TAG Heuer Movements: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

It’s hard to remember a time when there has been so much focus on the movement that sits inside a watch- where it comes from, who designed it and who made it. It may sound strange to say that there was little focus on movements until around 2000- after all, they are not only an integral part of the watch, but are the actual components that deliver the primary function of a watch- keeping time.

I suspect that a big part of the reason was that by the 1990s no-one, putting aside a few Haute Horology brands and Rolex, knew how to make a complete movement- they all bought either ebauches (a “blank” or a collection of parts ready for assembly- normally including the main plate, the bridges, the train, the winding and setting mechanism and the regulator) or complete movements from ETA. This meant that there was little point promoting the movement inside your watch, because it was the same movement that sat inside your competitors watch.

movement_09But over the last 10 years this has changed. Partly because of Swatch’s strategy for ETA and partly because the market for high-end watches has returned strongly. Despite the fact that the idea of an in-house movements is very much a modern phenomenon, it is an undeniable trend, with customers expecting more from movements today than ever before.

Today’s customer not only wants to know that the Calibre 16 in their watch is a Valjoux 7750, but they also wants to know which grade of 7750 is being used. The movement is the centre-piece of  the watch again, which has caused all sorts of activity in Switzerland as companies work out how to deal with this new imperative.

TAG Heuer’s approach to movements has also changed significantly in the last 10 years, so lets look at how this approach has evolved over the last 40 years- and where it is heading tomorrow.

1970s-1990s

One of the most common myths in watchmaking today is the idea that a real, traditional watch company should design and manufacture its own movements. This has never been the case, and in fact quite the opposite- it was banned by law. The traditional Swiss watch-making industry was a classic model of industry specialisation- there were the dial makers, the case makers, the bracelet and buckle makers and the movement makers…and typically each of these was an independent small, family owned company. There is a great article that sets out some of the history of the ebauche market written by Carlos Perez, who says the following about the tendency of watch snobs to turn up their noses at a watch brand that only modifies ebauches:

“The interesting thing about this state of affairs is the contradiction inherent in its values. While “tradition” is often stated as an important and motivating value to those who collect mechanically automated watches, the new gourmand ethic precludes a traditional method of production based upon the use of third-party ebauches; a unique and fundamental part of the Swiss tradition of watchmaking”

Re-finishing Ebachues sourced from outside suppliers was the norm in the industry, even for Audemars Piguet, Breguet and Patek Philippe (supplied by Jaeger LeCoultre, Frederic Piguet and Lemania). This is because historically, a company either made watches or movements. In fact, Swiss laws set in place after the Depression forced members of Ebauches SA to stop making complete watches and members of Federation d’Horlogerie (“FH”) to stop making Ebauches. FH members had to buy ebauches from ESA. This created a division between the manufacturing of movements and the manufacturing of watches which lasted for almost fifty years before the two major Swiss Cartels  merged in 1983 (AUSAG- which included Ebauches SA, component manufacturers and watch brands Logines, Rado, Certina and Mido- and SSIH comprised of movement companies including Lemania and watch brands such as Omega and Tissot) eventually going on to create Swatch.

So what about Heuer? By the 1970s Heuer basically had three sources of movements- its own Chronomatic movement (Calibre 11, 12, 14 and 15), manual-wind movements from Swiss maker Valjoux and quartz movements from ESA. Heuer’s movement strategy was basically unchanged throughout the 1970s, and it wasn’t until the sale of Heuer in 1982 that Lemania 5100 movements and LWO Lemania/ Dubois Depraz movements were added…and the Chronomatic movements came to an end.

While the LWO movements continued into the 1980s, the Lemania 5100 was phased out in favour of ETA sourced movements- both automatic and quartz. ETA movements were so dominant, that by the time LVMH bought TAG Heuer in 2000, TAG Heuer made or modified precisely zero watch movements. Not one. This wasn’t that unusual, as ETA then supplied- and still does today- the majority of movements to the industry.

