What It’s Like To Make A Watch

What It’s Like To Make A Watch

What Its Like To Make A Watch   look inside manufacture

Sitting on the watchmaker's bench, two things became apparent; that finger condoms (cots) choke the blood out of my fingers and looking through a loupe with just one eye gives you no depth perception when you need it most. For several days I took instruction from a master watchmaker while I and an aBlogtoWatch reader were guests of Frederique Constant in Geneva putting together our first watch movement. It was a thrilling experience, and one that few people will ever receive, even if they pay for it. Unless they go to a watch making school that is.

Technical Director and watchmaker Pim Koeslag is Dutch, and so is Peter Stas, who is the founder of Frederique Constant (with his wife Aletta). The manufacture which also houses sister brand Alpina is nestled (quite literally in the middle) of several famous manufactures in Geneva including Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Rolex, and Patek Philippe. Pim started working with Peter when Frederique Constant was getting serious about making in-house movements, which increasingly constitute the calibers in their watches. A planned expansion is due for the manufacture soon, and more movements will be in-house made versus sourced from Swiss makers such as Sellita. For Stas, producing movements in-house seems to serve more practical reasons than the marketing-related statements from other brands on increasing the value proposition of their products. In manufacturing, producing things yourself is cheaper, faster, and more reliable. Frederique Constant aims to offer some of the best in-house made movements at the most reasonable prices, and so far they are doing a great job of it with a number of sub $3,000 watches that include their own movements.

What Its Like To Make A Watch   look inside manufacture

What Its Like To Make A Watch   look inside manufacture

So what was I doing at Frederique Constant with a reader, taking valuable watchmaker space? Watch brands don't just invite people to occupy their production space to play around with watch making. It isn't something you can pay for, and even company employees and VIP collectors only get access to special outside workshops and classes. We however sat among the other watchmakers during business as normal trying to quickly learn the ins and outs of movement assembly. It was part of a giveaway we did back in December of 2012 where (among other things), I was to join a lucky reader in Geneva and make a timepiece at Frederique Constant. It was a rare treat and doing so was a novel experience for both myself, the reader, and the people at Frederique Constant.

The movement we got to assemble was a Frederique Constant caliber FC-705. The new automatic with date and moon phase that sits inside the 2013 Slimline Moonphase Automatic watch. With just a few days to work on the movement, we admittedly didn't do each and every step because the entire process simply takes longer than that. However, we did get to experience everything from CNC machining the movement mainplate to final testing and quality control.

What Its Like To Make A Watch   look inside manufacture

What Its Like To Make A Watch   look inside manufacture

The large number of pieces inside of each watch movement means that production delays can be frequent if there is an issue with just one piece. Tolerances are minimal and with size an issue, Swiss watch movements are designed for each piece to fit together snugly. Movements are cleverly designed, something that has been refined over decades and decades, to be machines that can be logically assembled en masse, albeit by trained professionals. That means that there is a certain industrial logic to most movements. Sure, some are unique creations that need huge amounts of tinkering to get right, but in most instances, the design of a movement and its prototyping and testing is much more complicated than the assembly of the completed, industrialized product. Nevertheless, like I said, they are by no means easy to assemble. Watchmaker school averages about four years, and once you are put to the task of assembly, you quickly find out why.

I want to broach a topic that is often left out of conversations, "what is different about an ETA movement versus many in-house movements." Oftentimes very little. There are only so many effective movement configurations possible. The basic arrangement of movements and their designs are staggeringly similar from movement to movement - though even minor differences require completely different parts. Brands have the ability to design plates and bridges differently, but when it comes down to it, the mechanical watch movement of today is surprisingly similar to that of yesterday. The difference is in the materials used and the techniques to make all the parts. And from brand to brand, like car engines, it is easy to recognize the basic parts of each movement. For that reason I caution people to relax when a brand boasts about a "brand new movement that has been redesigned from the ground up." Sure, movements can be improved and refined in dozens of ways, but unless new features are added, don't expect marvelous novelties each time a watchmaker releases something new.

What Its Like To Make A Watch   look inside manufacture

16 comments
Ulysses31
Ulysses31

You two look like the friendliest couple of Borg i've ever seen.

aleximd2000
aleximd2000

Ariel

you must respond to this

What brand did you wear at the Frederic Constant manufacture photo???

Thanks

RaoMak1
RaoMak1

Mechanical movement watches are no doubt one a true piece of art. This is probably the best way to truly appreciate a work of art........Amazing and highly knowledgeable article. I also loved the tone of your article, its just like sitting with friends and explaining a trip you took, no uptight language or too many technical jargon.

Ariel what is that watch you are wearing?


LapYoda
LapYoda

Ariel, I enjoyed your take on the trip tremendously.  I do, however, disagree with the statement that "In manufacturing, producing things yourself is cheaper, faster, and more reliable." If that were true, I think more watch companies would produce in-house movements.  The movement houses ETA and Sellita benefit from their specialization, and above all, their huge volume, in making their products cheaper, faster, and more reliable.  In contrast, Frederique Constant's in-house movement manufacturing volume is much, much less than these suppliers, which increases costs and slows down output because they only have so many CNC machines to mill the parts. Reliabilty, however, comes from design and construction, and a low-volume manufacturer probably benefits because they don't have to churn out tons of product.

On the other hand, what I found most impressive about Frederique Constant's in-house movement was that it was so well designed to be assembled easily (by a skilled watchmaker, of course).  The tolerances are amazing, and everything came together with no jimmying or difficulty.  Fit and finish like that are the envy of manufacturers in any industry, and by producing timepieces with that level of design and construction with prices that are reasonable for the high quality, the people at Frederique Constant should be extremely proud of their watches.

pkansa
pkansa

I've been around (and have done) a lot of manufacturing in the past.  Reading this just makes me want to find a movement facility and really get a first-hand look at what's being done.

Fussball
Fussball

Fantastic experience and a great write up. For me, knowing how they work only increases the magic of these little machines. That is takes hundreds of mechanical parts to do something so supposedly simple as telling the time is amazing. Its the reason I like display casebacks even on undecorated movements.

MarkCarson
MarkCarson

I'm still jealous of you guys. Thanks for the post (I'd already enjoyed the video when it came out).

aBlogtoWatch
aBlogtoWatch moderator

@LapYoda It is true when you do it in scale. In small production is it all those things except cheaper. Though making things yourself is always faster in Switzerland because suppliers tend to deliver when they feel like it, and even the best suppliers don't give you exactly what you order all the time. Though for most people the cost of getting machines and the expertise to make all the parts just doesn't make sense as you say.

aleximd2000
aleximd2000

@MarkCarson tell me Mark where can we together join and take part in a watchmaking course and after that to take the WOSTEP and after that to make our own watches !Alex

MarkCarson
MarkCarson

@aleximd2000 Time and money could make it happen. I'm always in short supply of both. My watchmaker went to a school in Oregon and then after a few years on the bench when to WOSTEP which he referred to as a 'watchmaker's finishing school'. Cheers.

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