Serious collectors may purchase timepieces from a jeweler, but many shy away from buying a watch made by even the most prestigious jewelry houses. "I have to say that when I see a watch from a jewelry brand, I think of jewelry, not watches," admits Mark Richards, a Texas-based collector of complicated timepieces from traditional brands such as Patek Philippe. Other American collectors share Richards’ view. While they acknowledge that renowned jewelers are sometimes capable of great watchmaking, they do not accord these brands the same level of respect as they do the top-tier Swiss watch companies.
Certain jewelry companies have managed to overcome this resistance to a degree. Harry Winston, for example, has defied skeptics over the last decade by establishing its reputation as a specialty watchmaker. Larger jewelers have had a more difficult time appealing to serious enthusiasts. But both Cartier and Bulgari have recently entered the latter stages of massive development programs aimed at dramatically improving their high-watchmaking capabilities. These programs are far more ambitious than those undertaken by smaller companies, such as Harry Winston and Van Cleef & Arpels, in that they seek to replicate the independent complicated-watchmaking expertise of the traditional Swiss powerhouses.
Cartier’s initiative has been particularly impressive. Over the last five years, the company transformed its immense manufacturing facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds from a plant that cases third-party-supplied movements into one that develops and assembles proprietary mechanical movements for a wide range of watches. These efforts have already yielded several new calibers—both simple and complicated—and a number of next-generation watchmaking materials and technologies that, when mature, may rival some of the most advanced horological innovations from the top Swiss manufactures.
Cartier’s campaign to enter the upper echelons of modern mechanical watchmaking began with the introduction of its Collection Privée in the mid-1990s. These small-production mechanical watches paid homage to the company’s outstanding timepieces of the 1920s and 1930s—a period of creative output rightly considered by collectors to be one of the greatest of any watch company. Like the vintage Cartier watches before it, Privée was assembled in collaboration with a variety of quality movement suppliers but failed to attract many new collectors to the brand. The culture of watch collecting had changed: Even pieces with an impressive design pedigree could not generate the same excitement among collectors as those from independent companies that opted to design and craft their own movements.
"We decided that if we were going to succeed, we had to go big," says Hélène Poulit, who plays a central role in the development of Cartier’s watches. "For us, that meant taking a completely independent approach."
Luckily, Cartier was not starting from scratch. In 2001, movement-development specialist Carole Forestier had designed and executed a small group of basic calibers as part of Collection Privée. Forestier had designed them under the aegis of Cartier, but they were in fact manufactured largely by sister company Jaeger-LeCoultre. To create a more genuinely independent watchmaking capacity, Cartier upgraded the movement development, parts finishing, and assembly operations at its La Chaux-de-Fonds factory.
In addition, parent company Richemont’s 2007 investment in and subsequent acquisition of Manufacture Roger Dubuis enabled Cartier to tap into that firm’s excess capacity. Of particular value to Cartier was Roger Dubuis’ Geneva Seal–quality assembly and finishing, which contributed to a tourbillon movement modified for Cartier that debuted in 2008. Richemont also invested in a cross-brand development-and-manufacturing facility known as Val Fleurier, located near the Swiss city of Neuchâtel, that provides Cartier with key manufacturing support for movement components. The partnership between Val Fleurier and Cartier’s La Chaux-de-Fonds operation has yielded such pieces as the Santos 100 skeleton, the movement of which is artfully arranged around the open-dial design.
