Technically Speaking - Part I - Movements
To give you an insight into the workings of and challenges in the watch industry from the position of a startup watch company, we’ll be speaking about the various aspects of the process of designing, prototyping, marketing and production of our watches.
The first step, before any design work has commenced, is to decide what sort of movement will power the watch. This is the most important decision in the whole process as it sets everything up from this point forward - size, shape, case, dial, hands. It all stems from this first decision, so it's a pretty big one.
Mechanical movements require a different approach. From a usage position they're inherently less accurate than their quartz counterparts, due to the sometimes hundreds of mechanically moving parts within that tiny little space. They're also less reliable than quartz too, again due to the moving parts, and the susceptibility of damage from dropping or mishandling. They come in 2 flavours - automatic and manual. The automatic's have a weight, called a rotor, that spins around a mechanism that keeps your watch wound all the time - so long as you wear it, your watch will never stop. The manual movements require almost daily winding to keep them ticking. Both auto and manual versions require servicing to clean and re-lubricate all the moving parts to make sure they all run free of any friction or wear, which would cause them to be inaccurate. Mechanical movements are usually a lot more expensive than their battery powered friends, but above all the biggest problem is that they're very hard to get a hold of.
That's not strictly true.
The most celebrated mechanical movements are by a crowd called ETA who are owned by Swatch Group. In times gone by ETA movements were fairly easy to get hold of, however Swatch Group decided a number of years ago to start reducing the availability of the ETA movements to customers outside of their approved partner network and has steadily been doing so until today, in 2016, when it's almost impossible to purchase ETA movements. There’s zero chance to source them directly from ETA. Furthermore Swatch Group has made it clear that by 2019 absolutely no-one outside of Swatch Group will have access to their movements, and that includes some really big names who rely on the ETA engines to power their most popular models. But the big names owned by the Swatch Group will be absolutely fine, including Omega, Longines, Tissot, Hamilton and Breguet, amongst many others.
Their reasoning for this move was to level the playing-field somewhat, in regards to risk. They no longer wanted to supply movements to their Swiss customers/competitors who Swatch argued didn't have the inherent risk involved with manufacturing millions of movements like they did. In a nutshell, they want the other dominant Swiss brands to take on the risk and responsibility of manufacturing their own mechanical movements, if only to secure the success of the Swiss watch industry. An interesting and somewhat understandable approach, but not one that was popular with everyone.
All that said, it doesn't mean small watch manufacturers can't get hold of ETA movements today - it just means they need to turn to the grey market, where overspill stock can be snapped up in varying quantities and irregular availability.
But what if you don't have the resource to skulk around looking for ETA movements that not only fit your spec but also your budget, as well as find the means to finance the pre-loaded purchase of 2,000 expensive Swiss mechanical movements?
You can turn to other Swiss/European manufacturers of movements - Sellita, Soprod, Technotime, Concepto et al. Whilst these movements might be a bit less of a headache to procure, they're still incredibly expensive - think in the region of £150/movement. That pretty much rules out Swiss movements for a company like ours who are trying to offer a new experience of mechanical movements at a competitive price-point. There's no way we can spec a £150 movement in a £250 watch - we've still to make the cases, crystals, hands, crowns, pushers, dials, straps, boxes, paperwork and branding.
What, then? Well we could raise the price of our watches accordingly. However in doing so we’d be going against what we set out to achieve - to offer a competitive range of hand-wound watches as an alternative to Quartz and automatic timepieces.
Here's where one could turn to Japan and find movements from the Citizen Group - known as Miyota. These are highly regarded movements with reliability, precision and attention to detail that the Japanese power house are renowned for. They're also relatively affordable - there are many Miyota 9015 powered watches now appearing because of this obtainable, affordable movement.
For us however it still doesn't help - we require the manual, hand-winding versions of these mechanical marvels. Unfortunately not everyone makes them - the Miyota group do make 2 manual movements, both skeletonised for decoration, both 3 hand movements, and although we plan to use these in future models, they offer no chronographs, no date wheels, no complications. That would limit our designs and aspirations somewhat. There’s one remaining path that can be taken to secure the movements we want, that have complications like chronographs, date wheels, calendars etc. That path is China.
For you or I, and any number of people interested in watches, a Chinese watch movement isn't anything to be concerned about - everything in some way is made in China, from the monitor you read this on to the clothes on your back. We all have Made In China products in our lives. Apple manufactures all its products in China.
However in the watch industry Chinese movements are seen to be unreliable, cheaply made and not worth the hassle. And in some small way these opinions are justified - many Chinese movements are poorly made and unreliable. But if you're willing to go the extra mile and thread the fine needle of investigative work, it's clear quite early on that there are a number of historically reliable, very well made and excellent specification movements ready and waiting to be gently placed inside anyone's dream creation.
The main reason why Chinese movements are seen to be problematic is fail rates. A Chinese movement isn’t unreliable, it’s just a bit more susceptible to damage from poor handling than Swiss or Japanese alternatives. If one of the movements being fitted into a case is mishandled or even dropped, then the movement could have issues with running, accuracy, or premature failure. But as long as the casing of the movements is done in a sensitive manner and quality control is strictly administered, then there is little risk of these things happening.
Although there are many more words that could and have been written on this subject, it’s easy to see that before any other work has started on a watch design, how important choosing the right movement is, regardless of where the movements are made.