The movement of a watch is the engine inside of it which “makes it work.” I understand that novices to the world of watches may not even be aware of what “watch movement” means. Watch movements are generally classified as mechanical or quartz (electronic), and are, in many ways, what draw people to purchase or desire a particular timepiece. Drawing an analogy from the world of cars, you don’t necessarily buy a new vehicle simply because of the engine inside of it and its claimed performance, but because of the complete design, driving experience, and mechanical performance put together. Like car engines, when it comes to watch movements, there is no lack of topics to discuss.
So let’s start with who makes these movements. There are basically only two types of movements, mechanical and Quartz. Quartz movements are electrical and use a battery and circuits to make the watch functional. Mechanical movements is what we will focus on here today and are made with gears, springs and specially made parts. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of companies out there making watches, but only a handful that are producing movements, especially mechanical ones. You have to understand that even your basic mechanical watch movement has over 100 parts. Some movements have fewer parts, but many have a lot more. Many of these parts are highly specialized, and most are very small. There are very few companies out there that are able to produce all of the parts needed to make a complete mechanical movement. This is an extremely important point because for a brand to product their movements entirely in-house is a very prestigious thing, even though that is rarely actually achieved.
So why is it such a big deal to have a mechanical movement made entirely “in house.” Well that is actually a great question who’s answer it’s entirely obvious as the placement of an in-house made movement in a watch is not always a good or desirable thing. In fact, movements are at the heart of a great irony or contradiction of being a watch lover. For example, when you get a watch, you want something that is accurate and reliable. Arguably the most accurate and reliable watches are quartz-powered. So why, then, are we so obsessed with mechanical movements? Another, more complex, irony is that many of the “sourced” watch movements that companies buy from major suppliers are very good. Often much better and more reliable or serviceable than in-house made movements. So why is it that practical people still want movements which are in-house made?
Patek Philippe “in house” made swiss mechanical movement
What we can say by way of an answer to that question is that in-house movements do a few important things to the desirability of a watch. First of all, people don’t particularly like to buy watches for high prices that contain the same base “engine” as many other watches. The idea is that, if you are going to buy a watch with a generic movement, you better be paying a “generic price.” Also, mechanical watches are more-or-less a product of the luxury industry today. When it comes to luxury, something that is highly valued is exclusivity. There is nothing particularly special or exclusive about a company plopping in a movement from another company into their own watch and calling it high-end.
So, while mechanical movements produced by outside specialists are often very reliable and of a high quality, they simply don’t feel as special. Another irony is that companies that produce their own movements can charge more for their watches. This doesn’t actually make sense in the context of manufacturing. In other industries, when a company brings the production of a new part in-house, it lowers the cost of that part (especially over time). Thus, if the watch industry followed most other industries, most companies that advertise in-house made movements would charge less than those companies that rely on movements from suppliers – but that isn’t the case. The way the industry gets around the “norm” is by claiming that their movements are more complicated, better finished, or simply, more interesting. More often than not, these companies don’t really say anything at all, offering the tacit message to the consumer that, “of course in-house is better!”
There are really two main reasons a watch company wants to produce movements in-house today. The first reason is what I have been discussing, and is related to marketing, building up the exclusivity of the brand, and being able to justify higher prices for their watches. The second reason is far more practical, and that is because, as of today, it is both expensive and difficult to get movements from outside suppliers.
Producing your own in-house made movement is an incredible challenge. It requires an in-house mastery of literally dozens of special trades, as well as a huge investment in machinery and tools. To say that you as a company make in-house movements, if anything, should be an indicator to consumers that you are here to stay, and that you’ve made a serious investment toward the future of your products.
There are very few companies – if any – that truly make all the parts necessary to produce a complete watch case and movement. The Swatch Group can probably claim to be one, but that is simply because they own so many companies that do so much. Another exception might be Seiko in Japan, that even produces synthetic sapphire for watch case crystals. Aside from those two, and perhaps a few exceptions, almost all watch companies rely on at least some parts from outside suppliers.
Most of the companies that produce truly “in-house made watch movements” still purchase certain highly specialized parts from suppliers. These parts can include items like synthetic ruby palettes, springs, and screws. To hold a company responsible for creating these parts (even if some do) is a bit silly. It would be like asking a car maker to produce their own tires.
Designing a new watch movement is often as hard as building one. Today, companies are very lucky to have the assistance of computer software, but the effort required in designing a new miniature machine is very labor intensive. There is a difference between “in-house made” and “in-house designed” that consumers should be aware of, because it isn’t always the case that these two designations go together.
