Movement Modules, Ebauches and Watch Innovations

Steve Mansfield
Steve Mansfield

movement module top plate, otherwise known as the complication plate, partly assembled

Movement modules and ebauches were the furthest things on my mind as Steve, and I discussed watches. On that evening, accompanied by a glass of wine or two, we laid the foundation for SNGLRTY. We did not realize that we would be following in the footsteps of some of the most renowned watchmakers. It was not long until I was in the world of ebauches and developing movement modules. 

An Accurate Single-Hand Watch

A single-hand watch, the analog display of time, accurate to the minute, was our invention. SNGLRTY has only one hand, but it is accurate; there is no equivocation. The exact time is presented to the viewer at a familiar rotating location. 

A watch with a single hour hand that presents the precise minute wherever the hour hand is on the watch face. To achieve this mechanically, the minutes had to run backward or fast forward on a disc. We preferred the idea of reverse gear in the movement.  

Displaying Time With The Rhythm of Time

The hours are displayed classically, the hand turning clockwise and completing one revolution every 12 hours. We were both struck by the simplicity of the display. To us, this was a more eloquent way of displaying time. Time can only be experienced in each singular moment.  We had created an exact display of time at a singular location on a watch face. Yet the display maintained its rhythm and fluidity, another feature of time.  The counter-clockwise minutes juxtaposed with the clockwise hours are a metaphor for the past and the future. They collide together precisely and eternally in a single moment, the present.

#seetimedifferently

We all have a tendency to live in the past or dream of the future. The present appears forgotten, yet it is the only time we can experience or influence.  That is what SNGLRTY stands for. For living in the moment and appreciating the present. Enjoying the here-and-now, appreciating the experience when it is available is not easy.  A different perspective is required. It demands that you look at each singular moment differently.  Each moment accumulates to time, and that is the stuff that life is made of. This is precisely what SNGLRTY does. It presents time differently and challenges us to see time in each moment, celebrate it, and grasp that singular moment. 

Simple Is Not Easy

The simplicity of focusing on the now does not mean it is easy to do. Just as the simplicity of the SNGLRTY display did not mean it was easy to achieve. 

Even though it was late in the evening when we came up with SNGLRTY, we understood that we could not achieve this new time display with a standard watch movement. We understood that the minutes and the hours had a closing speed. Somehow, the movement of the hours and minutes had to be regulated, so time converged at the same point.  One revolution is fixed at 360°; this could not be adjusted. This meant the tempo of one of the displays had to be adjusted.

 

Complicated is Simple. Simple is Complicated.

Our initial challenge had been to create a watch that was different. However, different can very easily make things far more complicated. Our desire was to simplify. We wanted people to have familiarity with the display. The hour hand dates back centuries and is quite natural and is intuitive to the nearest five or so minutes. This meant we did not want to change the speed or positioning of the hour hand. The rotation speed of the minute indication had to be reduced. Or, to put it another way, the rotating minute indication travels less than 360 degrees in one hour. 

There is no other movement on the market with “slower” minutes that run backward.  This was a world first.

The Question of The “SNGLRTY” Movement

This movement could not be purchased in the market, so we would have to make it. But there are options on how to make it.  You can make one from the ground up,  tune another movement or build a module on top of an existing movement. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

We had spent the months after the initial idea clarifying if our idea was an innovation. The idea of reading the time accurately from a single moving and familiar location on a watch face was brilliant for us, but did it already exist? We had scoured patents, watch literature, and spoken to many watch movement developers in Switzerland. 

The idea seemed so simple, almost natural. Everyone who saw it initially had the same reaction. An analog single-hand display, precise to the minutes or seconds, had already been realized. 

This was not the case. In the 389 years since the invention of the balance wheel, we would be the first people to attempt to realize it. After a lengthy back-and-forth, we received a patent for our idea. You can read all about US patent no. US 9,733,618 in a separate blog post

Back to the movement! To develop and manufacture our own movement was far outside our budget.  If we had chosen that route, I doubt that SNGLRTY would be available today. 

Can You Still Get Ebauches?

Another option is to rebuild an existing movement and integrate the SNGLRTY complication. Most high-end wristwatch makers were, until the turn of the century, établisseurs. Many of their movements and complications emerged from a base movement that they then modified and completed. The likes of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and many more started this way. 

The debacle surrounding the supply of ETA’s (base) movements brought more diversity to the market. There are many reports by the Competition Commission (WEKO) investigation into market domination by ETA.  This resulted in their decision against ETA SA Manufacture Horlogère Suisse a few years ago. As it turns out, this was the catalyst for Switzerland’s movement production to really develop and become a diverse and exciting market. 

Since then, many companies have been working to develop a diverse supply of movement production. Some have naturally failed despite an exciting concept, or the market was unable to accept their price. Others have established themselves as “small and fine” in this highly competitive market. Certain brands that developed their in-house movements have become real manufacturers. However, they concentrate exclusively on their own group needs supplying their own brands with movements. Despite the market diversity, only two or perhaps three prominent movement manufacturers can currently produce movements in volume with an acceptable lead time and offer it at reasonable prices.  

Re-Developing the Wheel and not the Axle.

