To most people, the phrase “Haute Horlogerie” means little to nothing. Translated into English, the phrase means the “high-art of watchmaking.” This makes the term somewhat clearer, but overall, it’s still vague. However, to a very select group of highly skilled watchmakers, artisans, designers, and, of course, watch collectors, it is a way of life. So, just what is haute horlogerie?
Before we go too far down this intriguing rabbit hole, it is important to note at the outset that there is no single, clear definition of haute horlogerie that everyone can agree upon. The term first came about in the late 1970s following the quartz crisis and was initially (and to a degree, still is) used as a marketing tactic to differentiate super high-end mechanical watches from the mass-produced quartz models that were quickly becoming ubiquitous.
The focus was very much on quality, complexity, and the ability to demonstrate a mastery of the watchmaking arts. This focus hasn’t changed much in the last forty years; what has changed, though, is the number of brands claiming to have achieved this pedigree of watchmaking.
So, what sort of things should we be looking for when it comes to identifying a piece of haute horlogerie? The first and often most obvious element is the movement itself, and specifically the complication or complications present in the watch. As you are no doubt aware, a complication is any function a watch can perform in addition to the indication of hours, minutes, and seconds, regardless of whether the mechanism is hand-wound, automatic, mechanical, or electronic.
A chronograph is a good example, as is a world time or dual time watch. However, not all complications are created equal. Some are exceedingly more difficult to create and master than others and it is these that we are interested in.
Although it’s not possible to cover every single complication you need to be aware of in one article, there are a few keys categories you should familiarize yourself with. These include acoustical complications, such as alarms, repeaters and Grand Sonneries; astronomical complications, such as the perpetual calendar, equation of time and sidereal time; and timing complications, such as the rattrapante split-second chronograph and the dead-beat second. The tourbillon or flying tourbillon complications are often found in haute horlogerie timepieces.
However, it’s important to note that the presence of any one of these complications alone does not necessarily qualify a watch for the title of haute horlogerie. In fact, more often than not, several must be present in a single watch to demonstrate the watchmaker’s true mastery of his or her craft.
Perhaps the best-known example of this is the Grande Complication, which brings together the holy trinity of watchmaking complications into one timepiece. Historically, those complications must come from three specific groups: calendars, timing, and chiming. Mastering the assembly of any single one of the complications from this selection can take a watchmaker years, let alone creating one from scratch, so the Grand Complication is reserved for those rare few that have gained both the knowledge and the skills required. Successfully creating one, however, all but guarantees your membership into the elite club of haute horlogerie.
Just as the Grande Complication brings together the holy trinity of watch complications, there are three big brands that are considered to represent the holy trinity of watchmaking in its totality: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. For some time now, there has also been a fourth brand that is considered part of this group, the German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, although they can’t lay claim to the same lengthy heritage as the main three. They do, however, boast some seriously impressive watchmaking, with perhaps the most notable example of recent times being their 2013 Grande Complication.
Equipped with both a grande and petite sonnerie, minute repeater, a chronograph with rattrapante as well as flying seconds and a perpetual calendar, it is the most complicated wristwatch ever created by the German watchmaker. With 876 parts in the movement alone, it takes a highly experienced watchmaker almost a year to assemble from start to finish.
Creating haute horlogerie is about more than just exceptionally complex movements, however. Almost equally as important is the finishing and decoration of the movement and the case of the watch. In this context, “finishing” refers to the myriad of techniques that may be performed on machine-made watch components to eliminate all traces of machining. In addition, parts are polished and decorated by hand with extreme care and precision, with the final result resembling miniature works of art.
Some of these techniques are centuries old and have been handed down through the generations, whilst others are more recently developed (or improved upon) but no less spectacular. Again, there are too many techniques to cover in detail here, but some of the ones you should familiarize yourself with include anglage, Geneva stripes, perlage, black polish and of course, engraving.
A fantastic example of some of these techniques being executed to the highest possible standards is the Vacheron Constantin Malte Tourbillon Openworked. The storied Swiss watchmaker started from scratch to create the tonneau-shaped caliber 2790 SQ. Like master sculptures, the brand’s talented artisans painstakingly worked away at the movement, taking over 500 hours to create the skeletonized spectacle that is this timepiece.
At just 6.10 mm thick, each of its 246 components were hand-finished, displaying multiple traditional decoration techniques and earning it the Geneva Seal, a coveted and exclusive seal that certifies compliance with the traditions of Genevan workmanship. The seal is widely considered one of the most prestigious certifications in mechanical watchmaking and is reserved for only the special few. Completing this visual spectacle is a large tourbillon, occupying what remains of the bottom half of the dial and beating at a slow 2.5 Hz so you can really appreciate its beauty.
Haute horlogerie will always remain somewhat of a nebulous concept open to interpretation. However, after reading this article, you will hopefully be equipped with enough information to know what to look for and to understand why brands like Rolex are not considered makers of haute horlogerie, even though their watches are manufactured to the highest standards of quality.
Learn more about fine watchmaking