Watch collector and celebrity chef Alton Brown was fond of saying, in his pioneering show Good Eats, that with few exceptions, there was no place for “mono-taskers” in his lineup of kitchen tools. Generally speaking this is an excellent principle, although every profession has its specialist tools that are intended, often, to perform one and only one critical task. It’s always seemed to me to be particularly true of watchmaking, where trying to use a general purpose tool for certain tasks is asking for trouble, up to and including broken parts and a damaged watch.
Tweezers and screwdrivers are probably the least special-purpose watchmaking tools and even here, there’s not a lot of room for departure from precision; a screwdriver that’s the wrong size for a given screw head is more apt to give you a scratched plate or bridge than a properly tightened or loosened screw, and as for trying to remove hands with tweezers instead of a hand-removing tool, if you feel like giving it a shot, hope you like scratches on your watch dials. On a recent trip to see Montblanc’s watchmaking facilities in Villeret and Le Locle (the home of the Minerva manufacture) I was struck once again by just how many specific tools, for specific tasks, exist in watchmaking – and how often it’s absolutely indispensable for watchmaking to use the right tool for the job.
Montblanc’s design and prototyping facilities are located in Le Locle, in a building just a five minute walk from the extremely picturesque (and much more frequently photographed) 1906 Art Nouveau villa that houses the watchmaking facilities. Here, we saw something quite interesting, in a sort of ghostly way: a 3D-printed version of the Montblanc caliber 16.29, which in turn is based on the vintage Minerva caliber 17.29; the 16.29 is one of the most drop-dead gorgeous pieces of horological eye-candy in existence right now. Prototyping new designs is done, to a great extent, in software these days, but making prototype models is still very much a part of the design process, as you get a sense of the tactile qualities and proportions of the watch that you can’t really get from a software model.
A 3D printer is a bit of an exception to my opening thesis (that watchmaking is full of indispensable mono-taskers) but they are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the industry for everything from relatively large group brands like Montblanc, to small independents – certainly they’re a tool that the folks who designed the original Minerva caliber 17.29 would never have dreamed possible.
The villa in Le Locle has landmark status (both Le Locle and nearby La Chaux-de-Fonds are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, thanks to their Art Deco architecture) which means that the villa itself can’t be touched; Montblanc solved the space problem by inserting the assembly facilities underneath the original villa’s foundation. One sometimes gets the impression, because of the importance of Montblanc to the Richemont Group, that its watches are part of some impersonal, large-scale industrial enterprise, but the Le Locle assembly facility is surprisingly modest, and feels almost intimate in scale.
Putting watch hands in place is one of those critical tasks most of us don’t think about all that much – it doesn’t seem particularly glamorous, and it’s not widely appreciated that the job has to be done right or you can have a whole host of most annoying problems. Watch hands are held on by nothing more than friction, so it takes a bit of care and even finesse to do the job right. Poor hand placement can produce issues such as chronograph hands slipping on their posts and becoming misaligned; hands simply falling off if the watch gets a knock; and more subtly, a watch actually stopping because the hands are binding against each other, or rubbing against the glass or the dial. The procedure is to first fix the dial in place, and then place the hands before casing the movement. You have to be quite careful not to mar the dial; the lady in the picture above is using a manual press that exerts varying pressures to fix the hands in place. However, sometimes more elaborate versions of this tool are used as well.
This particular machine is used only for watches with a relatively large number of hands, and which are made in large enough numbers to justify the cost of the machine. It works in a fairly straightforward fashion. The hands are placed in small wells, designed to hold each hand securely, on the upper face of a carrying plate. Once the hands are in place, they’re picked up by the machine, and secured onto their respective posts on the dial of the watch. This tool allows the watch hands to be placed accurately and fairly quickly; the main manual operations are placing the hands in their receptacles, and then operating the individual presses that put the hands in place. Each watch still has to be individually inspected in order to make sure the hands are at the correct height, securely fixed, and that they don’t risk fouling either each other, or rubbing against the underside of the crystal or surface of the dial.