Like other major Swiss watchmaking concerns, Richemont has made a significant financial commitment to the development of watchmaking applications for silicium and other advanced materials. As an example of this technology, last November, Cartier arranged a limited viewing of a concept watch known as the ID One that incorporates parts composed of silicium and other compounds, as well as an advanced-design hairspring, escapement, and balance. The sophisticated design of this modernized Ballon Bleu model not only promises to eliminate timekeeping adjustment and reduce the after-sales service required for mechanical watches, but also suggests that Cartier is at last in tune with the modern watch collector.
bulgari, like cartier, has long harbored fine-watchmaking ambitions. Unlike Cartier, however, Bulgari—which is divided from the Swiss watch industry by language and geography—possesses few natural advantages in raising its profile in this field, even though its subsidiary, Bulgari Time, has been building watches since 1982. Most of these timepieces are designed in Rome and fabricated using supplied movements from facilities in Neuchâtel. Though highly successful, the best known of these models—the extremely bold Bulgari-Bulgari—has also served to stereotype the company’s watchmaking efforts as commercial rather than collectible.
For most of the last decade, Bulgari CEO Francesco Trapani endeavored to elevate the company’s watchmaking and establish its reputation as an exponent of haute horlogerie. To obtain the necessary infrastructure and skills to achieve this goal, he made a series of strategic acquisitions, beginning with the purchase of the ailing Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth brands, which share a manufacturing facility and together provided a platform for the jewelry house’s original watchmaking program. Bulgari infused the capital needed to expand the combined Gérald Genta/Daniel Roth complex in the Vallée de Joux. Along with the complicated watches produced for Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, this facility developed an original tourbillon movement for Bulgari that has been refined and upgraded since its introduction in 2004. A new automatic caliber promises the expansion of in-house movements to the middle tier of Bulgari’s watch line, as well.
But the ability to create movements did not satisfy Trapani, whose acquisition strategy extended to makers of all the components necessary to produce a fine watch. In 2005, he bought interests in a dial supplier and a bracelet manufacturer, both of which Bulgari now wholly owns. Three years later, it purchased Finger, a well-respected complicated-case manufacturer based in Lengnau, Switzerland.
The Sotirio Bulgari collection released last year for the company’s 125th anniversary represented the fruit of Trapani’s labors. The four models sported complex dials and cases with unusual lugs and detailing. Movements—whether produced by the Gérald Genta/Daniel Roth facility or by outside suppliers such as Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier—echoed the case and dial design on the plating. Superior to anything the brand made in the past and far more independently produced, the timepieces raised Bulgari’s watchmaking credibility to a level unimaginable only a few years before. But Trapani was not finished.
In January of this year, Trapani announced that the Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth brands would be further absorbed by Bulgari. While the timepieces resulting from this move had yet to be revealed at press time, an announcement video implied that future watches from these product families will be co-branded with Bulgari, though they will retain their signature designs. "The design codes of both names will be obviously preserved," says Trapani. "Existing Bulgari watches will not be confused with the new Bulgari–Gérald Genta–Daniel Roth–engineered families." One can only speculate how collectors will react to commingling of any kind.
Of course, in spite of significant financial outlays, neither Bulgari’s mergers-and-acquisitions strategy nor Cartier’s multiple-source fabrication replicates the integrated manufacture story watch brands often try to tell. Indeed, much smaller jewelry companies have managed to be successful in the watch arena without the heavy investment that true independence demands. Van Cleef & Arpels, for instance, uses outside mechanical-watchmaking assistance only when that assistance serves the creative vision the company has established for itself. This year, the firm tapped sometime-collaborator Jean-Marc Wiederrecht to add his signature retrograde displays to the enamel-dialed Le Pont des Amoureux watch, guessing correctly that its use of high-profile artisans would obviate any question of origin about the movement. And Harry Winston, for its part, is only gradually veering away from its practice of openly working with quality suppliers—a strategy that has attracted serious collectors to its men’s watches. The company’s latest Z Project sports watch, the Z6, is equipped with a movement designed in concert with Chronode.
However, business concerns quite irrelevant to collectors may be driving Cartier’s and Bulgari’s efforts toward independence. "When you work with suppliers, you are at their mercy," says Cartier’s Poulit, who is now using in-house movements in Calibre de Cartier, a higher production men’s watch. "We wanted to be able to guarantee our pipeline of products at the time and [level of] quality we wanted. This you can only do on your own."