Three-day, six-factory tour into heart of Swiss watchmaking

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 10, 2019.
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Time To Move, the Swatch Group press event held from May 14 to 16 in Switzerland, was something of an experiment. When the group decided to pull out of this year’s Baselworld, it had to make other arrangements for 17 of its brands to show their new watches to clients and the press. Management decided that the group’s six most expensive brands would meet commercial clients during Baselworld at the headquarters of Hayek Group in downtown Zurich. As for the press, the six prestige brands decided to invite 200 journalists to Switzerland in May for meetings at the brand’s production facilities. “We are trying to change the concept,” Blancpain chief executive officer (CEO) Marc Hayek said.

So it was that for three days, with 200 reporters from 21 countries separated into small groups by language, travelling around Switzerland’s watchmaking region in vans, visiting six brands in six towns.

We got a crash course on the Swiss system of mechanical watchmaking, essentially a T Tour (T for Terminaison, French for “finishing”). That is the trade terminology for the five stages of watch production from T0 (making of movement parts) to T4 (packing and shipping).

What follows are one reporter’s notes on Swatch Group’s watch manufacture tour:

 

Blancpain

On Day 1, bright and early, our first stop is the village of Le Sentier, home to the Blancpain manufacture. Today we will get a glimpse of movement manufacturing. In the basement is the first stage of watch production, T0: the production of movement components, first by machine, then by hand. We are led into a storage room holding the raw materials — brass sheets and steel bars. From the next room comes a loud, rhythmic pounding sound. That is the Atelier Decoupage. We enter and see Essa machines pounding out brass mainplates, 100 pieces per minute.

We move to the toolmaking workshop. There is a separate tool to cut each component in a watch movement, we are told.

We move to the Usinage (Machining) section, containing a series of MTR 312 cutting machines that resemble Nasa lunar modules. In the machines are 18 to 36 spindles programmed to mill, tap and drill brass components with a precision of one to two microns.

Then to Tournage (Turning), a workshop that fabricates gold oscillating weights for self-winding movements. All Blancpain rotors are made of gold, except one: Ladybird watches have platinum rotors, also made here. Next is the Ebauches section, where machines make plates, bridges, springs, levers and other steel components.

In the next workshop, Lavage (Washing), every component is cleaned ultrasonically in hot baths containing natural detergents. Finally, each component goes to a decoration workshop, elsewhere in the Vallée de Joux, where it is decorated and washed again. That completes T0.

The components then go upstairs to T1, the stage where the components are assembled by watchmakers into complete movements. Here, men and women wearing white lab coats, with loupes fixed by a wire around their heads, do pre-assembly of the mainplate, bridges and crown. They use electronic screwdrivers that exert exact pressure on the screws, and eight different oils for lubrication. By hand, they assemble barrels, fix pallets and silicon hairsprings to escapements, and perform all the operations to create complete calibres.

Every complete movement is tested and adjusted here and then sent to T2, watch assembly, done elsewhere in this building. We, however, head to Blancpain’s high complication workshops in the nearby village of Le Brassus. There to greet us, wearing a white lab coat, is Hayek.

Here are ateliers devoted to decorating and engraving movement components and dials. We move from atelier to atelier, for the new product presentations by Blancpain executives, including Hayek himself, who presents the new Fifty Fathom watches.

 

Breguet

In the afternoon, we ride down the road to Manufacture Breguet, in L’Orient, the village next to Le Brassus. We are welcomed by Thierry Esslinger, the CEO of Montres Breguet, and Emmanuel Breguet, the vice-president/head of patrimony and marketing. We are shown the Breguet No 1160 watch, an exact replica of Breguet’s celebrated No 160, the “Marie Antoinette” watch, which stood for a century as the world’s most complicated watch.

Breguet employs 800 people in the Vallée de Joux, most of them here.

 

Omega

The next morning, we head north from Lausanne, past large Lake Neuchatel and smaller Lake Bienne, into the town of Biel/Bienne to Omega’s brand-new factory, which opened in 2017. There, CEO Reynald Aeschlimann, in his opening remarks, says this is “a great time for Omega”.

Omega  is Switzerland’s clear No 2 watch company, in terms of annual revenue (after Rolex), with sales estimated by Ventobel Equity Research at US$2.26 billion wholesale for 2018. Two big anniversaries this year are sure to boost those sales: the 125th anniversary of the creation of the Omega brand and the 50th anniversary of Nasa’s Apollo 11 mission, when Omega became the first watch worn on the moon.

