A TimeZone Interview with Maria & Richard Habring
about the Habring² Kaliber A11
An interview in November 2014 by William Massena
TimeZone (TZ): Maria & Richard, you have recently launched your in-house movement. What has driven you to become completely independent?
Maria & Richard Habring (H²): Well – it has never been a secret that we were using in the beginning ETA-movements (the 6498-1) and later ETA-components (from the 7750) to create our watches. With the years we started to do more and more on the movements ourselves including developing functional modules on the ETA-train gear which we’ve been supplied with since 2009. In 2011 we received a letter from ETA stating that they do not supply any parts to us anymore based on their mother companies (Swatchgroup) former and well known strategically decision.
TZ: How was the feeling in this moment?
H²: One would have been very naive by thinking that ETA will not move forward with their groups strategy but it was obviously quite interesting to see that they did not only have those bigger brands (Mr. Hayek called them the opportunists) in focus but as well the very tiny ones which can never compete with SG’s own brands. The question for us in this very special moment in 2011 was: What to do with Habring²? Going completely independent or letting it die?
TZ: So you decided to survive?
H²: Right! And not only to survive, to survive without any dependence to a major supplier like Sellita. Our strategy in the past 3 years was to found a network of small family owned companies in Austria, German and Switzerland to supply single components produced after the drawings we provide. It took us about 2.000 hours – a lot of weekends and holidays – to have everything ready this year 2014 to start production of components
TZ: What is the difference between „movements“ and „components“?
H²: If we say „movement” we mean the entire and functioning motor of a watch. In case of ETA-movements entirely produced and assembled at ETA, sold to one of their customer brands. When talking about „components“ we mean all the single parts inside a watch movements, the wheels, the levers, the barrel, the escapement, the balance wheel etc. which are in addition a group of parts with need for separate assembly before being used inside the movement.
TZ: Just for our understanding: You bought wheels, escapements, balance wheels etc. at ETA before they stopped supplying and integrated those parts inside your movements?
H²: Correct! This strategy was necessary to allow us to further develop our watches the way we wanted to. About 80% of our watches are non-chronographs. It does not make sense to buy a chrono-movement, taking it completely apart, and putting the wheels back into own plates and bridges. It’s a waste of time and material. The funny aspect was that the single components out of the 7750 been in total more expensive than a completed movement with 4 times the number of parts inside. So ETA made good profit by this strategy while we had fully flexibility.
TZ: There is this still pending case at Swiss COMCO/WEKO (competition commission) which sentenced ETA and Nivarox to supply further movements and parts. Why did this not include your interests?
H²: Simple reason. The main case turns around completed movements, when it comes to single components than this means the escapement parts from Nivarox. We bought single components from ETA and have never been customers at Nivarox. So our interests are just simply not part of the case. To be involved party in this case one has to file approach with lawyers etc. This costs much more in the end than it brings benefits. ETA and Nivarox are sentenced to supply their former customers at least some percentage of the past volume but they are not obliged to accept new customers.
TZ: But this all is history now. How would you explain the difference between the movement based on the 7750-parts and the A11, your in-house movement?
H²: Some critics say the A11 is a copy or a clone of the 7750 but this is not right. The 7750 is and remains a chrono-movement while A11 is a mainly manual wound rather basic tractor to build our well known attractively priced starter models or our dead beat seconds. Of course the A11 has some design similarity to the basic train gear of the 7750 but this has been necessary to maintain the majority of our production while implementing the new basic movement into the entire existing line. Take our dead beat second or our foudroyante as examples, or at the chrono side our COS, the Doppel both ideally with in-house 60-minutes counter from the center. All those functional modules have to be driven from several links to the basic movement.
TZ: So your approach was rather pragmatic than artistic?
H²: By creating something completely new we would have lost all those functional modules we were working on since 2007. It’s tough enough for a small family company like ours (7 persons including the two founders and three apprentices) to be confronted with such a problem, but it can’t be that a group like SG influences the strategy of a private company and small brand. In addition we do not have the guarantee in the future that ETA further continues to provide spare parts for the movements build with their components in the past years. By being rather near at the former base we will be able to produce our own spares and further guarantee 30 years spare parts supply if necessery.
TZ: Coming back to the question: Copy or clone?
H²: Evolution! The 7750 has been and is one of the most accurate and reliable watch movements but it’s mainly industrial in it’s approach even though Edmond Capt, the man behind the 7750 did an incredible job. The A11 is developed further, in several details as well as in the making. It‘s optimized to be produced and assembled in smaller quantities with even higher quality. Some parts can be exchanged between 7750 and A11 but far not all. Let it be father and son, mother and daughter rather than being twins. We are using different mainsprings, shock absorbers, dial fixation, fine timing device. Our finishing is much more refined even though not being on very highest level. Let’s say it’s on a Volkswagen-level rather than Bentley.
TZ: You write that „A11 sets new benchmarks in watch business when it comes to the hand work involved“. What does that mean?
H²: Therefore, we have to go a little deeper into watch industry: A watch in our usual price range between Euro 4K to 6K is usually industrial made which means high volume, quite some automatisation, of course hand assembled but the production of the parts is high-tech. Take, for example, a single pallet fork or the balance wheel which are produced by machines, assembled by machine, and – at the balance – poised and timed by machines including bending the terminal curve at the hairspring. The parts for our pallet forks and balance wheels are crafted by machines too but then the entire assembly, adjusting etc. is made by hand. Every single hairspring at the A11 is entirely hand finished. Every pallet in our A11 is manually positioned to ensure perfect performance. Much, much more production steps are handmade , as well the central drilling of our train wheels and the final riveting on the axles.
TZ: There are watches on the market using the argumant „hand made“ but compared with yours they are usually much more expensive. How come?
