One of the many benefits of studying at the British School of Watchmaking is the week long trip to Switzerland that is organised each year for the second year students. The trip affords the students the privilege of visiting the manufacturing sites of some of the industries best known brands and the opportunity to experience the beautiful country that is Switzerland.
The schools association with WOSTEP and the sponsorship it receives from various companies in the UK makes all this possible. The manufactures visited each year depends on the ability of the brands to accommodate the students during a particular week. The students spend 5 days visiting at least one manufacturing or assembly site per day.
My trip took place in June 2013, a month before my final examinations so it provided a good opportunity to relax and discover how things are done in each manufacturer. The chance visit just one factory is something most people are unlikely to do but to visit so many in the same week was a fantastic prospect and probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I had been looking forward to the trip from the moment I applied to the school because as a watch collector it’s amazing to see watches and components being created with your own eyes.
I found out a few months before the trip that we would be visiting the sites of Patek Philippe, Breitling, Omega, Rolex, Cartier, Panerai and the Manufacture ValFleurier. We would also get the chance to visit the headquarters of WOSTEP and the international museum of horology. The trip involved quite a bit travelling as we would be flying into Genève from Manchester and travelling across Switzerland to visit places including Bienne, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchâtel.
The week began at the headquarters of Omega in Bienne. We were given a tour of the after sales area which included the following departments- diagnostics, service, polishing and vintage restoration. During our time visiting the polishing area we were given a demonstration of how the lapped finish on a vintage Speedmaster MKII case is applied. The speed at which the polisher refinished the case was astonishing! We had the opportunity to chat to some of the watchmakers working in the vintage restoration department which provided some interesting stories and a look at some of the restorations they currently had underway.
The highlight of the visit though was a presentation from the head of the tourbillon department and the chance to handle a selection of watches. The presentation told the story of the development of Omega’s tourbillon and how the tourbillon itself functions. It was an interesting presentation and it was nice to be able to ask questions of the man responsible for its development. He also told us that each watch is unique because one master watchmaker works on each watch from beginning to end and the majority of the components are finished by hand. I cheekily asked if we could take some photos and to my surprise he agreed so here they are!
The afternoon of day one saw us arrive at the Breitling Chronometrie on the outskirts of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the facility responsible for movement assembly and Breitling’s research & development. The ultra modern facility boasted a number of environmentally friendly solutions including using the heat produced by the manufacturing machinery to heat the building during the winter!
The facility has been designed to undertake customer tours over the last few years so each area within the facility boasts a large television screen which displays a video of what takes place within that particular room. This allows visitors to see everything that takes place without disturbing the flow of production. The facility is ultra modern and very high tech as would expect from a brand such as Breitling. A large array of Breitling pop art adorned the facility and an enormous Asian green soldier stood at the bottom of a stairwell. The soldier was put there to protect the facility from Asian parts or so we were told!
The manufacturing processes used for the B-01 components were very impressive, from recycling the excess material to using the heat produced, everything was designed to reduce any impact on the environment. At the end of the tour, was a display that told the story of the most important innovations in the companies history, on display were original examples of the very models in question.
The area of most interest to me during the visit was the research & development laboratory, individual components are tested to ascertain there ability to stand up to the stresses required of them. It was also revealed that Breitling were developing their own range of oils just incase Moebius restricted supply in the future, this was just one of many programs designed to ensure the company can remain independent in the future.
Day two saw us arrive at the Cartier Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie in Musée. This large facility is unusual when compared to most as almost all the processes required to manufacture a watch are completed under one roof. Including manufacturing all of the base components including main plates, bridges, etc and even watch cases. It was fantastic to be able to work up and down the various areas of manufacture with no real restrictions at all. Our guide even answered any questions we had about the different processes, from her own knowledge or by asking the workers operating the machinery. It was clear to see that Cartier is a true manufacturer.
