“We’ve invested four million [Swiss] francs in equipment within the past eighteen months.” Pierre Dubois isn’t usually so forthcoming. Dubois Dépraz, of which he is managing director, has been in La Vallée de Joux for close to 120 years and supplies modules and components to a good part of the watch industry. A position that requires the utmost discretion. But on this late September day, Pierre Dubois had a good reason to convene the press: after the original site in Le Lieu, where the business developed for over a century; after opening a new factory in the nearby industrial zone in 2002 followed by the acquisition in 2005 of a precision turning workshop, Dubois Dépraz recently cut the ribbon at a new unit in Les Charbonnières, also in La Vallée de Joux. “The company is expanding and modernising, and we want to let people know,” says Pierre Dubois. As simple as that.
Established in 1901 by Marcel Dépraz, Dubois Dépraz has always been an independent family firm, bringing successive generations of children and cousins into the fold and adopting its current name in 1968. The fourth generation is now in command: Jean-Philippe Dubois is Chairman of the Board, Pierre Dubois is Managing Director and Pascal Dubois is Deputy Managing Director. Cousins Stéphane and Claude-Alain Berthoud also hold senior positions. Under their stewardship, Dubois Dépraz has grown significantly and now supplies some forty clients in the three areas of complication mechanisms, components and specially commissioned projects.
A growing component activity
The company rose to fame (in horological circles, at least) as a maker of chronographs. Released in 1937, Calibre 48 was the first module with this complication. Widely adopted, more than 3.5 million would be sold until the late 1970s. But it would be another calibre that thrust Dubois Dépraz into the spotlight: in 1969, working for a consortium of Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton/Büren, it developed the now legendary Calibre 11, the first automatic chronograph ever. “It’s common knowledge now, so we’re allowed to say it,” jokes Pierre Dubois. A modular construction with an off-centre micro-rotor, it went on to win a vermeil medal at that year’s Brussels Inventors Fair, before evolving into Calibre 12 then 15. Even then, the real gamechanger was still to come. Won over to the concept of modularity, in 1983 Dubois Dépraz released Calibre 2000, a chronograph that can be added to all types of host movement, both mechanical and quartz. The watch industry fell in love: two million have been sold to date and the 2000 chronograph module is still Dubois Dépraz’s calling card.
Over time, it has added other complications to its bow, including modules for a second time zone, alarm function, perpetual calendar and minute repeater. These past few months, however, it’s the company’s component manufacturing activity that has really taken off. “Pre-assembly, which is limited to just a few elements, is a particularly fast-growing area,” notes Pascal Dubois. The flipside has been heavy investment in new equipment, starting with a number of ultra-modern CNC milling machines, including one with a robotic loading arm – still a rarity in the watch industry. These machines are based in La Combe, an industrial zone on the outskirts of Le Lieu. Set among pine trees and meadows, as so many Swiss watch manufacturers are, this is where components are made – with the exception of pinions and gears which are produced at the precision turning unit in Arch.
Large series for Haute Horlogerie
Bought from a local company in 2015 and fully transformed, the buildings in Les Charbonnières are the base for the newest Dubois Dépraz workshops, which specialise in hand-decoration of Haute Horlogerie movements, surface treatments and pre-assembly. It’s the latter department that recently took delivery of an amazing piece of technology. From a distance, there’s nothing about the glass cube that would stop you in your tracks; it’s only close-up that you see what’s inside: a robotic arm with optical recognition that can pick up and assemble as many as five different components. “With this machine, we can produce series of 500,000 gear assemblies of exceptional quality,” says Pascal Dubois. “Previously, air-fitting was the only solution, but that left marks on the components. With this method, we work for high-end brands.” The cost of this state-of-the-art machine: CHF 700,000.
Dubois Dépraz currently employs 350 people on its four sites. Pierre Dubois admits that these multiple locations “have the charm of a manufacturer expanding in stages, but can be hard to manage.” They also testify to the company’s profound attachment to La Vallée de Joux, where farmers used to spend winters making watch parts and now home to such prestigious names as Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet and Blancpain.