Ace of Base: Movements
By Alex Doak
Since Nicolas Hayek Snr's shock announcement in 2002, huge strides have been taken in developing new 'tractor' base calibres as alternatives to ETA. But will they prove as robust as the 2892 or 7750? Only time will tell.
Compare, if you will, two descriptions of two rather different approaches to high-end watch manufacture:
"At certain moments you might leave the drawing and let the metal guide you… There are many 'tiny' moments of decision-making taking place during the whole period of making a watch, each requiring work within microscopic tolerances. I really value the fact that I can make these small decisions all the time about every part while making each one of my watches."
"Computerised control, ordering and monitoring of the production process extends to almost every turn of the screw. Cartridges loaded with the watch arrive at a workbench automatically, while a screen on the bench lists the operations to be carried out, the parts to be used and the order in which to proceed. Once the operation is complete, say the placing of a bridge, the cartridge and the watch both automatically move onto the next step."
The first comes from Roger Smith, sole apprentice of George Daniels and the only remaining protagonist of truly British, truly handmade watchmaking. The second is an extract from our esteemed editor's report from behind closed doors at Rolex, featured in QP30. Purists may well side with Roger Smith and his small team of artisans on the Isle of Man, turning their nose up at faceless Rolex and the thousands of workers clocking on and off the super-brand's antiseptic production lines. But consider this: Smith wears a Rolex.
In 2008, the Calibre 3120 was utilised by Chanel in the production of that year's J12 Calibre 3125 for which Chanel redesigned the balance bridge and the rotor in gold crowned with black ceramic.
Working in Manchester's Mappin & Webb in his teen years, he saved and saved for his prized Oyster Perpetual and he still wears it with pride. But for very different reasons to those of someone wearing one of his own £70,000-plus Series 2 pieces. For, as any watchmaker will freely admit, Rolex watches are the best in the world - but only because they've absolutely mastered the manufacture of the ultra-reliable, workhorse base calibre, or 'tracteur': a robust movement that's easy to assemble, easy to service and easy to supplement with modules without a major drain on the power train.
Getting to this point isn't easy, or cheap, or particularly romantic, but it is equally as impressive as the blued screws and anglage on a Smith three-quarter plate. Where in lovingly hand-crafting his movement a fine watchmaker is constantly 'correcting' every component's inconsistencies, achieving perfect repeatability is the hardest aspect of industrial tractor manufacture - every component must be absolutely identical for quick assembly and predictable performance. Creating industrial volumes is, in many ways, far more complicated since everything must be planned well in advance and the slightest error can have major consequences.
Veteran Rolex watchmaker Peter Roberts, who teaches for the Genevois brand in between his Technical Director duties at Bremont, is full of praise for his alma mater: "Nobody beats their standard… They're good value for money, and the majority of that value is found in the movement. You can't fault it - it's one of the best in the world, as good a mechanical movement as is made anywhere. Buy any Oyster-cased Rolex and you'll get the same movement - even in the basic Air King. What's more, Rolex is constantly updating and improving the movement.
"For Rolex this is the large proportion of the cost," Roberts reveals. "Compared to other watches in the same price bracket, the cost of the movement inside the Rolex can be four or five times as much. OK, It is machine finished, not hand finished, admittedly, but a lot of the cost is in the quality control - the number of checks during production is probably higher than anywhere else. So many people are there to pick up any potential problem. But this is the only way at Rolex - to be absolutely obsessive."
The Sellita SW200 movement is a suitable replacement for the ETA 2824-2. The true test will come in a few years, but the future looks good - the parts are the same, and ETA parts appear to fit into Sellita movements.
But then, when you're Rolex and making near-as-dammit 1 million timepieces a year (around 750,000 of which are chronometercertified mechanicals) a mere return rate of, say, 0.5 per cent quickly adds up to a mountain of after-sales work - especially when you consider today's dearth of wellqualified local watchmakers.
So clearly, it's an enormously expensive enterprise developing and setting up the production of a basic movement. (Roberts cites somewhere in the region of £4 million, at the very least - and that's just with Bremont's potential production levels in mind; recent Swiss examples get closer to £7 million.) But say you did have the means and the inclination: surely then, the idea of having your own tractor starts to appeal? Well, no not really.
The trouble with a new movement designed as a foundation on which to build your entire range of men's, women's and complication pieces is that there's simply no way of predicting how it'll perform in the long run. Giulio Papi once famously made the comparison to a new car engine: it's easy to stick the car on a test bed and leave it running in top gear for a fortnight to simulate years' worth of use, then observe and improve on its long-term failings. Mechanical watch movements, however, can't beat any faster. You simply have to keep it wound, wait and see. Even watchmakers with a lifetime's experience can never really know how their new creation will perform in the long run, as there are things you just can't forsee - things that only become apparent once you've banged it, knocked it, overwound it, allowed it to oxidise, left it sat motionless for months… An average lifetime's use in other words.
