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Watches in Depth - Movement Calibres

by Jason 30 January, 2012 View Comments

Hamilton with Valjoux 7750 

 

When perusing watch reviews and blogs, you’ll often read about ETA and Valjoux movements, or perhaps “manufacture” calibres. Perhaps you have heard of module complications or modified calibres in various brands. To the uninitiated this sort of under-the-hood jargon can be a bit confusing, and it warrants some clarification. Even seasoned watch lovers might not be aware of what is involved in the creation of a watch movement, and how many brands share common parts and calibres. So in the spirit of watch nut education, I present the latest instalment of Watches in Depth – Movement Calibres.

 Three different brands using the same movement

First off, it should be made clear that not every brand creates its own movements. In fact the majority of brands don’t, instead relying on outside suppliers to design and manufacture movements (or components) that they can use in their own watches. The 800-pound gorilla of Swiss movement production is ETA SA, part of the manufacturing arm of the Swatch Group. ETA supplies the vast majority of finished movements, parts and base calibres to the Swiss industry, as well as making movements for watch brands within the Swatch group (for example: Hamilton, Tissot, Rado – all use ETA movements, while Omega has used exclusively modified ETA calibres along with in-house designs). ETA has grown to its current position over many decades of consolidation and takeovers of various manufacturers, eventually being integrated into the SMH group (which became the Swatch Group in 1998) – but all that convoluted history will be saved for future blog post.

 Three Watches, one movement - all have ETA Valjoux calibres

Within the ETA hierarchy you have various arms that build specific things – ETA makes basic calibres and Valjoux chronographs (i.e. the 7750), Nouvelle Lemania is integrated into Breguet and produces chronograph calibres (like the Omega 1861/1863 and base calibres for Patek Philippe and Breguet), Frederic Piguet makes complicated calibres for top-level watches, Nivarox makes specialized springs and metal alloys, and so on. Swatch and ETA dominates the Swiss industry – not only in complete movements, but also in the production of specialized items required by other manufactures. Up until present they have also been the largest producer of ebauches, which are unfinished base movement “kits” sent to a company for finishing and modification in-house.

 Omega calibre 1863, based on the Lemania 1873Patek 27 series, based on the Nouvelle Lemania 2310

This has caused a lot of issues recently – Nicholas Hayek began a process of stemming the flow of parts and movements to companies outside the Swatch Group several years ago. This cutting-off process has continued, with Swatch set to reduce supply to 85% of 2010 levels this year (2012), with the intention of severing the supply to third parties outside the Swatch Group entirely in the next few years. A series of lawsuits have been fielded in Swiss court over the issue, with several major brands filing class action suits to fight the cut that could jeopardize their production. Unfortunately for these brands, the Swiss courts have so far ruled in favour of Swatch. It will be interesting to see how the industry shifts in the next five years to accommodate this new policy – we are already seeing many brands develop in-house calibres to supplement ETA supplies and reduce their dependency on Swatch, but it is a slow and expensive process that is only available to large companies that can afford to design, develop and produce a movement from scratch (some examples would be Alpina and Frederique Constant with their Manufacture models, Tag Heuer’s 1887 chronograph, Breitling’s B01, and Hublot’s Unico). 

 Alpina Startimer Manufacture, with in-house calibre

When it comes to ETA calibres, an ETA movement is not simply one-size-fits-all. There are four standardized “grades” of movements available, each with different performance and some key differences in parts. Standard is the basic, least expensive level – they are undecorated and feature economy parts to keep the cost low. Standard is what you would find in an automatic Swatch. Elabore is the next step up, still without decoration but with some upgraded parts, and is adjusted in 3 positions to a slightly higher degree of accuracy. You will find Elabore in Hamiltons, and it is the least expensive grade of chronograph available. Top, or Top Soigne (top care) is the third grade – it is decorated with polished components and a combination of perlage and geneva striping (specific patterns and finishes are chosen by the purchasing brand) on the bridges, uses blued screws, has upgraded jewels and balance assemblies, and is adjusted in 5 positions to near-chronometer accuracy. U-Boat uses Top grade 7750s in its limited edition and gold collections. Chronometer is the highest level – it is essentially a Top Soigne that has been adjusted to meet COSC specs, and is sent out for chronometer testing (every Chronometer grade is accompanied by a COSC timing certificate for that specific movement; that adds a considerable amount to the price of the movement compared to the Top Soigne). Rado uses a Chronometer grade ETA movement in their Sintra XXL Skeleton.

