Movements: a progressive return to the 1950s?

September 2010

Our publishing house, which was originally called Hugo Buchser SA after the name of its founder, used to publish (until 1986) the famous Le Guide des Acheteurs (The Buyer’s Guide). This was before the Internet—it was certainly another world then. For people interested in watches, this guide contained all the addresses in Switzerland’s vast industrial watch sector. Out of curiosity, I dusted off our archives and found The Buyer’s Guide for 1951. The first thing I looked for was the section on “Movements” to learn who made them during this time. I found 268 makers of palettes-type movements (this figure did not include the cylinder-type Roskopf calibres). Among these fabricants were 50 in Bienne, 50 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, 28 in Genève, 24 in Tramelan, and 17 in Granges.

Movements: a progressive return to the 1950s?

This vast assortment began disappearing, starting already in the 1930s, as these concerns were gradually acquired, absorbed or swallowed up by other companies. In their place came increasingly powerful companies such as Ebauches SA, ETA, l’ASSUAG-SIHH, the SMH in 1985, and finally the Swatch Group in 1997. At this time, the huge majority of Swiss ébauches came from ETA.

Little by little, new movements began surfacing here and there. As mechanical movements regained their former glory—in a progressive and spectacular fashion—independent master watchmakers were the first to demonstrate that mechanical timekeeping had not yet played all its cards, far from it. Immense terrains were yet to be explored. This period marked the birth of a ‘new’ type of mechanical watchmaking that, bit by bit, would leave an indelible impression on everyone. But, between artisanal-style production, as perfect as it might be, and the realities of industrial-scale manufacturing, there was a huge abyss. And to pass over this large gulf required large investments. Watchmakers hesitated. After all, ETA was there with its durable tractors that had proven their worth over a long period of time.

But the greatest push to finally span this wide divide was given by the late Nicolas Hayek when he announced in 2002 that ETA would discontinue its delivery of ébauches and kits starting in 2006 (this measure was delayed until 2011). The threat of no longer having a supply of calibres resulted in a race for brands to verticalize their production. This was possible—from a financial standpoint—by the fact that, during this time, powerful and competitive groups began forming, namely Richemont and LVMH. Rolex was also nearly autonomous, and practically everyone else began surfing on one of the largest euphoric waves in the history of Swiss timekeeping.

Today, while the markets are not doing so well, a new industrial tool has been put into place and is ready to go. A new industrial fabric has been partially reconstituted and initiatives abound. It is now necessary to make these large investments pay off. Europa Star takes a look at the various players in this arena in a two-part series. In this issue, we examine the direct alternatives to ETA, while in the next issue, we will delve into the explosion of in-house movements.

The Swiss watch planet in movement

Source: Europa Star August - September 2010 Magazine Issue