The pinnacle of (fine) watchmaking – of old masters, elves, virgins … or superheroes?

How to define the very best in watchmaking? the eclecticum looks beyond in-house and finishing...

We indeed live in horologically confusing times!

For years we wanted to find out more about it and so we visited workshops, manufacturers, factories and handled “thousands” of watches on each level of watchmaking. You need to see a lot until you get the differences and to clear away the dust of marketing tales, if at all. To make it even more complicated you need to understand the differences of certain eras. In the past major changes happened in about 50 up to 100 years. Today we talk about 5 or 10 years even at the pinnacle of watchmaking …

Side note: When we were all fresh and new to watch collecting, manufacturers showed images of old men wearing grey hair and spectacles, bent over their benches, concentrated at work. Outside you could spot a tranquil, remote and snowy landscape. Such was the image of a skilled watchmaker. Today, we see young ‘geniuses’ fresh from watchmaking college already as head of technical departments… While this seems anecdotical, there is a lot of insights to be drawn from this change, and those insights relate to the computerisation and mechanisation of watchmaking.

Paul Gerber master watchmaker AHCI  superbia humanitatis(Master Watchmaker Paul Gerber working on the Superbia Humanitatis ultra-complicated watch)

Before we go further, we may explain our definition of “pinnacle of watchmaking”. We are looking for unique movement solutions/complications stimulating the connoisseurs’ eyes and the technical engineers’ brains. Made in the best possible quality, regarding tiniest tolerances and of course with outstanding finishing – each single part of (at least) the movement.

Parts can be made by hand, by machines like a (traditional) Schäublin lathes or CNC machines (for decades now). The latter is almost standard today, no matter if we are talking about industrial or even independent watches. Even if there is written “handmade”, it doesn´t mean there was no CNC machine involved – in most of the cases today. At the end it´s all about the process of production – the machines you have, and the high professional labour hours of the people involved. With very sophisticated CNC (and others) machines you can save a lot of labour hours afterwards. Still you can produce outstanding parts (above industry standard; if requested) by hand or (relatively) simple machines only, but it comes with limitations as to what kind of parts you are able to produce, and it comes with a price – time and time is money. Each step producing (movement) parts should be on the same level – more or less. Some CNC machines are just superior to others, but they may cause trouble if you only produce some parts on those, looking at the movement in total. The differences regarding the tolerances are sometimes just too big if “old and new” is involved. If you are lucky you can change the CNC machines involved in your process all at the same time – if needed or requested. In fact, some well-known manufactures tried the “most sophisticated” machines with great success but passed afterwards, because it would have been too expensive to change the whole production process at the same time – even with the target of superior processes/parts in mind.

Side note: An interesting exception, and maybe a surprise for some, is the production line of the SWATCH Sistem 51. Only because of the most sophisticated CNC machines, which no supplier in Switzerland was able to deliver, it is possible to produce entire watches (including the movements) with appropriate quality (technical and visual) by machine only. Also, the production quality is controlled by machines – step by step is filmed with high speed cameras wherever needed and automatically stopped in cases of wrong tolerances or just mistakes during the process. The second interesting fact is that the machines and the Sistem 51 were developed hand-in-hand, in parallel to each other. As you can imagine a serious (!) investment was needed and even then, it was not an easy task to create something ground-breaking like this. No success from the beginning, not at all. Classical skills like assembling, finishing, adjusting by humans are not needed – not anymore.

Pushing the limits further, driven by new ideas, technologies, processes, machines … that´s what we can find today, but not always for the sake of arriving at the “pinnacle of watchmaking”. Quite often it´s only about efficiency or earning more money at the end.

Today (most of the time) modern machines are involved in producing and finishing of parts. Especially the latter helped a lot to impress customers and to please the finance people at the same time – good or bad. Some of those “modern” finishing’s look very close or even superior to what even some connoisseurs like to see.

Side note: skeleton movements have been rare and (almost) crazily expensive, for good reasons, in the past. Today you can find them almost everywhere, and not all of them are great value for the money, from a customer’s point of view. To each his own, and quite a lot of the people are happy with “look alike” products anyway, especially if those are more reasonable priced.

Ideas of the past are feasible today. Challenging processes are getting easier … or old movements known for causing trouble can (finally!) be produced with (better) success today. Modern CNC machines and improved production processes can do the trick, in quite a few cases. It may also help that price limits are closer to the sky than ever before. Therefore, we see developments in many directions, just because someone has the vision/fantasy that there will be a paying customer at the end.

Side note: a simple three hand watch with outstanding finish you could sell only for less than € 50k. Today it´s hard to find them below € 50k and even a price tag above € 100k it´s not that special anymore. Are we (the market) ready for € 1.000k? Only time will tell. Not to talk about super complicated watches or super rare materials and related price tags. Not to talk about (sometimes) silly (quite often, if you don´t mind) prices for vintage watches, especially if some fame is involved. Still the latter already leads to a lot of creativity when it comes to “fakes” and tales … – but this is another story.