Steve Mansfield and I wanted to “reinvent the wheel, but not the axle as well.” It did not seem to make sense to us to tinker with the primary motor. Starting with a well-established movement would allow us to realize the SNGLRTY display faster. Most importantly, there would be less risk in using a well-established movement, not to mention being cost-efficient. The disadvantage is that a module would increase the height of the complete movement. This can be addressed by careful engineering and thoughtful watch case design. We did not want to position SNGLRTY among those brands that barely modify a movement but claim it as their own. Many merely adapt the rotor yet call it their own movement. 

A Movement Module – The Smart Choice

With all the focus on movements, it is easy to forget that modules are just as significant. It is very economical, and it also reduces the risk, not only for the watch producer but also for the customer. This is a well-trodden path that many illustrious watchmakers of today have implemented frequently in their past. This was especially true at the beginning of the mechanical watch’s resurgence in the 1990s. The question is, why change the safe, proven engine when you achieve your goal by adding a seventh gear, a turbocharger, or four-wheel drive to the existing and proven engine?

movement module assembled with a tractor unit beside it for comparison
The Movement Module, or Complication Plate, Sat Beside The Tractor Unit

And Industry View Of Movement Modules

It is interesting to note the definition of “module” from worldtempus.com:

“…a caliber can also offer any number of additional indications. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation brings us to well over a hundred complications and combinations thereof. How are they supplied? There are two approaches. The first is to start with the base movement, and on top of that, graft a separate bloc that deals with one or more additional functions. This is the module. It’s called a complication plate because it is in the shape of a circular plaque. But it’s not autonomous. It borrows its energy and timekeeping functions from the base movement, which carries and supplies it.

The advantage of a module is that it can be made separately and grafted onto different movements. It’s also far more straightforward than a base caliber, which makes it relatively economical to produce. It enhances calibers with useful functions such as additional time zones, big dates, power reserves, and moon phase displays. It is indispensable when it comes to exotic displays such as wandering hours and retrograde functions. The disadvantage is that it is superimposed on top of the base movement, and any protrusions have to project at a different level. To give a typical example, in a chronograph module (from Audemars Piguet or Girard-Perregaux), the pushers are not on the same plane as the crown. Even worse, the date, which is often part of the base movement, looks like it’s at the bottom of a well.”

Dubois-Dépraz

The leading manufacturer of module movement design remains Dubois & Dépraz SA from Le Lieu, Switzerland. This company fiercely guards its independence, developing and manufacturing complications for various brands since 1901.  They have historically focused on movement modules but are now increasingly providing integrated movement solutions.  This naturally depends on the budget.

In the mid-nineties, I integrated the very well-known Dubois Dépraz 2025, a chronograph movement based on the ETA 2824-2.  This was part of the development of a new luxury watch brand. We developed a patented display together with Dubois & Dépraz. 

I was working to create GEVRIL, a new watch brand. We worked with Dubois Dépraz to realize the design and execute a patented, screw-down crown indicator.  We christened it the Unlocked Crown Indicator or the UCI (does that sound familiar? OHI anyone?). Before selling the watch brand, we were very close to selling the patent rights to Tag-Heuer.  At the time, Tag-Heuer was still an independent watchmaker.  In retrospect, our price expectations for the patent were a little too high for an independent watchmaker. We created the second function by adding a module to display the date and day of the week at the six o’clock position with two shorthands.

Agenhor SA

At the time, we were developing another module for GEVRIL with Agenhor. Agenhor was founded and operated by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and, at that time, Roger Dubuis. Together we worked on a patented display and a somewhat crazy presentation of the seconds. Roger Dubuis subsequently launched the brand Roger Dubuis with the Frank Müller designer Carlos Dias in 1995. Richemont then later took control of the Roger Dubois brand in 2008.  

Agenhor and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht achieved world acclaim by developing movement complications for Harry Winston.  Once they had achieved notoriety for their achievement with Harry Winston, they then developed modules and movements for many leading brands in the Haute Horlogerie sector. 

With Agenhor, we made a patented GMT module called “15°.” This incorporated a day-and-night indication for two time zones. The transition from day to night did not happen abruptly but over a 30 minute period. The tractor for this module was the ETA 2892.

SNGLRTY’s First Movement Module

Twenty years later, I developed a new module for my own watch brand – SNGLRTY. After considering all the alternatives Steve and I saw that a movement module or complication plate was our best solution. We had a patented time display, and by definition, this required a new movement to achieve the One Hand Indication or OHI. 

snglrty movement module fully assembled and ready for casing up
SNGLRTY Movement Module Fully Assembled and Ready For Its Case

Our desire was to develop our OHI module in Switzerland. We wanted to build on my experience and my network of engineers and artisans. I spoke to many well-known and lesser companies that specialized in complications. When we stacked them all up we chose Le Cercle Des Horlogers SA. This young team of engineers, micromechanics, and watchmakers – rhabilleurs, were based in La Chaux-de-Fonds and are now in Les Hauts-Geneveys. 

We were all in. The contract was signed. The first OHI movement module was under development. A single-hand movement that can display the time accurately to the minute was under development. SNGLRTY was gestating.

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