Hey, HODINKEE! Long Form: What Makes A Movement ‘Great’?
Your questions, answered (at length).
Originally published by Jack Forster on HODINKEE, October 13th, 2021
One of the things I like about doing Hey, HODINKEE! is that we’re forced to give answers that strip things down to essentials. For a guy like me, whose tendency to get lost in digressions has been noted by more than one editor, it’s great practice and good discipline. Sometimes, though, a question comes along that needs a longer answer than we have time for in the show, and rather than just leave them on the cutting room floor, I’d like to take a shot at answering a few in writing.
One of the questions that we couldn’t really address on-camera recently was this gem:
What I would have said, with a gun to my head (or Drinky Bird’s head?) in thirty seconds, would have been, approximately, “There’s no one answer to that, because movements are designed to different priorities and the question is not, what’s good in an absolute sense, but rather, what was the design and engineering mandate, and how well does the movement fulfill them?”
I would have found that frustrating to do, though, because first of all, it’s not a very helpful or useful answer and secondly, it doesn’t really address the fact that there are actually standards in movement design and execution, and knowing what they are is an important part of passing judgement on a watch, overall. (Not coincidentally, it also helps you decide if a given maker is offering real value for the money, which becomes a more and more pressing question since fine watchmaking has, for many years, become more and more prohibitively expensive for anyone who’s not a millionaire).
So here goes.
Greatness, Defined (Sort Of)
First of all, it is in fact true that movements can be great in different ways. The Valjoux/ETA 7750 is an example of a “great” movement. It is not particularly beautiful but it was designed less to charm the eye than to make it possible to produce a reliable, accurate automatic chronograph movement, on an industrial scale, and its designer, Edmond Capt, showed real genius in designing it. This means there are things that, while unacceptable in an haute horlogerie movement (unjeweled pivots here and there, the use of simple bent metal springs) actually represent smart choices for the intended purpose of the machine. You don’t blame a lawnmower engine for not being a hand-built track-tuned V12.
Another way a movement can be ‘great’ is in terms of precision. Right now, Rolex and Omega are both making what are probably – no, scratch that, definitely – the most precise and durable movements either company has ever made. That they take different routes to get there makes neither company more right than the other – Rolex prefers to make obsessive refinements to the standard lever escapement and Omega has opted for high-tech materials and the industrialization of the co-axial escapement.
The result for both companies, though, is that they’ve got a range of movements whose precision (which is reproducible in large numbers) would have made the marine chronometer makers of yore weep bitter tears and gnaw their own livers with envy. After all, building a single high-precision sea clock in hope of a reward funded from a national strategic initiative is an amazing feat, especially in the mid-18th century, but even John Harrison’s biggest fans (I’m one) would have to admit it’s not really a business.
These are technical criteria. A watch movement is a machine meant to keep time, but it also has to hit benchmarks for practicality in manufacturing, cost to the maker, reliance on a robust supply chain, and of course, presence in a package that has to be economically appealing to consumers. If you’re making a half million 7750 movement kits a year, you don’t put hand-polished, individually tempered steel springs in them unless you want it to be your last year.
Movement Design And Layout
At this point, we start to get into movement aesthetics, and also into the question of when it’s more emotionally appealing to use traditional solutions that require traditional craftsmanship, rather than solutions that may be (and often indisputably are) better technically. The great thing about this category of standards is that they depend more and more on subjective evaluation and so, thank God, we can never be deprived of what watch writer Kenneth Ullyet called, ” … the keen pleasure of arguing with each other.” This is all by way of warning you that you are increasingly, from here on out, going to hear not just about time-honored standards for quality, but also about my own personal tastes.
Let’s talk design. I have myself always been a sucker for a traditional full-bridge movement, with an S-shaped bridge for the center and third wheels, and cocks of diminishing size for the fourth and escape wheels. (Generally speaking, a bridge is attached to the mainplate at two points by at least two screws, whereas a cock is attached at one.)
First of all you get to see more of the going train than you can with a ¾ plate movement, and second, there is something I find profoundly graceful about the harmonious visual relationships in such a movement. I’ve always thought that a full bridge movement of this sort, in its design, makes visible the invisible passage of time, as well.
However, it’s not the only way to fly. Philippe Dufour, for instance, uses a single bridge for the crown wheel, ratchet wheel, barrel, center wheel, and third wheel but the bridge is so tastefully shaped and beautifully finished, you wouldn’t have it any other way. Roger Smith does the same thing and Lange & Söhne famously uses a ¾ plate, mit gold chatons, in the Lange 1. In each of these cases the craftsmanship in the watches makes it abundantly clear that it’s an aesthetic choice, not a choice made for reasons of economy.
To a watchmaker, one of the biggest differences is that a full-bridge movement is easier to work on. Taking a movement apart is one thing but putting it back together again is another. I haven’t worked on my own watches in a while but I’ve tried to put ¾ plate pocket watch movements back together more than once. I got a little better at it over the years, but it’s kind of a nightmare.
The problem is, you can set the lower gear pivots into their jewels easily enough but you have to somehow put the upper ¾ plate in place so smoothly that the upper pivots all go into their jewels at the same time. In the case of the Lange 1, that’s eight of the little bastards. The first time I tried to do it with a pocket watch movement, I lost my cool several times and had to walk around the block to get my nerve back. You could have made a movie: There Will Be Swearing.