There are companies that produce movements in-house that they did not originally design, or that they perhaps only modified a bit. For many watch companies, the rules of patent law are on their side. Mechanical watch movement technology is often rather old, so when patents expire, many types of movements or parts of movements may be freely produced by anyone with the skill and machinery to do so. There are also a lot of companies that go to specialists to produce movements for them. Some smaller brands with the desire to have unique movements, often go to one supplier to design the movement, and another supplier to produce it. These movements are indeed unique and exclusive, but they are neither in-house made nor designed.
Survey most watch retailers and they will freely admit that the “lay person” buying mechanical watches doesn’t particularly care whether or not the movements are made in-house. Perhaps they don’t even understand the difference. The people who do care are the seasoned and educated watch lovers. So this presents an interesting situation for watch brands.
When a watch brand releases information about a new watch product, they discuss the movement inside of that product and attempt to share details about it. That information – often in the form of a press release – is relied upon by watch journalists, as well as those collectors who are interested in getting the most recent industry information, straight from the brands.
Our friends over at “aBlogtoWatch” have suggested 7 definitions that make distinctions and breaks down the mechanical movement into 7 different categories.
100% In-House Made & Designed Movement
The holy grail of in-house production for watch brands. Indicating that a movement is 100% In-House Made & Designed means that, not only was the movement designed in-house, but also that 100% of its parts are produced in-house as well. This term should be rare to see.
In-House Designed Movement
In-House Designed can be combined with In-House Made, but as discussed above, the terms are distinct. An in-house designed movement is designed internally at a watch company, regardless of where it is produced. Sometimes, the term “Developed” is also used in conjunction with “Designed.” These terms are mostly synonymous, but “developed” can also imply that a watch was tested and that prototyping occurred in-house as well.
In-House Made Movement
Given the practical realities of modern watchmaking, it is not necessary for a watch company to produce 100% of its parts in-house, in order to use the term “In-House Made,” when applied to a movement. As discussed above, given the fact that, even for companies who do “most” of the production in-house, most still rely on outside suppliers for certain parts. There is nothing wrong with this, and this even applies to companies such as Rolex and Patek Philippe.
For a company to use the term “In-House Made,” we prefer that most of the parts are made in-house save for some smaller specialized parts. In-house made movements are typically designed in-house (but not all the time), and tend to suggest that a company has the ability to produce a range of movements and can be flexible enough to develop new movements. If a company is using externally sourced parts, other than simple screws, springs, and rubies, we might suggest the below term.
Movement Partially Made With In-House Parts
Most “in-house made movements” today are actually Movements Partially Made With In-House Parts. In fact, another way of saying “in-house made movement” today, might be, “movement made mostly with in-house made parts.” The term here applies to when a watch contains a movement with anywhere from a few to a lot of in-house made parts, but there are necessary entire parts or systems that come from outside suppliers.
A great example of this is when a company uses a base movement and produces a module in-house that goes over the base movement. Modules are movement-like systems that add functionality to more simple base movements. Some companies produce modules entirely in-house and use entire movements from outside suppliers, or might modify outside movements before using in-house modules.
Movements Partially Made With In-House Parts can also include situations when a company purchases gear trains and other essential parts and then produces some of their own bridges and plates, or even some screws.
A watch company can claim to use an “Exclusive Movement” when it works with an outside movement maker to develop a unique movement that will only go inside that brand’s watches. This is like the situation discussed above, when a watch company works with an outside supplier to, not only design, but also produce a movement. The watch brand itself can easily claim that no one else (as in another watch company) is using the specific movement (thus it is exclusive), but they cannot claim to have been part of the design or production.
Often times, when a watch maker purchases movements from an outside supplier, they don’t just stick them in their watch cases and call it a day. Much of the time, a watch company will want to enhance a movement with some custom decoration, or even some parts such as a customized automatic rotor. Customized Movements are those purchased from outside suppliers and then given some special aesthetic, or even some minor mechanical modifications.
A high degree of customization might take a watch into the realm of containing a Movement Partially Made With In-House Parts, or might use no external parts and involve many hours of special decoration, engraving, or skeletonization to beautify a base movement. Basically, whether or not a company dedicates a lot of effort to decoration, or just uses a customized rotor, they might be using a Customized Movement purchased from an outside company.
Often times, watch companies refer to the movements they may later customize as, “Base Movements.” Thus, we will use “Base Movement” as the term for what are essentially unmodified movements purchased from outside suppliers. These are either complete movements or kits (ebauches). This means that a company may be purchasing movements more-or-less ready and designed to be cased, or they may purchase movement kits, which their watchmakers must assemble before casing them in watches (though the latter practice without some type of customization is uncommon).
So there you have it. We hope that this was informative to help you understand the different types of mechanical watches available and what some of the terms and descriptions means from the manufacturers.