OPINION: In-house movements, do they even matter? OPINION: In-house movements, do they even matter?

OPINION: In-house movements, do they even matter?

Sandra Lane

If you’re considering buying a new watch, one of the least important questions you should ask is: “Does it have an in-house movement?” To be blunt: the mere existence of an in-house movement does not necessarily equate to a better watch.

So why do we see the in-house claim being made by so many watch brands? Why do they use it like a badge of honour, a mark of prestige and exclusivity, a (strongly implied) guarantee of superior quality – and a reason for charging a higher price?

Let’s start with what the term actually means. Like many words that have been hijacked by the luxury marketing community and rendered meaningless through misuse and overuse, “in-house” has been reduced to little more than jargon – and has bamboozled watch buyers in the process.

In its true sense, an in-house movement’s components must all (screws, jewels, hairsprings, the lot) have been made under the roof of the brand whose name appears on the dial. The same company’s own employees will also have designed and developed the movement from scratch, then assembled, decorated and finished it. By this definition, a true in-house movement is an extremely rare creature.

However, it’s a long way from “almost 100 per cent” made in the brand’s own workshops to the fast-and-loose way the term is now used in watch marketing. Does it mean 75 percent in-house? 50 percent? A bought-in base movement that’s then tweaked in-house? A movement made by a third party for the exclusive use of a given brand – and given a branded reference number? The substitution of “Manufacture movement” as a synonym does nothing to clarify the matter.

To make a true in-house movement requires mastery of a tremendous range of complex and exacting tasks, both technical and creative – and until a decade or so ago, only a few watchmaking houses possessed the necessary mixture of skills, time and money to do it. To a large extent, that’s because they didn’t need to.

The Swiss watchmaking business was an intricate ecosystem (known as établissage), in which expert producers, each specialised in a particular area of watch production, worked together in a symbiotic relationship of mutual trust, dependence and respect. The role of the watch “brand” was essentially to act as the catalyst: designing new models, integrating the movement, case and dial, and marketing the product. Thus, while the great houses such as Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Rolex made some of their own calibres they also sourced ébauches (base movements) from the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Valjoux, Zenith and Frédéric Piguet. And they did not pretend otherwise: they sought the best available movement for a given type of function.

However, two things changed the industry beyond recognition. The first was the revival of mechanical watchmaking after the ‘quartz crisis’. Mechanical watches were no longer seen as the everyday necessity that they had been – but as a luxury. Making at least some of their own movements in-house enabled the top-tier brands to develop distinctive and wholly-owned calibres, with horological substance and rarity that justified their high prices.

The second was Swatch Group’s decision to drastically cut the supply of ébauches to its competitors (by the early 2000s ETA had a huge monopoly in this field). Brands that had taken full advantage of this ready source of well-proven and inexpensive movements faced a major crisis. Those with the financial means began to develop their own vertically integrated supply chains; they saw in-house movements as the means of survival.

That huge capital investment has to be recouped. So obviously, an in-house movement will be more expensive than a mass-produced third-party one. And naturally, it will be marketed as being more prestigious.

But really, is a recently developed in-house movement made in relatively small numbers necessarily better than one that has had its robustness, accuracy and reliability proven over decades of use in millions of watches? A practically bulletproof movement like the ETA calibre 2824 or a Sellita SW200?

The fact is that it matters hardly at all where a movement comes from and matters enormously what is done to said movement before it is cased up in a watch and ready to be sold: how much it has been modified or improved; how much care is taken in its construction; the degree of finishing and decoration, the care in adjustment to ensure optimum performance. Just look at Patek Philippe’s perpetual calendar chronographs ref 3970 and 5970: that exquisite movement began life as the Lemania calibre 2310. Who would ever dismiss it as being inferior to an in-house movement?

Some of the most creative and exciting watchmaking being done today is happening not at the in-house Manufactures but among firms that work in a modern equivalent of the old établissage system: Agenhor and Chronode both create wonderful complications for well-known brands; Christiaan van der Klaauw provided the unique expertise that Van Cleef & Arpels needed to create its Planétarium watch movements; Max Büsser has based his entire brand on sourcing outside expertise and openly acknowledging every single collaborator: the ‘F’ in MB&F stands for Friends and all of their photos are on the website.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the silliness of this debate: Breitling and Tudor’s movement-sharing collaboration. When they announced it in 2017, Breitling launched its SuperOcean II Chronograph with calibre B01; Tudor used the same calibre (renamed as MT5813) in its Heritage Chronograph. Could anyone possibly claim that, once installed in the Tudor watch, the same movement suddenly became inferior because Tudor had not made it?

Back to the issue of cost: there’s no disputing that an in-house movement costs more than an externally sourced one. The real question is how much higher the retail price needs to be. According to brands like Nomos and Frédérique Constant, not much. The latter offers a flyback chronograph with an in-house movement for just over USD 4,600; the entry level to Nomos is less than USD 1,500 for a hand-wound in-house movement.

The key issue in this story is transparency – or the lack of it. All of the obfuscation about in-house movements erodes trust – and that damages not only the brands that are engaging in disingenuous language (or even outright fibbing); it damages the entire industry.

And so, although an “in-house movement” may, at first glance, seem superior (and that’s certainly what the watch brands that use the term want us to think), it’s not necessarily the case. My advice is to take the term with a grain of salt. Know that, in many – although certainly not all – cases it’s mostly a marketing ploy. Note also that the increasing ubiquity of in-house movements has destroyed the rarity that once conferred prestige and value. Notice, too, that some of the most genuinely “in-house” brands don’t even bother to use the term: Rolex and Seiko, we’re looking at you.