What’s the Big Deal with In-House Movements?

What’s the Big Deal with In-House Movements?

| 05.01.23

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Swiss farmer up in the mountains, and that it’s the mid-18th century.

You do your thing — milking cows, shearing sheep, bringing in the harvest — and then you come down the mountain pass to a bigger town to sell your wares. But then: winter. Now what? You can no longer make your way down the pass to sell products and collect income. So what do you do instead?

For many, the answer was clockmaking, and later, watchmaking. When the weather became too inclement and the passes were, well, impassable, farmers would hunker down to work on their winter vocation, which was horology. Eventually, entire villages became specialized in clock- and watchmaking — or, very often, a piece of clock- or watchmaking. 

One village might specialize in making dials, for example, while another made screws. Another might only make glass crystals. There were watchmaking companies, to be sure — but most of the time, these companies used parts from these other, aforementioned Swiss shed-industry specialists. (Very few watchmaking companies, for example, make their own movement jewels. Same goes for hairsprings.)

Thus, if we think about the history of Swiss watchmaking, what we’re really looking at is a country-wide collaborative effort — one that persists till today. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t exceptions who crafted entire timepieces by themselves, but rather that the majority of the Swiss watchmaking output was collaborative.

Let’s talk about Tudor, Rolex’s sister company: It just opened new manufacturing facilities in Le Locle, about two hours outside of Geneva. There, the company also operates Kenissi, its movement-making arm. At Kenissi, all “strategic components” such as bridges, balance wheels, and more, are made by a series of companies owned by Tudor. 

The rest, however — screws, jewels, etc — are made by other Swiss suppliers. Understand? Even Tudor’s movement-making arm is horizontally integrated. The same goes for the manufacture itself; they don’t make their own cases, for example. And they’re perfectly happy to be clear about this to the public. 

The bottom line is that very, very few companies ever achieve 100% vertical integration, and when they do, they often do so via acquisition. Rolex, for example, purchased Gay Frères, the famous bracelet manufacturer, as well as, well, pretty much every other type of company it needed in order to produce 100% of its own product, including its own packaging. (The company even forges its own gold. These people are serious.)

For most of the 20th century, no one paid much attention to the concept of an “in-house movement.” Even Patek Philippe, the most storied of Swiss watchmaking houses, used ébache — movement blanks — from Swiss suppliers such as Victorin Piguet and Valjoux as the basis for its own complicated calibres. As did Omega: the famous Calibre 321 found in early Speedmasters is based on a Lemania movement from 1942. (Sorry to spoil it for you!) And the hand-wound Rolex Daytona that belonged to Paul Newman and hammered for close to $18M in 2017? That baby’s powered by a Valjoux Calibre 72 — not by a Rolex-made movement. And nobody gives a damn.

But back to history for a sec: When the Quartz Crisis — essentially the advent of cheap, mass-produced, battery-powered watches — took hold in the 1970s, it forced many watch companies out of business. Many brands could no longer afford to spend precious resources (both financial and otherwise) developing mechanical watches, which were now essentially antiquated tech — especially ones that were inferior to their quartz counterparts with respect to accuracy. TL;DR: batteries were in, springs were out

As the 1990s and early 2000s wore on, however, mechanical watchmaking once again took hold, and companies began pouring money into the development of in-house movements — or, what is more often mostly in-house. A parallel development — the purchasing and grouping together of brands within just a few large conglomerates such as LVMH, Richemont, the Swatch Group, and others — allowed these companies to pool resources together and create what some refer to as “group” movements, which are used by multiple companies within one of these conglomerates. 

These days, very few companies produce in-house calibres by the strict definition, though many produce what are widely considered to be “in-house” despite the presence of, say, screws and jewels from other companies. (Tudor’s modern calibres, which use a certain percentage of components produced by non-Tudor owned companies, are produced by Kenissi, which Tudor owns — and Tudor’s marketing language does indeed call these “manufacture” movements.) Some companies use a mix of in-house and off-the-shelf, and some only use off-the-shelf. Certain (read: very few) high-end independent companies — such as F.P. Journe or Akrivia — exclusively develop their own movements. 

Why would a watch company today spend time, money, and labor in developing its own movement? Truthfully, it sort of depends on the company. Large, historical marques such as Rolex have the capital and capacity to control all of their own production, which is highly important to the brand. (Seiko is similarly vertically integrated.) Smaller, less well capitalized companies, on the other hand, might aspire to make an in-house movement as a mark of prestige. Others develop in-house movements when the type of calibre they want doesn’t already exist on the market. (Think of the 1932 Calibre within Omega’s Chrono Chime, which is unique within the watch industry.) 

How much an “in-house” movement matters (or doesn’t) is really a matter of personal opinion. Remember that the $17M+ Daytona that belonged to Paul Newman used an off-the-shelf movement from Valjoux, while a ~$30,000 entry-level Calatrava from Patek Philippe uses an in-house movement. These things don’t always translate to dollars and cents (or sense)! It’s also important to remember that many workhorse, off-the-shelf Swiss calibers — such as those from ETA and Selitta — are excellent, accurate movements that can be tuned to COSC standards if desired. They might not be pretty to look at, but they most often work quite well. (Exceptions are cheap movements from China. Stay away.)
Most often, however, the use of a manufacture calibre today will make for a more expensive timepiece than an equivalent version with an off-the-shelf movement. Research and development of these calibres is an expensive and time-consuming process, after all, and companies charge a premium for it. Whether you want to pay that premium is entirely up to you.

We do urge you, however, not to get too carried away with the industry’s obsession with “in-house,” which has become ever more pervasive as watches gain in popularity and further permeate the zeitgeist. Are in-house movements an important part of watchmakers’ efforts to push the horological envelope and develop new technologies and complications? Absolutely. But do they make a difference to the average guy or gal on the street who needs to look down at their wrist and have a reasonably accurate picture of what time it is? Absolutely not. 

So, armed with that information, we urge you to make your own decisions as to what you value in a timepiece. Either way, there’s no wrong answer — and that’s the beautiful thing about this hobby.

Excellent Watches with In-House Movements

Patek Philippe Celestial Complication Reference 5102G-001

Patek Philippe Celestial Grand Complication - IN THE SHOP

It’s tough to argue with a watch that displays not only the time, but also the phase of the moon, sidereal time, lunation, and more. And it’s even tougher to argue with the movement powering it — which is viewable via a sapphire caseback.”

Rolex Daytona Reference 116520

Rolex Daytona 

For most of its history, the Daytona used sourced movements — first from Valjoux, then from Zenith. However in the early 2000s Rolex began incorporating its own movements, which it still does to this day.

Zenith Chronomaster Sport

Zenith Chronomaster Original for Hodinkee - IN THE SHOP

If you’re looking for a truly impressive, in-house workhorse calibre, look no further than Zenith’s automatic, hi-beat El Primero, which it’s been producing in various forms since 1969. 

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1815 Annual Calendar

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1815 Annual Calendar - IN THE SHOP

When a dedicated watch lover thinks of an in-house movement today, chances are good that they’re imagining something from A. Lange & Söhne. After all, just look at the finishing!