Nivarox is probably the most important company in the entire world of Swiss watch making. Now owned by the Swatch Group, Nivarox makes the vast majority of the parts that make mechanical watch movements function. Today the company’s official name is “Nivarox FAR” and I finally now what that means. The term allows you to understand the industrial nature of the group’s goal. Comprised of about four plant locations around Switzerland, “Nivarox” is a contraction of “ni variable, ni oxydable.” In other words “neither variable nor oxidable.” I’ll explain what that all means in a moment. “FAR” roughly translates into an acronym for “Affiliated Assortments Manufacturers.”
So what is not supposed to be variable or oxidize? Balance springs of course (also called hair springs). These little necessary parts are at the heart of what Nivarox has historically produced, and the primary component they are known for today. Though in reality the Nivarox FAR of today produces so much more.
For those who aren’t that familiar with the operation of a mechanical watch, the heart of the watch is the escapement and balance wheel components – in other words, the regulation system of the watch movement that makes it predictably tell time. For this reason it is often called the heart of the movement, and why its principle producer – Nivarox – can be considered the heart of the Swiss watch industry.
The balance spring it part of this set of parts and is produced using a secret metal alloy. An alloy that as of recently Nivarox themselves actually produces. The story behind that is quite telling of how the watch industry works. Let’s step back a bit. In the 1970s Nivarox was part of a group of Swiss watch movement suppliers collectively known owned by the ASUAG. In 1980 the quartz crisis (as the Swiss refer to it as), almost completely destroyed the Swiss watch industry as cheaply made and more accurate quartz movement based watches produced outside of Switzerland threatened to make mechanical watches almost obsolete.
Listening to watch industry insiders who lived through this era in the 1980s is interesting. The tale they share is akin to retelling the story of apocalypse. For them a foreign terror and technology came in to wipe out an industry they held so dear, that held so many people together in the watch manufacturing hubs of Switzerland. Nivarox was about to be the heart of a dying creature. In 1983 the various arms of Nivarox consolidated and later in 1985 it became part of the Swatch Group that was at first a merger of the ASUAG and the SSIH. Many people of course know that the Swatch Group was started by Nicolas Hayek (who recently passed away). Many people credit him for saving the Swiss watch industry.
If you’ve noticed I keep referring to the fact that the Swiss watch industry is kept together by a series of suppliers who produce the necessary parts that go into watch movement. There are zero totally vertically integrated watch makers in Switzerland even today. The whole system of manufacturing could be halted if just one supplier stopped supplying materials or parts. This is why Mr. Hayek instructed Nivarox to produce its own metal for the balance springs. Originally sourced from a metal producer in Germany, there was just too much fear that if the supplier didn’t want Nivarox as a client anymore (which of course could happen on a whim), the entire industry would supper as watches could not be produced. Hayek’s ongoing mantra to Nivarox was “product, product, product, product.”
While Nivarox is part of the Swatch Group there is a feeling of independence. Most brands which are part of the group are more under the Swatch Group umbrella than they are just different wings of the same building. In fact the Swatch Group as a whole is comprised of scores of companies spread out all over the world. Hayek senior and now his son are the less-than-metaphorical parents of the group’s many adopted children.
The Swatch Group also owns a company called ETA – which produces most of the movements in timepieces which bear the “Swiss Made” mark on their dial. For a few years now ETA threatened to no longer produce movements for companies outside of the Swatch Group. This spurred a lot of debate and controversy, and is an issue that cannot be easily explained in this article. What I do understand is that the result of their desire, tempered by the Swiss authorities, is that ETA will now be more selective in who they sell watch movements to outside of the group. In their own words “they no longer wish to be the shopping market of the Swiss watch industry.” ETA in combination with Nivarox produces the wide range of movements which power most Swiss watches out there.
In addition to the tiny and complex to manufacture balance springs, Nivarox also produces balance wheels, anchors, palettes, escapements, main springs, and other tiny parts such as screws and small gears. They also produce the gear trains for Swatch Group’s high-end brands such as Breguet and Blancpain, and even dial markers such as hour indicators and other indexes. I had no idea that Nivarox made this range of components. They are more or less specialists in producing tiny parts.
I was invited by Omega on behalf of the Swatch Group to visit Nivarox in what was an extremely rare tour. The idea was to see where some of Omega’s most sophisticated watch movement components were produced. Unlike many watch brands that encourage watch writers to visit their manufacturers, Nivarox is a place whose doors are closed to the majority of the public. Due to the secrecy of their production techniques, I was not allowed to take pictures. While this fact sort of sucked from a reporting standpoint, I understand.
Technology leaders in much of the US and Europe have experienced the theft of their techniques and processes from foreign manufacturers (typically in Asia). The Swatch Group itself still has a bitter taste in its mouth from situations such as this (especially in the 1980s) where trade secrets developed over several lifetimes were usurped almost overnight. Since then they have justifiably become much more protective of their property. This is especially an issue because Nivarox is not only able to produce parts of a much higher quality than its competitors by and large, but is able to mass produce them.
