In-House vs. Generic, and Everything In Between

 In Collecting Watches

There’s probably no telling just how many times I’ve seen the debate about in-house vs. generic movements resurface over and over. Save for people tirelessly pontificating about the superiority of their preferred brand or country of manufacture, there’s hardly any other “usual suspect” among forum topics that’s more off-putting.

Unless I see the discussion head in a direction so wrong, that it hurts to know that it’s still going on, I don’t even chime in any longer.

The killjoys are annoying all the same. Someone buys a new watch, posts it on a forum, and gets replies like “blah, another ETA.” Why on Earth would that be a reason to belittle a watch?

Unless a manufacturer claims that, say, a Soprod with a rotor skeletonized by them is an in-house movement, it’s no reason at all. Well, even if that’s the case, it’s only a reason to debate the ethics of the manufacturer. The watch itself, price tag and marketing not included, is hardly a variable in this equation.

Most of the debate stems from an erroneous notion, that in this particular case, everything’s so black and white sort of clear. This one’s generic, this one’s in-house, and there’s nothing else it could be.

Ummm, no. Wrong.

What is an in-house movement?

The name itself suggests, that this means a movement entirely designed by the manufacturer of the entire watch. And “entirely designed” in this case means “from scratch.”

In-house movements were the most popular concept since the very beginnings of the watch industry. Generic ones came somewhat later, but that’s another story.

These days, hardly any non-luxury brands bother to design their own movements. Even brands like Maurice Lacroix often go the easy way, and simply build “in-house” (well, obviously, not really) around an existing generic baseplate.

Some go for a mix of generic and in-house movements – for example, Omega. Yes, they use ETA and Lemania movements, along with their own designs (currently, the 8XXX and 9XXX families of movements).

Some stick to in-house only. Zenith is a good example (although the El Primero is something of a curious case, that I’ll discuss later on).

in-house movement vs. generic movement Omega 28SC

In-house Omega 28SC movement

What about high-end brands?

When you hear about brands like Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet doing everything in-house, that’s not exactly true. They use generic movements as well.

For example, while Vacheron Constantin does have a chronograph movement of its own, most of their chronographs are powered by a modified Lemania generic movement, the current iteration of the CH27 C12 (once used by Omega as the cal. 321).

Audemars Piguet still uses a movement designed by Jaeger-LeCoultre for the Royal Oak Extra-Thin (ref. 15202). Actually, at some point LeCoultre supplied movements to the entire Big Three of high-end brands.

Patek has been using Valjoux movements for their chronographs, including the ones equipped with a perpetual calendar.

I guess that’s already a ton of examples.

Generic movements

Technically, the epitome of a generic movement would be one, the manufacturer of which makes movements only, and distributes said movements to makers of complete watches.

The distribution can, of course, be limited to a small number of clients, but still, the point is, that a movement either is distributed to watch manufacturers or – if the maker of it makes complete watches of their own – the movement does not remain exclusive to one manufacturer.

It’s not necessarily one brand, as some manufacturers sold watches made within one factory under different brand names. For example, both Roamer and Medana were brands of Meyer & Studeli, and used MST movements.

The concept of generic baseplates has originated in 17th century England, and later on, was introduced on a large scale by the French and Swiss makers (the biggest of which was the French company Japy Freres) by the end of the 19th century.

These companies made “blanks”, i.e. unfinished movements in a more or less raw condition, in order for the watch manufacturers to equip and finish the movements on their own, up to their own standards.

The supply of raw ebauches was what boosted the Swiss “cottage industry”, based on finishing said raw ebauches up to their own standard.

So, while these movements were often found in radically different grades of finishing, and with more or less fancy technological gimmicks, at the end of the day, they all started their “life” in the facilities of makers like Japy Freres and FHF.

In-house movement vs. generic movement ETA 2390

Generic ETA 2390 movement from a Pontiac watch

The concept of the “reserved calibre”

Well, that’s one way of getting around a certain conundrum, that conundrum being: what if a movement is used exclusively by one manufacturer, but has been designed or made by a third party supplier?

An example of that would be Rolex. Technically, they take pride in doing everything in-house, which was hardly ever the case with them (third-party dials, cases made by C.R. Spillmann and various gold foundries prior to Rolex establishing one of their own).

Save for the obvious generic movements used by them, and supplied by FHF, Cortebert, Valjoux and others, what is often referred to as Rolex’s in-house movements, not used by any other brand, is actually the work of a company called Aegler.  Rolex had a partnership with Aegler since its early days, especially the cooperation with the Alpina-Gruen Guild.

So, Aegler designed Rolex’s movements, and this went on until…2005.

Yes, that’s when Rolex finally decided to buy their movement supplier. In such cases, the concept of a reserved calibre is quite the way out of a situation, when there’s no longer any telling if a movement’s in-house or generic.

Joint ventures

Joint ventures are yet another thing in the vast “grey zone” between purely in-house and entirely generic.

Here, a good example would be the Calibre 11. The base movement was made by Hamilton-Buren, the chronograph module was designed by Heuer and Breitling and made by Dubois-Depraz.

Technically it’s impossible to call it entirely generic, as the scale of distribution was very limited in terms of brands, mostly to the ones who took part in designing the movement. It isn’t in-house either.

