swiss mechanical movements.
This hydro-mechanical hybrid is the work of nuclear engineer Lucien Vouillamoz, who joined forces with Swiss entrepreneur Patrick Berdoz and two other partners to bring his project to fruition, and the wrists of watch collectors worldwide.
The principle behind HYT's watches seems simple, but is technically incredibly hard to produce. Two immiscible (non-mixing) liquids flow through metal bellows that are powered by a traditional mechanical movement. As the liquid flows through the crystal tubes, where both liquids meet indicates the time on the watch dial.
The revolutionary system would not be possible without help from sister brand Preciflex. The company – also owned by Patrick Berdoz - produces liquid indication devices for both medical and automotive fields, but in 2012 also began production for HYT watches. And collectors – particularly in the Middle East and Asia – can't get enough of them.
In the first full year of sales and production, HYT produced just 150 watches. In 2014, that went up to 400 (where is has stayed). Just after Baselworld 2016 – the world's greatest watch exhibition – orders for HYT watches were up 30 percent over the same period the year before.
Currently, HYT's base model – the H1 – retails for around $50,000 to 70,000 (depending on materials and colours). But it's the special edition timepieces where the opportunity lies, including the H2, H4 Alinghi and Skull collections that range from $90,000 to $180,000. This year, for example, HYT produced a limited edition Skull Vida watch with a dial carved out of ivory from a long-extinct woolly mammoth.
Last year, Berdoz successful raised an additional $23 million in funding. That money is going towards moving the brand forward in entirely new ways. While HTY will always remain a luxury brand – and the high prices that go along with it – there are two more companies in the works, both making use of Preciflex's unique dials.
Aqua Quantum is a line of liquid-display watches and jewellery in the fashion realm, with an entry price of just $300. There are also plans for a set of hybrid watches – rumoured to be announced in 2018.
Unlike the watch industry's last foray into technology, it seems HYT's has hit upon a niche with collectors and horological advocates worldwide. And while the state of the industry is once again turning full circle (what with the advent of true, blue smartwatches) HYT's hydro-powered timepieces aren't going out of date anytime soon.
You can see the latest collection from HYT – including an example of the HYT Skull Vida (made from now-extinct woolly mammoth ivory) – at Dubai Watch Week. Under the Patronage of Shaikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice Chairman of Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, Dubai Watch Week returns for a third consecutive year in November 2017.
Organised by Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons in partnership with the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), The five day cultural and educational event (DATES TBC) will once again host key industy spokespeople and the leading names in the world of horology.
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