Watch collectors (despite at times being possessed of geek-depth level of research and knowledge) is often prone to the same psychological quirks as any other average consumer. “In-house” is often just like any other criteria used to quantify a desirable, sometimes deeply technical object into a handful of easily digested criteria; e.g. Japanese Domestic Model Seiko, from the Glashutte region, hand-finished, etc; these perspectives allow us to objectify a watch with quantifiable attributes and sometimes to our own detriment – because, given our propensity for over-simplification, when it comes to in house and everything in between, are collectors asking to be lied to?
The Watchmaking Spectrum: In House and Everything in Between
When it comes to the topic of manufacture movements and what qualifies a component as in-house, the definitions are often as murky as the issue of determining what percentage of a watch must be made in Switzerland before it can be qualified as “Swiss-made”. Collectors are asking to be lied to because we do not see an ETA movement and celebrate a robust, modestly priced workhorse movement. We see a movement which everyone and their mother owns. We want exclusivity.
This need for exclusivity is something which turns a great ETA 2894 chronograph into a TAG Heuer Calibre 17 with the switch of the oscillating weight and some finishing. Full disclosure: TAG Heuer has never claimed the Calibre 17 to be in-house but from the way it’s named, it looks that way doesn’t it?
But wait, put down thy pitchfork kind sir. Is this not what we asked for? Exclusive and affordable are often two mutually exclusive attributes are they not? Under Jean Claude Biver, TAG Heuer has returned to the ranks of giving us great watches at prices approaching to what they once were before the industry went price crazy. What if some other brand could take a perfectly good movement and run it through a few machines, lay down a couple of geneva stripes and cotes de geneve,
call name it like their own and sell it to you for slightly more – it would make you feel special and exclusive would it?
Alternatively, you could have a brand agnostic watch idiot savant extol the magnificence of a Seiko 5 to you. Completely made in-house (not that Seiko even bothers with that term), one of the finest watches you can buy for less than USD100 but you’d be put off by the perception that first, it’s a “Seiko” or second, it’s not “Swiss made”, or third – grudging lack of awareness that Seiko is a completely integrated manufacturer of everything from microchips to quartz components to mechanical components? What if you were told that for USD4000, you could get a mechanical watch as robustly engineered as a Rolex but possessed of finishing far better than your average Submariner? You would want it wouldn’t you? Would you still want it if you learned that it was called ‘Grand Seiko’? Once again, needs of our ego have gotten in the way of our unvarnished perceptions.
Economists like to define market activity as an economic expression of rational human beings making rational decisions in a free market based on their best interests; yet economists are surprised at how often they are caught off guard by decisions that are not strictly rational but rather flavoured by the emotional qualities we give to our many decisions.
Portrait of Mr. Joe Street, average consumer/collector
When it comes to watch collecting or watch appreciation, it has the tendency to devolve into a class or caste based system because of the given range of price points from low to mid 4 figures (definition: low – $1000 to $3000. Mid $4000 to High $8000), mid to high 5 figures (mid – $30,000. High – $60,000 and up), thus your basic father of two is going to be an owner of at least two solid timepieces – the first acquired during years of employed service, likely in the mid 4 figures and another likely a wedding gift (also in the mid 4 figures) and given the many financial responsibilities of being a man of the house – is an astute bargain hunter when it comes to his next acquisition in the mid to high segment.
He won’t pull the trigger on a purchase recklessly, technical specs like COSC are appreciated but not demanded, as are superlative finishing and high horology handcrafts like “cuts” on the angles, hand-turned perlage and in-house balance springs. He is looking for something attractive, won’t break the bank and won’t break down. But then, as a result of his friends’ whispering and societal judgement, aspirational creep comes in and for some, he starts yearning for his watch to represent his growing social status and (non-existent?) bank balance. I believe this is exactly the point when we ask to be lied to.
What brands think collectors think when they go in-house
Thus runs the current perspective that if a brand makes their own movements, it’s a statement of their commitment to craft, a symbol of technical prowess within the brand, a cool distinctive design as opposed to “Isn’t that just a Unitas movement decorated to be something else?” (sometimes not even decorated) and finally a more exclusive or proprietary calibre which maybe anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 owners of the same model might possess. But this is exactly where the waters muddy and the slope becomes ever increasingly slippery because quite of the few “Holy Grails” we lust after are using actually using supplied movements from the golden age of watchmaking.
In 1993, it was epic and not derisory to learn that Günter Blumlein, Kurt Klaus, and Richard Habring had turned your humble, nigh-unbreakable 7750 into the most lauded of multi-complication watches – Il Destriero Scafusia. Conceived for the IWC’s 125th anniversary in 1993 on the figurative eve of the watchmaking’s 2nd golden age, the Il Destriero Scafusia or “Warhorse from Schaffhausen”, is at its core, the very ethos of IWC’s original “engineered for men” motto with practical but literal genius bit of engineering using a Valjoux 7750.
