Valérien Jaquet has something to hide. Tucked into a corner on the second floor of the head office, shielded even from his own staff’s eyes by smoked glass windows, Concepto’s young chief executive has set up a laboratory capable of producing on an industrial scale complete assortments – balance and spring, pallet lever and escape wheel – for watch movements. Optimo Assortments, the latest entity in the Chaux-de-Fonds group, is targeting 50,000 kits by the second half of 2012, rising to 200,000 in 2013. Production could soon reach maximum capacity, currently slated at 400,000 assortments.
Four companies in one group
First to benefit will be the 4000 self-winding chrono with twin barrels (120 hours of power reserve), a new family of movements scheduled for launch this autumn. Already, seven brands are lined up to place orders. After four years and an investment of nine million Swiss francs, Valérien Jaquet can position the firm as the only “serious” alternative to market leader Nivarox-FAR. A wake-up call for those who claim to need a lot more time and money to bring their projects to market.
The Concepto group, which was set up in 2006, has four companies under its wing: Concepto Watch Factory (manufacturing), Artisia Watchmaking (assembly), Decoparts Turning, and the latest addition, Optimo Assortments. Employing 90 people in 3,000 square metres of space, with a fleet of machines valued in the region of 30 million Swiss francs, the company supplies some 30,000 movements a year to forty brands, including Louis Moinet, de Grisogono, Hublot and Romain Jerome. The portfolio of calibres, spread across five families, ranges from a manual-wound three-hander to a self-winding tourbillon chronograph or a repeater. Concepto also manufactures additional modules in a sub-contracting capacity.
A well-kept secret
The development phase took four years but the idea for the project came fifteen years ago. “When Swatch Group first raised its heckles over being a supermarket for watch parts, no-one imagined that deliveries of assortments would one day end,” says Valérien Jaquet. “All except my father, Jean-Pierre Jaquet [then at the head of Jaquet SA] who got the message loud and clear. He even went to Straumann with the idea of buying the machines that had made the Nivarox back in the 1930s, to set up a museum. This became the basis for a new development, adapted to modern technologies.” So as to keep the secret for as long as possible, the entire endeavour took shape away from Concepto, at three external sites. “We only recently set up the lab on our premises,” reveals the young CEO.
Step one was to develop a new alloy, Optimox, for the balance spring. This focused more on optimising industrialisation processes than improving the metal’s intrinsic qualities. Rather than casting several dozen, if not several hundred kilos, Concepto has opted for smaller castings of three to four kilos, which produces a far more homogenous result. This may not seem like much but is still enough for half a million balance springs. This stage is contracted to a company outside Switzerland, with metal supplied in rods measuring 14 to 16mm across. From that point on, manufacturing operations are carried out in-house at Concepto: heat-treating the springs in a vacuum furnace, laser-soldering the collet, mounting the pallet lever, and final inspections to COSC standards. Similarly, all the parts with the exception of the jewels are made in-house.
Four patents filed
Concepto has filed four patents for the development process. The first is for the Optimox alloy; the second concerns the shape of the collet; the third is for heat-treatment of the terminal curves for increased shock-resistance; the fourth relates to how the assortment of balance and spring, pallet lever and escape wheel is packaged for more efficiency at the assembly stage. Optimo currently has a payroll of fifteen and could ultimately employ a good sixty people.
While several major brands, such as Rolex, Roger Dubuis and Patek Philippe, have been making their own balance springs for some time already, only a rare few companies supply complete assortments to third parties. Precision Engineering (H. Moser & Cie), Atokalpa (Vaucher Manufacture), Dimier (Bovet) and Astral (Festina) all do, but in very limited quantities. Does this mean Valérien Jaquet has succeeded where others have failed? “The secret has been to get the right specialists onboard. The crux of the issue is expertise. Only a handful of highly specialised men and women can bring the experience such an enterprise requires. This isn’t something you learn in school, except in theory maybe. And you don’t go far with theory…”
Article published in BIPH