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Beyond Switzerland

If you thought great timepieces were strictly a Swiss tradition, get set as watches once again go global
Laurie Kahle
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, March/April 2014

One of the earliest watches on display at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva is the Runde Halsuhr, a circa-1540 drum watch. While much about this piece distinguishes it from contemporary instruments—it has an iron movement, an
engraved, gilded brass case and but one hand (to indicate the hour)—the biggest surprise for visitors may be its origin: Germany. Switzerland is so dominant today that it is tempting to assume the country has forever had a lock on fine watchmaking, but the origins of the craft are hardly confined there—and the industry is slowly regaining an international reach.

While the Swiss long ago took over the craft of fine watchmaking, other countries have significant horological heritages that have survived, or, in some cases, are being revived if only on a small scale. From independent artisans crafting individual pieces in their workshops to larger-scale assembly operations using supplied parts to true manufactures that rival Geneva’s old guard, quality watchmaking is crossing borders.

Germany

Located in the center of the small town of Glashütte, Germany, the German Watchmaking Museum traces the region’s history as an illustrious horological capital. In the mid-19th century, one of Dresden’s royal watchmakers, Ferdinand Adolph Lange, sought to revive the declining mining town with watchmaking. He persuaded the Saxon rulers to support the venture with generous credit and investment. In 1845, he established A. Lange & Söhne, the first of many watch companies that reinvigorated the village.

Glashütte’s watchmaking prowess was diminished following the Second World War, when the Soviets made the region part of East Germany. Ferdinand’s great-grandson Walter fled to the West, courageously smuggling his ancestor’s elaborately notated journals, thus preserving the family’s watchmaking legacy. The Soviets pillaged the town’s resources, sending equipment and special tools to Russia, and then consolidated its watchmaking companies into one government entity, VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (better known as GUB), which pumped out pedestrian watches for the masses.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Walter Lange returned to Glashütte in 1990 to reestablish his family business and restore its standing as a manufacturer of exceptional timepieces for the world’s most discerning collectors. The reconstituted firm’s first production emerged in 1994, and it quickly drew a cult following among the cognoscenti as well as the eye of Richemont, the conglomerate that owns Cartier and several high-prestige Swiss brands. Richemont acquired A. Lange & Söhne in 2000, and has been raising its profile ever since.

This year’s Grand Lange 1 Moon Phase ($47,800 in rose and yellow gold, $62,600 in platinum) introduces a highly accurate moon phase to the flagship Lange 1 line. Designed to remain accurate for 122.6 years, the movement links the moon display with the hour-wheel so it is constantly moving, imperceptibly, along with the celestial orb.

The Bavarian investor Heinz Pfeiffer took over the other Glashütte watchmaking operations in 1994, updated manufacturing facilities, and renamed the company Glashütte Original. The company was subsequently acquired by Swiss-owned Swatch Group in 2000. Last year, the brand released the Senator Tourbillon ($118,600) with a big date and a flying tourbillon at 6 o’clock. Alfred Helwig, one of Germany’s visionary watchmakers and an instructor at Glashütte’s German School of Watchmaking (which now houses the aforementioned museum and Glashütte Original’s Alfred Helwig School of watchmaking), invented the flying tourbillon in 1920.

Glashütte’s watchmaking revival has also included several niche brands, such as Nomos and Tutima. Best known for its flieger (pilot) watches, Tutima was born in Glashütte in 1927 and operated there until 1945, when the company moved to West Germany before the country was divided. With the completion of its new Glashütte factory in 2011, Tutima has returned home, where, as of this year, it will produce all of its watches. Among the latest introductions is the Saxon One Chronograph ($7,990), adding to the new contemporary Saxon One sport watch family. Meanwhile, Nomos has earned accolades for its minimalist Bauhaus styling and reliable movements.

To be sure, other German firms produce elsewhere in the country, but Glashütte is clearly undergoing a renaissance that will ensure German watchmaking traditions will continue throughout the 21st century.

Japan

Seiko’s quartz technology virtually killed off the Swiss mechanical watch industry in the 1970s and ’80s, but the Japanese brand’s mechanical watchmaking roots stretch back to 1881, when Kintaro Hattori opened a Tokyo shop that sold and repaired watches and clocks. His Seikosha (“seiko” translates to success and precision and “sha” means house) factory opened in 1892 producing wall clocks followed by pocket watches. In 1913, Seiko manufactured its first wristwatch bearing the name Laurel. Initially, the brand labeled its dials with generic English names such as Excellent or Right, until 1924, when it introduced the first Seiko wristwatch.

Today, Seiko is a vertically integrated company that develops, designs, manufactures and assembles watches in-house, much like a true Swiss manufacture. “Seiko shares with the leading Swiss brands a respect for tradition and quality,” says Kinya Iwami, senior manager of sales and marketing. “However, what characterizes our philosophy for production is to be always innovative even in the field of traditional mechanical watchmaking.”