Not only is the hand-setting machine a real mono-tasker, it’s specific to a particular watch, and all this contributes to making it an expensive tool. However, it’s a valuable one, as it helps guarantee both precision and consistency in this critical stage of the watch assembly process.
A short drive from Le Locle is the town of Villeret, where the Minerva manufacture is located. The company that would eventually become Minerva was founded by Charles and Hyppolite Robert in 1858 and started out as an établisseur – a company that receives parts from specialist workshops, performs final assembly, and sends completed watches to retailers. The network of suppliers in the region in and around Villeret was extremely dense; in the late 1800s there were over a hundred different specialized “segments” including the making of pinions, dials, cases, wheels, balance springs and balances, and on and on – virtually every component was made by a different craftsman and the bulk of the work was done in private homes.
Gradually production became more centralized in larger factories, and by the early 1900s, the Robert family decided to turn the company – now called Robert Frères – in the direction of becoming an integrated manufacture. There were a number of brands introduced by Robert Frères in the 1910s and ’20s, several of which were inspired by Roman mythology, and one of these was Minerva (the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena, the deity of wisdom and strategy). In 1923 the name of the company became Fabrique d’Horlogerie Minerva, Robert Frères, S.A. (Société Anonyme, in other words, a corporation).
After the end of World War I, Minerva began making some very sophisticated chronograph movements, including a rattrapante chronograph in 1924, and a wristwatch chronograph in 1923. The founding family sold the firm to their èbauche manager, Charles Haussener, in 1935. In the postwar era, the Frey family, who were shareholders in Minerva, gradually took on greater and greater management responsibilities, and finally, in 1989 Jean-Jacques Frey took complete control of the company. The family sold the firm to an Italian investor in 2000, and in 2006, Minerva was acquired by the Richemont Group, and was renamed Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie. In the process Montblanc also acquired Minerva’s library of movements which included the famous column wheel chronograph caliber caliber 16.29 (the first two digits are the movement size in lignes; the second is the original registration number for the movement in Minerva’s records).
A great many of the machine and hand tools that Minerva used over its very long history are still present, functioning, and in some cases in at least semi-regular use.
These two stamping machines were made in 1940, and could be used to stamp out a wide variety of parts from brass sheet metal (they seem to have mostly, if not exclusively, used for plates and bridges). They aren’t hydraulic presses; instead motive power for the stamping operation appears to come from the gigantic flywheels that form the slightly menacing, robot-like heads of the machines. If I’m reading the manufacturer’s plate correctly, the pressure generated looks to have been an impressive 55,000 kilograms. There is also an impressively varied collection of dies, and these machines are kept in running order and even used occasionally if parts need to be stamped out for watches that have come in for restoration.
The modern descendant of this stamping machine is the CNC machine. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, and CNC machines basically work by directing a cutting head through an X and a Y axis, with a Z axis specifying depth. By the time the stamping machines you see above had been made, the first punched-tape milling machines had already been produced, and today the entire watch industry absolutely relies on them. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Glashütte, Geneva, the Jura, or Japan – pretty much the first floor of any watch company, bar none, is going to have CNC machines (and their brother daemons, spark erosion machines) humming away, producing parts.
This is something many watch enthusiasts, for various reasons, would rather not think about but I have always felt the CNC machine has a certain fascination all its own. The trend in watchmaking for at least the last 200 years, has been away from hand-production of basic components – not hand-finishing, which is a different story – and for very good reason. The ability to series-produce components of repeatable uniformity and precision is absolutely indispensable; methods in the watch industry in the USA were adopted, in the 1920s, from gun manufacturing at the armories at Springfield (another business where interchangeable parts are essential; it’s impossible to have a standing professional modern army if everyone’s rifle is a one-off work of art).
Even independent watchmakers like Roger Smith rely on them (as he discussed with us in an interview in 2015) simply because the available precision is so good. The difference, of course, between a mass-produced, basically industrial product, and one with a lot of craft invested in it, is hand-finishing and hand-adjustment, but the CNC machine is still the bedrock of modern watchmaking and without it, mechanical horology as we know it today would not exist. Probably asking watch enthusiasts to actually love the CNC machine is too much (should we start selling “Have You Hugged A CNC Machine Today?” t-shirts?) but I think they, and the technicians and programmers who keep them running and tell them what to do) can and should be respected for their essential role.
