May 29, 2024
T-04: Monolithic Dial
Barrelhand's Monolith watch advances timekeeping for space exploration with its innovative Monolithic Dial. Developed with RC Tritec and Black Badger, the dial uses Aerolight X1 Ceramic for exceptional luminescence and durability, designed to endure extreme temperatures and high UV exposure. The watch’s construction avoids traditional paints and adhesives, ensuring stability and legibility in space.

History of Timekeeping 

The dial serves as the interface between the watch’s engine and the visualization of time. The way in which the time is displayed plays an equally important role in timekeeping as the watch engine itself. Throughout human history we have been fascinated by the idea of visualizing time. Whether it is to map out the passing of a day or the travel time around our sun, these time increments shape the fabric of our society. Some of the earliest devices ever built were ancient megalithic structures used to map out calendar systems and measure astronomical alignments. One of the first devices to visualize time beyond the precision of a sundial was the clepsydra, a water clock that dates back 1500 BC in Ancient Egypt. The clepsydra segmented the day into what we know now as “hours” using the outflow of water. 

As society advanced, so did our desire for precision timekeeping. The ability to universally segment a day into smaller increments allowed us to schedule meetings, run train systems, and exchange our “time” for a dollar amount.

Jai Prakash Yantra instrument from Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India

Fast forward to the present day and it is hard to imagine a world without a unified time system. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is the primary time standard on earth. In recent years, we have also begun utilizing this time standard for mission planning on the International Space Station (ISS). This poses a new yet familiar inquiry: What happens when we establish a base on Mars where we are no longer confined by a 24-hour Earth day? Will we convert time between planetary time zones or establish a new unified standard? As we journey towards a multiplanetary civilization we will need to redefine standards for visualizing time.

Timekeeping in Space

Visualizing time in space still goes by the same principles of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) where functionality is key. The display should offer maximum legibility, incorporating high contrast and luminous materials for low light conditions, and minimizing glare/reflections to make it suitable in any environment.

During a spacewalk, the dial is exposed to 4x the UV exposure as here on earth, thus it is critical that stable materials and paints are used to maintain legibility. This high level of UV and solar radiation can rapidly degrade certain materials, paints and lumes. 

A "tropical dial"  is used to describe the aging phenomena of certain vintage dial paints/lumes which would get "cooked" over long periods of UV exposure.

Use of adhesives and paints are heavily regulated through NASA’s IVA requirements to prevent harmful chemicals from offgassing into the space station.

Temperature is also a huge factor for devices used on spacewalks outside of the space station where temperatures can range from -120 C to +120C. This means incompatible materials can expand and contract at different rates and cause warping to mating parts. This means components like brass dial indices that are pressed into a steel or titanium base dial can become loose since the metals have different coefficients of thermal expansion. Temperature also poses a problem to any digital displays like the conventional Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). For example, the Omega X-33's Liquid Crystal Display only performs in the comfort of the space station and is not made for EVA (Extravehicular activity) as the display would freeze over time. The operation of these tools in these harsh conditions will be critical as we embark on longer missions to the moon and mars.

OMEGA Speedmaster Skywalker X-33 with LCD display

The Monolithic Dial

With all these factors in mind, we wanted to create something truly monolithic in structure with no paints, lumes, or adhesives. In order to achieve this, we partnered with the masterminds at RC Tritec, Black Badger, and Les Cadraniers — the holy trinity of dial making. For those that don't know, the guys at RC Tritec are the wizards behind the brightest luminescent materials ever made, and the official manufacturer of Swiss Super-LumiNova. James Thompson from Black Badger Advanced Composites is a mad scientist in his own right, and has helped major brands like De Bethune and MB&F realize some incredible custom luminous composites. Les Cadraniers is F.P. Journe’s new state of the art dial manufacturer responsible for projects like their Astronomic and has supplied dial solutions to some of the biggest names in the industry.

