September 9, 2008
by Ariel Adams
You might be wondering what Voltron has to do with watch making. Well, nothing actually, though I did think this segment of Voltron forming was cool. It also helps me illustrate a point about the watch industry, and how a good watch is really made up from the efforts of several entities working together.
When you see a new watch that you like. You pick it up and may think to yourself, “they really make a nice watch.” This would be the logical thing to say, but a more accurate statement a lot of the time would be, “they assemble a really nice watch.” And sometimes not even that. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that most small watch makers and brands (both large and small) are able to make and design everything themselves. You already know that for the most part, watch movements are all sourced, and more often than not, the components that make up your watch come from many places.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing, and small watch makers are often proud of where they get their parts from. You see, only the largest of watch makers are able to be “vertically integrated.” Meaning they make all (or most) of the parts that go into the watches themselves, plus assemble the watches. Even then, there are often highly specialized parts that are sourced. Behemoth watch maker Swatch still relies on certain outside companies to make watch parts from time to time. That, or they just buy the parts manufacturer and bring them into the family. Swatch is one of the only European watch makers that can be said to actually have an integrated manufacturing system. Large makers such as Citizen and Seiko in Japan likely make most of their parts, some of which are perhaps actually manufactured in China (though lets not stress that part of it). We know that American based Fossil relies heavily on China for parts, which makes sense given their less than world class wrist watch offerings.
Swiss and German watch makers are a bit more protective of their craft and will mostly rely on “local” suppliers for everything. As such, there is a price to be deemed “Swiss Made.” And that is really where you see the niche industries blossom. You have companies that just make watch cases, or hands, or do special engraving, or dials, or bezels. Then you get to the movements themselves. The “brand” typically puts the movements together and places them in the watches (the assembly phase), but the pieces that go inside the movements come from all over the place. Even if a movement “kit” is purchased from ETA, many of the smaller elements come from specialized industries. Parts like the mainspring, shock absorption elements, rotor, and others are sometimes sourced from highly specialized companies. If all you make is automatic mechanical watch rotors, you likely do it very well, and you’ll be in high demand.
Some watch makers will make some of the parts themselves, but typically all smaller watch makers source much of their parts externally. Which really boils down to what good watch making is all about. You need to be able to come up with a good design, and more importantly, establish good relationships with parts makers. A skilled ability to select among the best while integrating the pieces to come up with a good looking and well-built watch is the key to success and often the holy grail of independent watch makers. That of course, and having a unique slant of classic designs or something uniquely avant garde, and an attractive price.
The landscape of the watch industry in Switzerland, at least, is a vast network of distributor relationships, parts makers, innovation conferences, and talent exchanges. That, and watch making is a labor of love that has the unique ability these days to connect the working class artisan, with a sometimes aristocratic class of buyers; those people that create with those people who “have.” The most successful of watch makers combine the skill of design and of the industry. It is possible for a maker to enjoy high commercial success without delving into the realm of technical innovation or alike, simply by tastefully combining the existing elements and relationships available to them.
Know that watch makers for the most part don’t want you to know this. They would prefer retain an illusion that they, themselves hand make each watch from the ore to the finished timepiece. Instead they are mostly assemblers, but that is OK. These are businesses like any other, and the realities and privileges of industrialization should be taken advantage of at all times. A purely hand-made watch would cost a fortune, which is often the case even with those that are only somewhat hand-made.
Knowing this you can always feel free to inquire as to the source of parts, and alike contained in a watch you are interested in. There are even those watches that are like wine; in that certain years are better than others given the parts available and used during segments of production. These are often the most collectible, and highly sought after. Yet another insight into the interesting and dynamic world which is the watch industry.