I actually spent some time staring at the control panel for this one (odd behavior, probably, for a normal human but hey, I’m a watch writer) and noticed something I’d never noticed before, which is that you can read off the coordinates for each pass of the cutting head from the monitor as the machine does its thing. It’s a multi-tasker in a certain sense, but its versatility, precision, and the repeatability of operations of which it’s capable, do mean that CNC machines have a unique role in keeping modern watchmaking alive.
Very much more on the traditional and artisanal side of things is this tool, which is for polishing the fork of the lever, in a lever escapement. The fork is at the other end of the lever from the ruby pallets, which interact with the escape wheel teeth, and the opening of the fork receives the impulse ruby on the balance staff, in order to pass energy on to the escapement. This is the only direct point of contact between the balance, and the rest of the going train and as such it needs to be as perfectly and precisely finished as possible. If the fork is properly polished, it will transmit energy to the balance more efficiently and it will also allow the balance to unlock the pallets from the escape wheel with as little energy loss as possible.
When this tool is in use, the lever would be fixed in place, in the aperture in the plate facing the polishing wheel.
The two steel plates you see above are for bending, to the correct angle, a single steel part for the movement of the Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph 1000, which is Montblanc’s 1/1000/sec. wristwatch chronograph. In order to ensure consistency in the angle, these two steel plates were made. The part itself fits into the lower plate and the upper is put into place and held there with two steel pins that fit through the large holes on the right and left sides. You then take a brass chisel-tipped rod and press the steel part to create the appropriate angle. Again, a tool with only one highly specific use, but necessary for that one use.
Here’s another tool that in traditional watchmaking, was absolutely essential and which is also a classic mono-tasker: it does one thing, and one thing only, which is let you vibrate a balance spring. This tool is used to let a watchmaker determine the correct active length of a balance spring, once it’s attached to a balance – in other words, make sure the active length of the balance spring is such that the balance is beating at exactly the correct frequency. Interestingly enough, for a number of movements at Montblanc/Minerva in Villeret, the process of assembling and vibrating a balance and spring is done with quite excruciatingly difficult traditional methods; they still pin balance springs to the collet (the part of the balance staff to which the innermost coil of the spring is attached) the old fashioned way (pretty much every modern movement either laser spot-welds them on, or uses epoxy).
The way the balance spring vibrating tool works is pretty straightforward. Inside the tool is a reference balance, which beats at a verified 18,000 semi-oscillations per hour, or 2.5 hertz. The spring and balance assembly you want to time is placed above it, and you start the reference balance swinging by pushing the lever at 6:00 to the left. You then start the balance you want to time, and watch to see if the two frequencies match. If they don’t, you adjust the active length of the balance spring until they do. The whole thing is done by eye and the woman performing this operation made several quite minute adjustments to the balance spring as we watched; the discrepancies were completely undetectable to me but obviously very apparent to her. (It’s worth noting that Montblanc also makes balance springs in Villeret, for higher end watches in such collections as 1858 and Villeret).
This would have been preceded by poising the balance (and yes, there’s a tool for that) to eliminate any heavy spots on the rim, and followed by other operations, like hand-forming the Phillips overcoil outer terminal curve and probably, dynamically poising the balance (even a perfectly poised balance will have its poise disturbed once the balance spring is attached and the balance starts to run; the appearance of these “virtual” heavy spots, so to speak, is what you address with dynamic poising).
Another domain in which there are a tremendous number of not only specialist tools, but specialist approaches, is that of movement finishing. Movement finishing is generally not well understood and for various reasons; the watch industry has, I’ve always suspected, mixed feelings about having an educated audience. A great many traditional finishing methods are, increasingly, easy to imitate with ever-improving fidelity (a couple of years ago, someone doing hand-finishing in a factory in Switzerland said to me, in absolute deadly earnest, that “anyone who cares about hand finishing should be terrified of lasers”) and reliable information in English on the subject – which, lest we forget, is probably the single biggest difference between an entry level and a real high-end watch – is extremely hard to find (the best book on the subject is a slim volume, produced some time ago, by Audemars Piguet which as far as I can tell is long since out of print).
