In the world of mechanical watches, there is a common conception (or rather misconception) that all brands produce their own movements. For obvious reasons, the brands themselves are largely responsible for perpetuating this idea. However, as with most things, it doesn’t quite align with reality. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A large number of brands outsource their movements in their entirety, either from a third-party, like Sellita or Vaucher or, if they are part of a larger group (e.g., the SWATCH Group or Richemont), they may borrow movements from their fellow members. Sometimes these movements are modified to suit that brand’s specific needs, both technical and aesthetic. Sometimes they are not. In reality, there are relatively few true watch manufacturers or, in other words, companies that are completely vertically integrated and capable of creating their own movements from scratch. There are a number of good reasons for this, but chief among them is the cost and expertise required. That’s why even some of the most well respected names in the industry have been known to use externally-sourced movements from time to time. Here are four examples that might surprise you.
The Rolex Daytona 16520
It’s hard to believe that Rolex, the modern-day poster child of vertical integration in the watch industry, would ever use outsourced movements, but it did. Quite a bit, in fact. The Rolex Cosmograph made its debut in 1963, taking on its ‘Daytona’ moniker the following year. Back then, it was powered by the Valjoux caliber 72, which Rolex would then modify. This reliable chronograph was famous for being a workhorse and was used in the Daytona until 1987. Its only drawback was that it was wound manually.
Living life in the fast lane, people in the 80s were too busy to wind their watches. This was especially true after the advent of affordable quartz watches, which never needed to be wound or adjusted. As a result, the Daytona’s sales began to decline. To combat this, Rolex introduced the Daytona 16520 with a self-winding movement based on the Zenith El Primero. At the time, there were no other automatic chronograph movements on the market that could stand up to Rolex’s high standards. This didn’t stop Rolex from modifying it extensively, of course. They fitted it with a new escapement, which allowed for a more substantial, free-sprung balance and a Breguet overcoil, all for heightened accuracy. They also reduced the rate of oscillation to a standard 28,800 beats per hour and removed the date function. At the end of the day, the Rolex caliber 4030 only retained 50% of the original Zenith components.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Extra-Thin 15202
By now, everyone has heard the story of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. According to watchmaking lore, AP’s managing director, George Golay, tasked Gérald Genta with designing a stainless steel luxury sports watch. It ended up taking Genta only one night to design what would become the Royal Oak. Considered the world’s first true steel luxury sports watch, it created a sensation when its price tag was revealed to be around the same as the cost of 10 Rolex Submariner watches. The physical beauty of the watch, however, was matched only by the technical beauty of the time-only movement within, the caliber 2120. Measuring just 3.05mm thick, it gave the Ref. 5042A a wonderfully slim profile.
Its modern-day successor is the Royal Oak Extra-Thin 15202, which uses the caliber 2121, based on the original caliber 2120. Both movements are actually based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920. Introduced in 1967, JLC never actually used this ultra-thin movement in any of its own watches. Instead, its claim to fame is that it is the only caliber to be used by all three brands in the holy trinity: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and, of course, Audemars Piguet. It still remains one of the thinnest automatic movements ever to feature full-sized central rotor, measuring just 2.45mm in its base form (without a date module). Eventually, Audemars Piguet bought the license from JLC. Today, they are the only manufacturer to make and use the caliber 2121.
Patek Philippe Ref. 5970
If you were surprised to learn that Rolex has used externally-sourced movements from time to time, you will probably be downright devastated to learn that Patek Philippe has done so too. It’s true, though. The company best known for its perpetual calendar chronograph watches didn’t actually introduce its own in-house perpetual calendar chronograph movement until 2011. Prior to that, Patek used heavily modified Lemania-based movements. The final example of this comes in the form of the Patek Philippe Ref. 5970. Designed by current CEO Thierry Stern and produced in a single series from 2004–2011, it had the shortest production run of any Patek perpetual calendar chronograph.
That’s not to say it wasn’t popular—quite the opposite. However, once the in-house movement was developed, the Ref. 5970 needed to make way for the new Ref. 5270. The Ref. 5970 used the Lemania 2310 as a base, just like the Ref. 3970 and Ref. 5020 before it. Ironically, this is the same base used by the Omega caliber 321, which we will discuss below. That said, the watches vary significantly in their degree of complexity. Of course, Patek Philippe heavily modified the base movement before its perpetual calendar module was added on top. The outsourced base movement hasn’t stopped this model from becoming a sought-after collector’s item, with versions in yellow gold considered the most desirable due to their rarity.
Omega Speedmaster CK2915
Before the Omega Speedmaster became the Moonwatch, it was simply a highly niche tool watch targeted at scientists, engineers, and anyone else who needed the ability to measure the time to the exact second. This was all the way back in the 1950s when the majority of people still wore time-only dress watches. The first Speedmaster made its debut in 1957, powered by the caliber 321. As mentioned before, it also used the legendary Lemania 2310 chronograph movement as a base. In this case, however, there is a bit more to the story.
In 1940, Lemania and Omega came together to try to produce a 27-mm chronograph with a 12-hour register. The project, known as “27 CHRO C12,” would last two years, culminating in the 1942 launch of the Lemania 2310, a.k.a. the Omega Calibre 321. This hand-wound movement featured a column wheel design with a screwed balance oscillating at 18,000 A/h and an easily recognizable wishbone-shaped bridge. It would go on to be used in several more iterations of the Speedmaster, including the original Moonwatch, before being replaced by the Caliber 821 in 1969.