Which is why most companies positioning themselves below the haut de gamme plimsoll line of around £5,000 won't bother in the first place. Why invest so massively in buying lathes, CNC milling machines, tools, CAD programmes and developing an unglamorous tractor that might not even work properly? Especially when ETA or any of its subsidiaries will provide you with something tried, tested and well respected, with plenty of scope to add modules or personalise? In the sage words of Bremont's Nick and Giles English, arguing their case in QP43's debate on the worth of in-house movements: "Would you fly over the North Sea during winter with a recently released 'in-house' engine produced by a new aircraft manufacturer? We wouldn't… Similarly the basic engine designs of decades ago rule the roost in high-performance racing cars. The changes tend to be made at the periphery."
Indeed, even an entirely self-sufficient company like Rolex only uses a handful of base movements, which they have tweaked and tweaked for years, making tiny incremental improvements along the way - such as their antimagnetic Parachrome hairspring, or the switch from a balance cock to a more robust balance bridge in 1990s 31XX family of calibres (still going strong two decades down the line). At ETA's Grenchen facility, the 2824 and 2892 tractors (dating from the 1950s and 1970s respectively) have enjoyed gradual evolution to the benefit of everyone, such as the little-feted Etachron regulator assembly. Is it any wonder that virtually all mechanical movements gaining COSC chronometer certificates are these 28,800vph tractors? They've all been honed to perfection.
With its hour, minute, seconds and date functions, the SW300 Calibre from Sellita is further proof of the reputation for reliability that the brand has forged in its position as a supplier of both standard and top-of-the-range movements to numerous Swiss watchmakers.
And what's more, unless you want something much wider or much thinner, you don't get very far before you start to reinvent the wheel. Within the confines of the round hours-minutes-seconds movement of around 11 or 12 lignes in diameter, there's only so many places you can put a barrel, going train and escapement assembly before you have to totally rethink the way a Swiss lever escapement watch works.
Spreading the load
So, all that said, why are we now seeing highend brands such as Bulgari and Chopard supplementing their manufacture supercar movements with unglamorous manufacture tractors that were previously sourced from ETA? And how have unpromising names like Sellita and Soprod entered common horological parlance?
The reason is because Swatch was uncomfortable with being the only tractor manufacturer out there. Why should they spend billions of francs every year tweaking, honing and improving these industry workshorses only for other brands to treat ETA like a supermarket, ploughing the revenues back into marketing rather than investing in their own innovation and technical progress? Swatch's recently deceased President, Nicolas Hayek Snr warned us that over-reliance on one source could lead to a collapse as catastrophic as that of the late 1970s. What's more, the easy flux of ETA ébauches and kits wasn't helping the ongoing scourge of counterfeit watches, kitted out with Swatch's cheapest calibres, unfinished, unregulated and ultimately an embarrassment to Swatch and the industry as a whole.
And thus it was in summer 2002 that Swatch announced the reduction, then discontinued delivery of kits and ébauches from ETA, Nouvelle Lémania and Frédéric Piguet - even balance springs from Nivarox-FAR - to non-Swatch clients from 2006, save for loyal and historic clients. They would only supply finished, decorated movements, disallowing modification and self-branding. Given that around two-thirds of Switzerland's annual output of some 5 million mechanical movements comes from ETA, it was perhaps understandable that the Swiss Commission for Competition stepped in citing abuse of their near-monopolistic position, extending the deadline from 2006 to January 2011, to a collective sigh of relief.
Despite the initial uproar, the subsequent race to prepare for ETA's now-dwindling supply has, to Hayek's credit, worked wonders for watchmaking. Many brands have accelerated their own integration and verticalisation, obscure third-party industrial suppliers have been thrust into the limelight, and brand-new references like 'A10', 'SW 500', 'FE 151', 'Calibre 168' and 'Calibre 1887' have started to spice up the boring old vocabulary of 7750, 2824, 2892, 6497… It's even reached the stage where bemused lifestyle journalists are being flown to the unveilings of balance spring machines, so enthused are companies by their burgeoning independence and freedom from erratic supply chains.
The RM007 developed by Soprod for Richard Mille and featuring tiny gold ball-bearings within the rotor.
The revolution began with the 7750 substitutes - or at least, that's what we first heard about, as an automatic chronograph is clearly a far more impressive thing than a time-only watch. Breitling's B01, TAG Heuer's '1887' Seiko clone, Chopard's LUC 10CF, Ebel's Caliber 137, Hublot's back-to-front Unico… the heightened public interest in chronographs even reflexively influenced ETA itself, who developed a brand new column-wheel calibre just for Swatch stablemate Longines.
But in the past couple of years there's been a move back to a simpler, thinner, more classic style. Call it the sobering effect of the recession, call it the hesitancy of watchmakers to commit to, and roll out, a fundamental new tractor as quickly as a lower-volume chronograph - whatever the reason, a new wave of time-only tractors is now taking to the stage (see opposite), already delineated by an emerging hierarchy: from ETA clones to ETA compatibles, to stand-alone and highend originals. (The only ETA calibre currently lacking a substitute, in fact, is a big favourite of QP, the 16.5-ligne Unitas 6497/8 pocket watch movement - surely a ripe opportunity for one enterprising workshop?)
And while it's impossible to know how well this new generation of tractors will perform as the years go by (the ETA clones will inevitably fare better than most) we should all be very grateful for this flourish of creativity and investment at the purer end of the horological world. Surely anything that temporarily distracts us from the pantomime complications and unachievable concepts to remind us of the challenges that continue to be posed by the most basic mechanical watch must a good thing?