Girard-Perregaux inaugurates its new 'manufacture'

August 2003

A few years ago, during the era of watch brand merger mania, Gino Maccaluso, owner of Girard-Perregaux and Daniel JeanRichard, made a crucial choice – to remain independent. Wooed by many, he refused the multiple buy-out offers, some of which were astronomical. His passion for the mechanical, his aesthetic convictions, his love for the watch profession and his entrepreneurial flair were stronger than simply a single desire to make money.

This man of action, as much as reflection, had not worked so hard to re-gild the venerable brand in La Chaux-de-Fonds simply to abandon it to one group or another. By refusing to become ordinary, by choosing the delicate path of autonomy, by preserving the brand's special spirit, Gino Maccaluso has rendered a proud service to the diversity of Swiss watchmaking, so threatened by standardization.

But, his courageous decision also involved a series of consequences that had to be faced. How, in the extremely competitive environment at the end of the 1990s, could he face the competition alone, depending only upon his own resources? How could he impose his products in increasingly coveted distribution networks? How, then, could he preserve the quality and integrity of his production and ensure its continuity and development?

The question of the 'manufacture'

The answers to these crucial questions are undoubtedly numerous and complex. At the heart of the question is the central concept of the 'manufacture'. There is enormous confusion about the term 'manufacture'. Too often used without any rhyme or reason, the word has lost its meaning. Many brands claim to be 'manufactures', while their watch activity is often limited to decorative functions, far from the real definition of the term. According to the 'Illustrated Professional Dictionary of Horology', by the famous G.A. Berner, 'In the Swiss watch industry, the term manufacture is used of a factory in which watches are manufactured almost completely, as distinct from an atelier de terminage, which is concerned only with assembling, timing, fitting the hands and casing.'

Historical legitimacy

A 'manufacture'… Girard-Perregaux is one since its creation in 1791. Over the course of its history, it has known many successes as well trials and tribulations, but it has never stopped the activities of a 'manufacture'. Today, it can truly be counted as among the oldest companies maintaining this tradition. The others are few and far between and can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As Gino Maccaluso himself says, “The 'manufacture', that is our daily activity. It is serious. You must give everything to it, day after day. You must invest and reinvest in it whatever the situation, without being arrogant and pretending to do everything, but in trying to master and understand the entire 360 degrees of the parameters of research, development and production.”

Long-term constraints

A 'manufacture' is also, and essentially, the acceptance of a long-term vision. Even if Gino Maccaluso is fundamentally wary of the notion of permanency and understands that enterprises are mortal as is everything else on Earth, he is still looking at the long term. Take a movement, any mechanical movement. It takes 4 to 5 years and millions of francs to develop it correctly. “Even after 10 or 12 years of existence,” he observes, “it is still a child, with all the problems of youth…”

The corollary of this long-term approach is the basic importance given to research and development. People often talk, especially during the last few years, of the race towards 'verticalization'. Is it only the 'manufacture' that can ensure the fabrication of all the component parts necessary for its entire production?

When all is said and done, Maccaluso's view is logical. “I prefer to let specialists make a screw, for example. They will do it better than I can. This is the case for the famous balance spring. Only one enterprise, Nivarox [Editor's note: It belongs to the Swatch Group] perfectly masters this very fine metallurgy. It is the only one to have invested heavily and courageously in this domain when no one was thinking about doing it. If the key, for a manufacture, is not in total verticalization at any price, it resides certainly in the research and development of real products within the framework of a real industrial plan, involving the long term.”

The new G-P 'manufacture'

It is a fundamental stage of this global 'industrial plan' that Girard-Perregaux celebrates today. With the inauguration of its 'new manufacture' at the end of June 2003, the 212-year old enterprise has at its disposal an incomparable tool. After more than 14 months of transformation work, Girard-Perregaux has regrouped all its manufacturing activities, previously scattered in several places, in one magnificent location.

Knowing Maccaluso's passion for architecture (he is one by training), it is easy to understand why he decided to invest in transforming the old buildings, dating from 1905 and 1918, rather than construct new ones around them. This is a part of the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds that now belongs to Girard-Perregaux (or more precisely to the Sowind Group, the holding company for Girard-Perregaux, Daniel JeanRichard, GP Manufacture and EMG SA).

At the top of the hill, the very patrician and superb Villa Marguerite houses the brand's museum and reception halls. The villa looks out over the manufacture's ancient buildings which house the enterprise's management, administration, the sophisticated complicated watchmaking division, and the after-sales service centre. On the other side of the street is an imposing building called the 'Château' that accommodates the activities of Daniel JeanRichard. The 'Château' looks directly over the vast buildings where the actual 'manufacture' is installed.

Patiently and tediously restored, the 'manufacture' is representative of the Art Déco period: wrought iron work, mosaics, glass roofs, stained glass windows, trompes l'œil, monumental staircase, cast iron pillars… Many of the original pieces have been faithfully preserved and showcased. While the beauty of the site matches the spirit of the enterprise, the layout of the buildings has been carefully planned from top to bottom to closely correspond with the rational demands of modern production.

A visit…

It is definitely worth a visit to find out what makes up the Girard-Perregaux 'manufacture'. Guided by Willy Schweizer, a long time member of the enterprise and historian by training, we discover a remarkably modern facility, spread out over 3,000 square metres, alternating between the latest generation of machines and manual workshops. We walk in through a series of frosted glass doors, upon which the name of each location is written.