Examples include Seiko’s development of the Magic Lever winding system and the adaptation of MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System) technology for producing core movement parts. The company also pursues ongoing R&D efforts to create superior materials for components, such as springs.

While Seiko has come to be better known for its battery-powered high-tech watches, such as the Astron GPS Solar travel watch, its Grand Seiko collection, which dates to 1960, has garnered accolades for high-precision mechanical watchmaking that has earned the respect of even the Swiss.

Though Seiko’s quartz production has dominated its offerings since 1979, the company has continued to produce mechanical timepieces. “When the new generation of the mechanical GS was introduced in 1998, Seiko constituted a new standard, which is strictly regulated with the spirit of perfectionism,” says Iwami. “On top of making the mean daily rate (a main criterion to prove accuracy) more rigid compared to the chronometer standard, the GS standard added a secondary error criterion as well as an additional position for testing.”

Introduced last year, the 44GS Historical Limited Edition ($4,600) is powered by an automatic movement with a 72-hour-plus power reserve. The stainless steel model is limited to 1,200 pieces with a white dial and 700 pieces with a black dial.

France

Some of history’s most prominent watchmakers—Julien Le Roy, Nicolas Rieussec, and Louis Moinet among them—were French. Though he was born in Switzerland, Abraham-Louis Breguet, perhaps the most famous of them all, achieved his eminence working in Paris during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, only a handful of French companies are producing watches, generally assembling them using supplied movements and components.

But at B.R.M., located outside of Paris, watchmaker Bernard Richards and his team utilize several CNC machines to produce cases, lugs, rotors, hands, dials, pushers, crowns, screws and strap buckles. Though Swiss Valjoux movements power the vast majority of its collection, B.R.M.’s own BiRotor, which debuted in 2006, was the first French movement in 35 years, according to Frederic Gasser, the brand’s U.S. president. “We created a movement floating inside the case with a system called Isolastic, which we are using in a couple watches,” says Gasser. “Isolastic is a patented system that acts like a shock absorber on an F1 car.”

B.R.M currently produces three calibers in-house: the Model BiRotor, a tourbillon and the Model TriRotor, and it has developed other proprietary movements, such as the Model R50 and the MK44, using supplied base movements. It also designs and produces unconventional rotors from tantalum and Fortal HR, a type of aluminum. B.R.M is known for employing such exotic materials, including Arcap, a humidity-resistant aluminum used in satellites, and Makrolon, a clear polycarbonate used for racecar windshields. Last year’s MK-44 Light Makrolon ($13,450) features a transparent Makrolon case and skeletonized lugs, pushers and crown, all produced in-house from a single block of titanium.

U.S.A.

When Swiss watchmakers visited the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, they were astonished by the revolutionary American method of using machine-made interchangeable parts for large-scale watch manufacturing. The Swiss, who were still making watches one by one with inconsistent handmade parts, foresaw a serious threat to their industry and started to adapt the system.

The American watchmaking industry was a world leader at the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1930s and ’40s, it started to decline due to a number of factors including the Second World War. In 1969, Hamilton, the sole American survivor, closed its Lancaster, Pennsylvania factory, simultaneously killing the industries that supplied cases, crystals and dials. In recent years, however, a small number of American brands have at least been assembling watches in the U.S., generally using imported movements and components.

Shinola is one such newcomer that is generating a lot of buzz with its manufacturing operation in the heart of depressed Detroit, where the brand has created about 200 badly needed jobs. The brainchild of Fossil founder Tom Kartsotis, Shinola has the deep pockets and extensive retail network to fuel a rapid expansion. In its first year, the fledgling brand produced about 50,000 quartz watches, a number that dwarfs the output of any other American marque. Executives say they have the space to increase capacity to 500,000 pieces a year as Shinola grows.

Swiss movement maker Ronda supplies the components for the quartz movements, which are assembled in the College for Creative Studies, formerly the General Motors Research Laboratory. Other components are sourced from Switzerland and China, though the leather straps are American. Shinola recently added a chronograph ($775 for the Argonite 5021 shown above) to its classic Runwell collection that launched the brand a year ago. Shinola also works with American manufacturers to make bicycles, leather goods and journals.

Devon’s radical electronic movements that power belt-driven time displays were designed, developed and engineered in-house. The unconventional California brand assembles about 900 Tread 1 and Tread 2 watches in two manufacturing facilities in Southern California.

On the mechanical front, Bozeman Watch Company’s new Snowmaster ($7,650) is the first of its watches to be assembled in the U.S. by an independent technician in Baltimore. Years in development, the Snowmaster features a chronograph, a second time zone and a telemetry scale on the dial for measuring distance using the speed of sound and light. Limited to 100 pieces, the Snowmaster is powered by a Swiss-made Valjoux base movement fitted with customized modules.

