Early on Thursday morning, Cartier’s private jet whisked myself and a couple of other UK-based watch writers away from a cold grey London to a snowy La Chaux-de-Fonds. Less than 90 minutes after takeoff, we were walking into the factory located just five minutes from the single-strip airport.

There, we were offered coffee and croissants before the inestimable Carole Forestier escorted us around the place and explained to us the process by which Cartier conceive of and build a watch.

The first thing she explained was that, for Cartier, building a watch is a very collaborative process, and one in which the jet we had just flown in on, plays a very important role. Every Tuesday there is a meeting at which representatives of the Marketing, Design and watchmaking departments get together to discuss every watch model that is still in the ‘pipeline’. There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about that statement, except that whilst the design department is a 90-minute drive away in Geneva, the marketing operation is based at the company’s HQ in Paris, but half an hour away on the plane.

The birth of a new watch at Cartier starts with a brief; if it is a mainstream watch (like the Ballon Blu) then the brief will usually come from the marketing department, if it is an Haute Horlogerie piece, then the brief will then come from the watchmakers. Any watch made by Cartier has to follow two simple rules; it must combine the best in craftsmanship and technology and it must be designed, assembled and adjusted in house. Then the design department starts with drawings, simple renderings showing the design of the case and bracelet; these are critiqued at subsequent meetings until one particular design rises to the top. Then the firm’s president will sign the drawing, meaning that money can now be spent on the watch; the first money to be spent is in the 3D modeling department, where the computer design of the watch case is fed into one of the two large machines and a perfect model of the watch in blue plastic comes out the other end.

This process is particularly useful where there are small differences in the design, which are difficult to appreciate just from drawings; here are two early versions of the Ballon Bleu:

Early versions of the Ballon Bleu

Note the differing styles of the case shielding the crown. Also, at this time, differing concepts for design of the bracelet links are produced; these are not just simple flat renderings but fully flexible, just like the real thing, even though they have been produced all in one pass of the machine. To give us an idea of the capabilities of the machine they showed us two samples, this adjustable spanner/wrench is fully functional, the thumb screw works and the jaws move in and out.

However, the masterpiece was this amazingly intricate gear set, once again, all made in one pass on the machine and fully operational; all the gears mesh and every part turns, as it should.

It is this ability to render fine detail that allows the movement department to use it as well; here is a rendering of the Santos Skeleton movement.

The 3D modeling is really useful in movement design because it allows an aesthetic judgment to be made of the piece before the first blank of metal is cut, and with designs like skeleton or tourbillon movements, the look of the movement in all three dimensions is really important.

By changing the production medium, the 3D printer can also produce transparent objects, so this is often used to produce watch glasses for the prototype watches, enabling the Tuesday ‘Creation Committee’ to have a much better idea of the finished product.

Because the design process is collaborative, and agreement is always reached before the next stage is reached, it means that it can take between three and five years between the initial drawing of a watch and the design finally reaching production.

The firm employs 32 people in movement design, split between the engineers who spend their lives staring at computer screens working on the CAD programs and watchmakers who work on the physical prototypes. Between them, they produce a lot more projects than those that actually reach the market; quite often they produce concept watches, pushing the parameters of design or movement construction. The idea behind them is the same as that behind the concept cars that automobile manufacturers show at the big Auto Shows, not only does it energize the designers but it also allows them to fail in private, if need be.

All Cartier movement design is done here; even for the watches produced in Cartier’s Geneva factory, which all qualify for the Geneva Seal.

From there, we moved to the assembly department for the in-house movements, where the 1904 movements were being built. Inside the assembly department, I was genuinely astonished. It is important to understand that the 1904 movement is Cartier’s basic movement. It would be rude to call it a ‘tracteur’ (the derisive term used in the Swiss watch industry for mass produced robust simple movements like the ETA 2824 or the Rolex 3135) but it is a simple three-hand plus date movement. Yet, the way it is assembled bears more resemblance to the way movements are built at Vacheron or any other high end house. That is, the 1904 movement is built mostly by hand as opposed to either Rolex or ETA. At Cartier, one watchmaker works on the total movement and builds movements in small batches of five. Further down the room, were more watchmakers making the more complicated version of the 1904 movement, including the chronograph that was introduced at this year’s SIHH.

Our next ‘port of call’ was the Haute Horlogerie department, where we saw the assembly of tourbillons and some skeletonized pieces; a number of the finished pieces were left lying, almost nonchalantly, around for us to handle and to photograph before they were dispatched to boutiques for delivery to the eventual clients who had ordered them.