On the first floor, we find the ébauches [Editor's note: see our article, 'Did you say ébauche?' in this issue]. All machining of the basic movement is carried out here, from in-itially cutting the metal, from the rounds, either brass or gold, to the tiniest bridge elements. The CNC Precitron equipment shares the space with small Kern machines allowing for retouching small series. Everything is accomplished within tolerances of a few microns. Next door, we find the metrology laboratory, responsible for checking, using computers and cameras, the precision of the machining. This installation is capable of detecting problems of the order of 0.1 micron. Not far is the EMG, the fabrication unit for cases and bracelets where we find milling machines specifically designed for gold, steel or titanium, five-axis machines for complex forms with their automatic tool changers, measuring checks, laser tools, etc.

From there, passing by the washing workshops, we arrive directly at the unit that assembles cases and bracelets. Joints, crystals, crowns and pushbuttons provided by external suppliers are assembled to the body of the watch. This manual operation is then verified for water-resistance. Continuing down the hallways, we pass the polishing atelier, still in the integration phase, and then we end up on the next floor at the department for movement research and development. Conception, calculations, plans, simulations…it is an uninterrupted chain of computer technology (AutoCad) that helps the designers during the four years it takes to develop a new movement. This R & D centre is flanked by a laboratory where systematic verifications of the research are carried out, and complete or partial prototypes are realized as a function of development.

From this unit, we pass logically to the bureau of industrialization, which establishes the fabrication procedures, the equipment, machines and workstations to be used in the manufacturing process. Before arriving at the movement assembly department, the visitor passes through areas reserved for testing the reliability of the components. Logistics, supplies and computer lists coming from outside suppliers, as well as elements made in-house all pass and re-pass by different quality control stations, whether it is upstream or downstream of the production. Systematically, 10% of finished production is dismantled for a final verification for assorted procedures and specifications, such as lubrication.

The department of movements occupies a large area. Named T (for Termination) 0, T1 or T2, the integrated manual operations consist of preparing the elements (inserting the jewels, placing the oscillating weight on its ball bearings etc.). Next, it is on to the movement assembly, lubrication, winding and controls (thermal shocks, precision tests, timing, amplitude problems, operation, etc.). Watches that show anomalies are sent to a workshop that gets them back on track. Finally, all the production passes to the watch department. The encasing, after separate controls, is assembled in the traditional manner (dial, hands, mounting, triple checks for water-resistance, final control for correct operation) before the watch is placed in the stock room. Already very impressed by this vast production network, the visitor will be even more so when he sees the mechanical atelier, where tools are machined on traditional lathes and where missing pieces for antique timekeepers can be recreated.

Qualitative objective

This high-powered 'manufacture', both ultra-modern and traditional, can handle a production of about 18,000 pieces per year. The quality criteria are so severe that, in spite of the higher theoretical capacity of the equipment and the 150 skilled employees, the enterprise runs the risk of diminishing the quality if it were to produce more than this amount. When we think of the size of the installation, 18,000 pieces may not seem like a lot, but if we consider the number of individual operations and personalized care required to make each component part of the watches, then this number is really quite high.

“I would like to correct a misunderstanding about the term 'manufacture',” insists Schweizer, at the end of our visit. “The 'man', as in man-ufacture, is what it is all about. Since the origins of watchmaking, machines have always been used and these same basic techniques are still being used today. Modern technology has simply provided better precision and speed. To show this continuity, we are going to open a museum in the Daniel JeanRichard 'Château' dedicated to watchmaking equipment. Since its origins, watchmaking depends on the man who has followed or anticipated the work of the machine.”

Reserved production

Girard-Perregaux's new 'tool', regrouping all the activities in one location, will permit a 'rise in power' of the enterprise's production. Until recently, the company delivered some of its movements to a few rigorously selected 'friends'. Will this continue into the future, we asked Maccaluso.

“No. We have decided to no longer sell movements to outside companies. You should not see this as a demonstration of arrogance. It is simply a necessity. As you have seen for yourself, we maintain a very high level of quality that forces us to limit our production. Since our watches sell well, we can no longer allow ourselves to sell to third parties. Also, as one of the brands at the summit of the prestige watchmaking pyramid and benefiting from our independence, we want to conserve and strengthen the part of the dream that we represent. And, a large part of that dream is based on our movements…”

Good results

Asked about the brand's results, Maccaluso shows his satisfaction. “Our results in 2003 are, up to this point, identical to those in 2002, which was a great year for us, both in terms of turnover as in terms of profit, in spite of the large investment made in our manufacture. We reinvest everything we earn and concentrate on the product and its heart, the movement. Unlike others, we are not very media oriented… But it is better like that.”

The primary importance accorded to research and development is a necessity. “It is the market that asks us to offer the most complete range of movements possible,” explains Maccaluso. “Besides our traditional movements and our specialities in haute horology, such as the famous tourbillons with three gold bridges, we want to move into grand complications by developing our own repeater mechanisms and completing our range of basic movements. Our projects involve an automatic ladies' movement, an integrated chronograph for large counters and the optimization of our own quartz movements. They represent only a very small part of our offer (3% to 4%, in the Vintage Dame collection), but one must not forget that Girard-Perregaux was a pioneer in this domain. Our technology in quartz dates back to the 1980s and we are currently developing a new generation of these movements that is at the top of what is being done. I would be lying if I did not add that, yes, we are also interested in the development of hybrid movements.”

Step by step, Girard-Perregaux is affirming therefore not only that it is one of the very rare 'manufactures' in Switzerland, but that it is also one of the most complete. The new 'manufacture' that was just inaugurated, according to all indications, is an important tool in the enterprise's global strategy.