Today

As Jean-Christophe Babin told us back in March, one of his first tasks when he started his role at TAG Heuer was to focus on rebuilding TAG Heuers reputation as a watchmaker. Starting from nothing, the company began a programme of investing in innovative movements which today has resulted in the following Calibres:

  • Calibre V (Monaco V4)
  • Calibre HR03 (Microtimer/ Monaco 69)
  • Calibre S (Quartz tractor, mechanical chronograph module)
  • Calibre 1887 (Carrera and 300SLR)
  • Calibre 360 (Chronograph module only).

In addition, there is of course the Pendulum movement that is in the early stages of being further researched. It’s an interesting mix of movements and skills, all the way from quartz to the highly complex, belt-driven V4.

So, who provides the rest of TAG Heuer’s movements?

ETA

Who? The giant of Swiss movement manufacturers that started life as the Ebauche business of Eterna watches. When Swiss laws in the 1930s mandated that you could not make complete watches and movements, Eterna split into two companies- Eterna Watches and ETA. ETA then because part of the giant Swiss watch components group AUSAG, which eventually became Swatch. Swatch then decided to integrate its many movement brands ( including ETA, ESA, Lemania, Valjoux and Unitas) into a single brand- ETA. This is the reason that the Valjoux 7750 movement of the 1970s is now known as the ETA 7750.

The strategic direction of ETA has perhaps been the major driver towards changes in the movement market- more on this later.

In which watch? Across the range- Calibre 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 12, 11, 16, 17 and 60 (discontinued)

Sellita

Who? Swiss owned company who for decades have worked on complications and decorations for  a range of clients, including ETA. Now that several of the ETA patents have expired, Sellita have started to manufacture clones of the ETA original design, with a few changes (and extra jewel here and there) of SW-200 (ETA 2824-2), SW-500 (Valjoux/ ETA 7750)and SW-300 (ETA 2892). While its true that many people prefer the idea of an ETA movement to a Sellita clone, the reality is that Sellita have more than enough technical skill and experience to manufacture these movements to the same level of quality as as ETA. Remember, these are + 20-year old designs, and so the secrets of manufacturing these movements properly are well-known.

You might think of Sellita as producing “cheap” versions of ETA movements- not so. In some cases Sellita is able to charge a premium over ETA as the demand for movements in recent years has out-stripped supply.

In which watch? Some Calibre 5 models, including Aquaracer 500m watch.

Zenith

Who? Zenith is better known as a watch brand that is also part of LVMH. What you may not know is that late last year TAG Heuer and Zenith merged from a corporate perspective, with TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Christophe Babin ultimately responsible for both companies. Zenith make one of the finest chronograph movements the world has seen- the venerable El Primero automatic chronograph.

There is a great story to the El Primeo. The Zenith Radio Corporation that owned Zenith watches decided in 1975 to end production of all Zenith mechanical movements and switch to quartz only. The directive from Head Office was to scrap all the machines and tools used for the production of automatic movements. The story goes that Zenith watchmaker Charles Vermot (below) began to hide the essential El Primero tools and components, including the cutting tools, presses and machines.

Because of the “initiative” of Monsieur Vermont, Zenith was able to re-start production of the El Primero Calibre in 1984 and supply movements and Ebauches to high -end clients, such as Rolex.

In which watch? Grand Carrera Calibre 36, Monaco Twenty-Four (Link Calibre 36 has been discontinued).

Ronda AG

Who? Ronda are a Swiss company founded in 1946 and based in Lausen. They specialise in quartz movements and make these both in Swizterland and in Thailand.

In which watch? Formula 1, Golf Watch, Aquaracer Grand Date

Dubois Depraz

Who? Family owned Swiss company who manufacture Chronograph modules and components. A long time partner of TAG Heuer, Dubois Depraz designed the original chronograph movement for the Heuer Chronomatic movement in 1969

In which watch? Chronograph modules for a variety of Calibres, such as 11 and 12

2010- and Tomorrow

At the launch of the Calibre 1887 last year, TAG Heuer commented that it expected to continue sourcing movements from a variety of outside suppliers, as well as increasing production of its own movements. Of the existing in-house movements, only the Calibre S and Calibre 1887 are mainstream Calibres, the rest are really for niche models. And this is the situation that I’d expect that to continue- in-house movements for high profile niche models, an expanded line of Calibre 1887 watches and a range of movements from outside suppliers.

