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No, Bloomberg, the Swiss Watch You Covet is not going to be 3D Printed

by Jonathan Ho on December 20, 2016

In a recent “clickbaity” (for watch lovers anyway) Bloomberg article titled “Next Christmas That Swiss Watch You Covet Could Be 3D Printed”, Deployant was surprised at the esteemed broadsheet’s hyperbolic headline and so we decided to respond with a headline of our own – No, the Swiss Watch You Covet is not going to be 3D Printed Especially Next Christmas.

In contrast, Swiss watchmaking was a special niche of sophisticated, continuous manufacture of highly specialised products for which manual technology was still the most effective. The Swiss felt that the Americans were offering a watch that was “of standard construction on a few patterns, wholly manufactured by machine.” – Early 19th century consensus on the differences between Swiss and US watchmaking

Editor’s Note: It’s going to be a fairly long read on why the Swiss watch industry is not going to be 3D printing consumer models anytime soon but these are the basic points:

  1. Swiss legacy and history is important – it shows you the mindset of the people who make the watches and just as they had the opportunity to industrialise the way American watchmakers did, Swiss watchmakers did not lose their soul in the way they adapted to the industrial revolution.
  2. Long held national philosophy – Debated to bits at two junctures of critical history: during the early 19th century and again just before the quartz crisis, there’s a firm belief in artisanship. Technology which runs counter to the definition of haute horlogerie just isn’t embraced quite so whole heartedly.
  3. The Swiss wised up to the “junk watch” and recognised it wasn’t a path they could pursue. We’re seeing it again as Kickstarter watches get cheaper and cheaper (yet they redefine what it means to be an entry level watch to the average consumer).
  4. Misconception that the Swiss are technology laggards – you’d be surprised how much technology and mechanisation is already involved in watchmaking. Thierry Stern, President of Patek Philippe says as much, we weren’t content with a stick in the sand and telling time by shadows, many Swiss watchmakers aren’t either.
  5. Hear it from two watchmaking masters: They’re experimenting with prototypes but 3D printing is just not a tech ready for haute horlogerie.

Vintage watchmaker tools circa 19th century.

Here’s why: the Swiss Watch You Covet is NOT to be 3D Printed (Especially Next Christmas)

While we tend to romanticise watchmaking as a skill the Swiss had always possessed, it was actually introduced to Geneva in 1587 by Charles Cusin of Autun, Burgundy. In a quirk of fate, sumptuary laws in the form Calvinist reforms on outward adornments of jewellery led to the rise of decorative watches. By 1687, over 100 watchmakers were registered in Geneva alone, producing close to 5000 watches per annum.

1. The legacy of history

By then, the Watchmakers Guild of Geneva had already been established to control the trade and ensure quality was maintained at the highest levels – mass production was banned and there were strict limits on apprentices; entry to the guild was kept strictly controlled as well and so, with demand far outstripping supply, prices were kept as high as the famed quality of Geneva made watches.

That said, despite notions of “high quality”, an astute observer can infer that the De Beers strategy of artificially suppressing supply was the real reason for high prices. Concurrently, the first watchmakers were located in Southern Germany, France and then Geneva in regions with the highest levels of income, chiefly royals, aristocrats and merchants. Watches of the era were by definition luxury goods and before the invention of the balance spring, these watches were little more than curious and toys of a wealthy elite – hardly what you would call “watchmaking”

Before the invention of the balance spring, watches were merely luxury curios for the elite of the day – royals, aristocrats and merchants. (well, kinda like today too – I jest).

A new era in Watchmaking rises in the Jura Mountains

In a 1766 book by banneret Frédéric Samuel Osterwald, a traveller passing through the valleys of the Principality of Neuchâtel and Valangin in 1679 had with him a watch from London and it was completely unfamiliar to the inhabitants of the region. Mid journey, it had become broken and it was a dealer familiar with the skills of a young Daniel JeanRichard in all things mechanical who suggested that the traveller seek young Daniel out.

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When JeanRichard saw the watch, he carefully disassembled the curio, made notes and began repairs. While he had succeeded in fixing it, replicating the watch was his ultimate aim, based on his drawings and notes, he began the process of making the tools he needed but the machines for dividing gear wheels equally and cutting the teeth was a secret closely guarded by the Geneva Watchmakers guild. Frustrated, he invented his own. A year and a half later, he made his first watch. The status quo was about to be shattered.

In a 1901 directory, there were 713 watchmakers, 258 are located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, 37 in Le Locle, 88 in Bienne and 47 in Tramelan, a total of 430 compared to just 75 in Geneva. A clear indication of how the descendants of the farmers in the mountains had overtaken the guildsmen on the shores of Lake Geneva. – How the Jura region overtook Geneva as the premier watchmaking district

In the 1691, away from restrictive guilds and artificially constrained production, JeanRichard brought watchmaking to the Jura mountains and started to employ local farmers who were basically idle in the winter, this system of labour division was called établissage – each producing a part of the whole. At its managerial centre, JeanRichard. He had established a comptoir. In stark contrast to the Geneva model of production – a few craftsmen making all parts of the watch, the model of établissage allowed many workers to specialise in many specific components and the result was high quality individual parts cheaper than the guild system.