We were also shown around the haute horology area which included stone setting, enamelling and other high end finishing techniques. The opportunity also arose to handle some prototypes that were manufactured to meet the requirements of an individual customer. Cartier are very much able and willing to create one off pieces for customers fortunate enough to have the required capital. It was interesting to see what can be achieved from an initial customer idea. They weren’t particularly to my tastes but the standard of finish was very impressive.
Cartier very kindly organised for us to have a guided tour of the Musée international d’horlogerie in Musée. The museum houses a broad range of clocks, watches and horological instruments that show the history of the industry. Our guide was particularly knowledgeable and he provided some fascinating information about a number of the pieces displayed in the museum. I can thoroughly recommend the museum but really you need more than an afternoon to take it all in. You will definitely learn something that you didn’t know beforehand, I know I certainly did!
Day three saw us arrive in Neuchâtel where we first paid a visit to Panerai’s facility which was located right next to the lake. They were due to move to a new larger facility later in the year but for the moment this 5 storey traditional building was their headquarters. On arrival, we were given a presentation about the history of the company and its most important models. The facility housed some final assembly, after sales service, restoration and a laboratory which was unfortunately off limits due to a current secretive project.
The final assembly taking place including fitting the dials and hands, casing, regulation, water resistance testing and quality control. It was interesting to see the semi-automated tools used to put the hands in place. The facility was a much smaller operation than what we had seen so far but nonetheless just as interesting. The after sales department contained around 10-12 watchmakers of varying experience working on the entry level models and some of the chronographs. The top floor of the building contained the restoration department and the complication area of the after sales service. Within this area they can restore any of the original Panerai models and repair some of the most complex such as the tourbillons & rattrapante chronographs.
The afternoon saw us the visit the ValFleuerier production and manufacture site in Buttes. Situated in the Val de Travers this facility is responsible for movement component manufacture for the Richemont group. Processes such as turning (on a lathe), milling or electro-erosion are carried out within this facility. The number of high tech machinery all on one site was astounding. The facility is able to produce main plates, bridges, wheels, pinions from raw materials on a huge scale, as well as carrying out decoration & complete assembly of some of the manual wound calibre’s.
The Buttes facility is divided into two manufacturing areas, one for making prototypes and one for production. Both areas are equipped with the latest generation of CNC multi-axis machines which allow an easy transition from prototype to full scale production. The raw movement components, after trimming and washing, are taken to the facility in La Côte-aux-Fées to be finished and decorated. The state of the art facility is a true demonstration of modern mass production.
Late in the afternoon we were able to squeeze in a quick visit to the WOSTEP founding school where we had a tour of the facilities and a presentation from director Maarten Pieters about where the course is heading in the future. Lets just say there are some interesting ideas arriving soon! It was a good opportunity for us to compare the equipment with what we had back in Manchester. We also had half an hour or so to talk to some of the students in Switzerland and compare our experiences of the course. I have to say the view of the lake from the school beats our view back in England!
Day four saw us arrive in Genève where we would visit Patek Philippe. On arrival, we were given a presentation about the history of the company before being taken to the production facilities. The large buildings of the vast facility house production, after sales, training and the famed restoration department amongst others.
On our tour of the production facility we got the chance to see the pallet stones being set to the correct depth courtesy of some high tech machines that calculated whether or not the set tolerances had been met. Moving on, we got to see production of the overcoiled hairsprings, producing these is no mean feet and is carried out by skilled technicians. Forming the overcoil is something I haven’t had the chance to do but they made it look easy! A couple of bends in the spring via some tweezers it might be but getting it right takes many hours of practice.
The regulation area was next, a large number of technicians and timing equipment occupy this space. Here they perfect the time keeping of each movement via dynamic posing of the balance wheel. This proved extremely interesting as it’s exactly what we would need to carry out on our W-01 movements if we wanted to have any chance of achieving a COSC certificate.
