Watchmakers love to have a story to tell. How generations ago, their ancestors would spend days at the workbench, fiddling with the terminal curve of a balance spring. How their great-grandfathers braved the unknown to take their watches to distant lands, or how their grandfathers toiled to build a new age of Manufactures. These old-world epics, these tales of derring-do give brands substance as well as additional legitimacy when discoursing on mechanical watchmaking. We would be wrong, however, to imagine that these historical evocations are the sole preserve of Swiss brands. The Alpine nation has not always been the centre of the horological world, far from it; other countries have their stories too. Arnold & Son is a case in point, tracing its origins to 1764 and reborn as a Swiss brand in 1995.
This eminent English chronometer maker was among the most prominent figures in the heroic days of watchmaking.
An eminent chronometer maker
John Arnold’s life history is well-known. Suffice to note here that this eminent English chronometer maker (1736-1799) was among the most prominent figures in the heroic days of watchmaking. Heroic, because the majority of the profession’s leading practitioners were in competition to produce a marine chronometer that would be sufficiently precise and reliable to enable navigators to calculate longitude at sea. This was no watchmaking whim: the great seafaring nations, led by France and England, were determined to conquer the oceans and, in doing so, lead the world in maritime trade. John Arnold was himself the son of a watchmaker, and an ingenious inventor who presented George III with a repeater watch so tiny he was able to set it inside a ring. Indeed, watchmaking made immense strides thanks to Arnold’s invention of the bimetallic compensating balance, the cylindrical balance spring with terminal curves, and the detent escapement. While he failed to win the prize offered under the Longitude Act, awarded to his fellow countryman John Harrison, he was widely acclaimed for his research into precision and production methods. He even became a good friend of Abraham-Louis Breguet – the two men took their respective sons as apprentices – who fitted his very first tourbillon regulator into an Arnold pocket watch. A fine tribute indeed.
Despite such achievements, John Arnold could have remained a name engraved in letters of gold in the British watchmaking pantheon, more glorious past than bright future. Private investors with a passion for complex mechanics decided otherwise. In 1995 they bought the rights to the names of three illustrious English watchmakers: George Graham (1673-1751), Thomas Tompion (1639-1713) and John Arnold. Then in 2012, out of the blue, Japan’s Citizen Watch acquired Arnold & Son at the same time as movement specialist La Joux-Perret and its component supplier, Prototec. Shortly after, in 2016, under a deal that included Alpina and Ateliers de Monaco, the group completed its portfolio with the takeover of Frédérique Constant, founded by Dutch husband and wife Peter and Aletta Stas and currently in the process of doubling its production capacity in Geneva through a CHF 10 million investment. Citizen’s advances into Swiss territory are now clearly marked, and include a first-class industrial set-up that has yet to deliver its full potential. “Industrial strategies come and go,” observes Florian Serex, appointed last year at the head of La Joux-Perret and Arnold & Son. “However, a brand such as Arnold & Son, which produces around 600 watches a year, evidently cannot properly exist without a solid manufacturing base. Hence why these two entities will now grow one alongside the other.”
A movement specialist
As Florian Serex explains, La Joux-Perret first rose to prominence with an offering of additional modules on a Valjoux 7750 calibre. Since then, it has earned its stripes as a movement-maker in its own right that produces virtually all its own components. Arnold & Son can thank it for the 23 calibres in its collection, of which 19 are exclusive to the brand. As for the thirty-some third-party clients, they can choose between basic hours/minutes/seconds movements, either standard 4 Hz or extra-thin (2.7 mm high), as well as simple or high-end chronographs and tourbillons. Not forgetting that Prototec can supply all types of component. Note that La Joux-Perret, which makes 20,000 movements a year and employs around a hundred staff, has sufficient capacity to ramp up production. Which should be the case as orders come in from Frédérique Constant, with annual output of 150,000 watches, given the synergies currently taking shape. Then there is Citizen, a high-volume brand if ever there were.
Arnold & Son can build on this industrial foundation to express its creativity to the full, though in a distinct vein: “Given the brand’s origins, we are very much mechanism-focused,” says Florian Serex. “This shows in the many bridges, virtually one per moving part, and by the showcasing on the dial side of watchmaking technique that extends to constant-force mechanisms, deadbeat seconds and double tourbillons. Once again, always in phase with what we know of John Arnold, who was famed for his affordable marine chronometers. The watches we propose must therefore be rich in substance but never excessively priced, positioned between CHF 10,000 and CHF 40,000 for the core of our collections.” Present at 80 points of sale worldwide, Arnold & Son aims to grow by 10% this year. That the brand was 80% there by end April suggests this “alloy” of English and Swiss watchmaking is already gold.