October 2021 13 Min Read

The Hidden Names Behind Movements

By Russell Sheldrake

The old saying, “credit where credit is due”, doesn’t always apply in the watch world. For much of horological history, technical accomplishments in movement design have been attributed to large brands such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, or Rolex. When we trace the evolution of self-winding calibers, innovative chronographs, or miniaturised perpetual calendars, the same names come up time and time again. This is quite natural, considering a small handful of manufactures have historically dominated this space and had an interest in monopolising credit for these various breakthroughs.

However, we rarely acknowledge the watchmakers or specialist manufacturers that were often behind these accomplishments. Whether it’s Gérard Berret, Patek Philippe’s technical director, who pioneered their micro-rotor calibres, or suppliers such as Lemania or Valjoux, many relatively unknown names can sit behind these movements. For a long time, some independent watchmakers were also contractually obliged to never disclose their involvement in certain projects, leaving them unable to take credit for their work. From legal battles halting the production of a disputed movement, to the transparent nature of Max Büsser’s business model, quite a few stories arise when you start digging into one of the hidden secrets of horology.

The Names Lost in Brands

The manufacturing of watches has not always been structured the way it is today. If you go back far enough, you see many influential makers; the likes of Thomas Tompion, John Arnold, and Abraham-Louis Breguet ran their own workshops, under their own names, with a few watchmakers under them. However, they relied on a network of suppliers for key components that would have either taken them too long to make or would have been too costly. Many of them shared these suppliers and they even spread knowledge and expertise amongst themselves.

Things become a little more closed off as we move closer to the modern day. As larger manufactures started to establish themselves at the start of the 20th century, this level of co-operation began to subside, and competition and brand recognition seemed to become a priority. Workshops turned into factories, and solitary work benches slowly evolved into production lines. Often, these brands were no longer run by watchmakers, but by executives and businessmen. Talented craftsmen joined these growing entities, with their work and contribution being absorbed by the whole.

Who are some of these people that have since faded and been forgotten? We posed this question to Alex Barter, who ran Sotheby’s Watch Department in Geneva for close to a decade, and recently authored The Watch: A Twentieth-Century Style History. One of the first names he shared with us was Henri Kneuss. He was the Assistant Technical Manager at Omega during the 1930s and was the driving force behind the “30 series” of movements from the brand, which began with the Calibre 30.

Though not a particularly glamorous movement, this workhorse would become the foundation for nearly all manual-wind Omega watches produced from 1939 until 1963. According to Barter, what makes these movements stand out is their incredible longevity. “You can find examples of this movement and, with just a small amount of intervention, they can be accurate to a couple of seconds a day,” he says. Its construction was simple and it was upgraded throughout its lifetime. Bigger balance wheels, larger barrels, and shock protection were added as it was developed. By our estimation, there were about 20 different variations of the Omega Calibre 30, including those after it was reclassified by the brand to the 26X and 28X numbering. It also managed to gain chronometer certification in 1941.

Kneuss worked under Henri Gerber, who oversaw the development of this movement series and was also responsible for a host of other advancements at Omega prior to this, with his name appearing on patents filed for the brand. However, Kneuss was the main person responsible for the design and eventual development of the 30 Series. It was his ingenuity that led to the creation of a movement that could not only fit into any watch design Omega could think of – only measuring 30mm in diameter and 4.05mm in height – but could keep that watch running with very little intervention for the next 50 to 60 years. Nevertheless, it might be quite a struggle to try and find his name on any official communications from Omega. His contributions have only begun to be recognised more widely since academic research has begun to develop in the watch world.

'You can find examples of this movement and, with just a small amount of intervention, they can be accurate to a couple of seconds a day.'

