Here's the thing with moon phase complications: they're popular, they're mechanically simple, and they're very bad at accurately displaying anything other than full and crescent moons.
The way most work is to have a semicircular opening with a smaller semicircle, or occulation disk on either end of the semicircle. As the moon emerges over left side, it starts as a tight crescent, and slowly grows to a full moon, before waxing. But the middle areas between the full moon and crescents are poor representations of the moon. If you check your moon phase at a half moon, it will look like a moon cookie with a bite taken out of it more than a half moon.
Enter Audemars. Their stated goal with this patent was to create a complication that did not add substantially to the complexity of the movement, while providing a more accurate representation of the moon at any given phase. What they've come up with is a really clever mechanism that was patented in the United States on July 30, 2013.
They maintain a few staples of more common moon phase complications. As shown in the patent, it keeps the semicircular opening for the complication, a moon disk with two moons opposed at 180 degrees from one another, and the traditional rotation rate of 29.5 days per half-turn. That is where the similarities end.
Instead of having semicircular occulation disks, the patented complication has two rotatable occulation disks that look vaguely like those three winged boomerangs. The disks can be calibrated to provide more accurate occulation of the moon at particular parts of its orbit. As the moon disk rotates it engages gears that move the occulation disks, typically in one quick movement, like with a date change.
In the end, this is a very interesting, but very high end complication. It adds a lot of pieces to what is typically a simple and inexpensive addition to a watch. I would really love to see this make its way into a watch, either by AP or licensed by someone else.
In late November, 2016, Rolex was granted a patent for a complication that would serve a similar purpose to a chronograph, but with fewer parts, thereby making it more reliable, smaller, and lighter than traditional mechanical chronograph movements.
The basic premise is to have a your normal hour, minute, and second hands (shown as a small seconds in the patent drawings), and then "stored" hours, minutes, and seconds hands. Both sets move in sync until you freeze the "stored" time hands. Then, instead of having a readout of how much time has elapsed as with a typical chronograph, you simply have a display of when you stopped the clock.
Two heart cams then serve to resynchronize the seconds with seconds, and hours and minutes with the actual time. Heart cams are routinely used to zero out chronographs, so they have a long history in watchmaking.
I feel that it's unlikely this makes it into a Rolex watch. (The discussion of why you patent something if you're never going to sell it is for another day.) It's not clear where it would fit in their line, and it seems like most people would correctly view it as a cheaper, less convenient version of a chronograph. It's easy to read elapsed time. It's harder to do watch-math -- It's 8:37 now and I stopped the watch at 7:18. . . It's an hour and nineteen minutes, but it took you longer to get there than looking at a chronograph.
One thing that's notable about this patent is that it relates to a new complication, rather than improvements in materials or reliability to existing components. It's a little out of the ordinary for Rolex.
We don't plan to cover much of Rolex's materials patent portfolio here. It's not because it's not interesting; it really is. It's just that ceramic chemistry and metallurgy aren't as easily understood by the typical watch nerd as a bunch of gears and some simple drawings. And, if I'm being honest, aren't as easily understood by me either. When we do cover them, it's more likely going to be a "what does this mean," rather than getting too far into the "how."
This recently issued Rolex patent is a decent example.
The abstract reads:
Watch component made of a persistent phosphorescent ceramic composite material which is a sintered dense body comprising two or more phases, a first phase consisting of at least one metal oxide and a second phase consisting of a metal oxide containing at least one activating element in a reduced oxidation state, the watch component having a surface which comprises an area which shows phosphorescent emission and an area which does not show phosphorescent emission or which shows phosphorescent emission with an intensity which is lower than that of the emission of the other area.
The patent covers a ceramic element of a watch that is either partially phosphorescent, or has elements that have different phosphorescent properties. Like hour indices that look like one piece in day light, but only the tips glow. Or a solid ceramic bezel where indices on the bezel are luminescent. It's potentially pretty cool.