H²: The manu facta (Latin for „handmade”) like we call it at Habring² is not made on purpose to increase the prestige of our products. It’s a simple need in order to survive as company and brand in the global competition. We do of course not dare to be compared with the premium handmade pieces like a Philippe Dufour or a Roger Smith. This is complete different league. We do hand work to safe costs and investments. But our understanding of the word „manufactory“ is more influenced by the „manu“ than the „factory“.
TZ: How to finance an in-house movement?
H²: If one is situated in Glashütte and wants to invest in machines for the industrial finishing of balance wheels he asks the government for public support and/or co-financing. Why has Glashütte grown so quick and so prosperous? Because the government and the European community pumps huge money into the local economy, mainly watch industry. We don’t have such possibilities her in Austria. We do have in addition no investor in the background. We are working with our very own capital, we do not own a villa or apartment. Our company car (we call it director’s limousine) is a Smart-car. Both – our home and the company – is rented to have the opportunity to work with our own limited money. Our pension fund lies in watch parts on our stock. We are working with the limited resources we have and try to make the very best out of it.
TZ: How do you produce all the parts and in which quantities?
H²: Our bridges and plates are CNC-machined like others as well. The difference comes in the details where, for example, the circumference of our main-plates are again reshaped, the drilling for the winding stem is made and all the rubies and pins are set, all by hand. A usual series of plates and bridges with us contains 50 to max. 100 pieces. Turning parts like wheels, pinions, axles are made on common machinery in lots of max. 500 pieces but again finished and assembled by hand. All this reduces the necessary pre-investment for parts. The highest quantity we have in screws since we managed to limit the number of different screws inside A11 to only 3 different sizes. Our shock absorbers are made by KIF because they supply small quantities too differently to Incabloc. Of our fine-timing device we had to buy 2.000 pieces at once, so we have enough for the next ten years. Why? The producer belongs to Swatchgroup and we’ve been forced to buy that quantity or refrain, but we did not have an alternative. This is the only part of the entire 99 in our A11 which is from Swatchgroup-origin.
TZ: But in small quantities the parts are always more expensive?
H²: Yes of course and this dramatically! We are facing costs between three times and eight times compared with similar ETA-components without counting the hand work yet. The positive fact is that quality wise our small series production is on higher level than the standard ETA-production. Our parts are more precise, better in finishing and they are creating jobs for human beings.
TZ: The higher costs and quality will probably lead to price increase on several of your products?
H²: Unfortunately yes. The costs of the movement are too high to be compensated with minor annual increases. We will have to increase the prices of all our existing non-chrono models with the use of our in-house movement for about 40%. The current starter model (Time-Only) costs Euro 2.850,– (about US$ 3.550,–) By beginning of 2015 recently introduced „Felix“ will be our new starter model for Euro 4.450,– (US$ 5.550,–). Over the last ten years Habring² has generated an image as „affordable independent“, we will try to maintain this even though on a higher price level with more exclusivity due to the in-house movement. We would love to continue our strategy with moderately priced pieces but we can’t under these circumstances inside the industry.
TZ: What about the Chrono’s in your range?
H²: The Chrono’s will remain for the time being on ETA-wheelwork. As mentioned: only about 20% of our production are chronographs so we are able to reach out a little longer with the movements on stock. Later – in the coming years – we will use the A11 train gear as well for our COS and Doppel’s. Step by step.
TZ: Higher production volume would decrease the prices for your movement and it’s components probably?
H²: Definitely! But we do neither have the intention to go for mass production nor see serious potential for selling our movement to other companies. A11 might be industrialize able if somebody would be interested by doing so, but we don’t. The reason is simple: In watch business everything gets compared with ETA. To provide same prices for movements like ETA did in the past you need to produce same quantities otherwise you will always be more expensive. And then again investment in machines might be necessary and we would need to change our company structure entirely. And at the end of the day each movement buyer would ask why the movement is more expensive than an equivalent ETA. If you argue „because of the lower volume“ everybody will say: „Produce more!“ So you end up with the economic risk. Another option would be to move to China at least for the production of several components like it is common use in watch business. But this is no option for us since we feel a need to safe jobs here in Austria and it’s surrounding and we need the full control about the quality of our components. Even our boxes are made locally here by a carpenter in the neighborhood. It costs a fortune – compared with the common “made in China” – but it’s worth every single cent since we have a social role as entrepreneurs here in our region.
TZ: There are ideas around to offer watch movements “open source”, what about that?
H²: The basic idea behind “open source” is great but we are too far already since we have are able to produce now everything under our direction. If we would open our drawings to others and name our suppliers others would benefit by saving the development costs we had to invest in the past three years plus the investments for tooling. We would not have a benefit aside buying some components a littler cheaper, maybe. Open-source might make more sense for specialized parts producers who do only concentrate on their very own domain. Somebody who makes balance wheels, for example, like it’s been decades ago in Switzerland.
TZ: You are currently producing about 150 pcs. a year with your team and structure. Where is the ceiling in annual production for Habring²?
H²: We are not sure yet but we think the possible maximum will be somewhere between 200 and 300 pcs. This includes that the both of us are part of the production and assembly process, every single watch goes through our hands. Of course more might be possible but then again we would need to reorganize our company aside the growth and giving up jobs we like to do ourselves. The maximum of 300 comes from the past experience, however since we started to assemble our own pallet forks and producing our own balance wheels it is more likely that we will remain on our current level rather than growing in the coming years. And finally we want to keep Habring² being something special and rare. It’s an affordable, but still exclusive, mainly handmade watch from a small independent family owned company.
Richard & Maria Habring
See also Independent Horology Forum Habring2 Felix 10th Anniversary – The Workshop Tour
Photos: Stefan (Barge)
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