Why the worst thing about luxury watches is also the best thing
Ever wondered why some watches are so expensive even though they look pretty much ordinary? The answer lies in what you don't see — at least not at a glance. And if you're not sure what to look for, you may not even know it's there. Welcome to the minuscule world of haute horlogerie finishing.
It sounds a little clichéd but when it comes to luxury watchmaking, it really is all about the details. Of course, performance and design play a big part too, but what truly separates horological wheat from chaff is the level of finishing that you'll find in the movement, and often the case as well.
All top tier luxury brands take great pride in hand-finishing their movements, if not all of them, then at least for their most exclusive pieces and the grande complications. It would be remiss of any manufacture to produce a complicated movement without the requisite hand-applied anglage, perlage, or Côtes de Genève. Likewise, a tourbillon carriage that has not been mirror polished — sacrilege!
But what's the big deal about finishing? Why should anyone care? Does it even do anything for a watch? To start with the easy question, which is the last one, yes it does. A lot. A movement is composed of anywhere from over a hundred to several hundred components, each one having been cut, stamped, or milled from raw steel, brass, or German silver (also called maillechort). All that micro-mechanical engineering leaves unsightly burrs and rough edges on the components. Not only do they make the overall movement unattractive, these jagged surfaces also create unnecessary friction, and friction is the last thing a movement needs more of.
So we've established that there is a functional purpose to movement finishing. This is pretty much also why you should care if your watch's movement has been well finished — especially if you've paid a lot of money for it. Look at it through a loupe (assuming there's an open case back). You should see gleaming surfaces, decorative touches, and smooth edges. By and large, watches with open case backs should come with a minimal standard of finishing, but it's not a guarantee of hand-finishing, which brings us to the million-dollar question: What's the big deal about finishing, specifically, hand-finishing?
In this day and age where robots and computers can do everything, hand-finishing remains one of the most revered aspects of high watchmaking. It is that final step that transforms a piece of machinery into a work of art. Not only does it improve the overall functionality, it also makes it a thing of beauty.
Have I also mentioned that finishing is torture?
To us mere mortals, that is; if you're a finisseur (someone who finishes watches for a living) then it'll probably be just another walk in the park. I know this because I've been invited, several times, to try and replicate the work of a finisseur. And each time, I fail. Spectacularly, to the amusement of the watchmakers around. I can only hope they'll go easy on me at lunchtime chatter.
Imagine sitting at your desk, your eyes practically fused to the microscope, your shoulders completely still, and your backbone ramrod straight. Only your hands move and they are busy controlling a file or grinder, doing their utmost to remove every single fine line and uneven surface of a wheel, a bridge, or if your supervisor really wants to torment you, a screw no bigger than a single peppercorn. Now imagine doing this for hours.
Slightly less punishing on the eyes but just as gruelling for the hands is polishing the components on diamond-coated abrasive paper. Here's where you press flat components like bridges and plates on the paper, holding it in place with a piece of cork (or other soft wood) and then moving the component in a figure eight motion. Keep doing it until the surfaces become mirror-like, which again can take hours especially when done by novices.
At a finishing class hosted by watchmaking legend Roger Dubuis, I gave it my very best. I showed my masterpiece to Mr Dubuis, believing it to be the best specimen of movement polishing he would see, only to have him look at me over his bifocals with a withering look that says, "try harder." Crestfallen, I drowned my sorrow in a muesli bar and sought solace in the fact that all the other journalists in the class failed miserably too.
This is why timepieces made by Breguet, Audemars Piguet, Roger Dubuis, Patek Philippe —essentially all of watchmaking's finest houses — are so greatly revered. To say that these manufactures 'pay attention to details' is quite the understatement; they are practically obsessed with the infinitesimal — no surface is overlooked, everything is decorated. See the mirror-like surfaces on the bridges, their sharp internal angles, their carefully bevelled edges, beautifully blued screws, and evenly graduated perlage. Wouldn't you be impressed when someone tells you that everything you see has been done by a pair of human hands?
So the next time you see a luxury timepiece, remember to turn it over to the back and look at the movement. Admire the work so painstaking done by the finisseur and very soon you'll gain a whole new respect for this crazy little thing called watchmaking.