 Rado Sintra XXL Skeleton

So what is a company to do if it would prefer not to use ETA (or as will soon happen, can’t use their calibres)? There are a few other companies that offer complete movements to third parties in Switzerland, but none have anything close to ETA’s dominance of the market. Selitta is one of the largest suppliers at the moment, having begun as an assembly centre for ETA before building complete calibres. Their movements are copies of ETA designs that have expired patents, but with some subtle differences in parts and finishing – ETA and Sellita parts are not interchangeable, despite their similarities in design. Alpina and Frederique Constant use Sellita automatic calibres in some of their models (aside from the hand-wound, chronograph, and manufacture watches). They also produce a range of semi-complicated models, mostly calendar complications (moonphase, triple-date). Unfortunately Sellita is having a hard time with the Swatch group at the moment, as it currently gets nearly 50% of its parts from ETA. Sellita was one plaintiff in the class action suit that was filed in 2011. The company will need to adapt, expand, and integrate more production to remain competitive – and it looks like it will become very competitive in the next few years, as at the moment it is the only viable supplier of low-cost, easy-to-service calibres outside of ETA. 

 

Soprod is a smaller producer of complete movements, and generally produce higher-grade calibres that are well suited to midrange independent brands. They have proprietary designs finished to a high degree, something along the lines of an ETA Top Soigne. The also produce a range of quartz calibres. Like Sellita, they began as a facility dedicated to finishing and modifying ETA calibres (as well as building complication modules made to bolt onto existing calibres), but have recently begun producing their own designs.

 

Dubois-Depraz is a name that is often referenced within the industry, being one of the top manufacturers of complication modules (a module is a kit that attaches to an existing movement to add additional functions). A family-run business since 1901, they are based in the Vallee de Joux and offer an independent alternative to Frederic Piguet calibres. They don’t produce complete movements, but do offer high-quality complications to companies that don’t have the resources to build their own designs from the ground up, or to companies that would prefer to use tested and reliable modules rather than attempting to build something from scratch. They supply some major brands that would otherwise claim to be vertically integrated manufactures – Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, for example. Dubois-Depraz makes a variety of modules but is best known for chronograph and calendar complications. Occasionally you will see their name referenced in a watch catalogue (Marvin and Tag Heuer disclose their use of DD modifications), in which case it means that they provided the module for that particular calibre. Just because a brand uses DD doesn’t make them any less of a manufacture – Dubois Depraz is one of the highest quality, most trusted producers of mechanisms in Switzerland, and there is no shame in having one of their modifications in your watch.

 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore, which uses a Dubois Depraz chronograph module

Many brands will tout proprietary modifications to outside calibres. At the most basic level this usually means some finishing work and a personalized rotor or engraving on the movement. In some instances the calibre may be modified beyond recognition – such as with the aforementioned Dubois Depraz modules. Another good example would be the Panerai OPX series, which is based on the ETA/Unitas 6497 but modified with unique bridges, a swan neck regulator, and chronometer performance. The standard practice was for ETA to provide ebauches (unfinished movement kits) to outside brands for them to decorate, modify and assemble in-house. The supply of ebauches, like complete movements, is going to be restricted by the Swatch Group from this point on.

 Panerai with OPX (ETA Unitas 6497) Calibre

There are some watch brands that will share their in-house calibres with other brands that wish to have a better quality movement than an ETA calibre. Jaeger LeCoultre is perhaps the best-known watch brand that supplies movements to others companies (IWC, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet being some notable users of JLC calibres, all three brands being a part of the Richemont group along with Jaeger). Zenith provided the El Primero chronograph movement to several brands, most famously to Rolex for the Daytona. JLC is known for mass-producing top-level movements (as well as some very impressive complications) that are well suited to a more prestigious brand looking for the best quality calibres. They have the production capability to serve outside brands, something that few manufacturers in that level of the market can boast.

 Vacheron calibre 1120, based on the JLC 920 movement

The top tier of watch production is the manufacture, where a watch brand will produce its own movements in-house without relying on outside suppliers (except for specialized bits and pieces, like springs, screws, jewels, and shock absorbers). These companies attempt to have vertical integration (control from start to finish) of their production; Rolex is perhaps the most vertically integrated of all, controlling even the foundries that provide metal for their watchcases and components. It may surprise the reader to learn that many large companies with well-integrated production still rely on outside companies to make their cases, straps, and dials.

