House Bound

This year, hybrid watches— models that combine stock movements with proprietary modules—were prevalent at both SIHH and Baselworld. And it seems that this burgeoning trend may offer watch lovers the best of both worlds: a wallet-friendly price merged with a brand’s unique watchmaking capabilities. The challenge may be communicating and educating consumers about the benefits of these timepieces; and that effort starts with demystifying and defining an aspiration that has obsessed and also plagued the watch industry—what constitutes an in-house movement.

In April, at Montblanc’s New York unveiling of its 2016 novelties, executives were feeling bullish about the Heritage Chronométrie Dual Time Vasco da Gama piece. They had reason to: the watch is marketed as leveraging some of the company’s horological skills housed in Villeret, where some 50 watchmakers hand craft complicated timepieces.

Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie Dual Time Vasco da Gama
Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie Dual Time Vasco da Gama

This craftsmanship was once reserved for the brand’s higher-end watches. Since taking the helm of the company in 2013, however, CEO Jérôme Lambert, has endeavored to optimize the manufacturing capabilities at both Villeret and at the brand’s other manufacture in Le Locle.

But how does Montblanc manage to put that level of hand craftsmanship into a (relatively) mid-priced piece? A conversation with Jonathon L. Berke, Director of Training and Sales Development at Montblanc, confirmed that the Heritage Chronométrie Dual Time Vasco da Gama starts out with an outsourced base movement topped by a proprietary dual-time module. In 2014, Montblanc unveiled the Spirit Orbis Terrarum, which featured a similar mixture: a Sellita-made base movement enhanced with an in-house proprietary world-time module.

For these timepieces to find favor with consumers, however, both watch companies and watch collectors may have to let go of their pre-conceived notion that something made entirely in-house is necessarily better.

“At some point if you’re a big brand, you feel uncomfortable saying I don’t do everything in-house; however, if you look at where things are made, the idea of ‘in-house’ is very confusing because you can still find movements shared between certain brands. The industry is full of specialized workshops. You used to never be able to tell who was doing what for anyone,” points out Sebastien Chaulmontet, creative designer of movement maker La Joux-Perret and watch brands Arnold & Son and Angelus.

In 2014, the Swiss La Joux-Perret was at the heart of a “who makes what” controversy when British watchmaker Roger Smith wrote an open letter to the watch world raising the question of whether companies were marketing their Swiss movements as British-made. It was not the first time such confusion had occurred. In 2009, TAG Heuer admitted that while they had designed the calibre 1887 movement in-house, it had been based off of a Seiko movement. While collectors were up in arms, those contentions may have been blown out of proportion, as collaborations have long been the backbone of the watch industry.

As Chaulmontet points out, everyone relies on each other. “[Certain] Jaquet Droz is done at Blancpain. [Blancpain’s manufacture] used to be called Frédéric Piguet, but they are now integrated. (Sometimes it is a) Piguet movement in a Droz or Harry Winston (watch).”

Indeed some of the most collectible Omega timepieces include movements made by ETA, but exclusively for Omega. The movements are perhaps better termed “proprietary,” as they utilize mechanisms which would not be found in any other brand or watch—a quality prized by collectors when considering additions to their collection.

There are currently no regulations on employing the term “in-house.” The descriptor is often used when a calibre has been designed by the brand, but made from external components. “A lot of brands think of themselves as in-house [manufactures] but even they need ball bearings, rubies, or wheels from a subcontractor,” says Chaulmontet.

Thierry Collot, president of Parmigiani Fleurier Americas, a brand that is nearly 100 percent vertical, agrees : “What is tricky is that there are not that many workshops brands can go to [to source parts], and you can’t create the expertise of making balance wheels from scratch. There is a distinction between watchmakers and watch brands. There’s a variance; the more components you make, the more you are a watchmaker.” For the majority of watch companies, it’s not possible to achieve total integration, whereby 100 percent of components are not only designed by, but also manufactured and assembled by the same company.

The Sandoz Family Foundation, creators of Parmigiani Fleurier, started bringing skills in-house in 2000 with the acquisition of case maker Les Artisans Boîters, Elwin screws, and Atokalpa, a wheel and hairspring maker. The purchase of dial manufacturer Quadrance Et Habillage and Vaucher, which designs and makes movements, further advanced the company’s manufacturing capabilities.

Says company president Collot, “We are 95 percent. But even we are not able to put all the expertise under the same roof. In Switzerland you don’t move people! It took us fifteen years to put together all the elements and for many companies, the most critical components are going to be difficult. The case, for example, is difficult (to source).”

In Parmigiani watches, the sapphire crystal is the only part not made by the Sandoz companies; the Sandoz family of companies also create elements for other prestigous brands.

More brands began marketing the benefits of fully in-house movements when the Swatch Group announced in 2011 that it would phase out supplying rival brands with its ETA movements. Prior to that, the majority of brands did not offer proprietary movements. The industry relied heavily on specialist workshops, which in turn delivered reliable and efficiently-priced components. Though collectors of high-end timepieces would likely investigate the movement’s provenance, presumably the majority of Swiss watch purchases were made without consumers asking where a watch’s movements were made.

While anti-trust laws prevented the Swatch Group from shutting off the supply overnight, the announcement galvanized the industry. Large brands with the capacity to do so began to invest in bringing skills in-house.

Some brand executives feel that striving for 100 percent in-house compromises quality. Says Peter Stas, CEO of Frederique Constant and Alpina, “Regulation of a mechanical caliber is realized with nine miniature parts that are produced by a specialist supplier in the Jura. It’s not something you should strive for to produce in-house. It has always been the strength of the watch industry to use specialists instead of having someone in every building making specialized regulation parts, screws and rubies. … If you design in-house and put it together, I consider it in-house. But components like the balance wheel, regulation, spirals even at Patek, it’s not in-house.”

Frederique Constant and Alpina produce approximately 25 percent of their watches with a proprietary in-house movement (and outside parts), 30 percent quartz with reference to its horological smart watch, and 45 percent automatic Sellita. “Because those higher calibres are made in higher quantities, when people go to a watch maker, they’re more familiar, they’re able to service them better,” continues Stas.

Indeed the zeal for in-house movements may come with a distinct downside.“It’s like having a collector car,” says James Lamdin, founder of Analog/Shift, a vintage watch e-tailer. “There’s five of them in the world, and maybe one guy who can fix them.” In other words, there is an advantage to a watch with a movement made in the thousands, if not millions—that can be serviced by any of a number of watchmakers.—Syl Tang