The idea of an in-house movement is a fairly modern one. Historically, much of the watch manufacturing in Switzerland was done by component manufacturers, who provided movement blanks and movement components to final assemblers known as établisseurs. Depending on when and where manufacturing was being done, there could be hundreds of suppliers providing movements to an établisseur, with much of the work being done in private homes. Specialization was an essential characteristic of the system; some suppliers produced only mainplates and bridges; others, balance springs, levers, and balances; others wheels and pinons, and on and on. Gradually, over the second half of the 19th century, movement manufacturing moved out of homes and into factories, and after the Quartz Crisis, movement manufacturing became a specialist industry. This was one of the consequences of the merger of many brands, in 1983, into SMH (Société Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie) which would become Swatch Group; brands often became entirely separated from movement making. As the mechanical renaissance began gathering steam again in the 1990s, manufacturers increasingly found it a worthwhile investment – in some cases, not in all – to invest in making their own movements, and the notion of “in-house” as a sign of greater exclusivity and better quality took hold.
The idea of “in-house” as a defining criterion of quality refuses to die, but of course, whether a movement is made in-house or not, really doesn’t tell you much about the quality of the movement on any level. It’s not that it’s unimportant information per se, of course, but for any movement, the number of variations that can exist may be really enormous. You can see very different approaches aesthetically, as well as very different manufacturing philosophies and of course, very different price points. One very interesting example of this are the many executions that can be found, of movements made by one of the more exclusive Swiss suppliers: Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier.
Despite the preference of consumers for “in house” calibers, the number of watches made with supplied movements is still enormous. Probably the two best known suppliers today are ETA and Sellita, but there are a number of others. One of the better known is Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, which is owned by the Sandoz Family Foundation (which also owns Parmigiani Fleurier) and which makes movements in smaller numbers, but aimed at a more luxury oriented client. In 2006, Hermès acquired a 25% stake in Vaucher as a part of its strategy to maintain access to less common movements. As one of the relatively few makers of movements more suited for luxury watches than those from companies like ETA or Sellita, Vaucher supplies calibers to a number of brands other than Parmigiani Fleurier and Hermès, but in a very varied range of styles depending on the client and the movement. One of the more widely seen Vaucher movements are those from the automatic microrotor VMF 5400 family, including the VMF 5401.
The Seed VMF 5401 is the most basic version of the 5401: a microrotor, extra-flat movement, 30mm x 2.6mm, with a 48 hour power reserve, running at 21,600 vph. The rotor is tungsten, winding in one direction, and the balance is an adjustable-mass type (the eccentric weights are in gold). The basic 5401 caliber is time-only with no sub-seconds, but there are versions with a seconds subdial at 6:00, as well as 5400 and 5401 versions with openworked plates and bridges, big date displays, seconds subdial and date, and so on. All share the same basic movement architecture (one quick way to identify a movement and its derivatives is to look at the diameter, and the arrangement of the jewels and pivots of the going train, which tend to be conserved from one variant to the next).
One of the more affordable ways to get into a Vaucher 5401 is with the Slim d’Hermès in steel (which we looked at in February of 2016). The Slim d’Hermès is a quite elegantly executed, thin dress watch, with a custom font by designer Philippe Apeloig.
Here the relationship between the base caliber and the final product is quite clear. The finish consists largely of the H-for-Hermès pattern on the rotor and bridges, with no beveling to speak of on the movement bridges. However, this is reasonably appropriate for the price point; at $7650, hand-finishing is largely non-existent from any manufacturer. This is not to say hand-work is absent in the Slim d’Hermès – merely that the very time-consuming and costly movement finishing techniques that include hand-beveling, hand-polished component flanks, and black-polishing of steelwork, cannot reasonably be expected for the asking price. The movement here doesn’t dazzle in the manner of a Lange (for example) but it does leave an impression of a fairly exclusive mechanism, with such decoration as there is well aligned with the price, as well as the rest of the design of the watch.
