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The FHH’s Ambitious Mission To Conclusively Define ‘Haute Horology’ Watches

The FHH's Ambitious Mission To Conclusively Define 'Haute Horology' Watches Featured Articles

Editor’s Note: The following article was written after we had Olivier Müller visit the FHH’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to interview members of their dedicated team on this evolving topic. Known as the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), the organization is protective of its “neutral” status despite having been started by the Richemont Group and being based in their facilities. With that said, the FHH’s mandate is quite general, and that is to promote what they call “fine watchmaking” to the public at large.

The FHH has a unique and often ambiguous mission. The organization is funded by member companies that are just over two dozen watch brands – many of which (ten of them) still come from the Richemont Group, but they include others such as founding partners Audemars Piguet and Girard-Perregaux… among others. In addition to educational initiatives, the most noteworthy thing for most members of the watch industry that the FHH does is organize the SIHH trade show event each January in Geneva. This is the world’s second largest watch and jewelry trade show, after Baselworld.

The FHH's Ambitious Mission To Conclusively Define 'Haute Horology' Watches Featured Articles

For at least three years now, the FHH has been busy with a seemingly simple task – and that is to define the values which it seeks to promote, defend, and praise. Almost in secret, the FHH sought to conclusively and definitively define what “haute horlogerie” as a concept is.

Why define the term? Not only did the FHH likely feel a need to define what it does – and perhaps more importantly, does not – seek to promote, the organization identified that the public as well as watch brands themselves seem to at least slightly disagree on what haute horlogerie even means.

I will let Mr. Müller explain more, but I wanted to offer a few of my own thoughts on this interesting mission of the FHH that is, honestly, no simple task. My own quick definition of haute horlogerie is “high-end horology.” Or rather, the practice of designing and producing a prestigious watch using traditional practices such as decoration, hand-assembly, and exquisite presentation. Of course there are many devils in the details trying to apply such terminology to a diverse and quickly evolving watch industry that for a long time has produced more than merely “traditional” timepieces.

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In some ways, when it comes to trying to define “haute horology” I am reminded of a real definition that the Supreme Court once gave of the term “obscenity.” When trying to differentiate (essentially) smut (not protected speech) from art (protected speech) the court more or less said “you know obscenity when you see it.” I feel that even though haute horology is difficult to define, those with enough education, exposure, and sophistication “know it” when they see it, even if they have difficulty enumerating what practically defines it.

As such, the FHH’s core tactic in defining haute horology is to use a large panel of “experts” from around the world who they feel cumulatively have enough experience and insight to properly broach the complicated topic of creating a set of criteria and definitions. Müller sees some flaws with how this approach has been implemented, but for the most part, asking various experts to help create a definition was a logical move.

If I were to define haute horology, I would probably begin with a reverse tactic, and that is to come up with what is NOT haute horology. I feel that by identifying what the FHH is trying to exclude, versus include in the definition it can more readily meet its goal. Then again, what is the goal exactly? One must ask the very obvious question of what purpose is being served by defining what is and is not haute horology? Does the world need yet another attempt to define art (or a sub category thereof)?

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On a basic level, the FHH needs to clarify who and what they work for. As new brands seek to join their organization (even though it is by no means free), the FHH must refine and improve their criteria for who they accept and who they don’t. Moreover, as it is the organization’s stated mission, the FHH wants to clarify for itself what haute horology is in their pursuit of promoting, defending, and developing its influence on the watch lover community.

Further, the FHH, among others, are likely discouraged by some of the more creative marketing and promotional practices many brands employ, as well as the terms they use to define themselves. In an age when “Swiss Made,” “In-House,” “Manufacture,” etc. are all terms which arguably have ambiguous meanings, it is necessary for the industry itself to defend and refine the meaning of words which have great effect on the consumer experience. If no one defines “haute horlogerie” and everyone uses it, then the term more or less loses meaning and becomes yet another generalized “luxury concept” used both by the world’s most high-end prestigious watch makers as well as anyone else who feels like they want a seat at the big boy’s table, whether they are welcome or not. As elitist as it might sound, the FHH has a very real duty to ensure that they help maintain the dignity of such a table of members, and that they both clarify what membership means, as well as how to obtain it.

Olivier Müller will discuss this interesting mission more, how the FHH defined haute horology, as well as its progress as part of this larger challenge. To make a long story short, the FHH could not come up with a single definition. Rather, given the broad diversity of brands and techniques, they had to come up with a series of categories and qualifiers which apply to various brands depending on a long list of criteria. The simple concept of defining a term is not at all simple when it comes to the egos, traditions, business interests, and passions that make up the luxury watch industry.

