Putting the seal on quality

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August 2012

What is the best way to judge or to affirm the quality of a timepiece? The term “Swiss Made” hardly seems sufficient, since it merely establishes that at least 50 per cent of the value of the components in the movement is of Swiss origin and that the movement was assembled and inspected in Switzerland. But what about the rest of the watch?

Within a few years of the first criteria being determined for the “Swiss Made” label on a watch in 1880, the foundations for the Poinçon de Genève (the Geneva Hallmark) were laid on 6 November 1886, when the Grand Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva set up a facultative control centre for watches at the request of the Geneva Watchmaking Society.

Placing the official seal of the State of Geneva on watch movements and issuing certificates of origin had two main objectives. Firstly, it was to guarantee the quality and origin of the piece in question. Secondly, and more importantly, it was to protect against competition (and potential abuse of the name Geneva) from watchmakers in the surrounding area. This explains why, above and beyond all the quality criteria, a brand seeking the Geneva Hallmark must be established in the canton of Geneva and must also have its assembly and testing workshops in the canton. As the watchmaking industry expanded, the Hallmark came to differentiate the quality of Geneva-made watches from those of the competition—not just from neighbouring France but also from watchmakers in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux and Jura regions.

Putting the seal on quality

Geneva quality
The first watch to bear the Hallmark of Geneva was produced by C. Dégallier on 30 November 1887 and the first company to be registered for the label was B. Haas Le Jeune in 1888. To date, over 1.25 million watches have received the Hallmark, an average of 10,000 per year. In addition to the “early adopters”, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, the brands of Antoine Preziuso, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Cédric Johner, Chopard, Daniel Roth, Gérald Genta, Roger Dubuis (the only brand to certify 100 per cent of its production with the Geneva Hallmark) and Svend Andersen have all produced Geneva Hallmark movements.

The award of the Geneva Hallmark was based on a number of stringent criteria concerning the decoration of the finished movement. These criteria have been revised, notably in 1891, 1931, 1955 and more recently in 2008, in line with developments in the industry.

Furthermore, for a watch to earn the Geneva Hallmark, all the components used in casing-up, in other words the parts connecting the movement with the watch case and dial, such as clamps, pivoting levers and pushpiece extensions, must be finished in accordance with the criteria that govern movement components.

A new law adopted by the Grand Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva in 2009 brought to an end the 123-year period during which the Geneva Watchmaking School had overseen the application of the Geneva Hallmark. The law brought into being a foundation of Geneva’s Watchmaking and Micro-technology Laboratory. This new entity, called Timelab, announced sweeping changes to the management of the Geneva Hallmark last year, which was the 125th anniversary of the Hallmark.

Putting the seal on quality

The changes bring more detail into the strict criteria for the movement and change the way the application of the Hallmark is managed. As a representative of Timelab explained to Europa Star, “Previously, brands used to discuss among themselves whether a component could be submitted for certification, even though they were competitors. It was then up to an expert at the Geneva Watchmaking School, who devoted just one hour per month to the Geneva Hallmark, to decide whether the component was good enough or not. This will now be replaced by a more structured homologation process by component.”

For the first time in the Hallmark’s history, new criteria have been introduced to cover the functions of the watch-head once the movement has been cased up. This means that that the timepiece must be water resistant to a pressure of three bar (and a negative pressure of 0.5 bar), accurate to within one minute over seven days—which is within the tolerances required for chronometer certification—and have a power reserve equal to or above that indicated by the manufacturer.

According to Timelab, “Under the previous rules, at least in theory, a movement bearing the Geneva Hallmark could be magnificently decorated but did not necessarily need to work! To combat this, we have added basic functionality tests. We did not want to go into too much detail because we want the end customer to understand the tests and even be able to replicate them. So the test is completely different to the COSC tests, even though the precision requirements are very similar. We have developed new machines for the test, which we have sent to the brands.”

Under the new regulations for the Geneva Hallmark, it is the responsibility of the “applicant” (in other words the watch company) to ensure that the necessary requirements are met. The three inspectors from Timelab will carry out regular audits of all applicants, at frequencies of between once per week and once per month depending on the volume of movements produced. Furthermore, additional spot checks are possible at any time and the manufacturer is obliged to keep a record of all test results for at least ten years.

Certifying precision
The Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) [see Pierre Maillard’s article in the October/November 2011 issue for more information on the COSC] is the Swiss national agency for chronometer certification, with offices in Biel-Bienne, Le Locle and Geneva. Similar chronometer certifications are also offered in Besançon, France (“La Vipère”) and Glashütte, Germany. These certifications are all based on the ISO 3159 standard.

A group of brands (Bovet Fleurier SA, Chopard Manufacture SA, Parmigiani Fleurier SA, Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier SA) adhere to the Qualité Fleurier certification criteria. In addition to aesthetic criteria that are similar to those of the Geneva Hallmark but concerned more with the decoration of the movement (polished sinks, bevelled and polished shaped parts, polished “functional” zones on steel parts, polished and bevelled screw heads) the Qualité Fleurier criteria impose COSC certification and a “Fleuritest”, which involves a 24-hour test on the watch in its final form on a special machine that simulates wear during extremely active and calmer phases. The precision of the watch must be within the range of 0 and +5 seconds per day after the 24 hours in order to be awarded the certification “FQF, La Haute Horlogerie certifiée”, which translates as “certified high-end watchmaking”. In June this year, the FQF introduced a new criterion that requires the watch-head to be “100 per cent manufactured in Switzerland.”

