Not so long ago, the average consumer didn’t care whether or not their movement was made in-house. This "in-house" phenomena is an overwhelmingly modern one, driven in equal measure by marketing departments and increasing vertical integration within brands.
The construction of a Rolex movement in their Bienne manufacturer, courtesy of Rolex
Prior to this, the watch world ran on an ecosystem of specialised manufacturers who produced one or two components for an entire host of brands. This network of suppliers had kept the industry ticking for decades and some of them even became household names, like Gay Frères or Lemania for example.
What's changed that has caused brands to push the idea of manufacture-made movements onto us, over a system that had seemingly been working very well for centuries? Does it add as much value to a timepiece as they would like us to think and what is the role of the ébauche maker today? Hopefully, we’ll be able to answer those questions, by looking at how the business of movement manufacture works today.
Keeping it in-house
Before we delve too deeply into this topic, let's have a bit of a look at what an "in-house" movement is. In the broadest possible terms, it is a calibre designed, constructed and finished by the people whose name is on the dial. Patek Philippe, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, these brands all make movements in-house. So too do a host of other brands, great and small.
However, dig a little deeper than the sales brochure or press release, and the concept of in-house becomes a little murkier. Watchmaking famously evolved from a cottage industry. As a result, transforming generations of independent specialist parts suppliers into a cohesively integrated vertical infrastructure is easier said than done.
It was as late as 2004 when Rolex purchased the manufacturing capabilities to produce movements truly in-house, and it took them until 2012 to unveil their new manufacturing centre, enabling them to make all of their own movements. While Richemont, Rolex and the Swatch Group control the lion's share of suppliers, there's still a thriving ecosystem, supplying everything from rubies and screws to hairsprings, that challenge the convenient narrative of manufacture status. Many of these components are still produced by specialists due to the intricate knowledge and skill set required to make them.
Sometimes the phrase in-house can be twisted to dilute its meaning, with brands making use of "designed in-house" or "made exclusively for" to hide the true origins of a movement. Typically, this type of marketing puffery is taken with a grain or two of salt, but sometimes the desire for the cachet of an "in-house" movement backfires.
In 2009, TAG Heuer proudly announced their in-house Calibre 1887, only for its similarities to Seiko's 6S37 to be quickly noted. It turns out TAG Heuer bought the European manufacturing rights to the movement, so “technically” the movement was manufactured in TAG Heuer's house. Although the spirit of the phrase was certainly not adhered to.
A few years later, the British brand Bremont became a little too enthusiastic about its mission to bring watchmaking back to the United Kingdom. In 2014, they released the Wright Flyer, powered by an in-house movement. An impressive achievement for such a young brand. Except the movement wasn't "in-house". The calibre BWC/01 was based on a La Joux-Perret ébauche that Bremont modified and had fitted with custom bridges and a rotor exclusive to Bremont.
Let's be clear, in both of these examples, the movement was absolutely fit for purpose and appropriate for the price point, but was it worth calling them manufacture movements? Not really. In fact, for smaller, independent brands such as Bremont, precisely the opposite is true. You can argue very strongly that a reliable ébauche is a lifeline. One that provides stability, reliability and cost-effectiveness. As long as it’s appropriately labelled.
Ébauches adding value
To help us navigate the ins and outs of in-house and outsourced, we went to a man intimately familiar with the ébauche business: Sébastien Chaulmontet. Chaulmontet is the Head of Research and Innovation at Sellita, the La Chaux-de-Fonds based movement maker that is reported to make more than one million calibres a year, second only in scale to the Swatch Group's ETA. Chaulmontet is a talented watchmaker and movement designer, who, prior to Sellita, worked for La Joux-Perret and developed some spectacular movements for Arnold & Son and Angelus. He's also a noted collector, writing Chronographs for Collectors in 2016.
The Lemania factory, where the prestigious Lemania 2310 was designed.
When we spoke to Chaulmontet, one of the first things we did was pose a hypothetical question — should a new brand today use an established movement or develop their own? In answering, he went back to the 1990s:
"You have two very interesting examples from this time: Roger Dubuis and Daniel Roth. Both had a huge advantage when they started – they had access to Lemania, so they had access to very good base calibres in the high-end segment. The other very interesting thing — and it's where I think Roger Dubuis and Daniel Roth were geniuses — was that they very quickly developed modules or complications of their own that made them very recognisable and unique. Roger Dubuis had all this stuff with double retrograde perpetuals, which I think will be highly collectable. Daniel Roth had these amazing dial layouts and complications like the papillon series. These Daniel Roth watches are also quite collectable."
The same Lemania ébauche was deployed in both this Daniel Roth chronograph and Breguet example.
"For these two brands, it made no sense to develop an automatic movement, which would have been very expensive, may not function perfectly and added nothing for the wearer. They put all their value on the dial side and in the design — something which made them unique and appealing to their customers."
