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The power of Parmigiani

The power of Parmigiani

Friday, 24 July 2015
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Carol Besler

“Watches are functional art.”

Carol Besler covers watches and jewelry worldwide.

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4 min read

How a small Fleurier watch company supplies the Swiss watchmaking elite with cases, components and movements – with production capacity to spare.

Parmigiani Fleurier may be one of the smallest watch brands in Switzerland, but it is surely one of the most powerful. While it makes only 6,000 Parmigiani-branded watches a year, it is sa supplier for the most prestigious watch brands. Owned by the Sandoz Family Foundation, Parmigiani is one of a handful of Swiss watchmakers that truly produce everything in-house. This includes cases, dials, hands and movements – and that includes balance wheels and hairsprings, which purists insist is the prerequisite for any claim to producing in-house movements. Parmigiani supplies movements and components to 17 other Swiss luxury watchmakers, including Richard Mille and Bulgari. It makes cases for IWC, Girard-Perregaux, Patek Philippe, MB&F, Corum and Zenith, and it makes dials for Audemars Piguet and Lange & Söhne.

PF705 self-winding movement

Given this roster, the quality standard is obviously on the high side in Parmigiani’s five factories: Elwin (bar turning and production of specific components), AtoKalpa (escapement train wheel and regulating organ), Quadrance & Habillage(dials), Les Artisans Boîtiers (watch case manufacture) and Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier (mechanical movements and additional modules). The micro-engineers who run these companies live in a world of tightly controlled tolerances and specifications. The tiny screws made by Elwin are engineered to 1000ths of a millimeter and to standards that exceed the norm. According to Flavien Gigandet, Parmigiani’s director of international training, the cost price of a single screw used by most movement makers in the industry is between five and ten cents. The cost price of an Elwin screw is USD 1.05 to USD 2. What’s the difference? Primarily three things: the aforementioned micro-tolerances, the angle of the threads (to produce exactly the right amount of tension in the head) and finish (a poor polish can leave tiny burrs, which can fall off and jam up a movement). “If there is a shock, a poor quality screw can easily break,” adds Gigandet. And that’s just the screws.

Prototypes made with 3D printers

Escapement wheels, pinions, wheels, snails, cams, levers, balances, pallet forks and hairsprings are made by AtoKalpa. The components are made from metal bars that are machined by cutting them to precise tolerances (again, to 1000th of a millimeter) into components as they rotate – hence the trade name “bar turning,” a specialty in Switzerland’s Jura mountains. Movements, including the milling of plates and bridges, are made by Vaucher (which is 25% owned by Hermès). Like most watch manufactures today, production at Vaucher is highly automated, with rows of CNC machines cutting out base plates and bridges and other components. One $6-million machine on the floor performs 64 operations at once, like a robotic Vishnu god with many arms. But it’s not all robots. Every component made here is finished by hand. About 10% of Parmigiani’s production is manufactured to Fleurier Seal standards, which not only requires a high level of decoration, but subjects the watch to the rigors of the “Chronofiable,” a series of torture tests over three weeks that simulate the effects of wear on a watch over a six-month period. The movement, in varying stages of encasement, is subjected to several mechanical and physical constraints – shocks, accelerations, variations in temperature. The precision of the watch must fall within the range of 0 to +5 seconds per day.

Prototypes are made with 3D printers. Five years ago, most prototypes were still made of brass, a process that takes a month and costs $5,000 for each one. A 3D printed wax prototype takes 12 hours and costs $300 to make one. It not only reduces the cost of production but allows for greater flexibility and accuracy in the production process. The more prototypes you can produce, the greater the engineering precision. Gigandet says the day may come when 3D printing can be achieved with metals, which means cases could be printed rather than milled. Goodbye six-million-dollar CNC machines!

He began this endeavor in 1975, the beginning of the quartz revolution which would decimate the Swiss mechanical watch industry.
Parmigiani’s dreams come true in 1996

The man whose name stands behind this sprawling enterprise is Michel Parmigiani, a humble watchmaker who started his career as a restorer of mechanical movements. He began this endeavor in 1975, the beginning of the quartz revolution, which, over the next five years, would decimate the Swiss mechanical watch industry (not to be revived until the mid-1990s). “Everyone thought he was a bit crazy,” says Gigandet. Parmigiani not only survived the quartz revolution without having to make a single quartz watch, but he was able to indulge his love for tinkering with mechanical movements by doing restoration and maintenance for private collectors, including the Stern family of Patek Philippe. His largest client was the Sandoz Family Foundation, which has an extensive collection that includes several automatons. In 1996, Sandoz made Michel Parmigiani’s dreams come true by asking him to create a brand bearing his name that would base its values on authentic high watchmaking.

Because Parmigiani Fleurier is intensely self-reliant, with a relatively small production, it has the kind of creative license enjoyed by the independents. Collections range from the very traditional, with the Tonda 1950, to the wild and utterly unique, like the Bugatti and the Toric. Later this year, the brand will debut the Tonda 1950 tourbillon with a new ultra-thin, 3.4-mm-thick tourbillon caliber.

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