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The Real Story Behind The Crazy Watch Tony Fadell Helped Invent

No other watch has the same photocells that power orbital satellites–and an origin story intertwined with Fadell’s own forgotten experiments in creating a pocketable MP3 player.

Benoit Mintiens was 12 years into his industrial design career when his friend, a diamond dealer, came to him with an unusual problem. The friend had too many diamonds—small, low-quality gems that no one wanted to buy. So he asked Mintiens to design something that would make use of them. It’s rare for any designer to get such a blue-sky commission, and Mintiens took it in stride, eventually designing a watch that would display the time as light refracted through a matrix of tiny diamonds. Bold as the idea was, Mintiens’ friend eventually flitted to other projects and the watch was never realized. But Mintiens had caught a bug. He was now obsessed with designing a wristwatch that he would want to wear.

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That seed of inspiration 10 years ago eventually spawned Ressence, a watch company that has accomplished the rare feat of earning adoration from design nerds and horology snobs alike despite being a start-up. But Ressence’s previous watches may only be a prelude to its newest, the Type 2, which manages to solve some core problems that have bedeviled wristwatches ever since they were invented. The creation of that timepiece was abetted by none other than Tony Fadell, the so-called godfather of the iPod.

Fadell’s involvement was catnip to tech blogs that rushed to publish news about the Type 2, which is slated to go into production sometime this year and is expected to cost around $40,000. They all missed how strange an object the Type 2 actually is. After all, what other watch has the same photocells that power orbital satellites and an origin story intertwined with Fadell’s own forgotten experiments in creating a pocketable MP3 player?

[Pay close attention to the Mode Indicator on the upper right of the face. We’ll get to that shortly. Photo: Ressence]

What’s Special About The Type 2?

If you’re not a watch nerd, then some facts are in order. If a watch costs more than $1,000, it is almost certainly a mechanical watch. If so, it isn’t powered by a mere battery, but instead by springs. Those springs are primed either by winding the watch; the natural movements of the wearer’s wrist; or both, like all modern Rolexes. But mechanical watches all have the same inescapable problem: They lose time constantly and thus have to be reset at least every few weeks. Thus, the most expensive watches in the world are in fact less effective at their core purpose—telling time accurately—than the timer on your smartphone. As Mentiens says, ever since the advent of the first battery-powered Quartz watches in 1969, “Fine watchmaking, as a last resort, became art.”

Perhaps for that reason, watches have not evolved past the fundamental user-centered problems that plagued them. They still have to be wound. They still have to be adjusted. But the new Type 2 doesn’t have to do any of that, thanks to an ingenious idea that Mentiens came up with. The Type 2 isn’t just one watch: It’s a mechanical watch first and foremost. But it also has an electric component, the so-called e-Crown, that once-a-day checks whether the mechanical watch is keeping the right time. If not, the e-Crown recalibrates the watch automatically. Once set, the Type 2 never has to be adjusted again.

It also never has to be wound. When you’re wearing the Type 2, the mechanical watch is powered by the movement of your wrist. But if the watch hasn’t been worn for long enough, the mechanical mechanism naturally runs down. Yet if you put the Type 2 on again, an accelerometer inside wakes the watch up. The electric time-setting component takes over, setting the correct time and powering the watch until the mechanical mechanism can take over once again. “It’s really a mechanical watch. It just has a robot in it to change the time and time zone, and you never have to charge it,” Fadell says.

If you’ve followed along so far, then you might be wondering what powers the e-Crown. One of Mentien’s core design principles for the Type 2 was that it be whole unto itself, forever: Just like any collectible timepiece, it’ll keep telling time for 100 years, without any need for new batteries or updated tech. Of course, doing that required high-tech ingenuity. That’s where the design goes from, “Huh, that’s really clever,” to “Holy crap, they did that in a watch?!” That’s when Fadell stepped in to serve as Mentiens’s electronics guru.

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[Photo: Ressence]

Ressence’s Secret? Something Fadell Had Tried For The Proto iPod

Fadell has been a watch collector since the early 1990s, drawn in by their combination of beauty and mechanical ingenuity. Working at Apple, he started to learn more about them first hand, when he and other Apple employees would tour fine-timepiece factories, hunting there for manufacturing inspiration. The first time Fadell heard about Ressence was in 2013, via the watch site Hodinkee, which had written a story about the Type 3, and the secret behind its signature watch face.