Patek Philippe, which used to produce pieces bearing the Geneva Hallmark, has also created its own quality label, the Patek Philippe Seal, whose criteria regarding decoration are also aligned with those of the Geneva Hallmark but whose criteria for movement accuracy impose strict limits: a delta of only five seconds per day (between -3 and +2 seconds) for movements 20mm in diameter or above, which corresponds to 99.994 per cent accuracy.

Calibre 4400 by Vacheron Constantin
Calibre 4400 by Vacheron Constantin

Calibre RD620 by Roger Dubuis
Calibre RD620 by Roger Dubuis

The ultimate in precision
Richard Mille takes things a step further with the RM 031, which comes with accuracy certified to within one second of variation per day thanks to the Richard Mille high-performance certificate.

The key element used to ensure optimum accuracy in this calibre is the direct impulse AP escapement, the accuracy of which far exceeds that of a conventional escapement. However, as is the case with a car, the improved power is only useful if it can be perfectly transmitted to the wheels. As such, the Richard Mille movement engineers have focused on the watch’s transmission by giving the entire gear train a pressure angle of 20° on the teeth. This optimisation makes for excellent power transmission and therefore optimum performance. The resulting assembly offers the ultimate in consistency, regardless of the state of winding of the watch, and operates in an environment of argon, a chemically inert gas with a high thermal insulation coefficient that is similar to a vacuum.

In order to certify the exceptional performance of this calibre, Richard Mille has even created an internal performance certificate. It is only awarded to watches that have undergone 61 days of non-stop testing as follows:

The ultra-precise RM 031 by Richard Mille
The ultra-precise RM 031 by Richard Mille

Days 1 to 15: the first test is conducted when the movement is completely assembled. For 15 days, the calibre is subjected to COSC tests based on the extremely strict criteria of the movement manufacturers. Their exacting attention to the test results ensures an average variation of less than one second per day from the watch’s first beat.

Days 15 to 30: once it has been approved by the COSC and the Richard Mille engineers, the watch is cased-up at Renaud & Papi. New tests are then performed on their premises to check the power reserve, functions, winding, assembly and finishes. For 15 days, the calibre is put through gruelling tests to confirm its chronometric regularity after casing-up. Any variation in time calculation over 15 seconds will result in the timepiece being completely dismantled.

Day 30 to 61: after months of testing, the watch arrives at the Breuleux Manufacture, where the final phase of testing begins. The RM 031, placed at the heart of a cyclotest, rotates on its axis once a minute for 31 days. Every day, at exactly 9.30am, the watch is removed from the cyclotest after 24 hours of uninterrupted operation. The watchmaker winds it and compares the time given by the watch to that indicated by the atomic clock, using atomic time as his reference. A photograph is taken at that specific moment as visual evidence of the concordance between the two times. After 31 days, the average monthly variation is established. Calibres whose average variation exceeds 30 seconds are fully dismantled and reassembled, then tested for another 61 days. Having successfully passed the validation phases, the calibres guarantee watches whose average variation will not vary by more than one second per day.

The 10 RM 031 timepieces have all been awarded a performance certificate signed by the inspector and Richard Mille. This certificate is accompanied by daily records of the watch’s performance, attesting to the extraordinary achievements of this exceptional creation.

A standard for the future
The new Geneva Hallmark criteria entered into force on 1 June 2012. The previous criteria will, however, remain valid in parallel until 1 June 2013, in order to allow manufacturers time to adapt to the changes.
With these new criteria, the guardians of Geneva’s watchmaking traditions have taken a decisive step to bring the requirements for the Geneva Hallmark up to date. It is now the only all-encompassing quality certification (in that it covers both the decoration and the accuracy of a movement as well as the functions and water resistance of the finished timepiece) available to all manufacturers within a particular geographic area of Switzerland. And the changes seem to have been welcomed by Geneva’s watchmakers according to Timelab, who received enquiries from “new” brands looking to certify their production even before the new criteria had been announced.
But all this comes at a price: while a “conventional” high-end watch can take up to 500 hours to produce, a Geneva Hallmark version can take up to 700 hours. With the new criteria, this 40 per cent supplement could even climb to 50 per cent. It is therefore up to the brands, with the support of Timelab, to ensure that the person who will ultimately bear the cost of this increase—the customer—fully understands the value of the Geneva Hallmark and its importance in safeguarding the know-how and traditions of watchmaking in Geneva.

The lost hallmark
The lost hallmark
The Poinçon du Jura was set up by Jura-based movement manufacturer E-light in 2009 as a response to the Geneva Hallmark’s geographical limitations. It had a similar grounding, in that all the components for a movement (which had to be 100 per cent Swiss Made) had to come from the so-called arc jurassien region and the movement had to be produced by an independent company without any affiliation to any of the major watchmaking groups.
The registered trademark of the Poinçon Jura was therefore a more proprietary quality seal that severely restricted the number of companies who were able to comply with its requirements, many of which were geo-political rather than related to the aesthetics of the movement or its performance.
Sadly, the only movement to feature the Poinçon du Jura was the third iteration of defunct brand Wyler Genève’s tourbillon and with the bankruptcy of Wyler Genève as the main customer of E-Light in 2009, the same fate later befell the supplier itself, which threw in the towel—and with it the Poinçon du Jura—towards the end of 2010.

Source: Europa Star August - September 2012 Magazine Issue