This is an opinion piece - and I guess my own opinion on the matter becomes quite clear from the title already. But the question is: Why do we care about in-house? Let's have a closer look into the vintage world why this might be case or why not? What does Rolex have to do with this one? And how can Independent Watchmaking show us an interesting way out of this entire false narrative?
December 06, 2022
Opinion - Stop the "In-House" Frenzy
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
My first opinion piece I don't share my opinions that often. Well ... I actually do but they're backed by quantitative analyses most of the time. However, this here is an idea that has been bubbling in the back of my head for quite some time by now but I didn't fully know how to make a cohesive story out of it. Now I think I have gathered enough (qualitative) evidence to actually drive this point home and hopefully make it understood to all of you.
This is an opinion piece - and I guess my opinion on the matter becomes quite clear from the title already. I will tell you why in a (hopefully) very clear analogy. So here it goes:
Who would you rather bet your money on in a 1500m Freestyle swim race? The reigning male Olympic Champion from the 1500m swimming event or from the Triathlon?
The answer should be a resounding "always bet on the swimmer"! And the reason is specialization. You only have this much time, this much resources to master a skill. It doesn't mean that the Triathlete is a worse athlete he simply has to practice three different sports at the same time while the swimmer can focus on one. The jack of all trades is a master of none.
A 1970 jack of all trades yet; Vacheron Constantin's 6782 Turnograph in white gold. Probably also looks great when worn during a 1500m Freestyle swim... Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva May 2019.
Coming back to watches. And when the topic comes to modern watches there are many things I don't fully understand. One of those being that adding the label "in-house built" to your watches apparently adds a premium on the price. Why is that a thing? Shouldn't it be the quality that matters and not at which address something was made? If a third-party supplier is really good at making for example dials why not getting those for your company?
To make my point totally clear from the get-go I'm not implying that "in-house" built parts are inferior to parts from specialized suppliers. All I'm saying is that it shouldn't matter where parts are coming from. And I'll give you five examples from the vintage world that make my point for me.
1) The curious case of Gilbert Albert
Gilbert Albert (1930-2019) was a famed designer whose modernist style was both abstract yet naturalistic. He joined Patek Philippe in 1955 and worked his way up to become the head of the creative department until his departure from the watch industry in 1962[1-3]. During his seven year stint he envisioned some of the most daring watches of the time.
A 1961 Patek Philippe 3424, designed by Gilbert Albert. The intricate case design was realized not in the holy halls of Patek Phillipe themselves but from a specialized case maker: Markowski. Photo Courtesy of Christie's HK May 2012.
These designs included for example several "Asymetriques" wristwatches (refs. 3270, 3412, 3422 & 3424). Watches of utmost importance to the Maison and the watch world in general. These are uber-rare pieces that are head-turning and a highlight in every auction they come up.
And with a distinct design comes a very intricate case construction. Potentially you have guessed it already, these exquisite metal frames were not manufactured by Patek Philippe but the expert case-makers at Markowski.
Another famed Markowski construction: The Patek Philippe reference 1450 "Top Hat". Here, in a possibly unique configuration. Photo Courtesy of MLG Oct. 2020.
Markowski at the time was the leading expert in making shaped watch cases. Over the years they produced several cases for legendary Patek references like the "Marilyn Monroe" 2442 or the "Top Hat" 1450. So you got two stars in this story: the designer and the case maker.
2) The Ram's precious grip - Gay Freres
Our next example revolves around the company Gay Freres (short GF, hallmark of the ram). Founded in 1835 the company supplied Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre (among many others) with bracelets throughout the last Century. By the 1970s the company was employing around 500 craftsmen and ran the biggest factory in all of Geneva[5-6]! That means a production site larger than the watch companies themselves.
A stunning piece of expert craftsmanship: 1950 Vacheron Constantin ref. 6111 in pink gold with a quite unique Gay Freres bracelet - a peak artisanal wrist pleaser. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva June 2020.
Importantly, it's not about sheer size and quantity. First of all, original GF bracelets add a considerate premium on vintage watches these days. The design and execution were on a historically high level. But moreover, the craftsmanship of GF was so advanced that they were also the supplier of the notoriously hard to make integrated bracelets of Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak and later also Patek Philippe's Nautilus.
3) The "Heuer Daytona" or the "Rolex Carrera"?
