Experts talking

Every time, the "Experts talking" column develops a different case.
The author's aim, as connoisseur and authority about the matter, is to help you to understand the subject by making these informations comprehensible and digestive.
Presently: Watch-cases and bracelets

Already available
- Autoquartz
- Chronograph or chronometer
- Shock-absorber
- Water-resistance

- The Swiss watch production
- Material and finishes for watch cases

- Watch Professionals I
- Watch Professionals II
- Watch-cases
- Sapphire crystal
- Boîte et bracelet
- Bevelling and finishes...(I)
- Bevelling and finishes...(II)
- Bevelling and finishes...(III)
- Bevelling and finishes...(IV)
- Bevelling and finishes...(V)
- Bevelling and finishes...(VI)

- Bevelling and finishes...(VII)
- Bevelling and finishes...(VIII)
- Bevelling and finishes...(IX)
- Bevelling and finishes..(X)
- The Tourbillon
- Observations on top-of-the-range mechanical watches I
- Observations on top-of-the-range...II
- Observations on top-of-the-range...III
- Observations on top-of-the-range...IV
- Stricking watches
- The Screws (I)
- The Screws (II)
- The Screws (III)
- The Screws (IV)
- The Screws (V)
- Chronometry

- at present

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The author

Miroslav Alexandre CHYTIL, is an EPFZ mechanical engineer, specialized in industrial organization; he is a polyglot, with a lot of experience, in Europa, Africa and Asia, principally in watch cases factories and that since 1965.
He was technical adviser or general manager of some watch cases factories.

11. Watch-cases and bracelets

Although the Swiss watch has now existed for several centuries, cases were only produced on an industrial scale as of 1876, after a visit to the United States by a Swiss commission.
This group has able to study the advanced methods used in America and then to begin applying these industrial processes in Switzerland. Following this, it was technological evolution and fashion that were behind the evolution within the manufacturing of watch cases.
First came the use of stainless steel, which replaced watch cases made from brass, and then the genetalised turn to watertight watches as of the sixties, and in particular thanks to the work of Ervin Piquerez.



Fashion then created a demand for extra-flat cases, and favoured the construction of special calibres such as that of the "Delirium", which evolved to create the calibre used in today's "Swatch". Both fashion and market demands led to sapphire glass and scratch-resistant materials becoming widely used.

Pantograph for case-making, end of XIXth century,
Musée International d'Horlogerie, La Chaux-de-Fonds

This evolution was only possible thanks to technological developments.
The first mechanical balances were replaced by hydraulic presses that today have made fully automated die-stamping and annealing possible. The creation of die-stamps, once entirely made by hand, is greatly facilitated by automated wire erosion or by pressing. Machining itself, which at one time was carried out almost exclusively on "Gudel" machines, on which all operations for removing chips were carried out, now takes place on multi-axis machines with digital controls. Even polishing, which had remained one of the last bastions of manual work, is now becoming automated to a larger extent thanks to the introduction of ever-more efficient machines capable of reproducing the work of the polisher.
Today, the last bastion of manual know-how is the assembly of the components of a watch case and the final visual control.

The evolution has also changed the profession of case manufacturers. From a process that was purely one of craftsmanship, it has become one of specialists in all the modern sectors and now requires an even longer apprenticeship than before (several years).

The production of large series and the need for interchangeable parts has brought with it the modern concepts of metrology and statistical controls professions that did not exist in this form in the past.
Finally, this evolution has radically changed the methods of management within today's companies.
It is today unthinkable to work without the aid of information technology, computer-assisted drawing, design software or computer-assisted production. Even today's factory owners have little in common with names such as Francillon, Favre-Perret, Ruedin, etc. I am not even sure that these illustrious figures would today be able to create their factories or make them a going concern.

Spinning-tool, at the start of the XXth century
Musée International d'Horlogerie, La Chaux-de-Fonds

Today, the watch case industry in Switzerland has been at a turning point for several years. It faces various phenomena that will influence its future.
First, we are seeing extremely well made products from the Far East emerging to compete with us. If these products concerned only the lower-price segment a few years ago, they are now competitive within the middle range and coming dangerously close to the top quality segment.
This competition is leading to extremely strong pressure on prices, and is forcing Swiss manufacturers to remain highly competitive since reducing margins is unhealthy on the long term. Cash flow represents the possibility of making investments to improve the manufacturing equipment.
In addition to this competition, we are also seeing a vertical trend and greater concentration emerging among the watchmaking groups. Both these factors are having the same effect on prices and thus on cash flow.
However, neither of them have proved themselves over time, and I am still awaiting proof that the policies adopted by new financial managers to satisfy their shareholders are viable on the long term. Moreover, I am today unable to judge the effect that the Internet will have on the future of watch case.

To conclude on an optimistic note, I should point out that our industry is regularly developing technological innovations that are patented, and that represent technological progress.
There will always be a niche to be occupied, and our proximity offers us the possibility of reacting rapidly to create solutions.The fact that we have the capacity to handle small series at acceptable costs gives us a certain advantage.
Finally, we must not forget that this industry has always weathered an impressive number of storms throughout its history, and yet is still very much in existence.

 

 

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