When you look at your precious timepiece – or perhaps its price tag – it’s easy to recognize that it must have taken quite a bit of effort to produce. In this article, we will explain what in-house manufacturing actually means and how watch brands work together with suppliers when they are not capable of producing everything themselves.
When all the parts are produced, finished, and assembled, it doesn’t actually stop there for the manufacturer. A lot of brands have strict test and quality control processes in place to ensure that every watch is perfect when it arrives at the retailer and is guaranteed to last a long time.
Concept and Design
Before a company can start producing a watch, they need to come up with an idea; a concept that can be turned into an actual design. Today, most watch manufacturers use advanced CAD systems to design watches and all of their components. A couple of brands use 3D printing techniques to look at prototypes based on these computer designs. Others use real stainless steel for prototypes, sometimes with dummy movements or just basic calibers that fit. Do not underestimate the role of research and development at this stage either. In some companies it is all under one roof to make sure that a watch or movement design is feasible.
Everything must perfectly correspond together, especially since the room for error in watch manufacturing is tiny. Once a company is certain about how a watch should look and which specifications it should have, the production can begin. The production process consists of several parallel processes. The case making department or third party, for example, does not have to wait until the movement is finished or the dial receives its final color or finish.
Cases and Bracelets
Many watch brands work together with suppliers to have their cases created. Only a few watch brands do this in-house (Rolex and IWC Schaffhausen for example). Suppliers for cases are often very discrete, as brands are protective of their name and image. The same goes for bracelets. Bracelets are seldom produced in-house. Specialized companies make sure that the case and bracelet parts meet the exact specified requirements set forth by the watch manufacturer.
Without getting into the debate of in-house versus third party movement suppliers, the movement makes quite a difference in the production process. True manufacturers start their journey with raw pieces of brass, stainless steel, and other alloys used for the movement. CNC machines do the initial cutting, drilling, and milling of all the parts. Once this is finished, the parts pass through a chain of small steps, to either (hand-) finish certain parts or to add gears and trains until there is a working movement. Many manufacturers that produce their movements in-house still need to source small parts and components from third parties (balance springs, for example, or rubies).
Step-by-step, the movement gets finished and assembled by watchmakers. The manufacturers that are considered ‘haute horlogerie’ are the ones that spend a lot of time and effort (hand-) finishing their movements, including hand-engraving balance wheel bridges, perlage, polishing, and beveling edges of bridges. These techniques are painstakingly time consuming. When the movement is finished and ready to be cased, it is often checked for accuracy. If a movement needs to be chronometer certified, it is shipped to the COSC organization who subjects it to a series of tests. The certified movements come back at a later stage.
Dial and Hands
The dial and hands, or face of the watch, are very important. This is what you will look at many times each day. These features need to be beautiful and flawless. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but perfectionism leaves little room for interpretation. Similar to (hand-) finishing movements, finishing is important for the dial and hands of a watch. Blued hands and lacquered dials, for example, require a specific skill set and a lot of time. Dials are often ordered from suppliers, but a couple of companies produce and finish their own dial components.
Before the movement is cased and the dials and hands are added to it, a lot of visual checks take place. When one of the quality control staff notices a tiny scratch or deviation in tolerances, measures are taken. Sometimes, pieces have to go all the way back to the production process to be fixed. Hands are sometimes automatically applied to the dial, but in many cases this is still done by hand. Afterwards, more visual checks take place to see whether the hands are perfectly aligned. The crown is of course also added and tested to see if all the hands move correctly and whether the winding system works.
Once the movement is cased, the dial is added, and everything is fully functional, the watch often goes into an array of more severe testing procedures; think water resistance tests, shock tests, etc. In some cases, the accuracy of the watch is tested one more time, seeing as the movement is now in a case. Some brands offer a 4-year warranty or more, so you can be sure that their testing procedures are very strict.
When this is complete and a watch has passed all tests, it goes into the final stage of the assembly and production process. Some watches (case backs) are (laser) engraved in this stage, while other manufacturers do this a bit earlier during case production. If so, the strap or bracelet is added and the watch is ready for shipment. In addition to the watch, there is documentation and the box(es), of course. The watch is often shipped separately from the box.
So, there’s your watch on your wrist. It most likely underwent several of the aforementioned steps, depending on the type of movement, material, and level of (hand) finishing it has.