THE A-B-C’S OF WATCH FINISH

by Walt Odets

Blancpain caliber 64-1 detailThe subject of watch “finish”
is often cited as important, and often given as the explanation
for the high cost of a watch that runs at no more consistent
a rate–in the short term, at
least–than other watches
at a fraction of its cost. The idea of finish is complex, and
at its simplest, amounts to the purely decorative treatment of
surfaces. But finish also affects the running and durability
of the watch because, at its most complex, it is a purely functional
issue. In many areas, finish is as important to the function
of a watch as the basic engineering of the movement and various
aspects of purely mechanical execution. This is particularly
true of the small (under 15 ligne), flat movements so popular
today.

The visible finish of a watch–the dial,
case, strap, and buckle–is what the average person sees, and
there is an old saying among watchmakers that, in selling a watch,
one need only sell the dial. The external finish of a watch is,
no doubt, important, and the excellent watch should be excellently
finished on the outside too. But the finish of the these external
parts alone cannot justify the cost of an expensive watch. In
the truly excellent watch, the external components alone amount
to perhaps no more than 10 or 15 percent of the finishing that
goes into the watch. There is no correlation beween the finish
of these Blancpain 7002 dial detailexternal
elements and the internal ones, and, unfortunately, there are
any number of very expensive watches around that demonstrate
this fact. I recently examined an immaculately finished and very
expensive, 18K jumping hour watch that contained a simple hand-wound
movement so poorly finished that it would not be appropriate
in a $300 watch.

The internal finish of a watch is a much
more complicated proposition than external finish, and a much
more expensive one. There are no unnecessary parts in a watch
movement. Each one serves a function and, for the vast majority
of them
, the quality of finish will determine how well
the part can perform its function and for how long.
This is true of everything from the mainspring and barrel to
the cannon pinion that carries the minute hand on the dial. The
polish of the mainspring, barrel, and barrel cover have everything
to do with how smoothly power is provided to the movement. A
poorly finished–or misadjusted–cannon pinion will immediately
be discernible in the tactile quality of hand-setting. And a
poorly finished cannon pinion cannot be properly adjusted and
will ultimately affect the smooth movement of the minute hand
during running or bind the movement entirely.


Blancpain 64-1 intermediate wheelOn
the subject of finish and durability, only a single obvious fact
need be pointed to. If every part of a movement has a function,
it is also true that almost every part works against another
part. The finish of these working surfaces has everything to
do with how long they will last. While poorly finished surfaces
may be partially compensated for in the short term with good
(and, sometimes, excessive) lubrication, in the long term they
will show themselves with excessive wear, and, worse yet, by
depositing the particulate products of that wear in other working
parts. (Above left, the transmission wheel and barrel
click of the Blancpain 64-1.)

There is one final introductory point to
address, the relationship between the quality of finish of a
movement and the “quality of a movement.” Generally,
one sees excellent finish work on otherwise excellent movements.
But there are exceptions in which a medicre or merely good movement
is finished to standards that its basic engineering and construction
do not seem to warrant. This, no doubt, makes it a better movement
than it would be without theBlancpain 7002 pallet extra finishing effort, but probably
not one warranting its ultimate cost. Unfortunately, the very
nature of such an enterprise encourages better finishing of visible
components and neglect of more significant, but less visible,
ones. The current rash of ETA 2892′s behind display backs often
exhibit such a bias and one now too often sees beautifully finished
bridges carrying wheels and pinions of only modest quality and
polish. (At right, a pallet and pallet lever pivot in
the Blancpain caliber 64-1.)

The converse approach–excellence
in the important areas of finish and modest cosmetic finishing–is
something also sometimes seen, and IWC stands out as a manufacturer
that has become expert at this honorable approach. In recent
years, IWC’s functional finishing has been immaculate. Their
purely cosmetic finishing, though also immaculate, is done in
a craftsman-like idiom that is very modest in the context of
the real deep quality of the movements.

In sum, truly excellent finishing begins
where it matters most, ends where the manufacturer’s
taste dictates, and is best spent on otherwise excellent movements.
Blancpain 7003 wheel trainExcellent
finishing is a necessary but not, in itself, adequate fact to
qualify a movement as excellent. The really fine finishing seen
today–by Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre,
Lange, and Patek–is almost always devoted to movements worthy
of the effort. The illustrations thus far are all of the Blancpain
Ref. 7002, caliber 64-1, derived from the Peseux caliber P6B.
This simple, elegant, hand-wound watch is a pure exercise in
immaculate finish and quality. (Left, the centerwheel,
third wheel, and fourth wheel in the Blancpain caliber 64-1.)

