The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 15

February 2011


When we enter the ancient 17th century mill where Les Artisans Horlogers is located, the first thing we see are three identical wall clocks that show the same time with a small discrepancy. Below are not written Paris, New York and Hong Kong, but rather Neuchâtel, La Chaux-de-Fonds, and Le Locle. This rather humoristic display is a reminder of the company’s roots in Jurassian timekeeping and perhaps also a way to turn their noses up at globalization.
Laurent Besse, Co-founder and associate of Manuel Spöde, welcomes us. Together Besse and Spöde created Les Artisans Horlogers seven years ago, in 2004. Manuel Spöde is both experienced in business—having worked in management and in sales—and in watchmaking with a diploma from WOSTEP. He has worked in watch restoration, the creation and development of products, industrialization, restructuring of watch companies and commercial services. His diverse background seems to correspond perfectly with that of Laurent Besse, a graduate of the watchmaking school in Besançon, with experience at Nouvelle Lémania and Frédéric Piguet. Besse also worked with Eric Klein, head of the multi-brand research and development department at Richemont. While there, he met a good part of the new generation of CEOs in watchmaking such as Antonio Calce (Corum), Hamdi Chatti (Louis Vuitton), and Michel Nieto (formerly at Baume & Mercier). He contributed to the development of products for Cartier and Piaget, but the ambiance of a large group with its decision-making constraints and slowness did not enchant him. He then moved to the Conseil Ray office, and developed movements for Zenith, notably, that he joined some time later when Thierry Nataf arrived on the scene. But he didn’t stay there very long. He again runs into Manuel Spöde, whom he had met some years earlier. Together, they restructured STT that would become Dimier when it was sold to Pascal Raffy from Bovet. At the same time, they founded Les Artisans Horlogers.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 15 Laurent Besse and Manuel Spöde

The logic of (luxury) Lego
When they created Les Artisans Horlogers (LAH), their concept was fully developed and their approach was clearly defined. They would take six full years to realize their programme and make their production totally reliable. Laurent Besse compares their idea to the Lego principle: have a repertory of compatible pieces that, starting with the same essential components, would let you create “everything you want”, or nearly. With these small Lego blocks can be created a chateau, a speedboat or a pirate ship. With the LAH components can be built a tourbillon, a regulator, or an MB&F machine. The central element of the LAH Lego is a basic calibre that was totally developed by them, a calibre that is “well built and simple so that it can be customized without too much effort,” as explains Besse in a few words. “We therefore see many elements from one calibre to another,” he adds, “but this way of proceeding lets us avoid having to always reinvent the wheel and allows us to offer a complete range of products, totally operational, that can also accept existing additional modules. For example, I think of the chronograph modules of Dubois Dépraz. oreover, these calibres are not templates and have strictly nothing to do with clones, but they are compatible.” In passing, we might add that Laurent Besse casts a doubtful eye on the famous ETA clones. In his opinion, “ETA is absolutely unbeatable in the domain of cutting tools and not one of its rivals can touch it, at least not for now”.
The thought behind this approach has permitted LAH to offer a complete range of classic complications, a totally personalizable range that will allow the creation of their specialties, which include the tourbillon in first place. This approach also lets them plan for the long-term vision, to think globally about the collection and the reliability of its production. By standardizing a large part of the components and by being able to purchase in large quantities, they ensure their production according to industrial criteria, thus offering better reliability and greater precision.
Since 2008, LAH has proposed five basic calibres, ranging from 8’’’3/4 to 13’’’3/4, available in more than 40 versions, with manual winding, automatic winding (equipped with a circular oscillating weight, their great singularity or a small exocentric weight), and even manual winding with a tourbillon escapement (another great specialty).

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 15

The importance of dialogue
In a few years, their proposition, coupled with their ability to personalize products to the extreme, attracted strongly different brands that asked for specific movements. Among these brands are Maurice Lacroix (Mémoire 1 and Pontos Excentrique, for example), MB&F (with which it has a very close collaboration, resulting in notably the HM1 and the HM4 Thunderbolt), Harry Winston, Universal Genève, British Masters, Peter Speake-Marin, Rebellion, Zeitwinkel, etc. Clearly these brands are quite different from each other.
“In the approach to design and construction, it is necessary to have a very detailed dialogue with the brand that asks you to design a movement,” explains Laurent Besse, “because each time you have to find the internal logic of the brand and succeed in mechanically expressing its DNA. So, in order to take this logic to its full potential, we will go as far as creating the case in certain cases, and even in designing the final packaging. We are, of course, watch engineers, but we are also closely interested in industrial design”.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 15

Economies of scale
One of the reasons for this success is due to the economies of scale that are fostered by the ‘Lego method’. Despite the fact that they make essentially only small series of timepieces, LAH can still offer an extremely attractive price/quality ratio thanks to the economies realized as much in the realm of construction as in production, stock management, assembly and the ability to meet deadlines.
“Today, we make 1,000 movements per year, but our goal is to increase this number and to lower our costs even more, while remaining a small player, working exclusively in specialty watchmaking. We hope to increase these numbers to 5,000 to 10,000 movements per year within five years.” Is the moment right?
“It is correct to say that movement makers are currently suffering more than during the height of the crisis. Brands are apprehensive, fearful. They want to offer exclusivities, amazing products, but they don’t dare move forward. Pressure on pricing has also increased. Investors are holding back. We recently studied a demand that would have resulted in 50,000 movements, with the creation of a factory, but the green light never came…”
Another savings factor is the modesty and flexibility of LAH’s own structure. Today 15 people are divided between R&D, construction, prototyping, logistics, controls, the prep-aration of kits and the assembly of small series (assembly of more than 200 pieces is done in partnership.)
“We don’t want to grow too big and, notably, we do not envision producing the pieces ourselves. On the contrary, as indicated by the three wall clocks at the entrance, we operate between Le Locle, where we are based, La Chaux-de-Fonds, and Neuchâtel, where we have developed a dense network of favoured sub-contractors. With them, we have woven a tightly knit fabric of suppliers, whether in the realm of small or large series, for cutting, for gears, for various steps in assembly, for encasing, decoration or finishing. We have calculated that our small structure actually provides work for around 300 people.”

Source: Europa Star December - January 2011 Magazine Issue