In 2002, watch movement maker ETA made an unexpected announcement. They planned to stop selling watch movements to any watchmaker outside of the Swatch Group umbrella. ETA was bought by Swatch in the years before the announcement, so this wasn’t completely shocking. It made sense that Swatch wanted to make ETA movements proprietary. But for brands outside of Swatch, that exclusivity could have been a major problem. With ETA as the primary movement provider for many brands, a moratorium on movement sales would be a disaster. Predictably, watchmakers bought huge amounts of ETA stock, storing up 2-3 years of movements, so they could continue to manufacture their watches. Within a few months, ETA quietly stepped back its earlier proclamation. It would continue selling movements to non-Swatch watch brands, due in no small part to the pressure of Switzerland’s Competition Commission (COMCO). The industry breathed a sigh of relief.
But the months of panicked limbo after the announcement reminded the horological world again of a serious issue in contemporary watchmaking: the manufacture of fine movements was made up of a tiny small group of sellers, and a decision by any one of them could upset the delicate market balance.
The Trend Towards In-House Watch Movements
Well before ETA made its announcement, well-respected Swiss brands were starting to bring movement manufacturing in-house. In the early days of Rolex or other luxury watch brands, it would have been costly and inefficient to try to take over manufacturing movements as well as other watch components. But as technology became cheaper and quicker, in-house movements became the goal of many exclusive watch brands.
The reasons for this are obvious. First, bringing movements in-house offers a distinct financial advantage. Since Rolex had the capacity and financing to bring movement manufacture in house, it makes sense that they did. Greater control over cost, material, and timeline make in-house movement manufacture an ideal solution. But there’s also a less obvious financial advantage. Selling new references is highly dependent on creating new horological advantages. Collectors will buy watches with new colors and materials, but advances in movement manufacture are even more coveted. By bringing movement manufacturing in-house, Rolex could innovate its technology, and capture the market as it followed. This led to a long 72-hour power reserve, the Parachrom hairspring, and the Chronergy escapement. Offering exclusive technology advances help Rolex stay differentiated in the market.
Is There Any Advantage to An In-House Watch Movement?
Despite the improvements Rolex has made to its in-house movements, the trend towards bringing movements in-house was primarily a marketing move. Increasing power reserve and crafting new materials for movement components are innovations, but they don’t dramatically change the function of the mechanical watch. Most of that innovation happened long before the current historical moment. Manufacturing capability for most brands has increased to the point where in-house movements are as accurate and reliable as those made by ETA or Sellitta.
Luxury Inside and Out
Regardless of what’s inside your watch, whether it’s a workhorse ETA movement or an in-house built chronograph, it will look stunning on an Everest Bands strap. What’s on the inside of your case matters a lot, and it deserves a worthy accompaniment. Invest in an all-rubber or vegetable-tanned leather strap to showcase and set off your favorite timepieces.
Written by Meghan Clark
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