and chamfering, hand-finished Côtes de Genève, soleillage, snailing or strapping: all these high-end finishing techniques are usually the privilege of exclusive (and financially out of reach) pieces of fine watchmaking.
- A beautiful alarm watch from the Ecole d’horlogerie de Saint-Imier (powered by a Venus 230)
But what if I tell you that you can actually find watches that are treated with a similar attention to detail – at a fraction of the price and, cherry on top, with a story to tell.
Historically, “school pieces” marked the completion of three hard and challenging years in one of the famous watchmaker schools of Switzerland.
- Technicum de Bienne
- © altstadt-biel.ch
Throughout the 20th century, these schools flourished in various parts of the Swiss Confederation. Although some disappeared with the quartz crisis in the 70’s, the rest of them are still operating and giving birth every year to freshly promoted master watchmakers.
It is important to mention that the tradition of the school piece is less predominant today in the school culture. Most of them actually abandoned the idea.
The most renowned watchmaking schools of Switzerland are the Ecole technique de la Vallée de Joux, the Ecole d’horlogerie de Porrentruy, the Ecole d’horlogerie de St-Imier, the Technicum Le Locle, the Ecole d’horlogerie de Genève, the Technicum cantonal Bienne and the Technicum La-Chaux-de-Fonds.
- Ecole d’horlogerie de la Vallée de Joux in 1907 (still under construction)
- © Espace Horloger Vallée de Joux / Watchonista
Competition among schools has always been high: consequently, famous teachers were pushing students to excel and build watches with the highest standards and finishing.
School pieces were and still are a true achievement for the student, a way to assert himself as well as confirm and show to its next employer the quality of his technical as well as creative skills and capabilities.
This piece of pride was usually kept by its creator and rarely sold, increasing the difficulty to put hands on one.
Back in the early days, these watches were designed and built from scratch by the students be it melting metal, crafting the components or finishing the movement as well as the case by hand. Raw components were purchased from Swiss manufactures and modified in the school by the student with the available tools and machines.
- A school piece from the Ecole d’horlogerie de Porrentruy using a IWC caliber (note the chamfering and subtle hand finishing)
- © cliniquehorlogere.ch
Moving on from the 19th century to the 20th century and from the pocket watch to the wrist watch, the habit of crafting the entire timepiece from the rawest component became less and less a necessity. Most of the schools were directly purchasing cases, dials, hands and other furniture from renowned brands such as IWC, Zenith or Heuer. The students were then to choose the material of the case (chrome, steel, gold) and the type of movement (3 hands, alarm, chronograph, perpetual calendar) in regards to their personal budget. If a student wanted to build a perpetual calendar in a gold case for instance, he had to pay a “premium” to use such materials.
- Note that the school watch on the left uses the same case and Valjoux 726 movement as the Heuer Carrera
- © cliniquehorlogere.ch & chrono24.fr
School pieces are one-of-a-kind watches, as most of them are unique in their design and finishing. Each one bears the mark and the determination of its creator.
Such timepieces are strangely somewhat overlooked on the vintage market: few collectors and aficionados understand their immense technical and sentimental value.
Hence the price of most of them is reasonable, if you put in perspective the components, the quality of craftsmanship, the story and of course the rarity of such watches.
It is interesting to observe that timepieces which don’t bear the name of a brand on the dial are less likely to be looked after and appreciated.
A brand is of course a safe way to make sure that a product ticks a certain amount of boxes and will provide you with a sense of proudness however let me assure you that once you get a school piece between your hands your perspective will be turned around and your biases will vanish.
- A beautiful triple date chronograph with moonphase from the Ecole d’horlogerie du Locle (powered by a Valjoux 72C)
- © magazine.bulangandsons.com