The Calibre 1887 Story

Debating the merits of watch movements is usually a sport reserved for the true Watch Idiot Savant. When I bought my first automatic watch (a Heuer Monza re-edition), I took it back to the store shortly after I bought it because I noticed that if I didn’t wear it for a few days, it tended to stop. The funny thing is that as soon as I started wearing it again, it worked fine…surely I can’t be the only one who has done this.

One of the secrets of the Swiss watch industry over the last 20 years is that basically everyone was using the same movements- OK, a few high-end brands had their own, but generally it was ETA/ Valjoux as far as they eye could see and customers generally didn’t care.

But this has changed somewhat, and watch companies are now looking to establish themselves in a crowded market as being a “real” watchmaker- of course, the truth is that if ETA/ Swatch hadn’t forced their hand, most would still be happy to use the same reliable movements that they had for years.

And so to the Calibre 1887 (ignore the “Calibre 18” in the photo above- that is just a prototype)- TAG Heuer’s first movement built in-house, based on the design of the Seiko 6S37 chronograph movement- critically, a much newer design that the tried and trusted Calibre 17/ ETA 2894. The story behind the Calibre 1887 movement was one of the things I was most looking forward to learning about during my visit to TAG Heuer- and it is a very interesting story, not just the movement itself, but the scale of TAG Heuers ambitions as a manufacturer of chronograph movements.

Origins and Design

The idea for Calibre 1887 started about 4 years, when TAG Heuer decided that it needed to have access to its own high-volume chronograph movement, to ensure that supply wasn’t constrained by whatever Swatch ended up deciding to do with supplying ETA movements outside the group. Yes, TAG Heuer had good access to the El Primero Calibre 36, but not in the volumes required.

TAG Heuer acquired the rights to the European production of the 6s37 from Seiko Instruments and then began the process of re-engineering the movement and putting together the resources and skills for production of the movement.

The Calibre 1887 is an integrated chronograph movement with 320 parts in total. Of that, about 270 are made in Switzerland, some by TAG Heuer/ Cortech (bridges, plates, oscillating weight) and some by specialist suppliers such as Nivarox. Some of these parts have been upgraded from the original design (for example, the main plates are larger).

The key specs of the movement are as follows:

  • 28,800 vibrations/ hr
  • 50 hour power reserve
  • 39 Jewels (41 if fitted with power reserve)
  • Oscillating Pinion
  • Column Wheel
  • High Efficiency Rewinding (“HER”) system
  • 12-6-9 dial layout

T-0: Cortech

By way of background, take a look at this post that explains the TAG Heuer production process.

The life of the Calibre 1887 begins at Cortech, which two years ago set up a dedicated team to manufacture the bridges, plates and oscillating weight for the new movement. This was a first for Cortech, as previously they had only produced cases, bezels and case backs, although at least starting from scratch meant that the latest manufacturing processes and robots could be put in place.

The team spent more than 18 months learning how to build the new pieces at a separate location while Cortech was being upgraded, and only moved back in a few months ago.

The Calibre 1887 components are all made from square brass ingots, which are stamped and cut in the various parts. The board below shows the parts made here in T-0 and the steps.

Obviously the precision required for these parts is extremely high- the depth and diameter of the holes must be precise to accommodate the screws and jewels. Below are the main machines that turn the brass ingots into finished products. You may recall from the earlier post on Cortech that milling metal traditionally using requires a lot of oil- but not here.

These high-tech machines (designed in Switzerland specifically for TAG Heuer) use no oil and are instead temperature controlled. The ingots start at the left hand side of the photo and move their way down through various iterative cuts and incisions.

Once the plates are milled (about one hour),  jewels are then added using another high-tech robot that places each jewel in the right place. The parts are now ready to be sent to T-1 at TAG Heuer.

T-1: La Chaux de Fonds

TAG Heuer’s T-1 facility has about 15 people, the majority of whom are dedicated to the Calibre 1887 (a small number build the Monaco V4 watch and movement).

Just as Cortech have installed the latest equipment, so to has TAG Heuer at T-1. The movements move along a conveyor belt that runs under the work desks and  then pop up in front of the assembler. The computer screen indicates which step number is being completed (step 270 in the photo below) and highlights in green the parts that should be fitted, as well as any specific notes. The other technical development is the inventory tracking system, which has sensors tracking the completeness and progress of all movements.

Some elements of the assembly process are automated- for example the jewels in the movement being automatically oiled. The whole process is highly efficient and allows TAG Heuer to produce the high volumes required with great precision and efficiency.

Targets

This being the first year or production, TAG Heuer are aiming to assemble about 15,000 units, with the goal of increasing  that to 50,000 in 2011. To put that in perspective, that will make TAG Heuer Switzerland’s second largest producer of automatic movements after ETA, which would be a huge achievement. At the moment, the only Calibre 1887 model that has been announced is the Carrera, but given that the movement will power about 25% of TAG Heuers annual chronograph production, it won’t be long before we see other Calibre 1887 models. The focus today is clearly on getting the simple things right- i.e. getting the production processes working well and making the new movement to the standards required. As they get that under control, it would be nice to see further refinement of the design to distinguish it from its Seiko origins.

The future

It’s not hard to imagine that there will be a power reserve variant of the Calibre 1887, but there are no current plans to seek COSC certification, as TAG Heuer are confident that the movement already performs at close to COSC guidelines and that the expense of certification isn’t worth the effort and cost.

What TAG Heuer now have is not just a high-volume, modern movement that is at least the equal of the ETA variants that it will supplement, but a new base of watch-making knowledge. The Calibre 1887 won’t be the last movement made by TAG Heuer- there are stories about TAG Heuer developing a high-end integrated Chronograph movement that will use elements of the Calibre 360 chronograph technology.

Ultimately, the Calibre 1887 represents a milestone for TAG Heuer and continues the rebuilding of the company’s reputation as a watch maker, not just a watch brand.

To see photos of the Calibre 1887-powered Carrera, take a look here.

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