 

Jaquet Droz

After lunch, we ride back up into the Jura Mountains to La Chaux-de-Fonds, the self-described “metropole horlogère” (watchmaking metropolis), a population of 40,000, that has been a watchmaking town for 300 years. We drive along Rue Louis-Joseph Chevrolet. We turn onto Allée du Tourbillon and arrive at Montres Jaquet Droz. Jaquet Droz, which Swatch Group acquired the year after Montres Breguet, is named after a local watchmaking wizard. Pierre Jaquet-Droz was born La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1721. Montres Jaquet Droz continues Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s legacy, CEO Christian Lattmann tells us.

We see why Pierre Jaquet-Droz was considered a wizard. A technician shows us the master’s “Singing Bird Cage”, made in 1780. It is a large, ornate, hanging cage, with a clock on the bottom, containing two birds. In the centre of the cage, running top to bottom, is a crystal column. The technician winds the clock, and for 40 seconds a melody plays while the mechanical birds, with real bird feathers, chirp, move their wings, beaks and tails, while 12 turning “streams” in the column create the illusion of a waterfall. The clock has six melodies, which can play on demand or on the hour. For our 21st century audience, it is amazing. For an 18th century audience, it must have been pure magic.

Jaquet Droz’s newest automaton wristwatch is the Magic Lotus Automaton. The dial features a small round watch face surrounded by a flowing steam. The watch dial is onyx and has two gold hands. The rest of the dial is brimming with decorative art creations that are Jaquet Droz’s specialty.

The dial of the new Smalta Clara Hummingbird watch is made in plique-a-jour enamel crafted in Jaquet Droz workshops.

The Magic Lotus watch costs 200,000 Swiss francs (RM833,080) before tax. Jaquet Droz will produce 28 pieces in red gold and 28 in white gold. The main market for these pieces is Asia, Lattmann tells me. But demand is global. Last year, it sold all eight pieces of its remarkable Tropical Bird Repeater watch (price: 650,000 francs) in eight months, one to an American.

 

Harry Winston

On Day 3, we head to Plan-les-Ouates on the outskirts of Geneva to visit the Harry Winston Manufacture. Waiting to greet us is Nayla Hayek, the CEO of Harry Winston, who is also the chairman of the Swatch Group board of directors. “You are very lucky,” she tells us, underlining one of the reasons for the “Time To Move” press event. “In Basel, you see only a few novelties. Here you will see all the novelties.”

It takes a week to produce the dial on Harry Winston’s Premier Precious Micromosaic Automatic 36mm watch. It is handmade using a mosaic glass setting and 14 brilliant-cut diamonds.

Winston, of course, is not only about women’s watches. It has made high-profile forays into the high-mechanical world with its series of Opus and Histoire de Tourbillon watches and its use of exotic metals like zalium, a zirconium-aluminium alloy; the platinum-group metal ruthenium; and Winstonium, its exclusive platinum alloy.

This year’s men’s headliner is the 10th and final piece in the Histoire de Tourbillon series. It is the first watch ever to include four separate tourbillons. The four tourbillons are positioned at the corners of the giant case, which extends horizontally along the wrist (45mm x 32mm x 12.85m). They rotate once every 36 seconds, unified by three differentials. Histoire de Tourbillon 10 is a limited edition of 21 pieces: 10 in rose gold and 10 in white gold (750,000 francs each), and one in Winstonium (770,000 francs).

Harry Winston’s newest zalium watch is Project Z13, also known as the Ocean Retrograde Automatic 42MM watch, with a zalium case and buckle. It is the first watch in the Zalium collection with a moonphase display. As for the Opus, we do not see the long-awaited Opus 15 (it has been nearly four years since the last one — the Opus 14 “Jukebox For The Wrist”). However, the company says it expects to unveil it by year end.

 

Glashütte Original

We spend the afternoon with Glashütte Original in a hotel near the Geneva airport. Glashütte Original’s manufacture is nearly 500 miles (804.67km) away as the crow flies, in the famous watchmaking village of Glashütte in eastern Germany. Since the company cannot bring the press to the manufacture, CEO Roland von Keith tells us (it is a long way from Geneva to Saxony), it brought the manufacture to the press.

In a temporary lab in the centre of the room, two technicians perform some of the quality-control torture tests Glashütte Original runs for shock resistance and water resistance. Elsewhere, around the room, watchmakers and technicians are performing demonstrations at benches. — Bloomberg


This article was originally published on Hodinkee.