On any other timepiece, the watch face is obscured by the glare of the protective crystal; past a certain angle, and you can’t see it at all. Ressence watches don’t appear to have any protective casing at all. It’s actually an optical trick. All other watches have air between the dial and the protective crystal; as a result of the difference in how the air and crystal refract light, there’s glare any time you view the watch face at an angle. Ressence watches, by contrast, have a transparent oil in the space between the dial and crystal which exactly matches the refractive index of the crystal. As a result, there is no glare whatsoever, and you can’t even see that the crystal is there at all. It looks as if the surface of the dial is literally the surface of the watch face. “When I saw that, I said, ‘This is crazy!” Fadell recalls. “And I knew exactly what he was doing.”

As it happened, before Fadell even came to Apple, he was already making prototypes of a compact gadget that had an LCD touchscreen. But there was a problem: the tiny air gap between the LCD display and the glass protecting it. When you viewed the display from any angle, the button would be slightly displaced—an effect akin to looking at your hand when it’s submerged in water, and seeing how it seems smaller and weirdly angled. As a result, you couldn’t tap the buttons accurately when glancing at the gadget. Fadell had tried to fix that problem by squeezing Vaseline into the air gap. By the time he joined Apple to create an MP3 player for them, he had scrapped the touchscreens. (As for the interface, Phil Schiller, Apple’s long-time head of marketing, mooted the idea of the click-wheel, inspired by a Bang and Olufsen telephone.)

After reading that Hodinkee article, Fadell started buying Ressences and trading friendly correspondence with Mentiens. They never actually talked until 2015. “Then, out of the blue, he was like, ‘Tony, I have this crazy idea for a watch, and I think you’re the guy that could help me,” says Fadell. “Through calls and design documents, we started discussing business models, what to patent, and what should be trade secrets. We started getting into the nitty-gritty of the features and interface and electronics.”

[Remember the Mode Indicator mentioned in the picture above? Here’s a breakdown of it. Shutters on the indicator open up when solar power is needed. Here, the shutters are in the open position. In all the other photos, they’re closed. Photo: Ressence]

Satellite Technology You Wear On Your Wrist

Which brings us back to the Type 2, and the e-Crown, the robot that automatically adjusts the time and takes over when the mechanics lose power. It has no battery. Rather, it’s solar-powered. Of course, the Type 2 wouldn’t be very good-looking if it were marred by the same kind of hideous solar panel you find on a Casio. So Mentiens came up with the idea of hiding the solar cells behind tiny louvers on the watch face. When the e-Crown needs power, those louvers open up, exposing the tiny cells beneath (see the schematic above). The cells themselves are the so-called triple junction cells you find in ultra high-end applications such as satellites. Unlike the single-junction solar panels you find in common applications such as roof installations, they can absorb light from three chunks of the spectrum—red, green, and blue. As a result, the power efficiency is around 40% as opposed to 12% to 15% for single-junction panels; the cell can remain tiny while providing ample power to the e-Crown, and it works well indoors.

The final bit of wizardry in the Type 2 springs from the accelerometer inside. Not only does that allow the watch to “wake up” and recalibrate itself after it has been sitting for a while and needs to be reset, it allows the watch to detect taps. It can be set with three time zones; doing so is a matter of tapping the watch face and accessing the settings. Of course, there is also Bluetooth, which connects the Type 2 with a smartphone app that allows you to set even more time zones, and lets you access your watch settings with a graphical interface. But the Bluetooth and smartphone pairing is really secondary to the Type 2’s main goal of never needing to be set or wound, while at the same time being self-contained enough that it’ll still be a working timepiece when your grandkids are adults. In fact, even if the e-Crown stopped working at all, the Type 2 would still be a functional, albeit less magical, mechanical watch.

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Asked why no one has ever before addressed such foundational problems with mechanical watches, Mintiens chalks it up to being a designer before he was ever a watchmaker. “It’s really because of a user-centered perspective,” he says. “Watchmakers start by thinking about the movement.” Put another way, watchmaking has burrowed into concerns about the gears inside as opposed to the pain points of owning a mechanical watch. Mentiens goes on: “As a designer, I start in the owner’s brain, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to live.” Fadell, the ideal user, doesn’t yet have his own Type 2. He’s worn one of the two prototypes, but had to send it back to Mintiens. “I’m waiting in the wings,” Fadell says. “I can’t wait to have one.”

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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