In-House Movements Are Not the Be-All and End-All
In-house movements represent the culmination of potentially millions of dollars of investment, years of research and development and the accumulation of talented watchmakers who have the skill to pull it all together. But are they really all that important?
Going in-house is an ideal that some brands should certainly strive towards as it has so many benefits; being independent of third parties who provide you with certain parts (A third party that won't be legally obligated to provide you with said parts in a few years), being able to design a movement specific to the needs and requirements of your watches, being able to create new dial layouts and of course it is a great selling point. Even someone who isn't obsessed with the minutia of watchmaking can appreciate a company building things themselves rather than buying them in.
However the definition of in-house movements isn't as clear cut as one might assume because hardly anyone makes everything in-house. Those who do take a literal definition of in-house typically sell their watches for huge sums at wealthy collectors, not the hoi polloi like you and me. Roger Smith is an exceptionally talented watchmaker who has the benefit of clients who are as wealthy as they are patient as they can expect to wait three years for their timepiece. It's all very well for Mr. Smith to write scathing letters about Bremont atop his ivory tower (paid for by $150,000 watches) but R.W Smith and Bremont are two very different companies with very different markets and price points. Mr. Smith makes no apologies for being a purist but his perspective has distorted the higher up he gets and this distortion is shared by those on the ground and can easily be seen in discussion of in-house movements and where the vintage market is currently.
It's a simplification but in-house movements, whilst more expensive both at purchase and at service, are seen as an investment and anything that uses an ETA or Sellita base is seen as overpriced and not worth the money; the cost of these watches seemingly coming solely from marketing and branding. (Let's remember that no-one in 1969 was buying Rolex Daytonas and Omega Speedmasters as investment pieces) Why would you buy a TAG Heuer 1887 chronograph, the naysayers ask, when it's just a modified Seiko movement that they bought the rights too? Why buy a Bremont when they use Swiss movements but claim to be an English brand? I don't care for duplicity so both TAG Heuer's and Bremont's claims of manufacturing totally in-house movements don't sit right with me but that's the only thing that bothers me, not the fact they used Swiss movements or Japanese design.
For decades, if not centuries, countless watch brands bought movements in and customized them to suit their needs. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus both used the Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 920, the famed Omega Caliber 321 was a Lemania 2310, the Rolex Daytona Ref. 6262 with Caliber 727 was a Valjoux 72. The list goes on and on. It's ironic that the same people who bemoan brands today using bought movements put the those vintage watches up on a pedestal. Do we not see how mad this is? Were these movements infinitely superior after modification by these brands? Of course, but let's not forget that they were bought and modified.
I'll be the first person in line to bash TAG Heuer's stupid decisions and it's clear that the TAG Heuer of today is very different from the Heuer of yesteryear but aside from stupid marketing gimmicks, it's essentially doing what it did before. Not as well mind you, but still the same thing. I don't believe for a second that a modern day Carrera will ever reach the same prices in fifty years as vintage pieces from the 1960's are fetching at auction today but that's less to do with the movement than to do with the overall quality of the watch and where TAG is positioning themselves now.
10:25, analog/shift, Hodinkee and others are all selling watches that don't have in-houses movements and people are buying them.
These sellers also sell a lot of watches with in-house movements but the point still stands that when it comes to speaking with our wallets, people don't seem to care about in-house when it comes to vintage and depending on the brand, they don't seem to care about new either. Oak & Oscar's line-up of two watches (the time-only Burnham and the recent GMT Sanford) are loved by the watch community and both sold out their initial runs despite it 'only' having a Soprod movement. People love that watch and are willing to give the lack of in-house movement a pass when they won't for other brands. Maybe it's the lower price, maybe it's because it was designed by one of the watch communities own, maybe it's just how the wind is blowing today. Who knows?
Now In-house should be the ideal of course for the reasons I listed above but just because some brands haven't, can't or won't make it there doesn't mean we should think less of them. When Nomos first started manufacturing, they were modifying ETA ebauches but twenty six years later they have ten in-house calibers to their name with 95% of the watch made in-house. If we had been so critical of them in their early days we never would have gotten those in-house movements. Christopher Ward's C9 Moonphase Caliber. JJ04 was an ETA 2836-2 before Johannes Jahnke modified it to an inch of it's life. Habring2, Sarpaneva, Speake-Marin and more all use base movements to do create wonderful things that would cost more money and take infinitely longer to produce if they went 'full' in-house.
Do I want more watch brand's capable of making in-house movements? Absolutely, but I'm not going to fool myself into thinking everyone can do it. We need to be critical of brands when they do something wrong but we also need to encourage and support them so they can make better watches. If a watch is great without an in-house movement then shout it from the rooftops, don't drag it down into the gutter.
- Habring2: FAQs Overview
- Hodinkee: A Vintage Watch Nerd's Critical Dissection Of The Rolex Daytona, Past to Present (Part 1/3)
- Hodinkee: Introducing the Habring2 Flex, Celebrating 10 years of Business With An In-house Movement
- Hodinkee: Three on Three: Comparing Independent Watches Under $15,000
- Oak & Oscar: Burnham
- Oak & Oscar: Sandford
- Omega Addict: Movements
- On The Dash: Movements
- Timepiece Chronicle: The Steel Revolution: How the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak And the Patek Philippe Nautilus Changed Watchmaking Forever