Coming to the 1960s. In 1962 Rolex introduced the reference 6238 Pre-Daytona chronograph. One year later Heuer started production of its first Carrera model, the ref. 2447. And both watches, when zooming in on the dial and if you neglect the logo, do look an awful lot alike.
The dial layout and design of two 1960s legends. A Rolex 6238 Pre-Daytona (left) and a Heuer 2447S Carrera (right). Compare the hour markers and the sub-dial details. Photos Courtesy of Phillips Geneva May 2019 & Geneva Nov. 2017.
The faceted hour marker, the sub-dials; from the milling arrangement all the way to the numeral placement - so many details appear to be virtually identical. So did Heuer simply copy Rolex's design? Well, no! Both manufacturers simply employed the same dial maker - Singer. And that type of dial style was just very high in demand as it seems. But the story of these Singer dials goes even further.
4) Paul Newman's personal Rolex "Paul Newman" Daytona
There's not much introduction needed for this piece. The watch, a 1968 Rolex Daytona 6239 with exotic dial, worn by Paul Newman himself was at the time when auctioned on Oct. 26th 2017 in New York the most expensive wristwatch ever and still is the most expensive Rolex watch to appear at auction.
Paul Newman's personal "Paul Newman" Daytona ref. 6239, the root of the nickname. Photo Courtesy of Phillips NY Oct. 2017.
The watch is nicknamed after the actor and refers to the particular dial design on these early Daytona references. These exotic dials are white or black and have a contrasting outer rim and sub-dials and the markers are squared. This dial - drum-roll - was provided by none other than Singer.
We can go even further down the supply chain. It's not only the dial. Rolex chronograph watches of the time, in fact all throughout the last Century, relied on third-party movements. These Daytona models for example were based on the Valjoux 72. That means that the most expensive Rolex ever comes with third-party dial and movement.
5) Ultra-thin luxury sports watches
During the 1970s the watch world saw the rise of a completely new genre of watchmaking and watch design. The luxury sports watches were the next level evolution of the sturdy tool-watches of the 1960s and brought subtle style back to the table. On the forefront of this genre was Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak 5402, followed suit by Patek Philippe's Nautilus 3700 and Vacheron Constantin's 222 44018.
The three luxury sports legends from the 1970s next to each other. The Audemars Piguet Royal Ok 5402, the Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700 and the Vacheron Constantin 222 44018. Photo Courtesy of Phillips.
Beyond the genre they founded there's another characteristics that all three of these watches have in common. At their heart beats the caliber 920, a movement developed by Jaeger-LeCoultre with the financing of the holy trinity[10-11]. Actually never used by JLC itself the 920 is the ultra-thin base caliber for all three of these legends as well as several more perpetual calendar references throughout the last 50 years.
6) Five anecdotes, one conclusion
So what have all these stories in common? I believe it is that the importance and quality of a watch cannot be measured by the address where all parts have been made. Case, bracelet, dial, movement, none of these have to be made by one manufacturer alone to make greatness. Looking here at examples that are absolute highlight pieces it's hard to fathom how we got to the point thinking about in-house as the real deal, well sometimes the only deal it seems...
From my perspective if a watch manufacturer has a cohesive design idea and can make him/herself understood by suppliers, than that's what counts. It's communication between the different parts along the process.
The profile of a 1940s Rolex 4537 chronograph. An Oyster-style case yet made by Spillmann, and a movement from Valjoux. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva Nov. 2020.
7) Living In-House - The Rolex Model
By now we reached the point that even CEOs from major watch brands recognize that the label "in-house" is necessary to sell watches at a certain price point. So... why? It's hard to say exactly but potentially the reason is - as so often - Rolex.
Rolex is the brand that eclipses the next best company's revenue by a threefold and is probably the most well-known watch brand around the globe. Trying to make things work the way the market leader does is understandable. And Rolex is a brand that notoriously does everything in-house. And this absolutely means everything, from melting the metal to the smallest screws, all done on Rolex premises.
Some of the last old-day Rolex watches. A 1990s Daytona 16523, bicolored and with Zenith automatic movement. Photo @goldammer.me.
This trend started around the turn of the millennia. Importantly, Rolex didn't built all the machinery for their parts from scratch. The strategy that Rolex implemented was to acquire long-established and specialized part manufacturers and absorb these companies into the Rolex conglomerate.