At a slightly higher price, and with a somewhat more conventionally Swiss finish to the movement, there’s the Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950. This is a very traditionally styled watch (not for nothing is 1950 part of the name) with a 40mm x 8.2mm steel case.
Once again, at the asking price – $9,900 – there can’t really be an expectation (at least, relative to what the rest of the industry offers) of a deployment of all the bells and whistles of movement hand-finishing. However, the appearance of the VMF 5401 here is a bit less industrial, and more overtly luxurious, than in the Slim d’Hermès, with Côtes de Genève, more highly polished bevels, and some engraving on the rotor offering a nice contrast to the rest of the movement. Here you can also see another way in which different variants on the same base caliber are done – if you look at the shape of the bridges, they’re much more complex than in the Slim d’Hermès and of course, than the basic Seed VMF 5401, which gives the movement a pleasantly lyrical quality. (Again, we can see here that though the shapes of the bridges are different, the balance, regulating system, and configuration of the going train are the same).
Finally – and as the Monty Python gang used to say, “and now for something completely different”– we have the Richard Mille RM 033 Extra Flat Automatic.
The RM 033 was first introduced in 2012, and in titanium; the price announced at launch was $70,000. Former HODINKEE contributor (and now Phillips watch expert) Paul Boutros went Hands On with the watch in 2013 and found it expensive (naturally) but very appealing, writing, ” … the finishing found on all other surfaces was nothing short of exceptional to my eyes … make no mistake: I loved the RM 033. After wearing it for one week, my admiration for the Richard Mille brand has grown. The watch is distinctive, with an ultra-modern industrial aesthetic. It’s also exceptionally well-made, well-finished, and comfortable.”
If you look at the layout of the going train, it’s immediately clear that this is a Vaucher 5400 series movement, however it’s also immediately clear that this is a far more more elaborately executed model. Vaucher does offer an openworked 5401 – the Seed 5401/180, which has the same basic design as the other 5400 family models; however this is not an out-of-the-box 5401/180 at all. For one thing, the arrangement of the cut-out areas in the Richard Mille caliber are very unlike those in the basic Vaucher model. There are so many differences between the Richard Mille RMXP1, and the basic 5400/5401 models, that it’s an almost entirely different movement; of course it should be, for the price, but it’s worth noting that virtually no component is unchanged from the base calibers. In the Richard Mille movement, the baseplate is titanium; bridges are also titanium (PVD treated and, according to Richard Mille, hand-finished) with rhodium plated wheels, and a number of other upgrades. Combine that with the very elaborate case construction, and you have a watch more or less totally unlike either the Parmigiani, or the Hermès.
These are not only watches at very different prices, they’re also watches that express very different design philosophies. The Slim d’Hermès is in some ways the most contemporary of the three – it’s all about design choices, and such technical aspects as the watch has are really there to act as supporting players to the design experience. The Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950, on the other hand, is meant to showcase traditional Swiss fine watchmaking (if not the highest level of hand-finishing) and is easily the most conservative of the three. The Richard Mille, as is always the case with Richard Mille, is as interesting anthropologically as it is horologically: the very high cost, and the fact that it is instantly recognizable as a Richard Mille watch (and therefore, extremely costly) is part of the attraction to its intended audience, although there is much about the design and construction that gives it a kind of visual impact unlike that of watches from any other manufacturer (other than Richard Mille’s imitators, of which there are, naturally, quite a few). It’s also not contemporary in the same way the Slim d’Hermès is contemporary; there is much about its exclusivity, and its visually elaborate design, that is more traditional than you’d think at first glance.
Clearly, when it comes to watch movements, the base caliber is an important part of the story, but it’s also just the beginning of the story. Customization, the addition of better levels of finishing, and the wildly different stylistic approaches that can be taken not only to the movement, but to the watch design as a whole, can often mean that while base movements may be the same, the end products can be very different indeed.