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Features: The Real Deal

James D. Malcolmson

Few things rankle more than when someone disses your sweetheart—even if she happens to be a watch. When you show off your new complicated wristwatch, you may encounter one of those opinionated purists who relishes letting you in on the truth. “Oh, it’s a nice piece,” he will comment disdainfully, “but they don’t make their own movements, you know—they aren’t a manufacture!” It’s that French word with the accent on the final syllable that gets to you. What the devil is a manufacture?

 

To explain it as succinctly as possible, a manufacture is a company that makes its watches from scratch, rather than buying base movements from other suppliers and then doing the final assembly. Just who is and who is not a true manufacture has become a topic for debate among informed watch aficionados. With so many differing opinions and so much misinformation circulating, you may find yourself beset with angst as you make your next timepiece selection.

While manufacture status can imply superiority, the truth is not so cut and dried. In fact, outsourcing is a time-honored tradition even among Switzerland’s elite brands. Ultimately, it is a personal choice about how much the pedigree of the movement matters to you.


“Some core collectors of contemporary watches want to make sure the companies make the movements fitted inside the watches,” says Michael Friedman, head of Christie’s watch department in the United States. “In some ways it’s a gut reaction to recent publicity on how many companies do not produce movements. It is sort of a cultural dialogue that is taking place about modern wristwatches.”

 

The trouble is, few people in Switzerland, or around the world for that matter, can agree on a list of companies that fit the manufacture bill. Once you wade into the issue, it is easy to become bogged down with such niggling questions as, do they make their own ébauches? (watch parlance for the base plates and basic design of the movement). The criteria can vary, depending on whom you talk to, but invariably the list of manufactures is shockingly short. “A lot of companies will do extensive finishing work,” says Friedman. “They really put their own touch on the movements, which basically have been produced elsewhere.” Only 15 or so companies make at least some of their own movements. A real stickler might insist that perhaps about a half dozen of them—A. Lange & Söhne, Girard- Perregaux, Glashütte Original, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Zenith—use their own movements almost exclusively. And it is not uncommon for manufactures, such as Girard-Perregaux and Jaeger-LeCoultre, to supply movements to other makers.


As these numbers suggest, the vast majority of watch companies, even at the highest end of the market, incorporate movements from large movement producers, such as ETA, Valjoux, and Frederick Piguet. For the most part, the decision to outsource movements is a matter of pure economics. It can cost millions of dollars to develop a single movement type, or caliber. Given the expense associated with producing even a reasonably accurate and reliable mechanism, purchasing a movement with a proven track record is a highly attractive option for the majority of watch companies.

 

But creating original movements, say purists, enhances a company’s prestige. Some might argue that the very essence of Patek Philippe derives from the company’s insistence on making watches fitted with its own movements. A company such as Jaeger-LeCoultre, a true manufacture in anyone’s opinion, boasts a loyal group of collectors for this very reason.

If you are purchasing a watch for its style or as a piece of jewelry, the manufacture distinction is probably a moot point. But if you are interested in mechanical watches, especially the complicated variety, the origin of the movement inside can make a real difference. “Ultimately, it depends very much on what you are buying,” says Daryn Schnipper, senior vice president at Sotheby’s. “For a brand like Franck Muller, it’s really about the design. People who are attracted to that brand accept that there is [a supplied base movement] inside. With a maker like Patek Philippe, people are interested in the authenticity, and this becomes more so as you move up in price.”


Call it authenticity or call it originality, but clearly, experienced collectors are looking for something beyond aesthetics and performance. Witness the serious mechanical watch collectors who wait months and even years for pieces from the new wave of boutique watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour and F.P. Journe. These watches are coveted because each is regarded as the creation of a genius watchmaker. In short, the essence of their appeal lies in the watchmaker’s art and the impression that these pieces are somehow more handcrafted than those from the larger, more established companies. But notions of handicraft in watchmaking can be just as misleading as the concept of a real manufacture.

 

Although many of the independents shun ready-made base movements, the limitations of their small operations dictate that they use at least some prefabricated parts, and often ultramodern design methods as well. “I try to stress to people that there really isn’t such a thing as a [completely] handmade watch anymore,” says Martin Murphy, a veteran sales associate at Boston watch specialist Alpha Omega Jewelers. “At some stage of the process, there are CAD/CAM machines and other modern equipment. Sure, there’s hand-finishing—beveled edges and plates, and so forth—but that’s mostly for aesthetics. Most of the real manufacturing is done by machine.”

 

In some ways the argument of manufactures versus “outsourcers” distorts the history of Swiss watchmaking, which isrife with cross-pollinization. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that this is nothing new,” says Christie’s Fried-man. “The ability of one firm to supply another with ébauches is not new. Even the grandest of firms, Patek Philippe, would buy ébauches from Jaeger-LeCoultre in the 1910s and finish them in-house. This has been documented.”