The FHH's Ambitious Mission To Conclusively Define 'Haute Horology' Watches Featured Articles

Finally, what of the brands themselves? Are they required to go with definitions set forth by a third party intended to define who they are? My understanding is that watch brands today are able to choose whether or not they open themselves up to scrutiny by the FHH when it comes to being defined. This is actually quite an “exposing” process where the brands are asked to share enormous amounts of information and access with the FHH’s review panel in order to be “properly” categorized within the organization’s haute horology definition framework. Thus, being officially designated as a “haute horlogerie” brand is more or less optional, and it is the duty of the FHH to bestow benefits and rewards to those brands who comply with the process and celebrate the result. Read into that a bit and I’m sure you can imagine the political sparks flying given the nuances of how such practices will practically take effect.

As someone who has a rather good grasp on the watch community and industry as seen from at least some distance, I fully appreciate the breadth and implications of what the FHH seeks to accomplish with their lexical exercise. It isn’t easy, but it might be necessary for an industry that desperately wants to hold onto as much tradition as possible in the current business environment where brands are more and more forced to modernize or face irrelevance.

Now, let’s hear from Mr. Müller on “haute horlogerie,” and what at least some people have come to believe it means. -Ariel Adams

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While everyone is talking about haute horlogerie, no one as ever has written down in a conclusive manner what defines this label. The Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie has finally decided to sort the wheat from the chaff and recently published the first White Paper on Fine Watchmaking.

The trigger point to start this project was quite obvious. If you make a claim using the term “haute horlogerie/fine watchmaking” you have to be capable of defining it! The FHH was many times faced with the same question: “What differentiates fine watchmaking from watchmaking?”

So they came up with a sentence designating the world of fine watchmaking: “Fine watchmaking is excellence in watchmaking, the techniques of watchmaking in symbiosis with the applied arts.”

But you can’t get away with just that sentence, with watch collectors becoming increasingly literate and having learned that a critical second look at the watchmaking world helps to better appreciate the difference between the good and the excellent.

Moreover, we are in a market where new and existing players are applying the codes of fine watchmaking visually, but not respecting either the ingredients, nor the recipes to make genuine timepieces. It is like opening a French restaurant and putting on the menu good-sounding plates such as foie gras and then using products which where neither produced in France, nor respect the elaborate process of making traditional foie gras.

So, the goal of this white paper is to apply criteria that will set apart people respecting the tradition genuinely and not just “packing,” for instance, a Swiss-made movement into a Chinese-made case and dial, etc.



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  • So where is Grand Seiko? Nevermind, this whole thing smacks of being totally self-serving and appears to just be another way to stamp a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval on brands who quality and, importantly, pay for the privilege.

    I will agree that haute horology, like obscenity, is something you know when you see it. I found the line, “they can pretend to be part of the haute horlogerie” to be profoundly funny and correct especially when taken totally without any context. I look at a brand’s products (design, engineering and execution), not it’s sales training and distribution and future resale value as my personal criteria of what is fine watchmaking or not.

    Too amusing that they are attempting to gain consumer trust in an industry that is, by their own admission, very secretive and known to bend the content rules as far as Swiss law allows (and then some in certain “cases”). This whole thing is about as relevant as what criteria constitutes a “Reserve” watch by Invicta. Same self defining and self serving drivel.

    • IanE

      Quite agree: the FHH seems to be trying to find a reason for its existence at the same time, as you note, as making a few (lots?) bucks!

    • beardedman

      I agree to a point, and there will always be a certain amount of self serving drivel in an organization like this. Even the author spoke of his own opinion vs. the opinion of the organization and of some decisions being questionable. But I think one has to respect that they are making an effort to clarify some very muddy water of what the high end standards are; what is expected of watches in this class, even if that effort does not always seem to us to be perfect.

    • egznyc

      Wow – GS is excluded?!? This whole idea of their being “independent” is ludicrous. And Hublot made the cut …

  • Marius

    Here are some of the brands that are considered haute horologerie by the FHH: Tag Heuer, Rolex, Omega, Breitling, and Panerai. I’m surprised they left out Steinhart, Squale and Vostock. Why on earth would you leave such prestigious brands out?

    • Hublot is listed under Contemporary brands.

      • Marius

        You’re right, Hublot is also a haute horologerie brand according to the FHH. They really scraped the bottom of the barrel with this one. Nothing says haute horologerie better than an ETA movement.

        • Not sure Hublot is still using ETA movements, but a number of other brands in the “Historic maisons” still do in some references.

          • Marius

            The Hublot Classic Fusion line is using almost exclusively ETA/Sellita movements. The Big Bang is using the in-house Unico movement, but that caliber has a rather mediocre finish and can be hardly considered as haute horologerie.

            You’re right, quite a few of the brands listed above use ETA/Sellita movements and others, such as Romain Jerome, use Concepto calibers which are not exactly high watchmaking either.

