In-House Movement – What’s Up With That?

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Yema Navygraf close-up

In certain circles, a watch with an “in-house movement” bestows bragging rights on its owner. The watchmaker didn’t just take an existing movement, put it in a case, add a dial, hands and strap, and call it good. They created an exclusive piece of time telling technology! Or did they? Before we get to that, warning! . . .

As Mr. Ibis pointed out in our recent IGTV New Watch Alert, an in-house movement requires in-house service. (You can’t just pop down to your local watchmaker for a tune-up or repair.) If the manufacturer in question stops producing the movement . . .

Best case, they’ll still have the parts in stock and the expertise needed to service your watch and move quickly and efficiently to replace what needs replacing.

Korman Jewelers serviceLess best case, your watch will languish in re-development hell, as some non-factory service department scours for parts and tries to figure out what goes where.

Worst case, the watchmaker is toast, the parts are nowhere to be found and you’re shit-out-of-luck.

Collect pocket watches - caseback Hamilton Railway Special

This isn’t much of a thing now, but as a pocket watch collector who avoids any but the most mainstream of makers, trust me, those who don’t learn from horological history are condemned to suffer its repetition.

With the smartwatch crisis hammering the traditional watch industry, with Coronageddon taking its toll, there’s every reason to wonder which watchmakers are going to be with us in five years.

Rolex Explorer caliber 3132 movement

And play it safe.

I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about parts for your Rolex or Seiko. By the same token, established practitioners of high horology like Audemars Piguet will move heaven and earth to get your watch running, and the chances that they’ll go out of business are between slim and none. Smaller brands on both ends of the price spectrum, well . . .

Again, that’s worst case. The truth about in-house movements: most of them aren’t all that in-house. They’re modifications of movements made by large scale movement makers. As such, the major bits will remain commonly available for the foreseeable future.

Sinn 104 caseback 3

You may have noticed that we often include the “base” movement when we reveal a watch’s movement in a review. That means the watchmaker has modified an existing movement and re-named it an in-house caliber. That’s what’s called a “modified ébauche.

Ébauche is French for “first draft.” In horology, it refers to an incomplete or unassembled watch movement – although most modified ébauche movements start with complete donors.

Here’s our man Rivoira’s take on the key question: what qualifies as an “in-house movement”? Is a modified ébauche an in-house movement?

Richard Mille RM 11-05 Automatic Flyback Chronograph GMT caseback

“This is one of the recurrent debates in horology, and one of the most dividing issues, separating the partisans of purism from the most commercially-minded. The real answer: there is no definitive answer.

If we examine the multitude of caliber designed through the ages, even if we limit ourselves to the most recent ones, we just have to acknowledge an unbelievable number of designs made in the last 100 years. If you don’t believe me, check the extensive Dr Ranfft movement database, an online tool that collects them all.

Patek Philippe pilot's watch caseback

Even a cursory check will reveal that there are hundreds and hundreds of different movements. And if you search a little bit more, you discover that the majority of them have different names, but hardly any differences between them. Why?

No universal why here as well. Companies have modified existing movements for hundreds of years. Maybe there were differences in orders, suppliers, or other internal reasons to separate a Patek Philippe reference 5136 from a 5137, which would appear identical to the observer.

The majority of these calibers were made by ébauche-makers. That is, companies which manufactured only movements, and sold them to other companies.

ETA

More often than not, watchmakers take the ébauches and modify them. Sometimes by changing the shape of the bridges. Other times by significantly improving the machinery of the caliber. Some calibers are modified by adding modules, a sort of plug-in installed on a movement to give a basic caliber some added functions (the most common are the chronograph and the automatic modules).

The real challenge is not to make something completely new, but to add value to an existing design, either mechanically or aesthetically.

It’s quite difficult to design a completely new movement from scratch: you’d probably repeat, possibly without knowing it, the design used by someone before you. Not because you copied it, because it was the most logical way to design something to achieve a desired result.

So what’s my take on in-house movements?

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Chronograph Tourbillon in-house movement

If you take a movement and change it significantly, it becomes a new “in-house” movement.

Remember that I come from design background (specifically graphic design). In this field, when you create something that takes previous elements and combine them in an original way, it can legitimately be called “original.”

This isn’t just my definition. It’s what happens in international IP protection. This principle has been applied extensively to cover the songs created by sampling elements of other songs and collating them together in a creative, original way.

Again, I apply this view to horology as well.

Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional Chronograph Caliber 32 - in-house movement?

For example, the first coaxial escapement was mounted by its inventor, George Daniels, on an OMEGA Speedmaster. Was that an in-house movement?

If you ask me, it was – big time. Daniels improved a standard movement in such a way that the end result was significantly different from its starting point.

A better term to define the in-house movement craze would be to use a different term, like “manufacture” (in French).

A manufacture movement is built where the watch is made. It’s not supplied by an external supplier. If you buy something from an external supplier, well, this is an ébauche. Even if you have designed it yourself.

Yema Navygraf close-up detail

But eventually, as the Noble Bard said, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I take the definitions of “in-house” (all of them) cum grano salis. In the end, the thing that counts is that the movement is good. That it provides good value to the watch and its buyer. The rest is just words. Discussions about “originality” are best left to philosophers.”

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Franz Rivoira’s comprehensive book The Watch Manual is available for sale You can find more of his horological writing at Quora.com.

6 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a distinction about distinction, but there has to be a line between actual watchmaking and case makers using commodity innards. People seem to have gotten over the stigma of exotic cars using crate engines from larger makes, modified or not.

    Maybe I’m just out of the loop, but I never hear about second tier suppliers in movement making. You’d think that there was perfect vertical integration and that no parts were contracted out to specialty manufacturers. That’s probably inside industry fodder. I don’t really read about AC Delco or Bosch much in car enthusiast magazines.

  2. I did see Mr Ibis on the TV talking about in-house movements VS purchased ébauches. Great point but surely a local watch repairer can machine-make a part (or know a specialist who can) as well as figure out how a movement moves? Or are those dying skills only to be found in the Swiss valleys, Glashütte, pockets of France and Great Britain and then anywhere in China?

    Having said that, I admire in-house but have no issues with dial-making companies who outsource the innards as long as the ‘distinction about distinction’, as Mr Klosoff ably puts it, is made. I would not want to be Hoodwinkeed as many have been.

    Mr Rivoira, unfortunately due to marketeers, it is a cellar that is too often needed rather than ‘cum grano salis’.

    • I’d suspect that custom reproducing a part, or parts, gets cost prohibitive very quickly for watches outside the very upper price levels. And orphan watches are unlikely to be or stay there. Plus reverse engineering is always a crapshoot as utterly unnoticeable details will not reveal their purpose till the third go-around. “I finally see why that flaw we omitted was put there!”

  3. Ta! Ok, the case for imported innards on boutique brands makes more sense. I always imagine a watchmaker has an array of lathes a la George Daniel’s den which I have seen on various YouTube videos. Have you seen The Watchmaker’s Apprentice?

    • I hadn’t heard of it, so no. I probably will be soon though now.

      I assume you mean the 2015 documentary on George Daniels and not the 2019 Czech fairy tale movie that comes up first on search results.

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