Ideas from different industries/sciences can lead to new materials, never used in watchmaking before. Sophisticated research (together with universities, institutes and so on) can push the limits of materials, parts or approaches in total even further; e.g. silicon balance wheels, carbon/ceramic/sapphire/… cases, titanium movements parts – to mention only a few. Of course, not all those final products can be rated as “pinnacle of watchmaking”, but in some cases at least the price is impressive.
fine watchmaking Akrivia Patek Philippe Lang & Heyne Greubel Forsey finishing(Examples of fine watchmaking crafts – from top left: polishing (Akrivia), sun burst decoration (Lange & Heyne), Cloisonnée enamel (Patek Philippe) and hammering (Greubel Forsey))

Who represents the very top of watchmaking?

Which brand or independent comes to your mind? Are you talking about their whole production or some pieces only? About 70 – 80 years ago there was a so called “holy trinity of watchmaking” – Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Back in those days the approaches to fine watchmaking have been quite similar. Even at the peak of classical watchmaking – almost the same traditional criteria, materials and production processes helped a lot come to a conclusion more easily. Today we have quite often complicated movements and/or cases, because of new possibilities. Watches can be produced in more different ways than ever before. Which processes, materials and so on are superior?

Even Chronometer competitions won´t help these days as timekeeping performance is only one part of the story; and looking at customers spending their money – it´s less important than ever before. One can find a certified Chronometer (even with modern silicon parts inside) for about € 1k and at the same time super fancy designed watches with unique cases, but no certified Chronometer inside for € 100k or even € 1 Million. In addition, most chronometer certifications require a constant seconds hand which make great a number of the finest watches inadmissible from start. A short and easy answer is almost impossible today, isn´t it.

Is the traditional way of watchmaking at its best (!) (still) superior to highly sophisticated contemporary watchmaking with new technologies, constructions, materials, processes, designs and so on? This begs the question whether ‘pinnacle’ equates to being at the absolute forefront of watchmaking technology (in the sense of a pacemaker), or whether it refers to the best (what is this?) possible execution, again to be differentiated into handicraft and aesthetics. The answers certainly differ according to chosen focus, or combinations thereof.
fine watchmaking Ferdinand Berthoud Romain Gauthier Zenith Greubel Forsey silicon finishing(Examples of chronometric excellence in watchmaking – from top left: Greubel Forsey, Zenith, Romain Gauthier and Ferdinand Berthoud)

What above notion demonstrates is that the fundamental quest to classify a brand to carry the ‘pinnacle’ designation is also one that constantly escapes objective appreciation. Let’s still give that a try, and for this we propose a selection of criteria to guide the evaluation:

