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In the very best hands

In the very best hands

Tuesday, 20 May 2008
By Louis Nardin
Editor Image
Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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4 min read

Their feather weight and slender size means they often go unnoticed, and yet with the exception of disc and roller displays, the vast majority of watches use hands to indicate the time. A visit to Waeber HMS, a maker of hands based in Fleurier.

A hand isn’t manufactured, it is confectioned. The 47 workers at the family firm of Waeber HMS, in Fleurier, carefully fashion these precious blades of metal for 90 of the most prestigious watch brands, the likes of Ulysse Nardin, Corum and Chopard. And to transform a blueprint into hands that can be produced in large quantities is more art than science.

“This isn’t something you can train to do,” smiles Roger Waeber, founder of Waeber HMS and chairman of the board. “For every order that comes in, we have to devise a production process that will include operations performed by machine and others by hand. Because each case is different, we must use our imagination to come up with the most appropriate solution.”

This is a potentially arduous task.
The king of do-it-yourself

Whatever the job, a manufacturer of hands must be the MacGyver of the watchmaking world, beginning with the tools of their trade: while watch part suppliers routinely adapt their tools to their needs, in the case of hands manufacturers these transformations can account for up to half the machine’s total value. Which is why Waeber HMS has hired its own micro-mechanics, working year-round to develop new tools.

Above and beyond tools, the manufacturer’s talent is expressed in its ability to grant the customer’s wishes. This is a potentially arduous task, as many blueprints fail to take sufficient account of factors such as the weight of the hands. “Before thinking about how we will make a hand, we study its impact on the functioning of the watch. Sometimes its movements aren’t powerful enough and could become misaligned. The form of the hand can also pose a problem. Too thin, too long or disproportioned, sometimes we have to reinforce and rebalance the shape to ensure it won’t break,” explains operations manager Laurent Waeber, the founder’s son. After this initial study, a second stage analyses the feasibility of the project. Then, and only then, will the R&D department draw up a production schedule.

From ribbon to card

Although Waeber HMS has experimented with titanium and aluminium for its hands, an avenue it continues to explore, most of its production is in steel or brass. The first stage is to stamp the basic shape of the hands from a strip of metal. For facetted brass hands, this ribbon will first have been bevelled by machine. For very complex forms, the hands are cut from a metal ingot using CNC machining, a far more costly and time-consuming technique. Next come a series of operations which, one after the other, will give the hand its final form, with regular washing and polishing in between to remove any impurities that might accumulate.

Because of its tiny size, the seconds hand is hand-mounted on a pipe which serves to fix it to the dial. All the hands are then primed and, for the steel ones, hardened by heat treatment. Some will be coloured by electroplating, hand-painted with a luminescent substance or simply polished to create various finishes. Last but not least, each hand is inspected then attached to a sheet of card, ready for delivery.

A luminescent substance is painted on the back of the hand © BIPH
A luminescent substance is painted on the back of the hand © BIPH
A new consortium

Only a handful of firms are active in this segment today, including Aiguilla, Fiedler, Estima and Universo. Asian factories aside, the main manufacturers are based in Switzerland and work almost exclusively at the high end of the market. A number of them recently joined together to form the Groupement des Fabricants Suisse d’Aiguilles pour l’Horlogerie. Their objective is to create new synergies, pool expertise and human capital, and held defend Swiss-Made.

The sector is, of course, caught up in the effervescence currently sweeping the watch market. In fact Waeber HMS has started work on its new factory four years ahead of schedule. On April 28th this year, the diggers got to work on a new building covering 2,000 sq m (compared with the current 650). The new factory will be operational as of August 2009.

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