What is a watch movement? It seems a very simple question with what should be a very simple answer but it has caused some debate recently.
Some of you may have noticed that Daniel and I are now on Watchuseek. If you are not familiar with this site, it is a community forum dedicated to watch owners and enthusiasts. We have been up and posting for about two months now and are beginning to get a feel for how this works. One thing for sure is that you need to have thick skin to post here. We have received a lot of critical commentary from the Watchuseek community!
Watch Movement – A Difference Of Opinion
A few weeks ago, we posted our blog about how we developed the SNGLRTY movement. Daniel’s initial challenge was to put together a team with the skill to turn our idea into a working prototype. We required technical skills but had a very tight budget. Not a trivial task.
We remain proud of our achievement in creating a new movement. But then we received a lot of criticism for claiming we had created a new movement.
The criticism focused on two areas. First was that SNGLRTY merely subcontracted the difficult work, and we had not created the movement – we had subcontracted this work, so we could not claim the result as our movement.
The second was that because we had used some significant components, particularly the tractor, as a functional piece, the result was not our movement.
This was stinging criticism. If these challenges were correct, Daniel and I had spent an awful lot of time and seemed to have achieved very little. Was this true?
Where Is The Truth?
Who was right? Were our efforts worthless? We always need to be aware of this possibility. But I was not going to accept the opinion of a few keyboard warriors. I decided to go back and see how a particular watch had been developed. I wanted to understand how smaller independent brands developed their watches.
It did not take me long to find a suitable watch study. I had just recently finished reading Jack Heuer’s autobiography titled, The Times Of My Life. A book I would thoroughly recommend to any watch enthusiast. The pages provided fascinating details about a watch I have already written about, the Heuer Monaco.
The Heuer Monaco – An Industry Effort?
There are three distinctive novel aspects to this watch when you look into how Heuer developed this watch. First, it was a confluence of circumstances that allowed this watch to ever come into existence. But what I found fascinating was the number of parties involved to make it possible.
The Watch Case.
Let’s start with the humble watch case. It is very unusual for any watchmaker to fabricate their watch cases in-house. Manufacturing watch cases is a technical process that requires an excellent understanding of the properties of stainless steel. This is necessary to ensure each watch case is finished to exact tolerances – especially if the watch case is to be water-resistant. Not to mention the manufacturing process requires large and generally dirty equipment.
One of Heuer’s key watch case suppliers was Piquerez. Piquerez had a proven track record of technical excellence and a reputation for innovation. In particular, Piquerez focused on the development of and manufacturing water-resistant watch cases.
As the story is told, a representative of Piquerez visited Heuer with several new watch cases. One, in particular, was of interest to the team at Heuer. Piquerez had a new patented square case that they had developed. The key selling point was that the case was water-resistant. This was particularly novel as up until this point square cases were only used for dress watches because it had not been possible to make a square case water-resistant.
Heuer immediately took a liking to the square shape and negotiated a deal with Piquerez so that Heuer had exclusive use of the case design for chronograph watches. The importance of this will be evident a little later.
The Watch Movement
Buren, another Swiss watchmaker, had developed a patented thinner micro-rotor automatic watch movement. They announced this to the industry at the Basel Watch and Jewellery Fair of 1967. Heuer was impressed with this technical advance and joined up with Dubois-Dépraz, one of Switzerland’s most famous watch engineering groups. Heuer wanted to study the feasibility of using the new Buren micro-rotor movement and combine it with a module carrying the entire chronograph mechanism made by Dubois-Dépraz.
Dubois-Dépraz had already developed the module Heuer needed to create the successful “Monte Carlo” stopwatch. Therefore, Heuer and Dubois-Dépraz were confident they could handle this new challenge. The trouble was that in 1967, Heuer was a relatively small company, and Dubois-Dépraz quoted an astronomically high price for the project. The quote was for approximately CHF 500,000 to develop the module and integrate it into the Buren movement. This was too large for Heuer to spend on research and development, so Heuer decided to team up with another watch brand.
Spreading the Risk
Jack Heuer had an excellent personal relationship with Willy Breitling. But not only this, Heuer and Breitling had a very symbiotic relationship. Heuer was focused on sports and timing, whereas Breitling focused on aviation. Not only that, but there was minimal geographic overlap in their biggest markets at the time. Breitling was strong in Europe and Heuer stronger in the USA. This meant that they could cooperate in development costs but still compete in the market.
Heuer had brought the team together to mitigate the development costs and achieve the goal. Buren, Dubois–Dépraz, Breitling, and Heuer established a development team to create a self-winding wrist chronograph. Everyone involved with the development of the movement was sworn to secrecy, and the project was codenamed “Project 99”.
In the summer of 1968, Breitling and Heuer received the first prototypes of what would become the Calibre 11 movement. This was the first self-winding chronograph. Minor modifications were necessary from the prototypes. Dubois–Dépraz addressed these issues, with that the concept and engineering had been proven.
The challenge for Heuer with the team effort was that Breitling and Buren also had access to the Calibre 11 movement, so the technological distinction of the movement was not going to be enough; there were two other companies in the market selling exactly the same movement.
For Heuer, The Casemaker Was Key
Now it is obvious why Heuer was so keen to have exclusive rights to the watch case by Piquerez. This meant that regardless of how Breitling or Buren chose to implement the Calibre 11 movement, Heuer had a design no one could copy as the Piquerez patent protected the watch case design.
Back to Our Critics
Heuer led the team that developed the Calibre 11. Four specialist groups provided technical input. The tractor, or base movement, was the patented Buren movement. The chronograph functions and integration of these with the Buren movement were engineered by Dubois–Dépraz. What’s more, the development costs were split between Breitling and Heuer. Breitling and Heuer introduced “Chronomatic” as an amalgamation of the words chronograph and automatic with the introduction of the Calibre 11. Heuer later changed this to “Automatic Chronograph,” which was more easily understood in the US.
So to all our critics who say we did not create a movement with SNGLRTY, if that were the case, it would appear that the Calibre 11 was not a new movement. Would anyone seriously claim that the Calibre 11 was not a new movement merely because of who worked on it?
Furthermore, would they claim that the creation of the Monaco watch by Heuer was a process of “outsourcing” to engineers? The design of this watch was a team effort between five industry groups and two patents not held by Heuer. Would anyone claim that the Heuer Monaco and the Calibre 11 was somehow a lesser achievement because it was a team effort?
With such great history, we are going to continue to be proud of our new movement. We have built this on the shoulders of those who have achieved great things in watchmaking, and that humbles us.
Perhaps our biggest mistake was that we did not create a name for our movement? What do you think of when someone says a watch movement? Do you have any suggestions on what we should name our movement? Please do let us know in the comments below.