In 1998 Rolex bought Gay Freres, exactly that bracelet manufacturer that built a reputation as being a market leader itself[5-6]. Similarly, Rolex didn't just open their own dial manufacture, they bought Beyeler in 2000, another long-standing expert in the field. In 2000 Rolex also introduced their first in-house automatic chronograph movement with their caliber 4130.
Top 20 Watch Brands by Sale from 2017-2020. If one thing is certain in the watch world right now, it probably is the untouchable position of Rolex atop the food chain. Graph Courtesy of LuxConsult, Morgan Stanley Research.
That's the Rolex way, and that's also how you can have it all. All manufacturing steps under one roof performed by absolute experts and specialized craftsmen with generations of experience. However, I think it goes without saying that this approach cannot be scaled to the entire watch industry.
8) Putting the Frenzy to Rest
The Rolex model is some sort of an ideal scenario but it's nothing we can expect for every aspect of our lives. I'd say, better just judge by the quality of a product. What about the integrity and innovation of the design? Why do we fall for marketing claims that want to tell us what hidden dimensions define quality?
The epiphany of the vintage chronograph: A 1950 Patek Philippe 1463 "Tasti Tondi". And well ... a Valjoux ebauche movement housed within a Taubert (Francois Borgel) case. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva Nov. 2018.
For me changing manufacturing to in-house can have several reasons. First, you're not satisfied with the quality or communication with your supplier. Second, no third-party supplier can scale with your own company's demands. Third, you have found a better or cheaper way to produce than others. Fourth, you feel pushed to produce in-house to not be left behind.
All valid reasons, and we most likely see a mixture of them throughout the watchmaking landscape. However, it all boils down to this: None of these reasons allows to set a price beyond the final products quality!
9) Accepting Specialized Skills
So let's retire the "in-house" label. Let's put an end to the one-does-it-all idea how watch manufacturers should operate. And gladly there are niches within the watch industry that celebrates specialists and true traditional craftsmanship. I'm of course speaking about Independent watchmaking.
Impeccable. Not much more you can say about this Vingt-8 GMT Kari Voutilainen. The dial finishing is truly unparalleled. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva May 2019.
If you want the most extravagant dial you're probably in the hunt for a Kari Voutilainen. You're looking innovative movement technology, then F.P. Journe is a great place to start. Daring movement architecture is what gets you going? Well try Romain Gauthier. If you want the best cases you want a case made by Jean-Pierre Hagmann. All of these are too expensive but you still want something more artisanal? Potentially Kurono Tokyo is worth checking out.
Not everybody's cup of tea but if you get a kick out of otherworldly movement constructions this early Romain Gauthier Insight Micro-Rotor from 2017 might do the trick. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva Nov. 2020.
Let me close with saying this: Specialization is something great. It gives us some of the most beautiful timepieces and most thrilling swim races to watch. As customers we decide what is important to us and what we like to emphasize on our wrists. Is it a complication, stunning case finishing, a fresh design... All very good choices. And that's enough.
 Gilbert Albert: the genius designer who changed the face of watchmaking; Tania Edwards, Collectability;
 Unconventional Time: Gilbert Albert's Patek Philippe designs; Benedetta Valcastelli, Italian Watch Spotter;
 Gilbert Albert Design And Patek Philippe; Andres Ibarguen, Montres Publiques;
 The most unusual Patek Philippe case designs of the past 100 years; A Collected Man;
 Gay Frères; Hancocks London;
 A Brief History of Gay Frères: Bracelet King; Paul Altieri, Bob's Watches;
 A Beginner's Guide to the Rolex Pre-Daytona (1950-69); Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 In-Depth: The Very First Heuer Carrera, Explained; Eric Wind, Hodinkee;
 Reference Points: Understanding The Rolex Paul Newman; Benjamin Clymer, Hodinkee;
 I Am Legend - The Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 920; Wei Koh, Revolution Watch;
 Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920; WatchBase;
 Uhrtalk 94: Breitling - Im Interview mit CEO Georges Kern; Uhrtalk Podcast;
 State of the Industry - Swiss Watchmaking in 2022; Oliver R. Müller, Watches by SJX;
 Singer: The Manufacturer Behind the "Paul Newman" Dial; Paul Altieri, Bob's Watches;
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