The Montana-based brand founded by Detroit native Christopher Wardle commissions exclusive components from suppliers throughout Europe. Base movements are sourced in Switzerland, and most of the assembly is done in Germany, though Wardle is looking to expand its domestic assembly operations with an additional facility in Detroit.

“There is so much room for expansion, so much opportunity for hiring and training here,” says Wardle, noting that Pennsylvania is another area that could be tapped as it is a base for producing precision medical tools with a labor force well-suited for watchmaking. “I’d like to see more suppliers look at the opportunity in manufacturing and machining small, precise productions like they do for the medical equipment trade.”

Still, producing mechanical movements on an industrial scale remains a holy grail for the Americans, who continue to rely on Swiss suppliers for base movements. “Recreating hundreds of years of expertise does not come easy to anyone,” adds Wardle, whose company makes only 150 to 200 watches per year. “I would like to see it happen, but it’s one thing to produce 10 movements and another thing to produce 10 per hour. That is something that has been lost here.”

Michael Kobold, however, has taken up that task, but he doesn’t expect to finish the first in-house Kobold movement until 2025. “We make cases, hands, dials and some movement components like rotors,” he explains, “but eventually, we want to make a quality American movement—a movement that is designed, created, prototyped and manufactured here. We want our watches to be 100 percent U.S. made, and we can’t do that with a movement made in Switzerland.”

For the past several years, the Pennsylvania brand, which produces about 1,500 watches a year, has been perfecting its case production. “A watch case is a pretty complicated little thing to make,” says Kobold. “It’s not rocket science, but when no one has done it here for over 40 years, it’s hard.” Kobold’s new 43mm Soarway Diver ($1,950) may have an American-made case, but its engine is a Swiss-made ETA 2292.

Also based in Pennsylvania, Roland G. Murphy’s namesake RGM brand is the only one that has managed to make three calibers domestically with 90 percent of the parts developed in-house. RGM’s American-made movements currently power about 25 percent of the brand’s annual production of 250 to 300 pieces. The Pennsylvania Tourbillon ($95,000) is its latest horological achievement. “There are other companies trying to say ‘Made in U.S.A.’ when they are really just assembling watches or movements,” says Murphy, who points out that the lines between manufacturing and assembling are often blurred. “We actually make watches.”

United Kingdom

With an even smaller output of a few dozen handmade pieces per year, Roger Smith carries on the legacy of his mentor George Daniels, the late English watchmaker who invented the co-axial escapement. Working on the Isle of Man, Smith perpetuates ancient English watchmaking traditions for the world’s top collectors. “The English style of watchmaking has always been regarded as being functionally understated with the hand-blued screws and simply frosted gilt plates and bridges,” explains Smith. “The mechanisms that we hand make for my pieces are strikingly different from watches produced in Switzerland or other parts of Europe.” Smith adds that his watches’ three-dimensional architecture and use of black polished components endow them with a “strong identity based upon several hundred years of watchmaking history within Britain.”

Smith’s English contemporaries Stephen Forsey of Greubel Forsey and Peter Speake-Marin, however, ply their craft in Switzerland, which is also home base for Arnold & Son and Graham London, Swiss firms that are named for the eighteenth-century English watchmaking geniuses John Arnold and George Graham.

While Smith’s work stands as the current pinnacle of English watchmaking, others are trying to resurrect watch manufacturing on an industrial scale, albeit with Swiss movement support, much like the Americans. “There is an incredible history of British watchmaking that, 100 years ago, was equal if not better than Switzerland,” says Nick English, who founded Bremont with his brother Giles. “There was Tompion, Mudge, Harrison, Graham—all these phenomenal watchmakers who led the world at the time, when the Swiss were seen as a cheap labor force. A lot of production started being outsourced for various reasons—world wars, strong trade unions, and other things—it gradually went over to Switzerland. For us, it is all about bringing watchmaking back to the U.K.”

Bremont, which was established in 2002, plans to assemble approximately 10,000 watches at its Henley-on-Thames headquarters this year. Like its American counterparts, it is tapping expertise in unrelated industries and applying it to watchmaking. “There is an amazing engineering history in the U.K.—whether it’s aerospace, naval architecture, guns—there is a huge skill set here, and we’re just utilizing it more toward watchmaking,” says English. For example, a collaboration with Martin Baker, the English manufacturer of aircraft ejection seats, resulted in a watch with a unique anti-vibration mount for the movement.

“What has changed dramatically in the past five to 10 years is the technology available,” says Giles English, citing multi-axis CNC machines and other advancements. Bremont is starting to make cases in the U.K. as well as dials and some movement components. They are also focused on materials development, particularly processes for hardening metal. Bremont partnered with a U.K. company that treats Rolls Royce turbine blades to harden its steel cases to about 2,000 Vickers, about six times harder than the average steel watch.


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