In-House vs. Generic, and Everything In Between
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.