In Europe there are a staggeringly small number of large companies that make watch movements en masse. There is ETA, Soprod, and Rolex… among with a few others. While many brands produce mechanical movements, very few of them do so in massive quantities. This is actually a good thing for watch collectors, who value exclusivity, and movements carefully produced by hand which are later placed inside of high-end luxury timepieces.
The most famous Swiss brand that produces their own watch movements is Rolex. While Rolex does not produce extremely complicated movements, they are considered to be very well-made, and Rolex certainly produces a large number of them. Still large in production but way under Rolex numbers you have brands like Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Blancpain, Piaget, A. Lange & Sohne, Zenith, and Audemars Piguet (among others) who produce in-house made mechanical movements for most all of their products.
Most of these brands have been producing their own movements for a long time. Which means they have the industrial know-how and talent to not only produce, but design new mechanical movements. On a different end of the spectrum are truly independent, very small boutique watch brands which produce movements in very small quantities. This is where the serious (and wealthy) collector will find the most beautiful and interesting watches that are sometimes made entirely by hand.
Over the last several years the Swiss watch movement maker ETA has notified many brands that they will be reducing the supply of movements to watch brands outside of the Swatch Group. Their message to brands was clear “go and make your own movements.” So that is exactly what some of their largest customers such as Breitling, Cartier, and TAG Heuer did. While these brands still heavily rely on ETA, they have been producing some of their own movements for the last few years. With Breitling it began with their caliber 01 movements, and TAG Heuer has their caliber 1887 automatic chronograph.
The benefits of making your own movements are clear – less dependence on third party suppliers and an increased sense of confidence in your customer. Nevertheless, the road is extremely challenging. A number of high-end watch brands all over Europe are struggling with the realities of micro-engineering, perfecting industrialized processes, and obtaining proper base materials. Watch movements are inherently very precise instruments, and must be manufactured in a very careful manner. UK-based watch maker Bremont is forging ahead with plans on building their own base caliber mechanical movements. The brand has already successfully built a ship clock, but now they are focused on bringing more watch making back to Britain. Similar ‘movements’ are taking place in other countries outside of the Switzerland as well.
The high-end watch consumer will continue to have more and more choices when it comes to what movement their next timepiece may contain. It is worth mentioning that many luxury watch consumers aren’t particularly interested in the nuances of the engines in their watches. But for those who are the situation is more complicated than ever, and starts with the basic question of “do I want mainstream and reliable, or rare and exotic?”