Stepping inside the Chopard manufacture and finishing workshops in Fleurier and Geneva is a lesson in high watchmaking. Twenty-five different crafts are performed at Chopard, most of them by hand and by sight. The process sheds light on why a luxury timepiece costs what it does, and what makes mechanical watchmaking at this level so special. Chopard’s reputation as a maker of red-carpet worthy jewelry often overshadows the fact that the company actually began life in 1860 as one of Switzerland’s original watch manufacturers. It was started by Louis-Ulysse Chopard (hence the title of the collection that contains its manufacture movements – L.U.C), in the Swiss Jura town of Sonvilier. After the quartz revolution, and success with many timepiece collections (including the iconic Happy Diamonds and Mille Miglia) using movements made by outside manufacturers, the company began the process of vertical integration in 1996, building a manufacture capable of producing movements from start to finish. In doing so, co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele took the brand back to its fundamental vocation. His sister Caroline Scheufele is co-president in charge of the jewelry division.
Today, Chopard produces nine distinct families of watch movements, with 50 movement variations, including a perpetual calendar and a tourbillon. This year, it produced 7,000 movements, up from 3,000 only two years ago. The goal is 15,000 by 2015. As production increases, the company’s reliance on outside ébauches diminishes. As of next year, for example, all watches in the Mille Miglia collection will contain Chopard-made movements. The Imperiale and L.U.C collections already contain in-house movements. All watches bearing the Geneva Seal are cased in Geneva, and everything that is Geneva Seal certified falls into the L.U.C collection. Many of the watches are also certified by the Fleurier Quality Foundation, which was jointly created in 2001 by four local watch manufactures: Chopard, Parmigiani Fleurier, Bovet Fleurier and Vaucher Manufacture, all of which are located in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. In order to meet the certification criteria, any watch tested here is subject to the following conditions:
- The movement must be COSC-certified
- The movement must have passed an “aging” test called the Chronofiable
- The movement must attain an exclusive aesthetic quality of finish
- The rating of the finished watch must be vouched for by the Fleuritest machine
The Chronofiable test basically accelerates the aging process of a watch by a factor of eight. A series of tests over three weeks simulate the effects of wear over a six-month period, during which the movement, in varying stages of encasement, is subjected to a variety of mechanical and physical constraints – shocks, accelerations, variations in temperature.The watch is performance-tested throughout the ordeal, according to precision, power reserve and efficiency of the different functions. The Chronofiable test is carried out exclusively by the Dubois laboratory at La Chaux-de-Fonds. It differs from COSC certification in that it is based on a sampling procedure rather than single examples.
The Fleuritest is a 24-hour test that recreates the movements of a wearer’s potential activities, alternating between active, extremely active and calmer phases. Variations in the timekeeping rate are monitored throughout. The precision of the watch must fall within the range of 0 to +5 seconds per day. At the end of testing, the watch receives FQF (Flourier Quality Foundation) certification, which can be engraved on the watch. Karl-Friedrich Scheufele’s vision was to establish a watchmaking operation that combines age-old hand craftsmanship with modern technology, resulting in high-performance luxury timepieces. All in-house movements are built with Chopard-made components (everything but the screws) and Chopard-made tools. All crafts people are trained in-house to ensure consistency of craftsmanship. “In my view, a brand can only fully exist in the field of haute horlogerie by achieving complete control of the making of its timepieces: design and development, production and assembly, movements and exteriors,” says Scheufele. “Chopard has chosen to give precedence to hand craftsmanship, even when this choice involves higher production costs,” he says. “It is the kind of choice only a family business could make, thanks to an entirely independent structure, unbound by the demands of immediate profit stemming from external investors unaware of the nature of fine watchmaking.” Assembling a team of highly trained bench jewelers, movement assemblers, engravers and watchmakers – to name a few of the trades engaged at the Chopard manufacture is not an easy task. Chopard therefore operates its own craftsmanship training programs at the Chopard Forum, a restored 18th-century mansion in Fleurier that was acquired and renovated for the purpose in 2010. The mansion serves as a guest house where visitors and trainees can stay and learn. The Forum trains up to 20 apprentices each year, from balance fitters to gem setters, who learn the signature crafts that go into the making of a Chopard watch or piece of jewelry.
The manufacture is a contrast of old and new. At Fleurier Ébauches, rows of shiny new CNC machines create the blanks – main plates and bridges – from brass plates. One of these machines, the size of a small elephant, is the 1.5-million-dollar MTR312, with an impressive nine robotic-like arms that churn out a new plate every four minutes (compared to every 45 minutes using a manual stamping machine). It does this to within tolerances of one micron (one-thousandth of a millimeter). Everything else – chamfering, engraving, perlage, cotes de geneve – has the human touch, using techniques, and in some cases tools, that have been used by watchmakers for more than a century. During my visit, I witnessed the chamfering of the plate for the special-edition Mille Miglia Zagato, launched in Milan in October. I also had a glimpse of the preparation of the dial and the placement of the gem-set bridge of a new Happy Sport Tourbillon, due for release at Baselworld 2014, coming up in March. We will have to wait until then to show you the new masterpieces, but in the meantime, here are some exclusive photos of the Chopard craftsmen at work.
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