Can crafts as old as watch-crystal engraving still be modernized, especially at traditional watchmakers like Vacheron Constantin, founded all the way back in 1755? That’s the challenge engineers at EPFL’s Galatea Laboratory decided to tackle. They wondered how they could bring the craft into the 21st century, enabling artisans to use lasers – rather than engravers, scissors or cutters – to sculpt watch crystals. Lasers can draw fine lines within the very core of a crystal, but they have to be guided using a virtual reality headset.
The engineers at Galatea, located at Microcity in Neuchâtel, worked with Vacheron Constantin for two years to develop a high-tech approach to the age-old craft. “We wanted to use new technology to broaden the range of possibilities that craftsmen can explore, without losing their traditional know-how or the finesse of their movements,” says Prof. Yves Bellouard, who holds the Richemont chair at EPFL and heads the Galatea Lab. Paul Bertusi, an engineering and innovation project manager at Vacheron Constantin, adds: “We wanted to incorporate innovation into this highly traditional method, which has been honed at our company over more than 265 years.”
Reinventing the engraving profession
The project began in 2016, shortly after Bellouard joined EPFL and set up the Galatea Lab in order to study how lasers interact with materials and what the potential applications are in microengineering. His team works with high-intensity, ultra-short laser pulses – the same technology that won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics – that are capable of changing the properties of a material. The discovery of these pulses opened up entirely new avenues of research. “Until then, it was impossible to work inside materials,” says Bellouard. “I spoke with Richemont” – the company that owns Vacheron Constantin – “about how we could combine this technology with craftsmanship techniques, and applying it to watch engraving seemed like the perfect choice.”
Source: “Lasers and virtual reality to revolutionise watch-crystal engraving”, Sandy Evangelista, EPFL News