ehind Le Cercle des Horlogers are co-founders and chief executives Nicolas Herren and Alain Schiesser. Both in their early forties, each started out with a vocational diploma in watchmaking, which they followed up with a degree in microengineering. Schiesser cut his teeth at Christophe Claret where he stayed ten years, first as a movement constructor then at the head of the engineering design office, conceptualising and developing complicated movements. Herren, meanwhile, spent six years creating prototypes for Audemars Piguet in Le Locle, including a tourbillon which he produced from start to finish on traditional machines. From there, he moved to Louis Vuitton’s La Fabrique du Temps, where he gained solid experience under the stewardship of two eminent watchmakers, Enrico Barbasini and Michel Navas.
In 2012 the duo decided it was time to go it alone and together founded Le Cercle des Horlogers in Hauts-Geneveys, a village near La Chaux-de-Fonds. Even at this early stage, their project was to work only with the foremost brands. It wasn’t long before the first orders came in. Among these initial developments were an “exceptional minute repeater” and grand complication movements. They were proud of their work but customer confidentiality meant they couldn’t take credit for it. And so they decided to produce calibres of their own: a tourbillon, a double tourbillon (as early as 2014), a multi-axis tourbillon and minute repeaters which they designed, built and in many cases patented before offering them to selected brands, either off-plan or as prototypes.
- Hour, quarter, minute repeater carillon movement for Biver – Only Watch. 3 gongs struck by 3 hammers, visible from the back. Automatic winding by micro-rotor. Striking mechanism regulated by an inertia governor. One-off piece with time shown on the reverse side of the movement by an hour hand.
Their movements are devised from the outset with extensive and even complete personalisation in mind. Their minute repeater calibre, for example, can be built with two, three or four hammers.
An ongoing requirement is that every stage in the process must be signed off before moving on to the next, “so we don’t have to keep going back for reworks.” Both agree that, after the “anything goes era of the first ‘unidentified horological objects’” and the collateral damage caused to collectors in particular, they have a duty to guarantee the reliability of their movements. Furthermore, each movement is put through the requisite certifications, Chronofiable among others.
Rapid organic growth
Le Cercle des Horlogers has grown rapidly and organically. “We hired a movement constructor, then a watchmaker, then a logistics manager: you cannot overestimate the importance of good logistics. We’re now a team of 50 people.” Of these, half are watchmakers and a third work in logistics – a vital service given the number of references – plus a large design office and four people in machining. The company’s impressive expansion has been entirely self-funded, “by a first order to develop a movement.” From which point, everything snowballed.
In addition to their undeniable talent as watchmakers, Le Cercle’s two founders have industrial experience and this has taught them the value of good logistics, planning and procurement, as well as validations and controls. The entire production flow is digitally documented, from the technical, aesthetic and dimensional quality control of every single component to final assembly and inspection. Traceability of non-conforming items provides data that is analysed and used for continuous improvement. Le Cercle also offers its customers an encrypted blockchain ledger, LISA, that provides real-time information on the current state of play at every stage from manufacturing to delivery, to create an individual profile for each watch.
Initially, machining and decoration were not part of the services offered, but that changed three years ago. Five CNC machines are now in operation, producing (among other things) prototypes and small runs. For the remainder of production, Le Cercle des Horlogers can count on a network of contractors – “the best in their field” – and partners. Project management, final adjustments and assembly are all carried out in-house.
Crafting the extraordinary…but not afraid to diversify
From in-house “base” calibres, “we’ve convinced customers to create extraordinary pieces, with things that hadn’t been done before, new complications, a completely different chrono, for example, with a new function.” Thoughts turn to the Astronomia Maestro minute repeater, created on these very premises for Jacob & Co.
“We like to be involved from the very beginning and progress alongside the customer. We also like to suggest original projects, which is why we get original proposals in return.” The likes of the Code41 Mecascape. Or the Biver Minute Repeater that will be auctioned for Only Watch 2023. Or the resonance minute repeater developed for Armin Strom.
- Automatic movement with micro-rotor for Speake-Marin. Frequency: 4 Hz. Height: 3.9mm. Diameter: 30mm
Le Cercle has also shown its capacity for diversification with the development of a simple micro-rotor module on a solid base, which it can then build on and transform to give each brand its own distinctive movement. These micro-rotor automatics have already gained the approval of Louis Vuitton (for its new Tambour), Trilobe and Speake-Marin, among others.
“We work with all the groups, with the exception of Swatch Group, but we love to work with small brands. We produce series of between 10 and 100 units, sometimes 1,000 units, occasionally more, but that’s not our core business.”
They guarantee the repairability of every movement, in their own workshop. Servicing and repair of the micro-rotor calibre can be carried out by the brands’ own watchmakers, after the appropriate training.
In the space of ten years, Le Cercle des Horlogers has produced 131 reference movements and 311 movements with watch heads. What about one-of-a-kinds? “Sometimes, yes, a complete bespoke service, but it’s very, very expensive!” they say, grinning.