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Some thoughts on "manufactury" and "inhouse" movements ...

January 9 2003 at 5:48 AM
Marcus Hanke  (no login)

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As we lawyers put it: It all depends on the definition. What do you think is a manufacturer movement? Especially in Germany, this has sparked furious debates among the watch-loving community, and it continues to do so. While in English-speaking countries, the term "manufacturer movement" does occur only infrequently. More often the term "inhouse movement" is used, but this, too, is far from being sharply defined.

"Manufacture" in a strict sense means that everything is made "by hand". Of course, a good watchmaker is able to produce every part of his movements by hand, but it would be crazy to assume that it is economical. Even Ludwig Oechslin, who does produce all working prototypes of his developments himself in his own little atelier, normally purchases standard parts (jewels, wheels, axles) whenever feasible, and makes use of a small, but modern CNC-machine for producing other components. One should not forget that the production "by hand" also includes the huge problem of tolerances. Mass-produced components like wheels etc. are made with extremely tiny tolerances, while manual production involves larger tolerances. In order to have a very good movement made by hand, the watchmaker has to invest a huge effort in order to 'calibrate' all parts to each other, so the tolerances would eventually work together, resulting in an accurate movement.

This is the reason why in earlier times, chronometers with the necessary accuracy were rare and expensive. Watchmakers had to spend a lot of time on a single movement, just to tweak it for taking successfully part in a chronometer competition. Whenever a damage made it necessary to change a single part, the complex system of tolerances was affected, and very often such a movement lost its accuracy. Today, the majority of ETA movements, regardless of their execution, already are within COSC chronometer limits, without any difficult adjustment procedures; this being a result of the tiny tolerances being possible with CNC mass production.

Even a a very top 'producer' like Philippe Dufour will rely on some modern equipment, and you have to wait a very long time until you get a 'Simplicity' delivered!

I made this lengthy introduction simply to challenge a misconception that is still very popular within the watch world, yes, sometimes even fed deliberately by some watch brands: Mechanical watches are not produced by hundreds of little elves, restlessly filing, smoothing, grinding, polishing watch parts, and they are not made by grey-bearded watchmakers, sitting bent at their tables for countless hours, somewhere in the Swiss mountains. This is what advertisment tries to sell us, but not reality.

Today, watch production primarily is an issue of engineers and metalurgists, technicians, specially trained workers. The traditional watchmaking part is but the very last stage in watch production, when the movements are assembled and adjusted.

Anyone searching for 'real' manufacturers, has to deal with certain realities: The series production of modern watches needs highly specialized machinery, which is so expensive, that smaller companies cannot afford it - their production numbers are not high enough to make full use of the machine and staff capacities needed by the equipement. Therefore, very often the production of certain parts or groups of parts have to be sourced out.

There is no watch brand that really produces all movements parts inhouse in substantial numbers. Even Glashütte Original, which, out of historical reasons, produces nearly everything within its one factory house, has to buy jewels and springs from other suppliers. And their production of individual screws is likely to be discontinued, once the old machinery is worn out. It is too expensive to produce one's own screws, if they can be bought in the same quality, but much cheaper from a supplier. Some companies try to achieve that "everything inhouse" status by simply purchasing the supplying companies; but this is not what originally is meant by "inhouse".

Thus one should be able to understand why it is so difficult to define "manufacture" or "inhouse" correctly. Does the term depend on the amount of parts produced, and where they are produced? Are old movements, that are in exclusive use by a watch brand, enough to justify an "inhouse" status? Hardly, I would think.

In my personal opinion, the key term in that problem should be "development". Regardless of where a certain part or even movement is produced in series, the company should have the decisive part in the development. This is where the most effort has to be invested. You have to come up with an idea, check its feasibility, produce all the plans necessary for a flawless production. Very often, it is necessary to hire partners from outside, specialists, which are not available in the company's staff. This is - and always was - very common in the watch industry, and is the basis for the group of 'independent' watchmakers, like Christophe Claret, Vincent Calabrese, Franck Mueller (before he founded his own company), to name but a few. Sometimes it is not a traditional master watchmaker and his abilities that is needed: Without the assigned experts from aerospace or computer industry, neither the "Trilogy of Time", nor the marvelous "Freak" would have been possible. And several parts for these watches have to be produced by that industries, just think of the etched silicone wheels of the "Freak".

I think that the new development of a movement, or a specific complication is the really important part. Sometimes, of course, the new complication is but a minor one, and maybe would not make the entire movement truly "inhouse", but sometimes the development of a new complication is so dominant, that it dwarfs the part, that is acquired more or less complete from other suppliers. As an example, take the famous "Trilogy of Time": All three astronomical watches are powered by the trusted ETA 2892A2 base movement. However, the complications atop of it, those displaying this manifold of data (sun, moon, eclipses, planetary orbits, area of the earth, lightened by the sun ...), are the result of long and complicated research, calculations, technical developments (new and light alloys had to be introduced from aerospace technology), that this makes the ETA base irrelevant, IMHO.

Ulysse Nardin is a typically small watch brand, that has found its niche due to its particular abilities: They are not able to actually produce all their movements in series. Since some time, they are able to produce all their prototypes, pre-production series, and to do the serial production of certain key parts, or complications/modules, where the numbers are not so large. UN's huge strength is their incredible technical creativity, and most of the employees at le Locle and La-Chaux-de-Fonds deal with the realization of own projects. It would be economically irrational to invest huge sums into machinery to produce movements parts, which can be acquired from other suppliers in the same quality. This would divert valuable resources from their development effort.

What we love about Ulysse Nardin, is the result of its development effort and creativity. You won't find the complications developed by UN in a product of any other manufacturer. Thus, I would say that their products are truly "their own" - or "manufactury", if one wants to use that term.


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