By Jason Heaton
on 9.26.12

When most people start getting interested in timepieces, the first thing that usually attracts them is the appearance. A distinctive dial, a unique case shape, even a nice strap can draw in the uninitiated. Then they notice watches whose hands sweep smoothly, driven by springs and gears versus the tick-tick that gives away battery driven hands. Next, they learn about those companies that design and build their own movements and the watch world soon narrows to far fewer, and pricier, brands. Even above this realm of so-called “in-house” movement makers, there is a further echelon –
the small volume producers and hand-built independents. You might think that an appreciation for these timepieces is the zenith in the evolution of the watch connoisseur. Not necessarily.

Find out more after the break.

Watchmaking was traditionally (and in many cases, literally) a cottage industry. At first, individual watchmakers labored in their remote workshops in the Swiss Alps, taking weeks and months at a time to produce a single timepiece. These were true artisans, working by hand with crude tools. The results were one-of-a-kind masterpieces, signed by the artists and cherished by their owners. When the Industrial Revolution spread, the needs and means for larger scale production of watches led to specialization. While many companies still built entire pieces themselves, others turned to these specialists to provide specific components – hands, dials, cases and movements. Assembly, decoration and adjustment of watches became the province of many brands, and there was no shame in this. All of the components of the industry worked in harmony, much like the watches themselves.

Companies like Unitas, Venus, Lemania and Valjoux were movement specialists, providing calibres, in various states of completion, to the big watch brands from Breitling to Patek Philippe to Rolex. This only made sense at a time when computer-aided design was unheard of and designing and prototyping new movements could take years. The vaunted Valjoux calibre 72 was found in many of the great chronographs of the 1960s, from the Heuer Carrera to the Rolex Daytona. Did the fact that these watches used a movement that was not “in-house” make them any less great? On the contrary, they are still much sought after and revered by collectors today. The Omega Speedmaster Professional, perhaps the most famous chronograph of all, which was worn on the Moon, was powered by a Lemania movement. Patek Philippe chronographs were born from Lemania base calibres up until only a few years ago.

In the 1970s and 1980s the near-collapse of the Swiss watch industry caused much consolidation among the big brands, with some going out of business and many others coming dangerously close. When the industry regained its feet, brands turned again to movement specialists — the largest being ETA SA — out of necessity and a need for efficiency. ETA had a long history making movement bases, or ébauches, dating back to the 1920s as a division of the Eterna watch company. By the 1980s, it belonged to the Swatch Group and had swallowed up Lemania and Valjoux, the chronograph specialists.

ETA has become a four-letter word among many watch owners, a symbol of bourgeois, off-the-shelf laziness and a lack of originality. But the fact of the matter is, ETA movements are versatile, sturdy, time-tested engines, with some of the finer calibres rivaling the in-house movements from some brands. The Valjoux 7750 calibre has powered more chronographs since its introduction in 1972 than probably any other and is renowned for its robust build and versatility. IWC Schaffhausen has perhaps made the most prolific use of the 7750: as a base for its Doppelchronograph, its Split Minute Chronograph and even a perpetual calendar calibre.

So it’s clear that the outsourcing of movement production is nothing new to the watch industry. Does this make third-party movements the equal to those built in-house? Of course not. In fact, it makes these “manufacture” watch brands all the more special and remarkable. A company that puts forth the resources, expertise and expense of designing an entirely new chronograph movement from the mainspring to the hairspring should be duly celebrated. These companies, like Girard-Perregaux, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, have rightly earned the admiration of collectors. With ETA’s plans to scale back on providing movements to non-Swatch Group brands, more brands may soon join their ranks. Already, Breitling, IWC and Patek have come out with their own in-house chronographs to almost unanimously positive reviews.

Does the use of an outsourced movement automatically spell an inferior watch? Not necessarily. There is so much more to a watch than its movement. While the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph is perhaps the finest manufacture chronograph on the planet, the brand outsources its case production. Meanwhile, the IWC Pilot Chronograph is driven by a modified Valjoux 7750, but that engine is tucked inside an exquisite case that IWC proudly crafts within the confines of its Schaffhausen factory.

An in-house movement is something to be admired and prized, but so too is an artfully-beveled lug, a handmade strap, an engraved case back or a perfectly proportioned dial. So while many hope that all brands would go to in-house movement production, that’s not feasible, nor does it have historic precedent. The watch industry will continue on in the manner it has for centuries, a blend of specialists and all-rounders, exclusive manufactures and humble case builders. And the true watch connoisseur appreciates each piece for its unique characteristics, the purpose for which it was built, and recognizes craftsmanship where it exists.

Photos by Girard-Perregaux and Panerai.

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