 A. Lange & Sohne Timezone with in-house calibre

A. Lange and Sohne pride themselves on their self-sufficiency when constructing movements – they are one of the only brands to produce their own hairsprings, something that is more often than not entrusted to Nivarox. Even Lange used Nivarox until they were able to develop their own formula and production method to create their own springs.

 Lange calibre L031.1, made completely in-house

The manufacture (also called in-house) movement is considered a symbol of watchmaking prowess and quality. It commands a significant premium, as it is considerably more expensive to develop and manufacture a proprietary design than it is to buy an existing movement. The outlay in developing an in-house calibre is enormous, a luxury not available to most small brands. Alpina and Frederique Constant share a facility that makes movements for their flagship models, which are among the least expensive in-house Swiss calibres on the market (starting under three thousand).

 Alpina AL-950 Manufacture calibre

In general a watch that boasts a manufacture calibre will be five thousand and up. Jaeger LeCoultre, A. Lange und Sohne, Girard Perregaux, Rolex, Zenith – these are some of principle brands that make their movements in-house. Other brands, like Panerai and IWC, make some of their movements in-house while still relying on outside calibres for the bulk of their production. The premium paid, and the adoration of the market, for an in-house calibre has a lot to do with cachet and marketing. It shows that the brand cares enough to invest in its own production, rather than relying on outsiders to keep the wheels turning. It also means the product is more distinctive and exclusive than brands that use off-the-shelf movements. With the Swatch group cutting supplies, investing in the manufacturing of proprietary movements is going to be the make-or-break decision for a lot of independent brands. In any case in-house designs incur much higher production costs to develop a movement and invest in the tooling and production facilities, something that needs to be amortized by charging a premium for the end product. That’s what makes Alpina and Frederique Constant exceptional; they are able to provide a manufacture calibre for considerably less than other brands would charge. There is a premium over the “standard” models, but it is very reasonable considering the work involved.     

 Zenith El Primero Calibre

Many balk at the current practice of movement sharing among brands. Certainly the Swatch Group took exception to their competitors relying on their production to compete with their own brands. While it is true that you will find the same movement in many different watches at many different price points, it should not diminish the quality of the product. ETA movements may be common, but they are popular for good reason – nothing is as economical, well built, reliable and easy to service. They are workhorse calibres that do their job without fuss. And they are the “tracteur” calibres of the industry – movements that lend themselves well to tuning to chronometer performance. ETA movements occupy a significant portion of COSC certification. And in the long term, any competent watchmaker can service an ETA movement, regardless of the brand of the watch. Parts and after-sales service are always readily available for ETA calibres.

 Valjoux 72 Schematic - Used by Rolex in the Daytona until 1988

Calibre sharing is not a new practice by any means. Many vintage collectors will extol the virtues of the good old days when all brands made their own movements… But this is a bit too nostalgic. While there were many more brands building their own movements before the Quartz Crisis of the 70s, sharing was still very common. Venus, Valjoux, Landeron, Lemania – all produced complicated movements for other brands. Audemars provided complex ebauches and complete movements for many major brands, including Breguet and LeCoultre. Patek Philippe used Lemania calibres, and continues to do so. Rolex used Valjoux movements in their chronographs. While many companies made their own basic (uncomplicated) movements in house, many of them were not particularly notable – just because they were “in-house” doesn’t mean they were any good. A lot weren’t, back before quartz came along there were plenty of cheap and nasty mechanical movements that filled the lower end of the market (pin-lever, non-jewelled movements with stamped metal components being rather unimpressive).

 Patek 5970R, which uses a CHR27/Lemania 2310 calibre movement for its base

The sharing of parts and movements is one of the quirks of the Swiss watch industry. It’s a system that has few parallels – it’s hard for the average person to imagine 20 or 30 car companies all using the same engines made by a single supplier (aside from some badge-engineering in sister brands within the same company). After the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s it was hard for small brands to justify the expenditure involved in creating their own movements when good off-the-shelf components were available.  Most of the prior industry (parts, tools, factories and craftspeople) had been dissolved in the panic following the Crisis, making it even more difficult for small brands to start independent production. With the current move towards isolationism in Swatch production you are sure to see a shift in the industry in the near future. We have already witnessed the beginning of an “in-house revolution” where many brands are scrambling to produce their own movements. Swatch Group’s decisions have provided the impetus for this activity, and things will only progress more quickly from now onward.

 

Cheers

Jason Cormier

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