Probably one of the most hotly debated topics on the various watch fora is the issue of “in-house” movements and what constitutes a true manufacture. The debate is made more difficult by the symbiotic nature of the Swatch Group, which owns ETA and a host of other movement component producers (e.g.-Nivarox). So why is the production of an in-house movement important?
If one takes the movement out of a watch, it becomes a piece of jewelry of varying degrees of aesthetic appeal (depending on design, metals used and complementary accoutrements). I suspect a very, very tiny fraction of watch aficionados would stay on the various watch fora if all they were discussing were the merits of using rubies or sapphires on bezels or stainless cases instead of platinum.
I would wager that almost all active watch forum members, along with more casual enthusiasts, have an interest in watches because of their mutual fascination with the tiny machine within that manages to track the passage of time, usually with amazing accuracy … a machine that is almost three centuries old and has been only refined – not radically changed – in all that time. And the most luminous names in the horological firmament are those who labored to develop movements that had one or more distinguishing characteristics, as it was the only legitimate way to differentiate one company from another.
Before the Great Depression, a watch company might source movements from another initially, but everyone understood that long-term survival depended on the ability to produce movements in-house. That’s why there was a robust watch industry in the United States in those days. The economic exigencies of the global financial crisis that was the Depression changed the industry and sowed the first seeds of consolidation.
Decades later, the Quartz Revolution altered that dynamic dramatically, driving many old, established companies out of business. It also gave us watch companies who, in fact, were jewelry houses only, casing another company’s quartz movements in their wares. With the Mechanical Renaissance, that trend continued … with many producers sourcing their movements from ETA, whilst a few sourced from other manufactures.
So a watch company that placed no emphasis on movement design, development or production eventually was at the mercy of a very small group of movement producers. Worse, though, was that their wares now were only distinguishable by the design attributes of the case and bracelet or strap. And, as I have noted, that’s really not why so many enthusiasts spend so many hours studying, discussing and collecting watches.
The question now of what is a manufacture, in a modern age that compels at least a modicum of deference to technological advances in production practices, should focus more intently on R&D and design of movements and less on where those movements are actually assembled. A company like Omega, which has the resources to bring forth a calibre such as the 8500, should not be judged on who actually builds that movement (it could be done turnkey in Asia with no diminution in quality). Rather, it should be judged on how ingeniously it took a 300 year old machine and refined it to create a distinctive variation that is worthy of admiration by peers and customers alike. To me, that is the 21st century definition of a manufacture. Admittedly, others – including a certain horology columnist we’ll refer to as the Timepiece Stiff Neck – have a more narrow view, but they’re placing emphasis on things which are not nearly as relevant today as they might have been a century ago (or even four decades ago).
I have no regard for most watch companies who continue to produce quality jewelry powered by ETA movements (members of the Swatch Group, of course, are exempt from this disdain because ETA belongs to them collectively … it is their “in-house” producer). I might buy such a watch for a particular purpose (e.g. – a relatively inexpensive dive watch that I’ll use only underwater but never wear casually), but it will never take an honored place in my collection. Frankly there is a vast difference between Omega and Rolex, both of which have strived in recent years to solidify their bona fides as in-house producers, and others who rely solely on the forbearance of other movement producers to even exist.
Breitling and TAG Heuer, for example, understand this. It’s not just about supply issues. It’s about corporate self-respect and market credibility. And that’s why they have gone to such lengths to return to producing their own in-house movements. They’re still not where Omega or Rolex are, but they’re trying. And it is vital that they do so.
With most of the major watch brands now owned by large corporate conglomerates with virtually unlimited financial resources, a Breitling or TAG Heuer or IWC cannot be excused for relying on another company’s movements, despite the former glories they might have achieved in days gone by with watches designed using outsourced calibres. In this age of image-is-everything marketing, about the only thing a watch enthusiast can hang his proverbial hat on is how committed a particular company is to the art of watchmaking, best exemplified by creating one’s own calibres.
Under my foregoing definition, a watch company’s status as a manufacture figures quite significantly in my purchasing and collecting decisions. I suspect that, after some honest reflection, most knowledgeable watch enthusiasts would agree.