The IWC Il Destriero Scafusia is held in the same regards as other early 90s complications like Patek Philippe Calibre 89 and Audemars Piguet Triple Complication. But more importantly, it took the practical 7750 and through a spurt of mechanical genius transformed it into a rattrapante chronograph, perpetual calendar with four digit year, flying tourbillon and minute repeater. At time, IWC was very upfront, if not borderline proud that the Schaffhausen’s trio of watchmaking geniuses had managed such an epic renovation of a calibre. Yet, at some point in watchmaking history, these things became things to obfuscate rather than to clarify.
Yet, the IWC Il Destriero Scafusia isn’t the only example of the greatness of which can be achieved with an ebauche or sourced movement. In the 1940’s, Lemania and Omega worked together on the “27 CHRO C12”, it was to be a 27 mm diameter chronograph with a 12-hour register. Today, we know it by another name – the Moon watch calibre 321 by Omega also known as the Lemania 2310. Where was the self-righteous indignation then?
Since that time, the Lemania 2300 and its 2310 and 2320 variants have been used in the Patek Philippe 2872 and CH 27-70, and also Vacheron Constantin 1141. Thus, we can conclude that “in-house” or “manufacture” as a definition, doesn’t actually say much about the level of craft or ingenuity of the calibre. More importantly, when compared to venerable ETA or Valjoux movements with decades worth of operation, there’s unquestionable reliability backed by years of recorded service. Therefore, “in-house” by a 10 year old newly integrated manufacture becomes a warning bell rather than statement of pride.
Industry Poster Boys for Affordability & Transparency: Tudor, Longines and Nomos (but not limited to them)
There are only a handful of industry poster boys for transparency; that’s because even some of our most beloved veteran brands have indulged a little history white washing with claims that “we’ve always been in-house” – the average consumer may have a short memory but that’s where a watch collector differs – we are nerds and geeks (and also, the internet NEVER forgets). Thus there are very few poster boys for horological transparency. But then again, the collector is also complicit in what has become an industry norm – because we are asking for something that they cannot give at the prices we yet. Thus, it’s a breath of fresh air when it comes to dealing with these brands in general (I apologise that this list is not exhaustive).
Tudor is surprisingly upfront if not downright forthcoming about what they do with their own supply of ETA movements – the anti-shock is upgraded to their exacting specs, so are components in the balance assembly – everything from escape wheels to pallet forks – so this takes your already impressively operating high-spec ETA movement backed by years of trusted operation (as sworn by watch repairers and servicing technicians) and gives it a shot in the arm.
When it comes to their in-house movements, they don’t imply literal hand-finishing either, in charming fashion and to my recollection at Basel 2015, they were quite direct, “it’s laser cut and laser finished.” The results are impressive and to be honest, there’s a different kind of genius and beauty to having a machine perfectly and competently finish your movements to our benefit. And as argued previously, having watches on more wrists because a wider audience can afford them may not have snob-appeal but it’s keeping our industry alive.
Longines too is charmingly blunt thanks to its irrepressible and ever honest President Walter Von Kanel. “We are all ETA. Some are exclusive ETA movements, it’s stupid to go in-house again,” he replied when asked if Longines would parlay their extensive history as one of the industry’s original Big Three into a higher price point and brand positioning. And he’s right, modern economics have been built on the concept of comparative advantage and economies of scale. So what Longines does is re-issue exquisite archive pieces like vintage-look mono-pusher chronographs to broad appeal and as explained in a previous essay, it becomes a slippery slope to something more.
When it comes to the actual practice of integrated manufacture, it’s more a romantic philosophy rather than pure business sense – while there’s an attraction to the idea, it becomes extremely hard for such brands to appropriately price and put to market the kinds of products that would keep them commercially viable in the short term and their reputations pristine in the long term – there’s usually a compromise which leaves neither your hardcore fans satisfied or shareholders happy. In that sense, everyone loses.
And then there’s Nomos, the belle of Glashutte. They’re succeeding with as a small boutique manufacture and they’re the sort of guys you’d least expect to make a movement on their own much less their hairspring and at the sub-USD5000 prices they charge. For Nomos, “in-house” becomes a badge of honor and less of a boast – they’re punching above their own weight with prices that are revenue-challenging and doing it without Tudor’s scale and corporate muscle.
Like the “Swiss made” conundrum, where on the spectrum do you define in-house? To a degree, everyone pretty much gets something from someone else. Do you have to breed your own bovine for the leather straps? Mine your own gold for the cases? Springs, screws, wheels, escapements, sapphire? Lab-grow your own synthetic rubies? We are about to reach fairly ludicrous levels if we continue down this “in-house” path and who’s fault is it? The industry is merely responding to the financial feedback (my money goes to X brand because I think they are in-house and thus value for money) of consumers. As a result, are collectors asking to be lied to?
If anything, Max Busser and Friends are currently the most visible and successful argument for the revival of the etablissuer model, if only stop hurting the industry through competitive acquisitions and to rejuvenate the many small studios that have gone out of work; but mostly so that watch writers can stop tap dancing and wondering that whenever they called someone a manufacture, they were being complicit in a lie.
These are personal musings of the Executive Editor and not necessarily a philosophical reflection of Deployant.com
Also published on Medium.