Independent watchmaker and restoration expert Peter Speake-Marin views such historical partnerships in a positive light. “Some of the most beautiful watchmaking I have ever seen is the work done for Cartier by LeCoultre in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a collaboration and was just as original as anything else on the market.”

The use of outsourced base movements in no way precludes ingenuity and innovation, or so would argue Franck Muller and the host of small, independent watch houses that rely on such movements as a foundation for complicated artistry. “A good example is Ulysse Nardin, which uses ETA movements that are highly modified,” says Alpha Omega’s Murphy. “Rolf Schnyder, owner and president of Ulysse Nardin, has never shied away from the fact that they don’t make their own movements. The cost is prohibitive. It’s the modifications and additions that are so impressive.”

Even today, many manufactures continue to use outsourced movements when performance cannot be matched in-house. For its reference 5070 chronograph, Patek Philippe uses a highly regarded movement that is supplied by Nouvelle Lemania (owned by Swiss behemoth Swatch Group). Patek, nevertheless, is said to be developing an in-house replacement.
Indeed, as the market for increasingly sophisticated timepieces has grown exponentially over the past decade, it seems the watch houses are playing the manufacture card with greater emphasis. Naturally, the ongoing debate over who is actually a manufacture feeds into an industry obsessed with politics and one-upmanship. “The watch companies take it very seriously,” says Murphy. “I visited Glashütte Original, and one of the first things they pointed out was their status as a manufacture, so it’s obviously very important to them.”


The investments made to achieve manufacture status over the last few years have been astonishing. Since the late 1990s, Chopard, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Cartier, and Parmigiani Fleurier have either launched their own manufacture movements or opened manufacture factories with all operations under one roof. A partial explanation for all this activity is the wave of mergers and acquisitions that occurred during the same period, transforming the ca-pacity to manufacture movements from a specialty to a strategic asset for the industry’s big holding companies. Because Swatch owns most of the movement specialists, many of the other high-end companies began investing in their own manufacturing capacities to free themselves from dependence on a competitor. But perhaps the most important asset of claiming manufacture status is the prestige it seemingly imparts on the brands.

 

“The development of the L.U.C. movement was a very personal project for the owner of Chopard,” says Thierry Chaunu, president of Chopard USA. “It was a reaffirmation of our technical skills to create completely new movements using state-of-the-art equipment combined with the most traditional techniques. The true luxury consumers are connoisseurs who really want the very best that can be made. That combination of traditional and state of the art is what we think is appealing to the modern man.”


Chopard’s L.U.C. movement, like many of the new proprietary calibers, is a versatile, high-torque workhorse that can be adapted to a variety of future complications. By contrast, two newly developed Cartier calibers, the first 100 percent Cartier-made movements, are much more specialized. Both the dual– time zone and the jumping date movements are specifically designed for individual watches, defining them as prestige statements rather than something the company can use again and again in future models. Currently, these proprietary calibers are fitted into only the high-end Cartier Privée line. “Developing a watchcase and corresponding movement as a singular objective is quite rare in watchmaking,” says Stanislas de Quercize, president and CEO of Cartier USA. “The Cartier caliber 9901 dual-time movement was born as a dual-time movement. It was not an existing caliber that was then modified. The development of these two new calibers shows that Cartier is returning to its grand watchmaking heritage and will undoubtedly punctuate the prestige of the Cartier Privée Collection.”

 

Ultimately, watch houses perpetuate the perceived importance of being a manufacture by distinguishing their latest and greatest developments with the term. And perhaps, in maintaining their own myths, Swiss watch companies have strayed a bit from the truth. “Historically, it has been over-romanticized,” says Christie’s Friedman. “People have had this notion that the little old watchmaker was making all these parts and putting them together. That is as much of a myth as the idea that modern watches are hand-fabricated.”

In what may be the ultimate irony for the purists, no company can really claim to be a manufacture in the absolute sense, for hairsprings—the tiny coils of metal that regulate the motion of the balance wheel beating in the heart of every mechanical watch—are made by a single company, Nivarox S.A., which supplies the entire industry.

 

The silver lining of this controversial topic is that as collectors’ watchmaking knowledge grows, so does their passion for complicated watches. And if much ado is made of the most tangled complexity and tiniest detail . . . well, these are watches we’re talking about after all.

A. Lange & Söhne, 310.317.9852; Cartier, 800.CARTIER, www.cartier.com; Chopard, 800.CHOPARD, www.chopard.com;
Girard-Perregaux, 877.846.3447, www.girard-perregaux-usa.com;
Jaeger-LeCoultre, 800.JLC.TIME, www.jaeger-lecoultre.com;
Patek Philippe,212.218.1240, www.patek.com;
Vacheron Constantin, 877.862.7555, www.vacheron-constantin.com;
Zenith, 800.321.4832, www.zenith-watches.com

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Photo by René Gaens
Copyright by IWC