  1. In-House Manufacturing Capacity:
    Tricky one. First, this defies the tradition of Swiss watchmaking, having historically been assemblers of parts made, mostly, by specialist suppliers, who in the early days usually were farmers spending the winters with creating gears, dials, hands or cases for the large watchmaking houses.
    Also, despite the notion of capability, the simple statement that a brand can produce a watch completely under its roof says – at face value – nothing about the quality of their product.
    Only in the last 15 years have watch brands, with great help of their marketing departments, re-used the term in-house’ as an easy-to-communicate separator alluding to the ambition and capacity of a watch brand.
    The whole concept of vertical integration comes to its limits when considering a few of the most generally cherished icons of watchmaking: just look at the Patek Philippe 5070 and its CH 27-70 caliber, based upon a thoroughly re-worked ‘Nouvelle Lemania’ 2310 ebauche and consider how a Lemania-based movement in a Patek Philippe is sought after, compared to its new in-house successor … Also, which parts of a watch (movement, case, bracelet/strap …) must be in-house, if at all?
  2. Handmade:
    This is equally not clear-cut. Certainly, at a time where any (mechanical) wristwatch is an anachronism and not a necessity, playing on the intrinsic technical virtues of a watch does not lead far. Thus, the emotional and probably the artistic value of the object becomes more important, exemplified by artisanal crafts and skilful handwork, particularly when it comes to (decorative!) finishing. Note how this detail of appreciation again has nothing to do with the technical performance of a watch!
    ‘Handmade’ also has to be seen within context: one inevitably needs machines to produce a watch, so the term is restricted to traditional ‘human-controlled’ machines (compared to computer-powered ones such as CNC, laser-cutting, 3D printing and the like) and as mentioned the decoration of (machine-made) components.
    There are certainly areas where one does not want a ‘handmade’ part, e.g. when it comes to precision-manufactured performance-critical components.
    Furthermore, ‘handmade’ is at odds with a few of the other criteria we set forth in this list, e.g. when it comes to novel technologies and materials.
  3. Consistency of Production Quality:
    This criterium actually is a very important one, as it alludes to the very core as to how a given watch manufacturer conceives itself. There are few brands who actually finish their most basic piece to the same extend as their most complicated one. The majority of brands however have several tiers of finishing, mostly distinguished according to collections, in other cases it is only the top pieces in a given collection who obtain the best finishing quality the brand can offer.
    A similar observation can be made for technical details, e.g. free-sprung balances, silicon escapement assortments and the like.
    A challenge for the observer lies in the fact that some manufacturers differentiate their finishing according to the character of a collection, with ‘tool watches’ such as pilots, receiving a more basic looking finishing, while in technical finishing there is no difference at all. But is a technical finish the lesser one?
  4. Superior Finishing above its Peers:
    This aspect is closely tied to the previous one, and again escapes a conclusive answer. But one can gauge whether any of a given brand’s watches is at the apex of what the industry generally delivers at a chosen market segment. This needs some experience by the collectors, as particularly within the top range of watch brands differences are subtle and not easy to nail down.
    Are few and simple, but superbly anglaged bridges better than a more complex movement layout that did not receive the same lustrous sparkle? Difficult, and probably not clear-cut to answer…
  5. Unique Materials:
    If a manufacturer goes through all the efforts to tap into novel materials, making it work at industrial scale, and using it to create a tangible impact (either aesthetically or technically), then we would argue this is a bonus asset. As a simple box to tick for the pure sake of it, rather not, as such even happens at lower market segments.
  6. Technologies, unique or at least state of the art:
    We would rather rephrase this to ‘amongst best possible technology used’. A unique technology is about as meaningful, in absolute terms, as an ‘in-house’ manufactory. A state-of-the-art technology could be something like the most recent breakthrough in mass-production. An example would be the Swatch Sistem51, which we would really consider ‘state-of-the-art’ – just not in high-end watchmaking…. Also, where does the Zenith Oscillator stand, clearly a very advanced watchmaking proposition using cutting-edge materials, but also one that takes much of watchmaking handwork and expertise (assembly, lubrication, regulation) out of the equation of its production process?
    So, the term ‘technology’ needs qualifiers in order to be suitable for evaluation. Perhaps ‘technology’ should refer to sound watchmaking solutions, a very pleasing execution and design, not seeking for an easy, rational way to solve a chronometric problem, but taking the extra effort to result in something mesmerising to behold. As you see, that’s far from being a solid criterium, and it is loaded with a great deal of subjectivity.
  7. Outstanding Design:
    Design is a subjective criterium par excellence, and entirely subject to taste. But what can be appreciated, regardless of preferences, is whether a concept is executed with consistency and a great level of attention to the detail. The way how designers have arranged the different aspects of a watch, like shape, dimensions, colours, textures materials and shades towards a design objective is something where excellences can be judged.
  8. Consistency in Presentation:
    A brand which presents itself and communicates to the consumers in a way that is entirely reflective to the watches they produce, is certainly very high on the list (note that this however does not put it automatically as a ‘high end’ watch brand). But if there is a disconnect, be it that refined watches are marketed in a posh way, or if marketing reigns at times supreme to (watchmaking) content, then these are signs of something troubling down the road. Ideally, a watch should speak for itself, with PR and marketing just creating an enabling environment.

Above is certainly only a subset of the appreciation criteria possible, and the percentage of fulfilment is quite difficult to judge from outside. How many criteria need to be fulfilled and to which percentage? Can the degree of fulfilment be objectively gauged? Answers will lead to further discussions and our goal is not to judge. It’s more like an intellectual exercise and sometimes close to be philosophical if you don’t mind ?.

fine watchmaking Patek Philippe Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Urwerk finishing(Its all in the dial details: Patek Philippe, Urwerk and Audemars Piguet)

So, what does one need to create products of the pinnacle of watchmaking, today?

Parking spaces and good food! Yes, sometimes it´s that simple. Whatever you do, you will need (motivated) people involved in your processes. Highly trained experts on many levels and subjects. Money (serious money) to invest in appropriate workspaces, skills training, machines … and not to forget appropriate sales channels or points of sales, for earning money at the end.

Of course, it does not hurt to have a compelling vision as well. Too often have we seen concepts which did not fit into a given watch company structure, collection or industrial setup. Or, concepts were skewing too much on the watchmaking side, but lacking efforts and/or ability on the design and marketing fronts. Sometimes it (just) seems to be easy from outside, but with all those achievements today – it´s only easy to get lost, even after steep investments.

Different people (even experts) will have different points of view. Still we would like to start the discussion with some we have in mind… and we will consider them in a series of articles to follow.

The Pinnacle of Watchmaking series or articles:


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