125 years after the Geneva watch industry enshrined laws governing the quality of its movements, the authorities have signed off on an even more rigorous set of standards for mechanical timepieces that test not just the movement but the entire watch. Rob Corder reports.
Once upon a time, to carry the Hallmark of Geneva all a Swiss watchmaker had to do was to create one of the best watch movements available on the planet. In 2012, even this achievement is not enough to win approval from one of the watchmaking industry’s most stringent watchdogs.
The rules of the game have now changed. Not only does a watchmaker have to prove excellence in its movement, it must also pass some quality control tests carried out on the watch itself and all of its functions.
While the bar has been set high, there are already four Swiss watchmakers that have cleared the jump and will soon unveil the first timepieces carrying the 125th anniversary Poinçon de Genève (Hallmark of Geneva).
Vacheron Constantin, Roger Dubuis, Cartier and Chopard have all committed to the hallmark, which aims to establish a new quality benchmark for complete watches, rather than just movements. The changes to the regulations governing the new Hallmark of Geneva are highly technical, and will be overseen by the Geneva Laboratory of Horology and Microengineering, commonly known as Timelab.
Obsessive collectors will pore over the details of the mark, but for more casual observers, the hallmark can be summarised as a guarantee that the components, craftsmanship, technical specification and performance of the finished timepieces all meet the highest benchmark for quality. It also confirms that all components were made and assembled in Geneva.
“The Hallmark of Geneva is undergoing an evolution that will give it even more standing,” says Daniel Favre, president of the Foundation Council of Timelab. “This sort of AOC is a true guarantee of quality whose boundaries are being enlarged so as to correspond as closely as possible to customer expectations for fine watch-making pieces.”
Testing the entire watch, rather than just the movement, brings the Hallmark of Geneva’s criteria more closely into line with the Patek Philippe Seal, which has covered the brand’s own watches since 2009. Unlike the Hallmark of Geneva, the Patek Philippe Seal is overseen by an executive committee within the company, although it is described as an entirely independent process.
Due to the more complete testing of the watch, the Patek Philippe Seal has been considered superior to the Geneva Seal, but now with the new rules for 2012 Timelab is hoping to bridge the gap between the two seals. But despite the advances of the Hallmark of Geneva, Patek Philippe has said it has no plans to rejoin the community of watchmakers that strive for the Hallmark of Geneva.
The Poinçon de Genève was first written into law in 1886. It was created to protect the city’s earliest fine watchmakers from outside pretenders that wanted to associate their brands with the Geneva name.
The Company of Watchmakers, founded in 1878, solicited the parliament of the Republic and State of Geneva to create an office for the voluntary control of Geneva’s watches.
This office, initially based at the Geneva School of Watchmaking, had the role of affixing the official seal on the watches from the manufacturers based in the Canton of Geneva, where the company and its watches met strict conditions created by the authority.
125 years later, in November last year, it was announced that from 2012 the certification will no longer apply merely to the movement, but to the watch in its entirety, including a view on the outward appearance of the timepiece and how it performs.
The new testing and certification arrives at a time when Geneva watchmakers are celebrating global demand for their mechanical timepieces, history, expertise and their traditions; but it hasn’t always been that way.
Use of the Geneva Hallmark all but evaporated in the mid-1980s due to the advance in automatic movements at the time that drained sales from traditional watchmakers. From a peak of about 30,000 hallmarked timepieces in the 1960s, Geneva watchmakers’ production of movements went into sharp decline as demand drifted away to quartz watches, many of them made in Japan.
The fight back began for the Geneva AOC immediately, with a greater focus on training new horologists and financing research and development of mechanical watches.
Just 15 years after the Hallmark of Geneva was all but extinct in 1985, it was stamped onto the movements of 37,000 watches in 2000.
The building momentum from the 1980s onwards encouraged not only the biggest mechanical watch brands, such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, to support the Hallmark but also many other Geneva makers, including Baume & Mercier, Chopard, Roger Dubuis and Cartier.
Not all supporters of the pre-2011 Hallmark have yet announced their support of the 2012 process, but early adopters will use this year to promote watches that the 125th anniversary hallmark guarantees meet considerably higher standards.
Juan-Carlos Torres, chief executive of Vacheron Constantin and president of the Union des Fabricants d’Horlogerie de Genève Vaud et Valais (UFGVV), says that the leap forward in hallmarking will benefit the industry and its customers alike.
“In an industry imbued with authenticity, and amid uncertain times propitious to genuine values, a clear, precise, transparent and intelligible label is naturally a key asset,” he says.
“It provides companies with an assured means of protecting and preserving their expertise, as well as perpetuating the crafts related to the world of fine watchmaking.”
How to Secure the Hallmark of Geneva
12 HISTORIC HURDLES
The pre-2011 testing of the Geneva Hallmark was already rigorous with movements required to meet the following 12 criteria.
1. The quality of all parts and components of the movement, including those used for auxiliary mechanisms, must comply with the standards prescribed by the Office for the optional inspection of Genevan watches. Steel parts must display polished angles and their sides parallel file strokes, their visible faces must be smoothed and polished, screw heads must be polished or circular grained and their rim and slot bevelled.
2. All movements must be fitted on the going train and the escapement with ruby jewels with polished hole. On the bridge side, jewels must be semi-mirror polished and their sinks polished. A centre-wheel jewel in the mainplate is not required.
3. The balance spring must be secured by a sliding stud cap with round head and neck. Mobile studholders are accepted.
4. Fitted or split indexes (regulators) with a fastening system are accepted, save on extra-thin movements where the system is not mandatory.
5. Regulating systems featuring a balance wheel with variable radius of rotation are accepted provided they comply with the conditions set out in Article 3, paragraph 1.
6. Geartrain wheels must be bevelled on their upper and lower sides and their sinks polished. For wheels 0.15 mm thick or less, bevelling on the bridge side only is tolerated.
7. Pinion shanks and faces must be polished.
8. A lightweight escape wheel is mandatory: no more than 0.16 mm thick for larger sizes or 0.13 mm for wheels less than 18 mm across; locking faces must be polished.
9. The lever’s angle of travel must be contained by solid bankings, to the exclusion of pins or studs.
10. Movements fitted with shock absorbers are accepted.
11. The ratchet and transmission (crown) wheel must be finished in conformity with prescribed models.
12. Wire springs are prohibited.
FOUR FRESH FENCES
From 2012, finished timepieces stamped with the Geneva Seal will need to pass four additional tests that have been designed to ensure an even higher quality.
1. Testing of the accuracy of the watch over a continuous seven-day period. Manually wound and self-winding watches are tested on a machine simulating the movement of the wearer.
2. Testing of its water resistance. Hermetic value tested in the atmosphere and water-resistant watch must comply with the manufacturers’ claims.
3. Testing of the power reserve to ensure that it meets or exceeds the claim of the watchmaker.
4. Testing of its functions. All the functions of the watch are tested over one cycle.