Inside Dubois-Depraz – Empire Of The Watch Movement Module

Inside Dubois-Depraz – Empire Of The Watch Movement Module
Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Fresh movements come in these plastic containers

On an uncommonly warm day in early October I visited a place few watch writers go - the manufacture (well one of them) of Dubois-Depraz. High-up in the mountainous region of Switzerland's famous Vallee de Joux the factory sits among many famous watch brands. Dubois-Depraz is a key cog in the watch industry you know and love, but they don't make watches.

Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Individual gears are meticulously tested for precision and utility

Unlike the many curated tours of watch factories I am subject to, my guide at Dubois-Depraz wasn't a PR guide. He probably just spoke English a bit better than the other people there. The manufacture is operated by two of the three Dubois brothers, and it has been in the family since its inception in 1901. The component maker currently is comprised of three locations, and I got to visit the most important facility - the assembly plant.

The air of the facility is very industrial. There is a bit more hustle and bustle here than in many other watch manufactures - but the white lab coat attire is familiar. Noisily machines operate as ambient sound fills the room with the repetitive operations of pins being connected to plates and gears being tested. Parts aren't actually produced at this location - that is still mostly done by Dubois-Depraz, but elsewhere. Here parts are tested and put together into their final forms. I notice that the type of person here is different than in-house as most brands. The workers are older, more mature looking. It is very common for the average age of people working at even the highest-end watch manufactures to be about 25. Dubois-Deprez has a more lived in feel that is comforting.

Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Audemars Piguet & Girard-Perregaux are just some of Dubois-Depraz's ongoing clients
Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
In addition to chronographs, Dubois-Depraz specializes in calendar modules

Without trying to be fancy the workers plow through the tedious effort of assembling watch movement modules. Their construction is very similar to complete watch movements, and they each still take months to complete given the bevy of steps involved from start to finish. What people really don't quite understand is that even your basic mechanical watch movement takes a lot time to put together. It is a matter of weeks if not months, and the movements pass through the hands of many people who each construct, inspect, decorate, assemble, and test. And sometimes the steps are repeated more than once. Seeing just parts of the process makes one understand not only what makes a Swiss watch "Swiss," but why they aren't cheap. There is real effort and time in these little items of passion that the Swiss won't stop making until time itself is a concept we have forgotten.

Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Even many Richard Mille chronograph watches have a lot of Dubois-Depraz in them
Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Chronograph gears are ultra-fine and involve delicate assembly

As mentioned, Dubois-Depraz is not a watch movement maker. A watch movement is the basic mechanism for storing and releasing power in order to indicate the time. It is comprised of a mainspring barrel, an escapement assembly, and some gears that move hands. What Dubois-Depraz makes are modules that can sit on base movements (such as the ETA 2892 which is a very popular choice for a base movement) and adds additional functionality. There certainly are "wholly integrated" movements that include time-telling as well as other functions, but it is very expensive to develop these. It makes a lot more sense in most instances to use a tried and true base movements with a module placed on top of it to add a chronograph, calendar, etc...

Dubois-Depraz has a long list of talents and clients, but their unofficial specialty are chronograhs and calendar mechanism. They also like making movements that feature both. Making a reliable chronograph is a pain, and many important brands work with Dubois-Depraz for a host of needs ranging from entire movement modules to specific hard to manufacture parts. You'd honestly be surprised at who uses their services on a regular basis.

Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Average worker here is a bit more mature than those working in-house at many brands

Some of Dubois-Depraz's largest clients are major brands in the Swatch and Richemont Group - as well as Rolex. Yes, even Rolex relies on Dubois-Depraz for at least a few important parts in some of their movements. Brands I know they work with include Breitling, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Rolex, Patek-Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, and a lot others. For example the chronograph part of the movements in many Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshores are produced here at Dubois-Depraz. It might be surprising, even thought-provoking to learn that proud and important brands such of these rely on external suppliers for parts and expertise. That is one way of looking at it, especially given how much brands like to talk themselves up in terms of their technical achievements. Another way of looking at it is to simply understand the nature of "Swiss Made."

Switzerland is a homogenous collectivist society. They believe that Swiss is best, but that the Swiss must also work together for the common good. That is especially true in the watch making world where things get pretty incestuous. As long as you are mingling with Swiss (and to a large extent Germans and the French), things are a gonna be OK in their eyes. For me, Dubois-Depraz offers an expert service, and they do it well. If Patek Philippe or Jaeger-LeCoultre comes to them for parts, it is because they probably do a pretty good job.

Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Efficent practices has Dubois-Depraz producing over 100,000 movement modules each year
Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Palette jewels set by hand into tray for automated placement into modules

Years of developing special modules for dozens of brands has given Dubois-Depraz a very large catalog of watch modules they can produce. They mostly work with base ETA movements, but also often with Girard-Perregaux and Jaeger-LeCoultre base movements as well. There is some extremely high-end work that goes on here, and most of their client projects are totally confidential until completion.

Spending time at their manufacture helped me appreciate just how complex a chronograph mechanism is to make. Not necessarily in terms of sheer engineering, but rather at how each cam, pinion, and gear must be painstakingly tested for precision and durability. I saw patient workers place individual gears into microscope machines used to ensure the gears spun perfectly with out wiggling. Another machine was used to test the precise torque of springs used to reset chronograph hands to their starting position. Even the insertion of a pinion into a gear is done carefully, and by hand - each time. According to Dubois-Depraz they produce on the low end about 120,000 watch modules per year.

Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
The production of modules is very similar to that of base movements
Inside Dubois Depraz   Empire Of The Watch Movement Module   look inside manufacture
Banners for the company around town

I gained a lot of respect for the chronograph after visiting with Dubois-Depraz. I also learned a lot more about how the watch industry works. Suffice it to say that educating yourself about the watch industry is like understanding  watch movement. From the surface if can appear decorated and impressive, but you really need to get inside of it to start understanding the nuances and see how things work together (for the better or the worse). Thanks to the Dubois brothers and thanks to the people at Dubois-Depraz for their open doors.

24 comments
sTTalker
sTTalker

sorry if the link doesn't work, here is the picture:

Jim Clement
Jim Clement

I have been following ABlogToRead via RSS for over a year now. Excellent article. This one definitely rates in your top ten! Such a fascinating read. . .

Keep them coming!

Cheers.

Stratos
Stratos

Thanks Ariel.Really excellent,very interesting!
In fact I have always been intrigued by the fact that of manufactures and all in house movements.I see that the reality of watch industry is unknown and fascinating but it´s very impressive known that they work with dozens of brands,including big manufactures.
Thanks!
Cheers

Ulysses
Ulysses

I've always been intrigued by the fact that you can re-purpose a movement simply by bolting on a module. One tends to think of a watch as too complex to simply slot things in and out and have it still work perfectly. I'm assuming that adding such a module makes the overall movement thicker? Are normal movements specifically designed to allow for "upgrades" from the outset, or is modifying the base movement to accept the module the role of the module maker themselves? A nice tour, I hope to see more pictorials like this.

Speedmaster
Speedmaster

I see they misspelled "Jaeger" in I think the 7th picture?

Eric
Eric

Found this a fascinating read, Ariel! Thanks for sharing. If this was "news" to you (was it?), I am sure the majority of your readers (as well as myself) will find this highly educational.

kris c
kris c

Very cool. Do you hand in your basic 3-hander at the beginning and have it returned to you as a triple date rattrapante chronograph as you leave?

Pete
Pete

Do you think they draw straws for the 'set pallette jewels into tray' job?

Pat I.
Pat I.

Excellent post, Ariel. One wishes this company would start making movements ...and possibly watches. They appear to have everything in place to do so.

Greg
Greg

Great post, Ariel. Out of interest, when you're on these other, curated tours, is it in large groups of 'industry players' and if so is there any hierarchy? For example is it world of watches and revolution magazine journos at the front of the bus with the pretty Swiss PR girl and the bloggerati at the back being tended to by some bored intern who alternates between playing with his iPhone and making 'L' signs with his right hand when any of you pipe up? Serious question. :)

Geoff
Geoff

Really excellent write-up Ariel - thank you. Definitely one of my favorite posts to date. More like this please!

admin
admin

Sure thing Jim!

Greg
Greg

Maybe that Reverso i saw on ebay isn't fake after all!! :)

admin
admin

Much of this was in fact news to me. I feel that this offers a very intimate look into an industry that is difficult to understand from the outside.

DLV
DLV

FYI - the three brothers of Dubois-Depraz make very modern watches under the brand name PierreDeRoche - traditional Swiss craftsmanship, unique features like multiple retrograde second hands. See the website at www.pierrederoche.com. They just recently announced that the exclusive US distribution will be through the Bozeman Watch Company - bozemanwatch.com.

admin
admin

Greg,

This is a good question. This tour was just me for example, but I do participate in other group tours. Who gets chosen to go on trips and such is of course hierarchy based, but once on the tours we are all pretty much treated equally. They actually handle people like me more delicately because they know I am doing actual editorial rather than just spending time there to make them look good. They don't really like that uncertainly because by en large it is not an industry yet used to healthy criticism or debate on a media level. Which is ironic because internally they have bitter discussions and critiques among one another.

Eric
Eric

And here I was thinking you knew everything there was to know about watches. ;-)

Greg
Greg

Thanks for the insight and taking the time to reply, Ariel, very interesting.

admin
admin

Thanks for the nice words Andrew. I look forward to offering more content like this in the future.

AndrewB
AndrewB

And this is exactly the type of article that keeps bringing me back to this blog, that allows me to learn more about watches.  You can read about opinions of watches everywhere - any one can write about a watch, you don't have to be a watch journalist to dish out your opinion and judgement (and everyone seems to have an opinion these days), but you don't often see any one having and sharing insights into the industry like this.  Thank you for a great post.

admin
admin

No, I would never claim that title. I just try to learn as much as I can :)

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  1. […] Dubois-Depraz Watch Movements The most telling excerpt is this paragraph: "Some of Dubois-Depraz's largest clients are major brands in the Swatch and Richemont Group – as well as Rolex. Yes, even Rolex relies on Dubois-Depraz for at least a few important parts in some of their movements. Brands I know they work with include Breitling, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Rolex, Patek-Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, and a lot others. For example the chronograph part of the movements in many Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshores are produced here at Dubois-Depraz. It might be surprising, even thought-provoking to learn that proud and important brands such of these rely on external suppliers for parts and expertise. That is one way of looking at it, especially given how much brands like to talk themselves up in terms of their technical achievements. Another way of looking at it is to simply understand the nature of "Swiss Made." Reply With Quote […]