Alex Barter

The next two names that Barter mentions to us come from the archives of Audemars Piguet, another notable manufacture. Maurice Grimm and André Beyner were the two responsible for developing the Calibre 2870, the first serially produced self-winding tourbillon wristwatch. Neither of them actually worked for the brand, as Kneuss did at Omega. Instead, they produced a prototype for this ultra-thin movement, with some help from Valjoux, and then presented it to various companies to see if any of them were interested in putting it into production. According to the book Audemars Piguet 20th Century Complicated Wristwatches, after attempting to sell it to many of the brands in Switzerland, they were close to giving up when, in 1982, Georges Golay – the man who had already signed off on the Royal Oak and the ultra-thin perpetual calendar over the previous decade – took a chance on these two.

The Audemars Piguet Ref. 25643, a self-winding tourbillon wristwatch, which was the first to house the Calibre 2870, courtesy of Christie's.

It should be noted that they had a significant track record in this area, too. Before selling this design to Audemars Piguet, they were responsible for the thinnest quartz-powered movement, which utilised the caseback as the baseplate. So, using this knowledge, they took on the challenge of creating a mechanical movement that utilised the same principles. With the help of Serge Meylan, a technician that had only recently started at Audemars Piguet, they were able to produce 401 pieces of this calibre that were fitted to the reference 25643 (in 382 examples) and the reference 25656 (in 19 examples).

A breakdown of the internal workings of the Calibre 2870, courtesy of the Audemars Piguet archives. Note the 'Grimm' at the lower right-hand corner of the diagram, short for Maurice Grimm, one of the creators of the movement.

Of course, because they sold this design to a company, there was no trace of their involvement listed when it was eventually released to the public. However, thanks to the stringent research and record-keeping that Audemars Piguet is known for, their names will now forever be associated with their work. Unfortunately, not every brand has been able to track its history as completely.

An example of a name that could have been lost to the history books if it wasn’t for a brand’s revival is that of Josef Pallweber – an Austrian watchmaker who, in 1883, at the age of 25, invented a new way of creating a jump-hour display. Pallweber sold it to IWC, who went on to produce a series of pocket watches featuring the unique display. They would subsequently sell the rights to Cortébert for use in the French and Belgian markets.

Josef Pallweber’s jump hour display seen on two unique pocketwatches, courtesy of IWC.

Even though the original module for these pieces was designed by Pallweber, there are advertisements from the time, distributed by IWC, with no mention of the Salzburg-based watchmaker. It wasn’t until the brand relaunched their jump-hour mechanism for wristwatches in 2018 that the name Pallweber was officially used in association with these digital timepieces. This is just another sign of how some manufactures have been digging into their pasts and leaning on their heritage, giving credit where it’s due – even if it takes 135 years.

The inner workings of a jumping hours watch, courtesy of IWC.

The Suppliers Hidden Behind Brands

The idea of fully integrated supply chains is an extremely new one in the watch industry. It was pushed by Rolex, and the various groups that sprung up out of the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, as a way to make it easier and cheaper to produce higher volumes. Before this, there had been a system of suppliers and specialists who would be contracted by brands to produce everything from small jewels to entire movements.

This often led to multiple makers using the same movement, or at least the same ébauche, as many others. This was never an issue, as often companies that produced these movements – such as Lemania, Valjoux, or Frederic Piguet – relied on the business of multiple patrons to remain profitable. Lines start to become blurred when a company claims their latest movement is unique to them, yet it bears a striking resemblance to another’s. Recently, collectors have begun to focus on certain specialist manufacturers and their creations, celebrating these designs and actively tracking them down. One such example is the Lemania 2310 chronograph calibre, which was used by a range of brands in the wake of the Quartz Crisis, such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet and Roger Dubuis. For quite a while, the fact that these masterful chronograph movements weren’t designed in-house was largely forgotten – and certainly not highlighted by most of the brands.

A Breguet Chronograph that houses the famous Lemania 2310 movement.