So, what’s in the pipeline?

  • Pendulum: The Pendulum movement is at the concept stage, and its unclear yet whether it will ever make it to even limited production. The key issue appears to be the ability of the movement to keep accurate time in a variety of temperatures, which is a fundamental issue. Still, people said that the V4 couldn’t be done- and it has
  • Calibre 1887: There was speculation a while back that TAG Heuer would add a power-reserve version of the Calibre 1887- maybe something that we’ll see at Basel in March 2011
  • Mikrograph: This is the key new movement under development and few details are public yet, other than it’s basically an in-house replacement for the Calibre 360

movement_05

What’s Been Driving  the Changes?

T1_WORKSHOP_(2)So what has led TAG Heuer and others to seek their own movement capability? There are two answers, and both involve Swatch.

The first was the push by Swatch to capitalise on the fact that it owned almost every traditional movement manufacturer. Swatch brands such as Omega began to promote the fact that they were using in-house movements- technically true, but as inaccurate as claiming that the Calibre 36/ El Primero movement is in-house to TAG Heuer just because Zenith is these days controlled by TAG Heuer. Omega now do have some in-house movements, but the majority of their line today- even the co-axial movements- still rely heavily on ETA technology and parts. Swatch might like to pretend that Breguet make high-end, in-house movements, but the truth is that they simply bought Nouvelle Lemania and sadly assumed that great company’s technology and capability as their own.

So after decades of ignoring movements in watches, the marketers began to see them as a key differentiator and began to promote the virtues of “in-house”. Wonder no more why your new watch has a clear case-back….

The second reason that has been widely publicised is that Swatch have threatened several times to cut supply of movements to the rest of the industry- specifically, the current intention is around limiting ebauches rather than complete movements (something 99% of people get wrong), but you can see the direction that Swatch are heading. Watch companies certainly did and so decided that they didn’t want to be hostage to Swatch and so they began to find other sources of supply.

Swatch do have a fair point- ETA is at full capacity and it’s not unreasonable that Swatch brands should be first in line for their sister brands’ movements.

But one way or another, in the last 10 years the race has been on to lessen reliance on Swatch and to have a nice marketing point of difference- the in-house movement.

In-house: Does it matter?

movement_06It has become a ridiculous trend in watch collecting circles to disparage ETA movements- the entire range of ETA movements are incredible value for money and bullet-proof- they’ve been made for a long time and have shown time and time again their quality over the journey. Of course, it’s nice to have something different- but different does not mean always better. A properly adjusted ETA movement is more than good enough for COSC certification, meaning its as good or better than most of the new in-house movements designed 30 years later.

Some people will tell you that they would never buy a watch without a in-house movement, which is rubbish given the famous watches from the past that relied on outside technology- even the Rolex Daytona (El Primero and Valjoux 72). But despite this, its fair to say that the marketing people have won the battle- today’s consumer does expect a degree of movement manufacturing/ finishing from watchmakers and places as much focus on the movement just as much as the other parts of the watch.

Tag Heuer - La chaux-de-fonds - 35.10.2010 ©Thierry Porchet

So, this does mean we are in another golden age of watch-making. It will mean increased prices and it will mean formerly unthinkable co-operations (TAG Heuer and Seiko) but the good news for TAG Heuer fans is that this new market dynamic has already produced the Calibre V and the Pendulum…and just wait until you see the new Mikrograph movement. Swatch may well regret the day that it changed a century of tradition and forced other makers to find  their independence.

***

Sources

http://www.timezone.com/library/cjrml/cjrml0030

http://watchescorner.blogspot.com/2007/08/from-ebauches-sa-to-eta-sa-75-years-of.html

Photos

TAG Heuer, OntheDash, Zenith