We moved on to the after sales service area, in this space were a number of highly skilled and trained watchmakers carrying out servicing & repair of modern timepieces. Also housed in this area was the training department, watchmakers from all over the world attend courses here lasting from a week up to a few months for the most complicated movements. It provided an insight of what we could potentially achieve as watchmakers with time, experience and hard work.
The next stop on our tour was the famed restoration department where any Patek Philippe in history can be maticulously restored to its original specification. This is made possible not only by the skilled craftsman and watchmakers in the department but also the companies huge archive of all the models it has ever produced. Any part required for the restoration can be painstakingly remade to its original specification. We received a demonstration from a gentleman called Frank, he manufactures balance staffs, pinions and the like by hand. Sometimes he can use an original blank from there dwindling store of spares but usually he has to make it completely from the scratch. The speed at which he can produce these and to such a high standard is astounding!
On route to the restoration department we also came across a small workshop where some work was taking place, what we discovered was a watchmaker working on one of the few Calibre 89 pocket watches! This was apparently the first time any visitor had seen this taking place and the watchmaker even brought the movement out to show us. It was a once in a lifetime experience and the size of the movement was enormous! It was explained to us that the watchmaker was responsive for servicing all of the Calibre 89’s and he was writing a service manual which had to be completed before he retires in a few years time!
Finally we were taken to a small room and seated around a table, what followed next were tray after tray of current & vintage Patek Philippe models. Although we weren’t able to handle them or take pictures we were allowed to get an extremely close look at them. We were also given a demonstration of some models which including a pair of vintage minute repeater pocket watches. They made glorious sound befitting of the great history of the company.
The day was completed with a tour of the fantastic Patek Philippe in the city which has a display the largest number of the companies watches in the world. Our very knowledgeable guide was able to explain a number of significant models in the history of the company and made the tour a great experience. The number of watches displayed in the museum and there obvious value unfortunately meant no photos were allowed but I can assure its one place worth a visit if you are in Genève.
I also couldn’t resist including a picture of my desert during lunch, according to the staff, they have never had the same desert twice!
The final day of our visits would be spent at the Rolex headquarters in Genève. The building contains a huge spare part facility, after sales, training, final production & testing, water resistance testing and a lot more. We were first taken a presentation room to be shown the history of the company and an overview of its current activities. Before the presentation began, something happened that wouldn’t have been out of place in a James Bond movie! The glass skylight above us clearly allowed in too much light so at the press of a button around 10 segments concertinaed out of the roof and promptly covered it!
After the roof trick and the presentation, we moved on to the production lines which proved to a very modern area designed for mass production. It task of the assembly was split into a small number of steps such as attaching the rotor and fitting the screw. Each of these steps were a carried out by a few technicians in each designated area. They had a box of around 20 movements/watches on which they had to carry out their steps before the boxes were checked and passed on to the next step. A very efficient and modern production process typical of Rolex. To enable us to see what was going on without disturbing the technicians, cameras where placed above their work stations and the pictures displayed by large screens above designated areas.
From production we moved on to the after sales and training departments, during our tour of the training area we sure some instruction being given on the new SkyDweller model. We also had the chance to handle one of the rose gold models being used for the training. The facilities where typically well equipped, well laid out and very modern. We next encountered the water resistance testing area which housed the famous COMEX hyperbaric chamber which is still used today to test the Deep Sea SeaDweller models. We saw it in action and it’s an impressive piece of engineering thats for sure. Lastly we were shown around the area that is responsible for the picking, packing and distribution of spare parts. The whole system is completely automated and very high tech.
That was the end of a very busy week but one which I will probably only experience the once in my lifetime. The chance to see inside the manufacturing, development, service and restoration facilities of all the companies above was an amazing opportunity and something that I’m really grateful to have had. I must say a big thanks to all of the companies above for their hospitality during the week and also to the school & its sponsors for organising this as part of the course. I hope you all enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed the trip.