However, good hand-finishing is still done using old-fashioned methods, and one of the most specific of tools are polishing sticks made from the woody stem of the yellow gentian, which grows all over the Swiss Jura. The stems are gathered in the fall; the reason for this is that yellow gentian is an herbaceous perennial, which dies back to its rootstock in the fall – you use the dried woody stem to make polishing sticks.
Gentiana lutea may be a mono-tasker in horology but it has a wide range of culinary and traditional medicinal uses – it’s been used for many centuries as a digestive tonic; it’s an anti-hypertensive; you can use it instead of hops in brewing beer; and it makes a kind of schnapps so bitter that the mere mention of it was enough to wrinkle noses when the subject came up at Montblanc Villeret. In watch finishing, it comes in at the very end of the process of polishing flanks and bevels. Charged with diamantine powder (aluminum oxide, mixed to form a paste with oil) it’s a critical tool in the last stages of polishing bevels and flanks, as its hardness of the dried, woody stems is just right to get a mirror polish, without removing too much metal.
It was quite satisfying for me to finally identify the exact species of gentian used in this process. I’ve been reading that gentian wood was used in polishing flanks and bevels in high end watchmaking for years, but nailing down the exact species proved surprisingly difficult (the answer at several manufactures was basically, “well, it’s, you know, gentian”). An interesting story starring Gentiana lutea is one Philippe Dufour likes to tell. Dufour famously advised the folks from Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio on high end watch finishing, and sent them back to Japan with a supply of yellow gentian wood; a year later, they asked him for another shipment; and a year after that they said, thanks so much, we’ve found a suitable regional substitute, “so now our watches are 100% Japanese.”
In general I think Montblanc doesn’t get enough credit for the incredible quality of their high end movements; there is a really admirable amount of very stubbornly traditional watchmaking going on at Villeret and at the high end, the results easily rival anything produced by any other haut de gamme manufacturer.
One of the delights of watchmaking are all the highly specialized tools and methods that it relies on, and both modern technology and traditional methods can complement each other beautifully. While many enthusiasts are understandably a little cynical these days about the luxury watch industry as a whole, I sometimes wonder if the disconnect is at least partly due to some of the challenges involved in getting across exactly what methods are being used. Historically, the watch industry has tended to be secretive – you can chalk some of that up to Swiss discretion but some of it was also protection of trade, and in some cases, personal secrets. And part of it also stems from the traditional – or maybe habitual is a better word – relationship of luxury to its clients, which was based on the notion of complete trust in the luxury maker’s know-how, and a kind of serene disinterest in the nuts and bolts of how things were done right. You merely trusted that they were being done right, and that was enough. George Daniels writes, inWatchmaking, that ” … English hand finished watches were expensive and bought only by gentlemen. They, on the whole, were not interested in wheels and polish which were merely manifestations of trade, something which no gentleman would want to be thought to recognize.” However, nowadays, it’s exactly these “manifestations of trade” that are of great concern to potential clients.
As a longtime practitioner of Chinese and Japanese martial arts I can testify that you see the same thing in other disciplines (in the martial arts, one of the biggest revolutions was the realization that many of the traditional systems were simply going to die out if there wasn’t more openness, and I think the watch industry, and watch craftspeople, had to come to the same realization). The other problem, of course, is that Montblanc is the name on the dial of these watches and no matter the quality, some people are simply going to stop listening when they hear the name. That’s unfortunate, because even at the entry level, Montblanc puts more craft and care into its watches than you might suspect at first. And of course, a very big thing you miss, if you let the name deter you, is some of the finest traditional watchmaking going on today.
If you’d like to find out more about high end watchmaking at Montblanc Villeret, check out our hands-on with the Exotourbillon Rattrapante and more recently, the 1858 Collection Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition. See all Montblanc’s watch collections online, right here.