The reputation of a Swiss watch relies first and foremost on the hallowed “Swiss Made” label, which, as some experts will only too readily point out, refers to the composition of the watch by value of the components. This can mean, therefore, that since the movement accounts for the most value in a fake watches, manufacturers are free to buy in cases and other components from wherever they want. As of 1st January 2017, stricter conditions will apply, requiring at least 60% of the production value of a watch to originate in Switzerland. That still leaves 40% of indeterminate origin. At the other extreme, certifications such as the Geneva Hallmark impose much stricter requirements, in terms of component finishing and origin.
In the middle there is the vague notion defined by the French word “manufacture”. The Berner professional watchmaking dictionary does not even bother to try to translate this term into English, so we approximate the French definition here: “In the Swiss watchmaking industry, this term refers to factories which produce their watches almost entirely themselves, unlike assembly workshops, which just assemble and adjust movements, set hands and case up the watches.”
Note the “almost entirely”, since producing a watch requires a hairspring, which only a handful of companies have the know-how to make. Indeed, the Swatch Group’s Nivarox is the leading producer of hairsprings, supplying not only brands within the Group such as Blancpain, Breguet and Omega but almost all of the rest of the industry as well. But just how much of the other elements in these Swiss Made replica watches from the manufactures are actually produced in-house?
Blancpain is one of the rare watch houses that not only produces 100% of its movements in-house, but has also mastered all of watchmaking’s most important complications such as moon phases, annual calendars, perpetual calendars, chronographs, tourbillons, carrousels, minute repeaters and more. Allow me to walk you around the machine shop in the basement of the company’s premises in Le Sentier in the Vallée de Joux, an environment far removed from the sterile workshops where the company’s watchmakers assemble the movements.
We start in a storeroom, where rolls of sheet metals and alloys of various types, thicknesses and widths are arranged. Each roll is used to stamp a variety of different components that are used in the many different movements that make up Blancpain’s collections. Next we move into the machine tool workshop where the engineers make their own stamping dies for new components, each die costing anywhere between 20,000 and 150,000 Swiss francs and taking anything from a few months to one and a half years to produce. Furthermore, each new die has to be approved by the Blancpain laboratory before it can be used in production. This goes some way to explaining, for example, the six-year development time for Blancpain’s Chinese calendar model.
In a separate workshop, people are dedicated solely to producing tools for the watchmakers themselves, making anything from custom calibrated screwdrivers to polishers, bevelling tools and tools for use in CNC machines. Altogether, Blancpain produces about 2000 different tools per year and has a special department dedicated to the crafting of these custom tools. While there has been heavy investment in watchmaking training over the past decade or so, the job of press-tool maker is rare and there is a severe lack of qualified personnel. To counteract this, professional schools with the support of cheap fake watch companies relaunched a training programme last year.
Once the stamped components come off the presses, they head to Blancpain’s in-house furnace, where they are baked. This is because stamping deforms the structure of the metal and heating resets this structure. But given that numerous operations can be performed on the same component, most of them need to be heated several times. Only then do the components make it to the line of high-tech “Precitrame” machines, each with 9 individual robot arms capable of performing two to four different operations. These machines are each worth about two million Swiss francs. At the time of our visit a new one was being commissioned by the engineers from the manufacturer. Here, a team of people work around the clock in three shifts.
Take a step around the corner and you are under closed-circuit surveillance as you reach the area where the oscillating masses are produced. This is because all of Blancpain’s oscillating masses are made of precious metal, either gold or platinum. Nearby a separate bank of CNC machines also mills components.
Later after this stage, components go for a bath. Each part cycles through a range of liquids and soaps, as well as ultrasound, for cleaning. A component may be cleaned up to twenty times. The company even has its own water treatment facility and jokes that its waste water is cleaner than the water that comes into the plant.
So as you can see, the notion of “in-house” at Blancpain takes on a meaning all of its own. Consider the figures you have seen above: the cost of the machines, the cost of making new press tools, the investment in infrastructure, the personnel costs, the costs of development and the attention to detail to ensure the very best quality. And this is before a single component reaches the skilled hands of the decorator or watchmaker for assembly. Does that Fifty Fathoms with the ceramic bezel still sound expensive at 12,000 Swiss francs?