A pioneer of mechanised watchmaking, JeanRichard designed and improved tools and machines to compensate for the weaker experience of his labour force; the resulting technological advantage allowed less skilled workers to produce high quality parts that when assembled were high quality watches at lower prices due to cost efficiencies.

Historically speaking, JeanRichard is notable for establishing the etablissage system in the Jura region. More importantly, his unhappiness with Geneva watchmaking regulations is pretty much responsible for where all the major centres of watchmaking are in Switzerland today.

Growth of labour was exponential as well; without restrictions on apprenticeships and supply, JeanRichard taught watchmaking to his five sons and the others who were willing to learn; in time, they themselves became masters who propagated the skills quickly and rapidly through the mountain region. By 1855, the Swiss Jura was producing nine times more watches thnan that of Geneva. To wit, the Kelly Directory of 1901 lists 713 Swiss watchmakers. Of this 713, 258 are located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, 37 in Le Locle, 88 in Bienne and 47 in Tramelan, a total of 430 compared to just 75 in Geneva. A clear indication of how the descendants of the farmers in the mountains had overtaken the guildsmen on the shores of Lake Geneva. By the 19th and 20th century, the majority of Swiss watches were coming from Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds and it was still expanding North and East towards Biel/Bienne.

It was at the Philadelphia Universal Exhibition in 1876 which would eventually intrigue European industrialists and engineers to the American concept of “mass production” but this would be rejected till the 19th century, the Swiss had intended “to continue in the sphere of specialities to rely on excellence of quality and not on cheapness…”

2. Long held National philosophy: Artisan crafts vs. Mass production

In the late 18th century, there already were attempts at mechanisation, particularly towards standardisation and the serial fabrication of parts. JeanRichard was an early adopter but It was a procedure widely rumoured to have been pioneered by Swiss artisan, Jeanneret-Gris but it was a French watchmaker in Beaucourt, Franche-Comte named Japy that began mass production of standard parts or ebauches in earnest.

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However, in the early days of industrialisation, the imperfections of mechanised production meant that Swiss watchmakers would still be required to engage in fairly labour intensive work, making the movements by hand in small farming cabins and independent workshops which dotted the Swiss valley landscapes.

There was a real pride in the artistic embellishments and customisations of their productions as opposed to standardisation – what resulted was mechanisation used in ways not intended – a manufacture like the Fontainemelon factory, one of the earliest in Swiss watchmaking history, would have a highly diverse range of over 1,000 highly specialised calibres. Thus, it can be inferred, mechanisation was a means for diversity rather than efficiency over the the period of 1825 and 1870.

It was at the Philadelphia Universal Exhibition in 1876 which would eventually intrigue European industrialists and engineers to the American concept of “mass production” but this would be rejected till the 19th century, the Swiss had intended “to continue in the sphere of specialities to rely on excellence of quality and not on cheapness…”

The 1876 International Fair and the typical “novelty” as developed and assembled by the prevailing system of etablissage. Noted on the dial – it’s an exhibition watch.

And therein lies the allure and the work ethos of the Swiss: in a belief system running contrary to other Anglo-saxon territories, economic and technological models of product development or “flexible specialisation” while not summarily rejected, were masterfully adapted and repurposed. Rather than destroy product diversity, mechanisation in the Swiss watch industry actually led to expansive growth of products and the necessary intervention and perpetuation of human skills.

By 1845, industrialisation was in full sway globally and the Swiss were forced to purse a niche of continual diversification of production ranges and innovation through highly skilled labour. Ironically, while the technologies were not applied at a mass level, they were encouraged “on craft lines” where a myriad of parallel mechanical inventions came from local artisans who were all unique at perfectly integrated into a decentralised system of family craft production.

Eventually, cold awareness of falling quality convinced watchmakers to return to the roots with the aim of producing “fewer but better watches”, keeping up with technical progress by outgunning the competition on a policy of “quality manufacturing” rather than price dumping. – Vindication and a return to traditional Swiss production values

3. A Rude Awakening: Introduction of the “Junk Watch”

Considered a virus in Switzerland, mass production was embraced as such and with it, the deleterious effects of a cheapening of quality, talent and craft ethics. Usually, the degradation or lapses in quality were secret but by the start of the 19th century, it had steamrolled into crisis proportions – the increased division of labour focused on exports had turned the workman into “a machine hardly aware of what he was doing” – with increased productivity came lower prices and the price competition that ensued gave rise to a more dangerous corollary – unfair competition. The confluence of which was a race to the price floor with similarly falling profits, wages, a workforce barely educated in the fundamentals of watchmaking and the introduction of the “junk watch”. By late 18th and early 19th century, North American markets were the main importers of watches from Neuchatel.