These patents are dense. Like fruitcake dense. Flourless chocolate cake dense. While most mechanical watch patents are pretty brief, and explain the relevant gearing and positions in relation to other gears in the train, these patents go into great detail (see the image) above regarding how the ceramic was manufactured, and which temperatures and concentrations of metals provided what results. It's good technique for getting a broad patent, but it's not easy for me to post a picture of ceramic crystals and have the implications of that be apparent for watch fans.
All of which isn't to say we will never cover them, but my feeling is that these will be of less general interest to readers than a day-night complication where the moon also displays the moon phase.
From time to time we will revisit some much older patents. They show us some ideas that either never caught on, or did but have since been improved upon or gone out of style.
This Benrus patent was issued in 1952 and expired in 1969.
This patent disclosed a simpler way to adjust watch bracelets. The bracelet features a traditional tri-fold clasp, but also allows quick adjustment to make the bracelet tighter or looser. An internal spring bar and several notches allow the user to easily adjust the fit of the bracelet while it is still on their arm, all invisible to the user.
The patent suggests that on hot days you may want a little more room in the bracelet, or to quickly push it up your arm while washing your hands.
It's a clever idea, though I don't know that it was ever mass produced. And certainly the spring bar would loose resilience over time and the bracelet would begin to slip, which is a major downside.
Meanwhile, we have seen some quick fine adjust mechanisms on bracelet clasps lately, but none that I'm aware of that let you adjust the fit while it's on your arm.
Even Lange's patent drawings are things of beauty. This patent, which expired in September, 2016, discloses and claims a beautifully simple mechanism to zero a second hand while setting the time.
The basics of this mechanism is a cam-plate drive. The cam plate can be seen attached to the seconds stem. When the crown is pulled into the setting position the cam is driven by a spring-driven lever into the zero position. By using a heart-shaped cam, the mechanism will also hack - keep the second-hand at the zero position while the minute hand is being set.
For such a desirable feature, there are surprisingly few parts involved, and given that the patent on this mechanism has expired, I'd love to see to lower-end watch companies start to incorporate this into their watches.
Design patents are an integral part of the intellectual property strategy of many watch companies. And design patents are exactly what they sound like: patents on the design of an object.
Typical patents, called "Utility Patents" in the business, protect only the useful, or functional, elements of a product. So, for many brands like Rolex, Omega, and Lange, they file patents on their innovations in the materials that make their cases, their co-axial escapements, or new and wondrous complications.
But a large number of watch companies don't innovate in technology. They innovate in design and use off-the-shelf movements.
Companies like Baume & Mercier have their entire patent portfolios (near as I can tell) dedicated to design patents: over a dozen design patents in the US dedicated to the design of watches, watch faces, and watch parts.
Design patents only last 14 years from the date the design patent is granted, and only protect the look of the item, not the way it works.
Status: Patent Application (allowed in US 5/7/18, patent to issue), pending elsewhere in Europe and the world as of publication.
Description: This is such a clever idea. The basic concept is to take the relatively mundane day-night complication and make it really special, by having the moon in the day-night complication also display the phase of the moon.
The patent application discloses a couple of different gearings to make the mechanism work, but requires that the moon phase be part of the day-night, and that the aperture for the moon phase be off center, as it naturally would be.
What it means: This would allow Blancpain the exclusive right to manufacture, import, sell, or license this dual complication in any country where they are granted the patent. Blancpain would have that exclusive right until July 4, 2036, as long as they continue to pay regular fees to maintain the patent. They do not have to make watches with this complication, but they really should. It's very cool.
Welcome to Second Hand Patents. This is a site created and run by Ben Snitkoff, and sponsored by Modern Renaissance Legal.
Ben is an avid watch collector and has been assembling a large database of patents related to wrist watches. This blog will pick some of those patents and highlight them because of their cleverness, historical significance, or just because they're interesting.
Nothing on this site is legal advice, nor should it be taken as such. If you'd like legal advice, or for Ben to consult with your company about watch patents, non-watch patents, intellectual property, or internet law, scoot over to ModernRenaissanceLegal.com.