What made this visit exceptional, compared to every other Swiss watch factory I have ever visited, was that I was allowed to photograph anything I saw, apart from peoples’ faces (due to Swiss privacy laws).

From the heights of craftsmanship we were then shown the ‘heavy engineering’ side of the factory, where between 40 and 50km (approximately 25 to 30 miles) of bracelet links are produced each year.

From there we saw some of the finishing techniques used on the bracelets; many of the parts come from the machine needing almost nothing, but some go into drums of ceramic pellets, which are then vibrated until all the sharp edges on the component are erased. But for some components differing finishes are used, in which case, once the polishing is completed, then the item is coated with a red die which enables the guy who then machines it to be sure that he gets a straight edge.

Lying near the bracelet machines, almost nonchalantly, was this punch; it was not until I examined it closely that I realized what it was; the actual punch used to make the interlocking C trademark inside each bracelet clasp.

The bracelet machines, themselves, are huge, 25 feet long and noisy; so they are enclosed behind glass partitions, and a few moments later we saw something else behind a glass partition, a huge 4 axis robot.

Upon closer examination we could see that the robot was slowly thumping its arm into a polyurethane block.

And firmly fixed upon the arm was a brand new Calibre de Cartier wristwatch being subjected to the equivalent of several years wear in quite a short time; we also learned that this testing process is not just for the workhorse watches, the high horology pieces receive exactly the same testing process. As this is one of only two machines in Switzerland dedicated to this kind of testing, it is often used by other brands; when I asked if it was only used by brands within the Richemont group, I was told that the confidentiality agreement they sign, before this testing, begins forbids any discussion as to which brands also use the facility.

Although I never asked, my gut feeling is that the next watches we saw being built were not subject to this treatment; because we next moved on to the Metier des Artes workshops, where we saw a number of skills being demonstrated, ranging from enameling to restoration to jewel setting. As I said previously, what made this visit exceptional was that I was allowed to photograph anything I saw, apart from peoples’ faces, and here we see one of the jewel setters working through an Olympus 20X binocular microscope setting the jewels on one of the skeleton Panther watches.

And here is one of the finished watches.

From the finished watches we then saw how some of the parts are made; and, even though these parts are made in large quantity, how much handwork and skill is needed in producing these peripheral parts. First we saw the production of shaped mineral glasses; these are used instead of sapphire where complex three-dimensional shapes are needed. One specialist was producing the double curved glass for the Tank Americaine, he places a blank of glass in a jig and then proceeds to heat it with a gas jet.

The way he knows that the glass is perfect is ingenious, on the wall in front of him is a white painted disc, with a strong light shining on it; when the reflection of the disc can be seen perfectly on the inner surface of the glass, he immediately swivels the base the jig is mounted on out of the flame and places it in a rack to cool.

For a few moments we sat at a table and, whilst we had a quick drink of water, asked Carole any questions that might have come up. Like the rest of the factory, this area was flooded with light, as the whole front of the factory is one large glass wall, broken only by the huge ‘Cartier’ logo etched into the panes, it was almost surreal to look across the valley through these etched windows.

It was a short walk around the corner from the glass maker to the lady who was bluing the hands; it was not until I saw the work that goes into this task that I realized how complex hands making really is. Firstly, they are stamped out of a sheet of thin steel and then placed, individually in a steel jig, which holds them in position for polishing.

Up until this point, the work that has been done on them is of an industrial nature, but now they are handed to a craftswoman to do the final finishing. They are then placed in an oven at exactly 357°C until the artisan in charge decides that the colour is perfect. However, the above makes it sound simple; it is far from it, even though the bluing department has its own humidity controlled atmosphere, the small variations in the moisture in the environment can mean major changes in the final colour. This means that after the hands come from the oven and cool down they have to be broken down into several different levels of bluing and only correctly matched hands can be used on a watch. Hands falling outside the acceptable range are discarded and sometimes up to 50% of hands end up in the garbage bin and not on watches. And on rare days the weather means that no hands can be made at all, even so, all of Cartier’s Haute Horlogerie watches now have their hands made in house and almost 70% of the rest use them.

Then it was time for a light lunch with Carole and a couple of other Cartier executives, who were happy to answer any questions we might have had.