Sometimes, things can get even murkier. One such example shows how attribution in watchmaking can be particularly complicated. Gérard Berret is perhaps most well-known as being the technical director at Patek Philippe who oversaw the development of the reference 3940 – the brand’s first ultra-thin, automatic perpetual calendar. However, what many might not know about him is that before he took on the role at the Patek Philippe, he worked at Universal Genève. This is, according to collector @ciaca1970, where he gained a lot of experience with micro-rotor movements. In fact, he is even named on the company’s patent for their calibre 66, which was filed in 1963.

Berret left Universal Genève in 1968 and took up his position at Patek Philippe, where he began to work on the movement that helped keep the brand alive through the Quartz Crisis – the calibre 240. This was patented in 1977, again, with Berret’s name on the paperwork. However, the movement didn’t become a main part of the catalogue until the 1980s. It is believed that this was due to a legal dispute brought by Universal Genève against Patek Philippe. They claimed that Berret had practically copied the design of the movement he’d made while working for them. Some say that this is why you see the calibre 28-255C, which is based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre 920, used by Patek Philippe even after the invention of the calibre 240.

The Universal Genevé Calibre 66 (left) alongside the Patek Philippe Calibre 240 (right).

It is thought that the legal dispute was settled in the early 1980s, when Universal Genève was starting to struggle and Patek Philippe were in a position to pay the fees and eventually gained the rights to produce the calibre 240. It’s not often that these types of legal battles take place in this industry, and we should point out that we are only reporting on this one from early forum posts and the information supplied to us by @ciaca1970. Of course, no official communication about this has ever been released by either party, but it is interesting to note how the move of someone from one brand to another can cause such friction and lead to lawyers getting involved.

The world of ébauche movement production has always been a rapidly changing one. Companies have constantly sought a way to “one-up” their competitors with better power reserves, higher rates of accuracy or by simply making movements thinner. As a result, there has been an arms race in horology for as long as we have been telling the time. Yet, while some pieces gain high amounts of attention from collectors and enthusiasts, others seem to slip under the radar despite their mechanical achievements. One of these movements that has lived in the shadows of another is the Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 889 – perhaps one of the truest workhouse calibres ever produced, and a firm favourite of the companies they supplied.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 26330ST, which makes use of a modified version of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 889 which makes use of a Dubois Dépraz module.

First released in 1984, today it will always be compared to its older brother, the calibre 920. While it may not have been used by all the Holy Trinity brands, as the 920 was, it was arguably just as important. Thanks to the growing sales of the Royal Oak at this time, Audemars Piguet requested an updated automatic from Jaeger-LeCoultre; one that would be more versatile and able to carry a wider array of complications with greater stability. This led to the creation of the calibre 889 that would not only be used by Audemars Piguet, but also Universal Genève, Breguet, IWC, Vacheron Constantin, Chopard, Gérald Genta, Danial Roth, and Cartier. Not only were these brands impressed with this new movement, but the complicated module maker Dubois Dépraz based a lot of their work at the time on it. From simple calendars to chronographs and even dual times that could all be found in the Royal Oak range, these modules ran some of the more collectable complicated variations of this classic steel sports watch.

The brand would update the calibre in 1992 and rename it to the 899; this is now the base for many of their watches. Adding ceramic ball bearings to the winding rotor and balance screws helped it pass the 1,000-hour master control tests. This all started with a movement that was requested from another brand, which now sits as the cornerstone of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s portfolio.

Individuals Who Turned Independent

As we start to look at more recent developments in watchmaking, we see some recognisable figures popping up. This is mainly because many of the most talented watchmakers of the last two or three decades have managed to establish their own brands and make watches that bear their name. However, prior to stepping out on their own, many of them either worked inside a manufacture or honed their skills as designers and suppliers of movements. Watchmakers such as François-Paul Journe, Kari Voutilainen, and Philippe Dufour all lent their expertise to bigger conglomerates, and were often hidden in the shadows during this process. This lack of acknowledgment and ownership was often what pushed them into creating under their own name. As Journe once succinctly put it, “I am fed up with giving caviar to swine.”

