Just how hard can it be to make watch parts? Yes, they’re small. Yes, they need to work together. But for crying out loud, part time watchmakers who were full time farmers were making parts in small shacks in the Swiss Jura in the 18th and 19th centuries, using hand powered machines and stopping only to feed the cows and sheep during the long Swiss winters.
Big name brands like Omega, Tissot, and Longines got their starts by gathering these parts and assembling them into watches before selling them.
So really. A mechanical watch is a mechanical marvel, but looked at in the candlelight of an 1842 Swiss winter, maybe we’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.
Of course, no one said anything about how accurate these early watches were. The best were pretty good indeed. But that was after considerable tuning by the final assemblers. But an average watch? Plus or minus fifteen minutes a day was nothing.
However, things slowly got better, and requirements put on timers by such things as the railroads and sporting events put more and more of a premium on accuracy.
And a major key to this accuracy was to manufacture accurate, precise parts.
Now here, a quick digression. Accuracy and precision are not the same. They are complimentary. Accuracy refers to how close a part is to its specified dimensions. Precision, on the other hand, refers to repeatability. How repeatable is the machine and the manufacturing process which produces the part.
Both of course, enter in when making watch parts. They must be accurate – exactly what the designer specified. And they must be repeatable – every part must be exactly like every other part of the same design. That way, parts can be interchangeable, and their performance in the watch assembly will be predicable.
Rolex has spent decades and millions upon millions of dollars (Swiss francs, actually) to design and build machines capable of making parts which can then go into movements which will ultimately be shipped to COSC for chronometer testing and certification.
Inside the Rolex manufacturing facilities, something Hodinkee chronicled last March, these machines – and people – hum away, producing parts that will go into the close to a million watches Rolex sells every year.
And you know Rolex… continuous improvement is the watchword of the brand. That means not only the watches themselves. It also means the machines and procedures that produce them.