The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 11

January 2011

For the third and last segment of our major inquiry into the ‘boom’ of Swiss mechanical movements, we have taken a look at the ‘watchmaking specialties’. This is a large term, but it covers a wide range of complications where we can find everything and anything, from special displays, among them the retrograde indications, to tourbillons and other mechanical follies.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 11

Whether they are affiliated with a brand such as Renaud & Papi, of which 78.4 per cent is owned by Audemars Piguet, or are independent such as Les Artisans Horlogers, whether they are a true verticalized manufacture such as Christophe Claret or a fiercely independent artist-constructor such as Agenhor, or whether they also master virtual imaging and micro-mechanics such as Magma Concept, all these companies have something in common. They are all part of a new generation of ‘suppliers’ that we would do better to call ‘partners in creation’. Those that we have just cited—but the list is far from being complete so for anyone that we have not included, please forgive us—have become indispensable for many brands that are caught up in the necessity of having to offer mechanical innovation (sometimes at the risk of mechanical inflation). This mechanical innovation allows brands to reap a lot of media coverage even if not a lot of economic benefits. The designers, constructors, inventors of unusual functions, the mechanical aces and the magicians of the cams often all play a pivotal strategic role.
And from these highly specialized enterprises come a great many watches with high-end labels and brand names. The fact that these timepieces were not made by the brands in question is not always known to the general public. And speaking of brands, there are many different types that turn to the specialty companies. There are those that don’t hesitate to declare their collaboration, and then there are those who will go to any lengths to hide it. Some of the former are cited below, but be assured that the list is much longer especially since the latter, those brands that do not promote transparency and those adepts at having so-called ‘in-house’ movements, are much greater in numbers.

A strategic yet exposed position
By occupying this central strategic position, the ‘Master Mechanics’ are exposed to all the air currents that agitate watchmaking’s economic sphere. When watchmaking catches a cold, they start to cough. Caught up in the race for mechanical added-value that preceded the financial crisis, they are today faced with clients many of whom don’t really know where to go next. Some of these ‘Master Mechanics’ have admitted this fact to us quite openly: the brands are equivocating; they don’t know which model to follow; they hesitate to launch into the creation of a costly innovation, which they are no longer sure will be successful like so many others have been in the past.
And a few premature announcements have left them cold. For example, how much time and engineering efforts were spent by TAG Heuer, a brand that was just not willing to withdraw from the V4 and thus had to continue with this concept, sold to it by designer Jean-François Ruchonnet? Even if, in retrospect, this adventure was worth the effort and that TAG Heuer had been able to capitalize on this very difficult success, it is not sure that the brand would repeat the experience today. Another example is the very interesting Mémoire 1, invented by Les Artisans Horlogers for Maurice Lacroix. The work started in 2006, and then passed from hand to hand, but it has still never come out—and the investment has still never been recouped. To cite even a third example, what about the difficulties that are met when trying to validate an innovative watch such as the seven years it took Harry Winston to finally present, in 2010, its ingenious Opus 3 invented by Vianney Halter!

Temporal considerations
The temporal logic that lead to the development of a brand and its image are quite different than those that lead to the conception of a mechanism, its construction, the development of a prototype, the tests, corrections and necessary transformations. From the idea to the drawing board and then from the drawing board to the realization, the road is long, winding and full of pitfalls. Developing a new movement is a question of years, whether we like it or not. Some, however, have developed strategies to avoid or circumvent these difficulties, as we will see below. But whether one has recourse to the most sophisticated imaging and calculation technologies or proceeds in a more intuitive manner, whether one creates prototypes or makes the pieces directly, many various practices exist. They cohabitate with each other but no single one is superior to the other. No one cuts corners unless they want to risk clipping their wings.
Added to all that is the fact that most of our ‘Master Mechanics’ have, like all watchmakers, a healthy ego. Having long worked in the shadow of the big brand names, having seen many of their silent partners parading around with what they have designed in solitude and sometimes dreamed of in their sleep, they are happy to see the spotlight turn a little towards themselves. They have become objectively important and, in this new competition, they are advancing—each with his own arsenal of weapons—their special designs and their specific tastes, to the extent that a ‘complication’ invented by X or Y is often recognizable even when it is anonymously placed at the heart of such and such movement, presented by such and such brand. Each of these constructors has his own footprint, his own system, his own way of doing things. And for some of them, they even introduce their own special poetry. But as Giulio Papi says in a burst of sincerity, “Do our concepts always make sense? We will only know in twenty years.”

Source: Europa Star December - January 2011 Magazine Issue