And last but most definitely not least, there is movement finishing. Here, there is a lot to learn but also a lot of confusion.
The first hurdle is that just as there are different approaches to movement engineering and different approaches to movement layout, there are also different approaches to movement finishing. At its most basic, movement finishing is largely functional but it can be refined to an almost incredible degree in search of aesthetic effects.
Keep in mind, too, that there are generally several different ways to apply the same finish. A lot of the decoration you see on less expensive movements is machine-applied – partly or totally automated. At the high end, though, each of those same decorative techniques can be done by hand, which is a whole different ball game.
The Swiss-French style usually involves a full-bridge layout (though not always) and the use of a whole, well-established vocabulary of decorative techniques. These involve rhodium plating (the actual metal used for plates and bridges is usually brass, but not always), Geneva stripes, angled and polished edges, polished countersinks for screws, polished screw heads, polished screw head flanks, beveled and polished screw slots, perlage on various surfaces that haven’t gotten stripes, polished movement flanks (this is separate from anglage), all steelwork polished and where traditional and appropriate, black or specular polished, as well as with polished bevels, and on and on.
And, of course, the finishing should be applied with equal completeness and care to every part of the movement, visible or not. There is nothing like turning over a gorgeously perlaged mainplate and finding little or no hand-finishing on the dial side, to make you feel like you have been had. Poor or no finishing to the steel parts of the keyless works, for winding and setting, in what is supposed to be a high watchmaking movement, is one of the biggest culprits.
Each one of the decorative techniques can take months or years to learn to do well and if you add up the person-hours of training that go into a really hand-finished movement you can start to understand why they’re so expensive. And it’s not just a question of the cost of time expended; you’re paying for being hotwired into five hundred years of the evolution of the craft.
Now, the English style is a different animal. English makers tended to go for something more austere. Usually, an English watchmaker would take a movement and use a mercury gold-gilded, frosted finish for the plate and bridges, and often they stuck with full plate or ¾ plate construction. They also tended to prefer heavier construction overall – making ultra-thin watches was never really part of the English or for that matter, the American watchmaking tradition, either.
A typical high-grade English pocket watch from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, would have had a ¾ plate layout, with all steelwork either black polished or heat-blued, jewels set in gold chatons, a large diameter, free-sprung, bimetallic cut compensating balance set with timing and compensating screws, and often, a chronometer detent escapement rather than a lever. The balance spring would have been an overcoil type, needless to say.
One of the best-known exponents of the English style was George Daniels, who wrote rather contemptuously in Watchmaking that when watchmakers have no technical problems to solve, they “distract themselves by creating a jewel-like finish.” (This is only partially true, of course, and I suspect there was some good old nationalism behind the remark – Daniels also wrote that he preferred the sober dignity of blued and polished steel and fire-gilding over the more obvious glitter of the Swiss-French style.)
If you don’t know that Roger Smith is making watches in the classic English style, you will not get why there is nary a Geneva stripe to be seen in his movements, and you will also not get what he’s after, overall. I have read remarks to the effect that his movement finishing is poor – “no Geneva stripes, smh” – which is so obviously untrue that it boggles my noggin. Such a comment may be due to excusable ignorance, but it still makes me want to gouge my own eyeballs out with a grapefruit spoon.
Of course, there is no reason you can’t combine elements of both. They work in Switzerland, but Greubel Forsey is an interesting example of watchmaking at the very high end that combines both Swiss and English watchmaking styles.
So what do I think makes a movement “great?” Well if you ask me (and someone did ask) I want it all. I go back and forth between the English and Swiss-French styles, but in either case, I would want the whole nine yards. If a Swiss-French style watch, I’d want the level of fineness in finishing you get from Dufour, as a starting point. I would prefer a beat rate of 2.5Hz/18,000 vph because it simply feels more serene and measured to me than the chipmunk chatter of a 28,800 vph caliber (or higher).
Ideally, I would want a hand-formed Phillips overcoil balance spring in plain steel, with the inner terminal hand-pinned at the collet (so much classier than laser welding or god forbid, glue). The Guillaume balance would be free-sprung, cut, and of course temperature-compensating, with platinum timing weights. (Charles Édouard Guillaume won the Nobel Prize in 1920 for his work on nickel-steel alloys that were dimensionally stable over a wide range of temperatures – Rolex famously used Guillame balances in its Kew-Observatory-certified chronometer wristwatches).
I would ask for a chronometer detent escapement, or some obscure variation (a Peto cross-detent, maybe) or else, a co-axial escapement.
The attraction to me of such a watch, is that making it requires a full suite of traditional fine watchmaking skills, materials, and methods. No exotic alloys (yes, I know the Guillaume balance is pushing it a tiny bit), no LIGA, no manufacturing methods or materials from the semiconductor industry. Just real watchmaking from stem to stern. Obviously when you’re talking about something like this, technical excellence in precision, robustness, and durability should be a given. They are necessary but not sufficient conditions for greatness, in my book.
So for me, that’s the standard for a truly great movement. You can probably see, at this point, that there aren’t a ton of movements out there that even approach this standard and you can probably count makers who push things this far on the fingers of one hand. But if we want to get the most out of watchmaking as an enthusiast, I personally think we owe it to ourselves to first understand that there are standards, and learn what they are. It makes the whole thing so much more interesting.