So, what is it? It’s hard to even call it a reserved calibre.

A matter of perspective

Here comes my absolute favourite in terms of the impossibility of classifying a movement as in-house, generic, or – for that matter – anything in between – the Zenith 3019PHC (later on called calibre 400) El Primero.

Obviously, Zenith designed and made it from scratch, which theoretically makes it in-house from their perspective.

But they did supply it to a number of other companies: Movado (during the short-lived cooperation as the Movado-Zenith-Mondia holding), Ebel, TAG Heuer, and Rolex.

And because Rolex had it modified, the El Primero-based cal. 4030 is something of a reserved calibre, as in this particular form, it wasn’t used by anyone else.

So, all of this covers the categories of in-house, generic, and reserved alike. It all depends on how you look at it.

Confused? I wouldn’t be surprised if you were.

Conclusion

Frankly, the worst thing to do is to try making the entire in-house vs. generic movement thing a point in arguing for alleged superiority or inferiority of a movement.

The way I see it, it’s largely irrelevant. It’s the technical side of the movement that really matters. Sadly, people often have little notion of that, and forums are absolutely littered with “in-house vs. generic” threads, which either turn into a troll fest, or into a rather fierce skirmish between two tribes of very angry savages.

The only case in which the division into categories does matter is marketing. It’s pretty hard to ignore, when a manufacturer attributes a movement to themselves, just because they have decorated the rotor, or skeletonized the baseplate.

Some manufacturers have received a rather thorough shelling from the public for making claims not consistent with the origin of the movement. TAG Heuer, for example, for marketing a slightly redesigned Seiko ebauche as their in-house calibre 1887.

Generally, the easiest way of avoiding situations like the one TAG Heuer found themselves in, is to make no claims, and ensure full transparency in terms of the origin of the movement. A really great example is Habring2. If they build a movement on a generic baseplate, they list all that they have designed and made by themselves, and what components of the ebauche were kept.

All in all, the best thing to do is not to care about it too much. Just like it is with model names, nicknames and labels for watches, this division, while sometimes useful, can often be rather noxious.

That said, my personal recommendation would be to stick to the technical side. As said before, that’s what really matters.

What’s your take on this issue? Similar sentiments, or perhaps a different take on the classification of movements? Let me know in the comments below.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Martin Lee
    Reply

    A good interesting piece Michal.
    I`ve often considered good watch movements and good car engines to be sometimes comparable.
    Many big name car producers used to outsource work or collaborate with specialist engineering companies on their motorsports engines:
    Ford used Lotus,BMW -Alpina,Mercedes -AMG etc ..many of these originally independents have now been partially or wholly bought up by the bigger companies but often retain the ethos of technological advancements etc .
    As part of a bigger company they may end up with a larger research and developement budget.
    Many of these advances intechnologies do then trickle down to the more affordable lines a company produces due to economies of scale etc ..whether cars,watches or whatever- usually providing Mr or Miss average with a better quality product.
    Mass production or “bespoke” isn`t black or white and the original in-house producers were often mass producing to sell to a new and very large market for wristwatches which were replacing the pocket watch at that time.
    Many of the current watch companes have raided their vaults to dig out their iconic vintage designs, tweak the size up and put them in often modern superior quality cases with sapphire crystals and some even a decorated movement (from whatever source) with display back so I think they are to some extent paying a nod to history but also cashing in on the market at the same time.
    If you are an in-house vintage purist that`s fine ..you just have to be a bit careful that spare parts/donors for your particular house can be sourced in future in case the door falls off or a window breaks .
    Best not to forget that ETA arose from the well respected Swiss Eterna company so they are not a recent upstart arrival ..they`ve just become very succesful.

    If you have a vintage running on an FHF,ETA , AS or other generic movement you mght be a bit luckier to source parts to keep your watch going on your wrist as moving history- rather than dormant in your sock drawer.
    Finding a good watchmaker to fix it is a whole other story.

    • Michał Kolwas
      Michał Kolwas
      Reply

      Good points, Martin. However, when it comes to sourcing parts, it is worth remembering, that many parts even for common generic movements are becoming harder and harder to obtain – think of parts for the Valjoux 22.

      The ETA/Eterna connection is still pretty visible – after all, the ETA 2824 and all its derivatives are based on the Eterna cal. 1541, and the 2892 is largely based on the Eterna 1455U. It’s sort of ironic, when one looks at contemporary Eternas with the ETA 2824 (or Sellita SW-200) and SW-300 (clone of the 2892) – they have to buy a movement they have designed themselves from a third party supplier, which third party supplier has based their iterations of the 1541 and 1455U on the versions made by a company that Eterna has founded.

    • Melvin Hollenberg
      Melvin Hollenberg
      Reply

      Hi Martin,

      I agree with your point of view. Mike already mentioned it but I wanted to stress the point that parts for generic movements are getting harder to find as well. The set lever spring for the ETA 1080, for example, is obsolete in various warehouses and the parts policy (restriction) of the Swatch group doesn’t help either. That leaves eBay but eventually that’ll run out as well.

      • Martin Lee
        Reply

        Thanks for the added info guys .. I happen to have an Valjoux 22 (working very well at the moment ) so I`d better be extra careful with it !

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