What goes into the making of a modern mechanical timepiece, and just why are they so expensive? Where better to find out than at the Swiss HQ of Blancpain, the oldest watchmaker of them all
The continued success of the mechanical watch industry owes much to the romantic notion that a collection of cogs, gears and springs can somehow connect our modern, around-the-clock lives to a simpler, less-frantic time.
It’s a fancy reinforced by the fact that most traditional watchmakers, save for a splattering of Saxon-stationed brands, hail from Switzerland, which, testament to the marketing strategy of the country’s tourism board, we visualise as a bucolic setting chiming with cow bells and disrupted only by the long, low bellow of alphorns. A place that hasn’t moved on all that much from the pages of Heidi.
And, in many ways, life in the Vallée de Joux, the beating heart of Swiss watch land, hasn’t. Water still flows from the River Orbe into Lake Joux. Cows continue to graze the valley’s sides until winter arrives and farmers are forced to make ends meet through other means. From the 16th century, one way of doing so was by handcrafting components for the watch companies that had been established in Geneva by the Huguenots (who’d fled religious persecution in France). The tradition continued into the 18th century, at which point – to sidestep a couple of centuries of horological history – several entrepreneurial individuals started centralising production processes into more verticalised operations.
One of the earliest to do so was a school teacher turned watchmaker in the hamlet of Villeret. Jehan-Jacques Blancpain’s workshop was located on the second storey of his farmhouse (the inhabitants of the first floor being cows). While it is almost certainly the case that Jehan-Jacques began watchmaking prior to 1735 – for it was in this year that he recorded his occupation as ‘horologer’ on an official property registry, implying employment in the industry for some time previously – it is 1735 that modern-day Blancpain considers as its founding year. Which makes Blancpain the world’s oldest continuously-active watchmaker.
In 1992, having manoeuvred its way out of the Quartz crisis under the joint ownership of Jacques Piguet, head of movement manufacturer Frédéric Piguet, and industry arriviste Jean-Claude Biver, Blancpain relocated from Villeret to nearby villages Le Sentier and Le Brassus, establishing a manufacture and an art studio, respectively.
The Making of a Mechanical Timepiece
In 2010, Blancpain completed its vertical integration by merging fully with aforementioned calibre specialist Frédéric Piguet, allowing the company to manufacture all of its movements in-house. The watchmaking process – Blancpain currently manufactures around 25,000 timepieces a year – begins at the Le Sentier site, home to approximately 700 employees.
Components – plates, levers, bridges, discs, cogs, oscillating weights – are first cut out as rough blanks (mostly in steel and brass) by automatic presses fitted with stamping blocks. Computer numerical control (CNC) machines, accurate to the nearest micron, then mill holes into plates at the points at which other components will be attached. A single plate might have 100 milling steps. Components are then cleaned in up to 20 chemical baths. The process of making one component could take six hours. Calibres, of course, comprise hundreds of parts.
Currently, Blancpain manufactures 12 of its own base movements. Whenever a new calibre is invented, the company’s on-site toolmakers may be required to create new stamping blocks to cut out new components. With the most expensive CNC machines costing up to €20 million, and each new stamping block ranging from €30,000 to €200,000, it’s clear why only the most well-financed watch companies can lay claim to manufacturing movements totally within their own walls.
Artists at Work
Built in 1770, the cherry-wood-panelled walls of Blancpain’s farmhouse facility in adjoining Le Brassus accommodate both its complicated watch department (Blancpain is the only watchmaker currently manufacturing carrousels, super-complex rotating regulation systems similar to tourbillons) and its Métiers d’art studio. It’s here that you’ll find the company’s engravers, enamellers and other specialist artists. One watch stands to demonstrate the aptitude of this division.
The one-of-a-kind The Great Wave was launched at Baselworld 2016 and took as its inspiration one of the most iconic images in Japanese art: Katsushika Hokusai’s 1830 woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Once Christophe Bernardot, Blancpain’s master engraver, had settled on his subject matter, he was faced with the challenge of capturing the force and dynamism of the wave in just a few millimetres of watch face. How to capture a sense of power and motion in the space of a dial? In pursuit of a powerful depiction, Bernardot crafted a three-dimensional engraving in white gold. For still greater visual depth, he endowed the engraving with a patina using shakudō, an alloy of copper and gold historically used in samurai swords. Bernardot then created shadow and light through delicate polishing.
The second part of Bernadot’s quest was finding the right surface material on which to attach the wave. Bernadot wanted to showcase his engraving but not upstage it. Examining a wide range of materials, he settled on a stone never previously used for a watch dial: Mexican obsidian. Its grey, moody colour, infused with subtle, extremely fine bright grains, worked to showcase the wave while capturing the dark atmosphere of a storm. Bernadot then drilled fine holes through the stone to accept the miniscule feet he’d attached on the back of the white-gold wave. All of this while Blancpain’s complicated watch division was working on a new variant of Blancpain’s eight-day 13R0 movement, modified, so as not to interfere with the wave, to display a power reserve indicator on its back.
Blancpain distinguishes itself from other brands in its rejection of production line methods, favouring instead hand assembly of watches from beginning to end by a single watchmaker at his own bench, or as the brand terms it, “an individual watchmaker working on a watch from A to Z.”
Should you want to customise your timepiece, a number of components – dials, case-backs, oscillating weights – can be decorated and engraved before assembly. We witnessed a range of commissions being worked on, from famous artworks, like The Great Wave, to the skylines of cities being replicated on dials. Judging by the number of carnal carvings on show, it seems Blancpain does a healthy trade in erotic engravings, too.
Now that mechanical watches have become superfluous to our everyday lives, we buy into the notion that timepieces powered by a spring represent something magical. Blancpain is certainly doing its bit to legitimise this belief. While the world’s oldest watchmaker might be reliant on computer-aided milling machines for its components, it is watchmakers huddled over wooden benches inside an 18th-century farmhouse that breathe life into these miniaturised pieces of art.