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“The crisis is saving Swiss watchmaking”
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“The crisis is saving Swiss watchmaking”

Wednesday, 20 May 2009
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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5 min read

A watchmaking engineer and constructor at the head of the R&D consultancy Coredem, Henri-Michel Guignard believes the quality of mechanical products fails to live up to retail prices… and that the current climate will force this to change.

Henri-Michel Guignard is, without doubt, one of Swiss watchmaking’s unsung heroes; one of those indispensable experts in micro-mechanics whom brands are at pains to keep hidden in the shadows, fearing they may otherwise lose “paternity” of the inventions they present, trumpets blazing, to the world. “Though let’s not forget that the best plots are hatched in the darkest corners,” jokes the man in question, a watch constructor and director of Coredem, the chronometric engineering research and development consultancy he set up in 2004. Proof that this veil of secrecy is tightly drawn, of the company’s five clients only one, De Béthune, agrees to be named.

And for good reason. De Béthune’s new technologies department, which has numerous inventions and patents to its name, teamed up with Henri-Michel Guignard, among others, to conduct research into silicon. This atom is an ideal candidate in watchmaking, thanks to its extremely light and equally hard monocrystalline structure which keeps its shape and can be machined to within one micron. This research has produced a silicon balance spring, a silicon balance with thermostatic bimetals and platinum inertia blocks, an annular balance with a silicon centre and platinum ring, and a tourbillon inside a single-arm cage in silicon and titanium.

25 patents in three years

Everything else stays under wraps. The only “viewable” component on Henri-Michel Guignard’s computer is an innovative concept for a “patented” pallet lever in monoblock titanium whose centre of mass sits exactly on its rotational axis. It will feature in one of the new models to be unveiled at next year’s Baselworld. By which brand? Another closely-guarded secret. Meanwhile, Henri-Michel Guignard continues his merry way along a road that already includes 25 patents filed for Coredem or its clients. Right now he is focusing his attention on the tourbillon. Mechanical watchmaking will, he predicts, undergo a radical shift towards this type of complication, not least thanks to a technological breakthrough in the pipeline at Coredem. An idea as to what this might involve can almost certainly be gleaned from patent filings.

Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the most authentic manufactures there is.
Henri-Michel Guignard

So is Henri-Michel Guignard a visionary? He certainly has excellent credentials. After qualifying as a watchmaker at the École Technique de la Vallée de Joux, followed by a diploma in micromechanical engineering, he began his career at Jaeger-LeCoultre where he would spend ten years, first as a constructor then two stints as head of department, first in movement manufacturing then in methods and tools. “Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the most authentic manufactures there is. A young constructor couldn’t have hoped for a better start. Just out of interest, I remember we worked with blueprints for 1,200 different screws. Each new calibre had its own screws.”

An exceptional career

Driven by the crisis that struck in the 1970s, Henri-Michel Guignard left “his valley” and headed south to Montélimar in France, where he spent the next fifteen years running his own watch and jewellery shop. But the call of the forest lured him back to his native land, first as director of the movement assembly division at Frédéric Piguet and later as production manager for Breguet. Each time, the takeover of these structures prompted him to explore other routes, in particular his own with the creation of Coredem. As an aside to this venture, between 2002 and 2006 he was involved in the development of Technotime, as mandated managing director, until the Chinese billionaire Charles Chong (Chung Nam Watch), the current shareholder, took over the firm in 2006.

Coredem SA is now fully operational and certainly isn’t lacking ideas. Far from it. Henri-Michel Guignard does still nurture a certain nostalgia for “old-fashioned” watchmaking, the kind that is being sacrificed on the altar of profitability and a fast buck. “Newly-qualified engineers lack skills because they didn’t get sufficient hands-on experience working with watches,” he remarks. “In production, there is a chronic need to improve the quality of mechanical products, which by no means justifies the prices currently being charged on retail markets. As for the COSC, commandeered as a selling point, I’d rather keep my thoughts to myself. In this light, we can but welcome progress made in movement lubrication, particularly at Jaeger-LeCoultre and Ulysse Nardin. The future of watchmaking lies with this kind of research.” And he concludes: “I believe the financial crisis is saving Swiss watchmaking! The sector had grown out of all proportion these past few years and we were heading straight for the wall. Will watchmaking’s entrepreneurs have the sense to take advantage of this lull to choose a more coherent path? Let’s just hope they remember who they have to thank for their past success: good professionals!”

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