Carole Forestier-Kasapi, Cartier Head of Fine Watchmaking

Some of the snippets of information I gleaned during the lunch and at other points during the visit were that the factory has been designed so that there is never more than 30 meters from raw components to finished parts. That in the 1980s Gerald Genta worked with Cartier and designed several movements for them, the Perpetual Calendar, the Tourbillon and the Golf Watch, all of these movements were fitted in the Pasha case. When we see a watch at the SIHH it means that production has actually started.

After lunch we returned to the conference room where we had started and there it was time for coffee and complications; the coffee was provided by the ubiquitous Nespresso machine and the complications by Carole and her team in the High Horology department.

We first discussed, in great detail, the gold granulation Panther watch introduced at this year’s SIHH; gold granulation decorated jewelry dated from the period of the Etruscans (more than 2,000 years ago) and the technique for producing it had been thought to be lost. But the world’s best collection of such jewelry is in the Louvre; and Cartier worked with the curator to rediscover the technique. First 22 carat gold is heated until it becomes liquid, then it is poured through a fine mesh suspended high above a bath of water. As the drops fall they form themselves into tiny globes of gold of varying sizes. This process is exactly how lead shot for shotguns is produced.

The little globes are then sorted by size and then the creation process can begin, the outline of the proposed design is laid on the dial blank and the globes are glued on five at a time.

The development of this glue was the single hardest part of the technique; a glue had to be invented which would hold the globes in place in the heat of the furnace and once the globes began to fuse on to the dial surface it would vaporize and disappear leaving no trace. Here is the finished item.

I know that many of you will look at this piece and sneer that it is nothing more than jewelry; but the truth is that there is more craftsmanship, technology and research than there is in most tourbillons. Each dial has around 3,800 granules on its surface and must be fired over 500 times; this entire process takes about two months and goes some way to explain why only 20 examples will ever be made and why they cost €200,000 apiece ($275,000 US) plus tax.

We then looked at the new triple calendar chronograph

and the Ballon Blu tourbillon

Before we went on to discuss the things that I felt Carole was most of; the ID 1, the ID 2 and the recently introduced Carbon Crystal Astro Tourbillon; which is the first ‘fruit’ of the technologies first developed in the ID1.

In building a conventional expensive watch, the most labour intensive part, and the one requiring the most experience and skill is adjusting the movement prior to final casing; we see the words ‘Adjusted to six positions, temperature and isochronism’ on a watch and it makes us feel good. But the work required to do this may take days; so, the idea behind the ID1 was to make a watch that would never require adjustment. This was done by designing an escapement from scratch to be constructed by new technology to ultra high precision; conventional watch parts are stamped or cut from metal blanks and then machined to arrive at the perfect shape. This involves removing metal from the part by filing, whether by hand or machine, then the item is finished; which is essentially polishing. The method used in the ID2 is the reverse, material is applied bit by bit on a molecular level until the part is built UP to the required dimensions, no machining or finishing is involved. With this technology, we give up the established aesthetics we are used to when we look at a movement, and, in its place we see a different kind of aesthetic, one belonging to the 20th century, not the 19th.

You might wonder why there is so much black in these watch movements; simple, all of the parts are coated with ADLC (Amorphous Diamond Like Carbon) we are used to it being used on cases to give the ‘stealth’ look but it is used in the movements for a completely different reason. It is almost as hard as a diamond, but retains the surface tension of another well-known form of carbon, graphite (the stuff of pencil leads), which is inherently slippery and so provides its own inherent lubrication.

The method by which the Astrotourbillon Carbon Crystal will be sold is almost as innovative as the watch itself, the lucky 20 buyers (who have had their names on a list since the watch was announced in July) will be invited to the factory in small groups of six or seven in three batches, firstly in November this year and then in March and in April of next year (after their payment of €150,000 has arrived in Cartier’s account). They will tour the factory and be presented with their watches, but then they will be in regular contact with the watchmaking team as the performance of the watches is analyzed and compared over the next few years before the technology makes it to mass production.

Right now only Cartier are capable of producing, totally in house, watches of such amazing futuristic technology as well as classic complicated watches made in the grand tradition of Haute Horlogerie; as I said at the SIHH, right now Cartier are at the top of their game and I can see no-one who can challenge them across such a wide spectrum of watchmaking. They are currently the second biggest Swiss watchmaker, after Rolex, in terms of turnover; and, after my intensive overview of their factory, I wonder how long it will be that they are satisfied with being number two.

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