Eventually, awareness of falling quality convinced watchmakers to return to the roots with the aim of producing “fewer but better watches”, keeping up with technical progress by outgunning the competition on a policy of “quality manufacturing” rather than price dumping.

No industry in the history of the world has ever benefited from a race to the price floor. The “junk watch” from methods of mass production was a turning point for the Swiss to re-dedicate themselves to the craft.

When watch exports to the United States started to fall, it became abundantly clear to visiting Swiss watch experts to the 1876 Philadelphia Universal Exhibition that American watchmakers makers like Aaron Dennison (The Waltham Watch Co.) and other pioneers in mechanised production like National Watch Co. Of Elgin, IL, had managed to set up serial production of complete watches on the standard of precisely interchangeable factory-made components.

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In contrast, Swiss watchmaking was a special niche of sophisticated, continuous manufacture of highly specialised products for which manual technology was still the most effective. The Swiss felt that the Americans were offering a watch that was “of standard construction on a few patterns, wholly manufactured by machine.”

The question was – whether to move to the new mode of centralised production in large units or to maintain the traditional organisation of decentralised manufacture and safeguard the virtues of a watchmaker’s know-how and craft.

It became a contentious issue and grew increasingly politicised when the debate was framed as an employers versus the workers argument due to the potential of job loss. In Jura, Neuchatel’s denizens were concerned less about the watchmakers per se than the future of Swiss watchmaking, advocating the advantages of collaboration in the face of the industrialist threat. That said, we cannot know with any definite answer what would have happened if American watchmaking continued to flourish because factories in North America were converted to weapon production facilities during the outbreak of hostilities prior to World War II.

Envisotec 3D printed wax models of jewellery. Look at the level of detail.

4. Swiss watchmakers are NOT Technological Laggards

Let’s face it, a Bloomberg article titled “Next Christmas That Swiss Watch You Covet Could Be 3-D Printed” works as click bait to watch idiot savants primarily because there’s the colossal weight of marketing and historical inertia which tends to depict Swiss watchmaker as elderly gent with loupe in eye sitting on a wood bench working by candlelight. That was true, 200 years ago. Today, a cursory glance at the Baselworld Machines and Supply industry book unveils a large retinue of companies already supplying either high tech services or machinery to the industry.

In fact, based in Lyon, France, Type3 (part of the Gravotech group) was launched in 1988 specialising in the development of professional CAD CAM software solutions for industrial and artistic modelling, engraving and cutting. Their software 3DESIGN makes 3D creations easy, using 3D scanned data for 3D reconstruction with rebuild, model, customise and export features.

Meanwhile, Artsupport GmbH supplies everything from microscopes to laser welders for welding, stone setting, engraving and polishing. Over at Bullnheimer & Co. GmbH, the German compnay released the Photo Composer FA40 from Mode360 – a photo studio which allowed you to take simple photographs and then create 360 presentations quickly and easily – in essence, if you wanted to replicate a watch and then modify it for your own interpretation, you not only could but you could also pop the data into a 3D printer and churn out a 90% close to final product.

Have a cool watch you want to replicate and modify? Pop it into this Photo Composer FA40, create a 360 degree render and then reproduce it in your printer. Heck, it’s even available on Alibaba now.

5. According to Two Reputed Watchmakers: 3D Printing Watches beyond Prototyping is just not feasible. Yet.

Kari Voutilainen: 3D printing is used for prototyping, but for production it is not good at all. Once you print metal, material is made from powder, great, but final result is full of holes, once you polish it, it looks very poor. But it is good for prototyping. It is much cheaper comparing traditional prototyping where we machine with production tools real piece, it takes much more time and it is more costly. With gold it is the same, 3d printing looks like real piece, but it has plenty of holes and polishing and finishing is impossible, at least on high level..

Max Busser: I have been using 3D print to visualize designs for at least 15 years. The difference is that they were very crude and would cost at least 1’500US$ for a basic shape, whilst now for less than a tenth of the price you get an amazingly precise piece. Will 3D print enter production ? Pretty sure it will at some point. As long as the quality is as good or better than traditional machining everyone will agree that there is no reason it should not. My concern is about repairs in 100 years. I don’t doubt there will be incredible machines that will craft 3D print pieces in the future, but technology has this unnerving habit of making itself obsolete, so I still prefer sticking with very traditional machining which I know can be reproduced in the future.

The real question is, if 3D printing technology raises production levels of fine timepieces to a level indiscernible from traditional CNC milled and hand finished watches, does it matter? And if yes, to what degree would it bother you?  


Also published on Medium.

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