full Monolith assembly

Together, we developed the Monolithic Dial featuring Aerolight X1 (A-X1) Ceramic. The entire construction was developed from the ground up to be ready for EVA (Extravehicular Activity) use and capable of withstanding temperatures between -120C to +120C. The Aerolight X1 ceramic piece is molded into a large monolithic block and serves as a solid state light source for all indices. The luminous ceramic works the same way as Swiss Super-LumiNova by absorbing light particles from the sun and storing them like a battery. The advantage of a large ceramic composite block versus traditional lume paints is that the larger volume can store far more light particles and last longer in low light conditions. The ceramic composite also provides great temperature stability, and will not degrade under heavy UV and solar radiation exposure.

Project One and Monolith lume shot
“Over the last 2 years we worked closely together with Barrelhand to develop a ground up solution for their space application. They provided us with all of NASAs EVA specifications and together we created an entirely new construction and next generation lume composite fully equipped for the harsh conditions of space exploration. Since the conditions in space are much more demanding than for a regular watch application, we had to get away from everything we were used to doing and to reinvent ourselves. During our mutual research, not only a superior product was created, but also a great friendship grew in between us.”

- Albert Zeller CEO of RC Tritec

The Aerolight X1 Ceramic is sandwiched between 2 black DLC titanium components to create a backdrop and top mask for the indices. The pieces are then laser welded together to create a Monolithic construction.

Monolithic Dial Construction with Aerolight X1 Ceramic

Most traditional dials use a form of pad printing for second and sub-second indices. However, they rarely achieve any luminosity as there is not enough pigment stored in the limited print space. The Monolithic dial on the other hand uses a top plate to create a mask over the ceramic lume block, allowing even the smallest ⅓ second indices to have the same powerful luminescence.

Exploded view of the Monolithic Dial construction

We also opted for a sterile dial void of any texts or logos to keep the display as clean as possible for maximum legibility and aesthetic clarity. 

In the cockpit with CSO and Co-Founder Michael Sorkin

The hands are visually simple, however they are packed with small details for high visibility. When discussing the project with James Thompson from Black Badger, he emphasized the importance of polished surfaces, which can still catch light and reflections even in low light settings to further complement the lume. We then contrasted this with a matte black masked central area of the hand stack, so that it blends into the dial, naturally leading the eye towards the edge of the time display. The hands are filled with C3-X1 Super-LumiNova, the brightest luminous pigment commercially available, which is also baked into our Aerolight ceramic. The ceramic composite technology is still in its infancy, but we are also exploring ways to integrate this tech into the hands on future models.

“The scope of the project is what got me so jazzed to be a part of it. Thermal stability became the starting point of R&D to see if the specifications laid out were even possible. Also in EVA use you obviously can’t be reaching for your reading glasses, so legibility and emission in low light conditions was of paramount importance beyond just the aesthetic appeal.  I’ve always been “gear oriented” and I love it when an object has a job, so to speak. And as far as jobs go, this one was really something exciting.”

- James Thompson Founder of Black Badger
Assembled Monolith display and engine ready for final casing to the Chassis.

During testing and industry feedback from our watchmakers, we also learned that a common failure of watches under heavy impact was not movement damage itself but the hands falling off the center pinion. Usually second hands are so disproportionately long compared to their small posts that they are unevenly balanced. We still wanted a large plot of lume on the tip for the precision seconds to be visible at night, so we designed a counter balance that effectively shifted the center of mass towards the center pinion.

Second hand counterbalance for improved center of mass

Our goal with Monolith was to make the ultimate time-only platform for space exploration. The learnings from this project will form the foundation for other tools like chronographs for the Moon, Mars, and beyond. 

Stay tuned for the last stages of development. The official launch of Monolith is on track to release in Q3 2024.

Aerolight X-1 night glow
Aerial Trials: Founders Karel Bachand (Left) with Michael Sorkin (Right)
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