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What does the term “manufacture movement” mean ?
In many of the descriptions on this website, the term “manufacture” is used as a noun and this is worthy of some explanatory comment. The Swiss watch industry employs the word in this way to identify a company that is capable of producing its own movements entirely in-house without purchasing any component parts from third party suppliers.
For a newcomer to the vintage watch collecting field, it may well come as quite a surprise to learn that relatively few of the famous name brands actually made their own movements entirely from scratch. The cost of designing, developing, testing and manufacturing a movement in-house was, and still is, enormous, at current price levels literally running into several million pounds per calibre ( a particular movement model is correctly termed as a “calibre”). The standard approach was to purchase ebauches, which were movements in a completely raw, unfinished state, without any pinions, wheels or other component parts, from external suppliers and then re-work these in-house, refining and tuning them as required and, of course, adding the required company name in the process.
The pros and cons of ebauche based versus manufacture movements can be debated endlessly, but it is important that potential buyers at least understand the key arguments on both sides. By purchasing ebauches rather than trying to produce movements in-house, a company with limited resources, both financial and in terms of skilled labour, can devote more time to exceptional finishing and other forms of refinement. It doesn’t follow that the end product has to even bear an obvious resemblance to the ebauche from which it has been derived and in fact, at the top tier level of the market that this site is primarily concerned with, often it is quite a challenge to identify the origins of many of the highly processed ebauches based movements used.
From the pro-manufacture camp comes the view that if a movement is produced entirely in-house, the company making it has total control over every aspect of the production process from start to finish. Quality control can be monitored every step of the way and kept at a very high level. Some collectors counter that is that this is a rather weak argument. The major brands that used ebauches didn’t buy them from dubious sources but worked very closely with a tight knit group of very famous manufacturers that had specialised in this era for many decades. Companies like A. Schild of Grenchen and FHF ( Fabrique d’Horologerie de Fontainemelon), from which Rolex sourced ebauches during the inter-war years, were hardly concerns with an unknown track record, but in fact, both had sparkling histories that stretched back far longer than that of Rolex itself. Similarly, Unitas and Peseux, though unknown to the general public at large, produced ebauches to a quality standard that was in every way equal to that of the in-house movements made by the famous name brands.
The most compelling reason for buying a vintage watch with a manufacture movement is actually probably an emotive one. There is something very appealing about knowing that the mechanism inside one’s watch is a thoroughbred product of an identifiable group of workers, designed, built and regulated by the concern named on it. Equally, there is always a slight degree of disappointment in finding that in basic form, the movement in any high value watch we own by a famous brand is also to be found at a much lower price level with another name signed on its dial.
The concept of the manufacture isn’t unique to the wristwatch world and, interestingly, has become increasingly important to enthusiasts of other luxury products. A single malt Scotch whisky, where the contents of the bottle can be traced back to a particular unique distillery, has more credibility with aficionados than a pure malt, which, as the name suggests, is still entirely malt whisky, but is a blend of malt whiskies from several distilleries. As occasional Havana smokers here, we are aware of the notion of the “puro”, this being a cigar in which all the tobacco leaf comes from a single country or even a single plantation. Cuban cigars tend to be puros, but a lot of those from other nations are blends of tobacco from several sources, typically combining Connecticut shade wrapper leaf with filler grown and cured in the Dominican Republic. These are still good, hand rolled cigars, but in the minds of the real connoisseur, they are perceived as less desirable than a traditional single origin puro.
Only a couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the British vintage motorcycle magazine “Classic Bike” that touched on this point. This was basically a discussion about the relative merits for investment of two legendary British machines, the Brough Superior and the Vincent Black Shadow. One of the comments made was that the Brough utilised an engine bought in from a third party maker, JAP, whereas the Vincent’s power plant was made entirely in-house at the company’s factory in Stevenage. The point was explained that this in-house engine gave the Vincent a degree of integrity and purity that could never be found in the Brough and it was suggested that over time, as this issue potentially becomes more important to collectors, the former could well prove to be the better purchase in financial terms. This made exceedingly interesting reading and there is obviously a direct parallel there with the manufacture movement debate in the vintage wristwatch scene.
In almost every example, it will be indicated with the descriptions accompanying the watches for sale on this site whether their movements were produced in-house or not. As a brief summary, almost all Omega and Longines movements pre-1970 have manufacture status. Certainly Jaeger LeCoultre and Zenith created their own mechanisms and both proudly still continue to do so today. Breitling was a purchaser of ebauches, with most of its famous models being based around raw movements supplied by Venus, as was Ulysse Nardin, which offered some spectacular movements created by completely re-working ebauches sourced from Schild and ETA. Up until the late 1970s, IWC was still manufacturing its own movements, whereas Cartier models from the firm’s inter-war golden years typically featured movements supplied by Jaeger LeCoultre.
Rolex, as ever, has to fit into a category of its own. If we want to be technically accurate, the company wasn’t a manufacture. It purchased its movements from a variety of sources, the most notable of which was the Jean Aegler company. However, when we look into this state of affairs more closely, we find that Rolex had a large financial interest in Aegler. Given this influence and the fact that almost all the movements found in vintage Rolex watches are not seen in any other models by other brands, collectors are inclined to view Rolex as being in the manufacture category, even though if we really want to be pedantic, we could argue that this isn’t actually correct.
Exceptions to the above are chronograph models. Chronograph movements are so complex and costly to produce that almost all the major houses, even those that manufactured their own conventional movements, based their chronograph models around ebauches. Jaeger LeCoultre regularly used Valjoux chronograph mechanisms, as did Rolex, Longines and Patek-Philippe. The cost of setting to from scratch to design and build in-house chronographs was simply too high for the limited sales potential that these specialist models had. There were some notable manufacturers of exceptional chronograph movements during the vintage period and it made commercial sense to buy these and re-finish them as required. We see acknowledgement of the same situation at Omega, where tuned versions of Lemania chronographs were used inside the firm’s various much coveted early Speedmasters and at Heuer, where refined Leonidas and Valjoux calibres were fitted during the company’s 1960s and ‘70s heyday.
Finally on this subject, it is worth mentioning that the more widespread use of manufacture movements may well be regarded as one of the factors for the exponential interest in vintage wristwatches in the last fifteen years. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, use of in-house movements dropped to an all time low and even today, it is surprising just how few high value current luxury models contain movements that were actually produced by the maker signed on them. By purchasing a vintage piece, perhaps from the 1940s or 50s, you are acquiring not only a watch built to quality standards that, sadly, we are unlikely to ever see again, but also one that, for the most part, will have a mechanism genuinely manufactured and designed from beginning to end by one of the famous Swiss brands that have today become household names worldwide.