Like most heritage brands, the firm slowed down or stopped making mechanical movements at some point, particularly with the advent of quartz, and although it has had much success with its men’s timepiece designs over the years – including the iconic Mille Miglia collection – it wasn’t until 1996 that the company began to produce its own movements again.
Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele’s vision was to establish a watchmaking operation that combines the techniques of age-old hand craftsmanship with modern technology. All in-house movements are built with Chopard-made components (everything but the screws) and finished with Chopard-made tools. All craftspeople are trained in-house to ensure consistency of workmanship and a finishing touch that represents the Chopard signature. The process is about quality, not quantity, and that has meant no cutting corners, or costs.
A brand can only fully exist in the field of Haute Horlogerie by achieving complete control of the making of its timepieces.
“In my view, a brand can only fully exist in the field of Haute Horlogerie by achieving complete control of the making of its timepieces: design and development, production and assembly, movements and exteriors,” says Karl-Friedrich Scheufele. “Chopard has chosen to give precedence to hand craftsmanship, even when this choice involves higher production costs. It is the kind of choice only a family business could make, thanks to an entirely independent structure, unbound by the demands of immediate profit stemming from external investors unaware of the nature of fine watchmaking.”
In 1997, a year after establishing Chopard Manufacture in Fleurier, the Maison emerged with its first caliber, the 1.96, cased in the L.U.C 1860, marking the company’s foundational year. Today, Chopard produces nine distinct families of watch movements, with 50 movement variations, including a perpetual calendar and a tourbillon. This year, it produced 7,000 movements, up from 3,000 only two years ago, thanks also to the new facility Fleurier Ebauches. The goal is 15,000 by 2015. As production increases, the company’s reliance on outsourcing diminishes. As of next year, for example, all watches in the Mille Miglia collection will contain Chopard-made movements. The Imperiale and L.U.C collections already contain in-house movements. All watches bearing the Geneva Seal are cased in Geneva, and everything that is Geneva Seal certified falls into the L.U.C collection.
The watches have been well received, by all accounts. For example, also shortlisted in various categories at this year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie, were the L.U.C Perpetual T, Superfast Automatic, L.U.C Engine One and Mille Miglia 2013. And in 2006, the L.U.C XP won first prize in the ultra-thin category at the Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix.
A contrast of old and new
On a recent visit to the Chopard facilities in Fleurier and Geneva, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the processes in this fully integrated watch manufacture, where most of the work is done by hand. Chopard performs 25 individual crafts under its roof, including everything from making tools and components to creating its own dials and casting gold to achieve its proprietary color. There is also an in-house gemology/jewelling department, including gem cutting, sorting, polishing and setting.
The manufacture is a contrast of old and new. At Fleurier Ébauches, rows of shiny new CNC machines create the blanks – main plates and bridges – from brass plates. One of these machines, the size of a small elephant, is the 1.5-million-dollar MTR312, with an impressive nine robotic arms that churn out a new plate every four minutes (compared to every 45 minutes using a manual stamping machine). It does this to within tolerances of one micron (one-thousanth of a millimeter).
Everything else – chamfering, engraving, perlage, côtes de Genève – is done by hand, using techniques and tools that have been used by watchmakers for more than a century. During my visit, for example, I witnessed the chamfering of the plate for the special-edition Mille Miglia Zagato, launched in Milan in October. I also peeked over the shoulder of a watchmaker who carefully placed the gem-set bridge onto the carriage of a new Happy Sport Tourbillon, due for release at Baselworld 2014, coming up in March.
For the record, here is a list of a 25 crafts, and some pics of the master craftsmen in action:
- Bracelet assembler
- Wax casting of gold components
- CNC Operator
- Precision Timer (shaping the curve on the balance spring)
- Complications watchmaker
- Cotes de Genève Engraver
- Sculptor in Wax
- Quality controller
- Watch Tool Maker
- Caliber Designer
- Case Designer
- Fleurisanne Engraver
- Gem Setter
- Jewel Sorter
- Jewellery Designer
- Circular Grainer
- Watch Assembler
- Gold castor (mixing gold with alloys and heating)