It's only natural to assume that big-dialed watches are best left to the...
The other day I received a press release from a brand touting its most complicated watch. I mindlessly parroted the phrase and posted it on my blog. Soon after a friend of mine who happens to be a watchmaker and a keen observer of the industry pointed out to me that the watch in question was not quite the most complicated for the brand, at least based on the number of complications or parts in the movement. So I started thinking.
How can a long time watch industry observer like myself just take the press release at face value? Perhaps I have become so inured to all that marketing. All the more so for the average watch buyer who is bombarded with positive statements in advertising and editorials.
Measured scepticism resulting in appropriate questioning is useful. I have decided to discuss three salient questions a buyer can ask. They concern in-house movements, and in a second part, materials and enamel dials. They are disparate but relevant topics.
To begin, why do in-house movements matter?
One of the most common phrases used by the watch industry is the “in-house movement”. That phrase in itself means little; it is not a testament to quality, finishing or reliability, it just indicates the provenance of the movement, the fact that the movement was designed and made by the brand that sells it, more or less. Since there is no formal definition of the term, watchmakers can mould it as they see fit.
And to muddy the waters further watchmakers have come up with terms like “manufacture” or “manufactured” movement – even I have no clue what they mean and how different they are from “in-house”. All I know is that watch brands want these terms to carry an air of mysterious exclusivity.
Ironically, the concept of an in-house movement is getting more widespread as brands vertically integrate, partially in response to the Swatch Group’s move to restrict ebauche (an incomplete watch movement sold as a set of loose parts) supply. In the past when the industry was operated on an etablisseur model (watch factories that assemble watches but doen't produce components) and ebauches, and parts were made by specialists, entirely in-house movements were novel. But that is no longer the case, and in-house movements are now more common.
The watchmaker who designed a movement, how it is made, where it is made – all of these matter, but mostly for smaller scale, specialist watchmakers. For brands that produce in any sort of volume, in-house production matters less because the movements are still made on an industrial scale with priority on ease of production, assembly and repair. In fact, this is increasingly so as the industry moves towards greater vertical integration; there are more in-house movements but each is less differentiated than before.
Richemont, for instance, owns a facility called ValFleurier that produces movements and components for group brands, which include IWC, Panerai and Piaget. This outfit is not widely known but very important to the group, for it also designs movements for group brands, leading to similarities in design, construction and philosophy in movements across several brands. This approach is somewhat like that in the automobile industry where a common platform is shared across vastly different cars.
What matters is if the movement works as it should. It is not uncommon for in-house movements to malfunction early on in production. In fact in my experience the irony is the more exotic or limited production the calibre the higher the probability of that happening. One cause is economies of scale, high-end watches just aren’t made in large enough quantities to ensure negligible defects, like for automobile manufacturing for instance. In contrast a new Rolex or ETA calibre will function as reliably as a new car.
Similarly, the construction and finishing of the movement matters as well as both of these contribute to longevity and performance over many decades.
In part 2 of this series, Jia Xian deciphers the importance of watch materials and whether new materials are necessarily a better choice.
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