          • And some of the small brands don’t really do their own R&D, instead they outsource the hard stuff (movement design and mfgr) to firms like APRP – who do great work but that’s not the point from what I read from FHH here. With enough working capital and the right contacts, you can become a HH brand and do none of the work yourself – outsource it all to very competent suppliers. Really collaboration with suppliers was the Swiss model for decades if not centuries before the current vertical integration craze.

          • Timestandsstill

            And the top watchmaking houses were rightfully proud of their “outsourced” parts coming from the best specialists in cases, dials, hair springs,etc. And yes, this was the norm for a couple centuries until relatively recently. There was a name for this practice which I can never remember when I’m trying to find it 🙁

        • Timestandsstill

          Love them or hate them, but Hublot has done some pretty wild stuff especially coming from the former BNB Concepts founder Mattias Buttet.
          Not exactly ETA stuff

          • Marius

            You are right, Hublot does have some great super-complicated watches; however, these represent a very small percentage of the entire production, and 99% of Hublots are mediocre watches that have exactly zero in common with high watchmaking.

    • mtnsicl

      Although, I like what Steinhart does, they are far from prestigious in the grand scheme of the watch industry.

    • speedy

      Rolex and Omega are actually the first brands that come to mind when thinking about the paramount of non-high watchmaking. They are generally considered among the best in industrial watchmaking, which by definition is opposed to haute horlogerie.

      But then, how can this be taken seriously, when for instance, there is not one technical or scientific expert in the “r&d, production and technical” section?

  • DanW94

    I know that somewhere along the line a deserving brand won’t make the cut but it’s hard to believe that Urban Jurgensen didn’t make the initial list of 64.

    • Roger Smith? Philip Dufour? Guess one has to apply and PAY to be a recognized member – it’s just about the watchmaker’s art.

      • DanW94

        Mark, Did a bit of digging and Roger Smith and Philip Dufour did make the list of 64. Here is the complete list.

        The list here on ABTW didn’t include the Artisans group. As for my first post about Urban Jurgensen perhaps they weren’t included in the 86 brands that were initially evaluated.

        • Thanks – good to see a number of guys I admire on the Artisan list.

  • Sheez Gagoo

    This “Haute Horlogerie” definition is a huge nonsense and as an other posting mentioned, the “Fondation” must find reasons for it`s existence. Everybody has it`s own definition what “Haute Horlogerie” is and blogs like this and the market itself is more than sufficent. It`s useles regulation implemented by organisations with almost no credibility at all that made and still makes the swiss watch industry a giant museum. How can a smartwatch or a simple G Shock be invented in an environment like this? You may have credibility among watch entusiasts, but you lose relevance.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Haute Horlogerie = Price.

    • beardedman

      Of course it equals price. I costs money to do the R&D, to tool up and train artisans to do the detailed decoration and all the fine details. If you build a watch to a price point, you get a Seiko 5 which is nice enough, functional and inexpensive but definitely NOT art. You don’t get a Patek by building watches to a price point. I can’t afford a Patek any more than I can afford a Rolls Royce Dawn, much as I’d like to. But I know the difference between that and a VW Jetta as sure as I know and appreciate Haute Horlogerie.

      • Raymond Wilkie

        Little flashback. Had a VW jetta C……….it went on fire.

  • cg

    Just silly self grandiosity! Which in itself could be considered obscene…. “we are in a market where new and existing players are applying the codes of fine watchmaking visually, but not respecting either the ingredients, nor the recipes to make genuine timepieces”…. OH! The Horror! Sure I read the board is “pro bono” but this smacks more like exclusive exclusion. Where is the money coming from to support this seemingly aggressive campaign? Seems at base to be very manipulative and political. Follow the money, who will get to sport the HH logo on their case backs.

  • iamcalledryan

    Oh boy, I am going to devour this article and that white paper – will report back when I have digested it all!

  • SuperStrapper

    Improves watchmaking and enjoyment of watches by 0%.

  • MEddie90

    While I can understand the need to more clearly define and regulate marketing terms to protect the customer (in-house, manufacture etc) I think its foolish to even attempt to categorize whole brands into the haute and non-haute. While some brands may fit wholly into one camp many seem to straddle the line and produce a mixture of both.

    Hublot for example have some high complication pieces and their 50 day power reserve watch is a clear example of what they (and BNB concepts) can do. The problem is that 95% of the watches they produce don’t really fit into that same category and the same goes for Panerai, Tag-Heuer and many more. All in all the whole thing seems to use too broader brush.

  • williebegoode

    Why wasn’t Leroy included? I know they’ve receded lately and are now owned by Festina. Historically they’ve made watches for the royal crowns of Europe, and from 1900 – 1989, they had the most complications in a mechanical watch. Not Swiss? Neither is A. Lange. It should be included.

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