The third watchmaker Chaulmontet highlighted as building a phenomenally successful brand off ébauches is perhaps a little more surprising: Franck Muller. "He changed the industry, and he used ETA bases. Franck Muller made sexy watches, at a time when watches were not sexy. He had amazingly fresh, colourful designs with the Casablanca. He revived Art Nouveau or Deco style in a very three-dimensional way.
"His Cintree Curvex watches were very streamlined in a landscape where watches looked more like IKEA furniture — with only straight lines. He promoted very complex models and used them to sell simpler pieces. So you had 'Master of Complications' written on the back, and you buy a three-hand with date, but you were remembering him making a new world record in Basel with the most complicated wristwatch ever."
An ETA 2824-2 and Sellita SW 200-7 that began production when ETA started to restrict who could buy their movements, courtesy of Professional Watches.
The landscape of watchmaking that Dubuis, Roth and Muller found themselves in was very different to what exists today. ETA had not yet restricted their movement supply. Lemania and Frédéric Piguet had not yet become Breguet and Blancpain, respectively. These latter two, especially, were the leading suppliers of high-end calibres. The slender FP 1185 was particularly appealing, a slender chronograph that appeared in watches from blue-chip brands like Cartier and Audemars Piguet to idiosyncratic design outfits like Alain Silberstein.
"For these two brands, it made no sense to develop an automatic movement, which would have been very expensive, may not function perfectly and added nothing for the wearer."
According to Chaulmontet, there was one other notable difference between the up-and-coming brands of the '80s and '90s and their contemporary equivalents. That was their approach to brand building. "These brands had a traditional business model. They offered a full collection. If you look at Daniel Roth, he the chronograph, he had a three-hand, a tourbillon, a perpetual calendar, and he also used a lot of Frédéric Piguet for the ladies. He started as a traditional brand with a full collection. He could supply a retailer with everything. Nowadays, independent brands tend to make a start with just one product. They take it movement by movement, watch by watch."
An ébauche at the highest level, with the Lemania 2310 found in the Patek Philippe 3970.
The landscape has changed
So, what has changed? From Chaulmontet's perspective, the answer is clear. "Twenty years ago, your problem was to create your movement or your watch. It was a huge sales argument to have your own calibre. Your problem today is different — who will buy your watch, even with a manufacture movement."
Inside the Bienne Rolex workshop, courtesy of Rolex.
Watchmaking has moved on. 10 to 20 years ago, there was anxiety around reliable ébauche supply, and the cachet of in-house had well and truly hit the mainstream. Watch brands of a certain size and scale could justify the two to five million dollars and years it would take to research and develop a simple automatic calibre.
Today, the maths is different, especially when you factor in issues of reliability and servicing. Using a proven and affordable base automatic movement makes smart business sense. Look at some of the most successful independent brands of the 21st century, brands like MB&F and Urwerk. Rather than investing their resources on reinventing the oscillating mass, these brands, much like Roth and Dubuis decades earlier, put their considerable talents into reconceptualising how a watch looked and how it told the time.
A collection of true modern in-house movements, courtesy of Hodinkee.
That's not to say that everyone is abandoning the manufacture option — one surprising player in the space is Chanel. At the more accessible end, Chanel has a stake in the Kenissi manufacture, along with Tudor. However, it's at the high-end where they really shine. Thanks to their wholly-owned G&F Chatelain facility and not insignificant stake in Romain Gauthier, the fashion house has the capability to pursue a design-driven "one-watch one-calibre" for its high watchmaking.
It's an unusual approach for a brand today, especially considering that watchmaking is far from Chanel's core business, but the calibres are undeniably beautiful. Chanel is in a unique position — it has a rare combination of incredible brand power, a top-notch global distribution network and the capacity to make high horology on a sustainable, smaller scale.
The Chanel Monsieur with its movement made in-house and developed by the team at Romain Gauthier, courtesy of Chanel.
For Chaulmontet, a high-end in-house automatic in 2021 doesn't make sense. "Does an in-house movement still add so much today? I don't think so. If you look at brands that have had tremendous success, like Panerai or even Richard Mille, they didn't do their own movements until recently. For many collectors, Panerai, for instance, was much more fun when it cost 3,500 francs, even though it only had a Unitas inside."
"Then there's the Rolex Daytona. People will pay much more for a normal Valjoux 72 or even now the Zeniths. The prices on these are much higher than the ones with the new, and maybe more refined, in-house movement. You don't need your own movement to be successful. Manufacture movements make watches much more expensive and not more reliable, to say the least."
Two Rolex Daytonas ref. 16520, powered by the Zenith El Primero movement.
The question posed at the start of this article was whether the distinction between in-house or ébauche matters anymore? The answer is clear. The choice of movement a brand uses to power their watch matters a great deal. But the direction they go depends on who they are. If they’re making a watch with the full faith and backing of one of the giant conglomerates, they can use those resources to make their own manufacture movement (whatever that means). For everyone else, the clear winner is to run your watch off a proven performer that you and your customers don't need to worry about.