A Cartier Monopoussoir from the Collection Privée Cartier Paris that is powered by a THA ebauche.

One such example of independent watchmakers coming together to create for others comes in the form of THA Ébauche, a complications manufacturer which was co-founded by François-Paul Journe and Pascal Courteault, who employed the talents of Denis Flageollet and Vianney Halter early on in their careers. Notably, they worked with Cartier to develop some of their more complicated calibres, such as the monopusher chronograph from the Collection Privée Cartier Paris range. While this aspect of the French jeweller’s history has long been ignored, the association with these accomplished independent watchmakers has recently created a renewed interest in these pieces. The creators of the movement went from obscurity to the spotlight, which wasn’t driven by the brand, but rather the curiosity of collectors.

'I am fed up with giving caviar to swine.'

F. P. Journe

One man who recognised the value of acknowledging, and even celebrating, those behind these creations was Max Büsser. “I remember when I pitched Opus to François-Paul Journe at Basel in 2000, he’d just launched his brand and the other companies he’d worked for previously made him sign non-disclosure agreements. So, I told him we should make something together, and I won’t make you sign an NDA. I can tell the world what you’ve done and showcase your talent.” The Opus series that Büsser would pioneer at Harry Winston was a precursor to what he would later create with MB&F – which stands for Max Büsser and Friends.

Maximilian Büsser, the man behind MB&F.

Of course, Journe wasn’t the only watchmaker that got sick of under-representation when it came to working for other brands. Famously, Philippe Dufour produced a small number of minute-repeater pocket watches for Audemars Piguet, which was a terrifying enough experience for him to vow to never work for “the other”, as he puts it, ever again. He would go on to produce the same style of pocket watch under his own name, alongside the first ever Grande et Petite Sonnerie wristwatch.

The first watch that Dufour made under his own name, a Grande et Petit Sonnerie pocket watch that was based off the movement he had made earlier for Audemars Piguet, courtesy of Phillips.

Kari Voutilainen was also putting together complex movements for others prior to launching out on his own. While no one, besides Voutilainen himself and his close circle, knows which brands he used to work for exactly, Dufour’s sharp eye spotted Kari’s work inside a watch at Baselworld back in the day, and told him that he should be creating for himself. At this time, the independent watchmaker scene was beginning to establish itself. As the AHCI gained momentum, and the likes of George Daniels, Roger Dubuis, and Daniel Roth all led the charge in their own way, an increasing number of watchmakers were being drawn to this way of working. Suddenly, a second path was open to them. No more did they have to work under the name of a brand or in a supplier; instead they could establish themselves in a new area where watchmaking could thrive. 

Parting Thoughts

Designing a movement from start to finish is a very personal task. A watchmaker puts part of themselves into their work and then must hand it over to a brand. In the last couple of decades, being unable to take credit for their work has pushed many watchmakers to embrace independence, as others had done two centuries earlier.

However, there was a period where the most talented watchmakers were mostly working within brands, which are often the only names we remember. Of course, it makes sense that we would attribute certain achievements to Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet as entities, but we shouldn’t forget the watchmakers that helped push things forward. Nor should we ignore the specialised suppliers that were sometimes behind some of the most compelling movement designs and ébauches.

The 3940 that Gerard Berret is known for bringing to life – a culmination of effort by perhaps countless more unknown names involved in collaborating and putting it together.

We’re not saying that certain manufactures or brands unfairly monopolised credit – for a long period of time, it was customary for talented artisans to join more established entities, where they would thrive in a structure that had vision and longevity. Looking back, it’s easy to oversimplify narratives and to attribute contributions to recognisable figures. That being said, these unknown names of watchmaking belong to a wider tapestry, and have each played their part in shaping the collective history of horology.

We would like to thank Alex Barter, Max Büsser, @ciaca1970, and the heritage team at Jaeger-LeCoultre for sharing their insights on the unknown names behind these movements and watches.