Mass production for a long time was (and is) the bane of the watch industry. The best brands routinely tell me that it is far easier to produce 10 complex tourbillon minute repeaters than it is to mass produce 10,000 simple three-hand mechanical movements. Consistently producing tiny parts that are interchangeable with one another is the challenge, and no one is better at it in Switzerland than ETA and Nivarox.
Not everything is totally interchangeable though. A unique example is how specialists at Nivarox must pair balance springs escapements together. Balance springs are produced in batches but each specific spring behaves a bit differently within an accepted range of frequencies. To ensure that watch movements produce acceptable accuracy rate results, balance springs must be paired with balance wheels that bit those frequencies. The way this is done involves each and every spring and balance wheel being tested, sorts, and then later paired. This process can mean the difference in a few minutes of accuracy a day, even though the human eye can’t determine the difference. In the event a watch experiences damage to escapement system, often times the entire unit is replace like a module in order to ensure that there is still a matching hairspring and balance wheel. If it all sounds complicated, that is because it is. This is part of the fervent attention to detail involved in making Swiss watches.
Typical at most watch movement manufacturers,most everything at Nivarox is done under magnification. While a mass producer of components, the parts produced at Nivarox are still incredibly small in size. These tiny springs, screws, and pieces of synthetic ruby shoved into metal forks represent the most difficult parts to produce in Swiss watch movements (and most Swiss watch movements rely on getting them from Nivarox). It is true that other companies produce these parts as well – especially for their own use. Still, no one but Nivarox is able to make them on the same scale. There is an interesting feeling at Nivarox concerning this fact as well as their position as such a widespread supplier. A lot of watch makers out there derive credibility from saying “we do it all ourselves.” Though many of these people are using parts made at Nivarox. There is a certain sentiment in-house that it is unfair for others to claim responsibility for what Nivarox has done. A sentiment I feel stems from higher up in the Swatch Group as those brands many be competitors to Swatch Group brands. At heart Nivarox is a dutiful supplier that makes parts not whole watches.
The term “Swiss Made” has come under fire the last few years as it is generally felt in Switzerland (in the watch industry) that the term has been diluted from its original strong meaning. What companies like the Swatch Group want is for the term Swiss Made to mean a lot more again – embodying a sense of value that takes into consideration the concept of craftsmanship, quality, and heritage. A larger goal of the Swatch Group seems to be that no matter what watch brand has timepieces with ETA and Nivarox parts, that brand respectfully represents the ideals inherent to the “Swiss Made” label. For this reason the Swatch Group wants to reign in their supply of components a bit.
One of the things I saw being produced at Nivarox where the regulation systems for the Swatch Group’s high-end “prestige” brands. What separates these parts from the more basic ones that are found in more entry level ETA movements is the hands-on attention to detail and selection. Parts are tested and scrutinized by hand to ensure even more consistent quality and accuracy. Among these parts also included the Co-Axial escapements used in Omega watches. The benefit of a George Daniels developed Co-Axial escapement is difficult to explain. These escapement mechanisms are very different than the standard ones you are used to, and if Omega didn’t have the exclusive rights to them, I would say that all watches should have these. Though they are much more complicated to produce. In brief, they reduce the amount of friction between parts in an escapement which leads to more accurate results over the life of the movement – as well as a longer lifespan for the escapement.
As a mass producer of components Nivarox employs a large number of people, but also relies on a lot of modern technology and automation. Robots used to skillfully perform tasks once done by humans really fascinate me. For the most part, automated robotic production tends to be more precise and consistent. One thing you’ll find in the Swiss watch industry is a hesitation to completely abandon the human side of watch movement production. What you’ll often find are humans and robots placed near each other performing the same tasks. It is an interesting form of egalitarianism that isn’t found everywhere.
Producing things like main springs and casting their own metals for balance springs are among Nivarox’s more recent new talents. The newest thing for them is silicon (silicium). Already used in some Omega and Breguet watches, silicon is really proving to the material of the future for the high-end watch industry. It was debuted in a production watch about 10 years ago by Ulysse Nardin in their Freak watch. Nivarox is dedicated to exploring the technology more, as well as offering more silicon parts for their regulation systems. Silicon as a material is amazing. Once produced it will never deform, is immune to heat and magnetism, and requires zero lubrication.
I got to experience some of the interesting properties of silicon hair springs. Specially cut from silicon wafer, the springs have an incredible amount of elasticity. It is true that silicon can break, but it is not as brittle as you’d expect after the parts are formed. Witnessing some silicon balance spring stress testing I was incredibly impressed at the abuse it took before breaking. Nivarox is very dedicated to silicon, and will continue to not only continue to experiment with how to best use it, but also to mass produce it. I anticipate that Nivarox will likely become the main Swiss supplier of silicon hair springs, anchors, escapement wheels, and other parts in the near future.
Being able to tour Nivarox and meet with their executives was a treat. Not only because few people have done it, but also because it represents the necessary core of the Swiss watch industry as we know it. Without Nivarox the Swiss watch making machine as we know it would collapse to a halt. This very important entity makes what drives most of the Swiss watches that you likely own. Even though they don’t make parts you normally view with your eyes, without Nivarox the hands on your timepiece would hardly be worth watching.