MOVEMENT FINISH ILLUSTRATED

Chamfered screwTo illustrate a handful of details of movement
finishing–four among hundreds affecting the quality of a watch–I
have choosen three representative movements spanning the spectrum
from excellent to passable. The excellent movement among these
three is a Jaeger LeCoultre
caliber 417
, simple hand-wound, 10 ligne movement from the
1940′s. The movement of medium quality is an Eterna caliber
1424
, 13 ligne automatic from the 1960′s. And the “passable”
movement is a Mathey-Tissot caliber 608, hand-wound, 11.5
ligne movement from around 1960. (At right, a beautifully
chamfered and polished screw from the Blancpain caliber 64-1.
The screw head is about 0.5 millimeter in diameter.)

All three are unadjusted movements, and
with that exception, all three are fairly representative of movements
in current production. The JLC, today, would only be available
in a watch in the $3,000 plus range, and it would surely
be timed to four, five, or six adjustments. Movements of this
quality in watches of moderate price simply do not exist in today’s
watch market. There are only 10 or 12 companies marketing movements
of this quality and, JLC mainspring barrelperhaps,
only six or seven actually manufacturing them. The latter includes
Patek, JLC, Lange, Piaget, Breguet-Lemania, and, with their new
caliber 1.96, Chopard. In its day, the 1940′s, this JLC was a
$500 to 600 medium-priced watch. (At left, a beautifully
finished mainspring barrel from the JLC caliber 417.)

The Eterna, on careful examination, is
a remarkably well made movement. Eterna, like Omega, was always
known as a “high-value” watch, and the attention to
important, functional finishing reveals why. In the context of
today’s market, it represents the best of watches in the $1,000
to $3,000 range, and offers better quality than most ETA movements
now being sold. It is probably representative of the best iterations
of the caliber 2892. The Eterna 1424 is very similar in design
and construction to current ETA automatics, most of which are
dervied from Eterna designs. In its day, the late 1950′s, the
Eterna was a $600 watch. Today, that price does not buy a watch
of such quality. (Below right, a section of the plate
of the JLC caliber 417.)

J:C caliber 417 plate sectionThe Mathey-Tissot represents the minimal
finishing necessary for a watch capable of acceptable, if not
really good, time-keeping. To a great extent, mechanical watches
of this quality
have been replaced by electronic watches. But current mechanical
watches under $1,000 fall roughly into quality range of the M-T
or slightly above. The M-T shows considerably better finishing
than the mechanical components of a watch like the Seiko Kinetic,
but the M-T is neither as well constructed, nor as well finished
as a number of watches in the $1,000 range, including the Omegas
and, at an even lower price, the Oris line. Manufacturing economies,
particularly of the less expensive ETA movements, has considerably
raised the very low end in mechanical watches, and the moderate
quality ETA’s are generally of a higher quality than the M-T.
In its day, the Mathey-Tissot was a $125 watch.

Illustration and discussion of each of
the four selected components may be accessed separately with
the following links:

 






THE WHEEL TRAIN BRIDGE


THE BALANCE
COCK


THE CENTERWHEEL


THE ESCAPE LEVER




 

CONCLUSIONS

Blancpain 7002 dial detailIn illustrating the finish of four movement
parts, I have drawn from hundreds of possibilities, all of which
entail finishing issues–on both seen and normally unseen parts–in
excellent watches. The product of authentic attention to detail
and quality is unmistakable. Really beautiful movements have
an immediate and distinct appearance on visual inspection, even to the naked
eye. The perfect color, gloss, and sheen on all surfaces gives
the movement an immaculate, silvery-black, almost ethereal quality.
And closer inspection, with a loupe or with the extreme magnification
used in this article (and used by good watchmakers), only improves
the impression.

Whether the expense of excellent watch
finishing is worth the cost is an issue that each must decide
for himself and in respect of his budget. What does it take to
make a good watch? A wonderful watch? A superb watch? That all
depends on what you are looking for. Almost any watch, these
days, will tell you the time, and many will look good, on the
outside, while doing that. But very few watches tell you
about craft, beauty, and excellence expressed in one of the most
interesting mechanisms to come from the hand of man.

 

 
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