First of all, I would just like to say that if you get offered the opportunity to visit and tour Breitling’s impressive manufactory facility, “Chronometrie”, then take it. It will be of interest to anyone into watchmaking and the manufacturing of quality high-end products. It re-affirms your faith in the Breitling brand and makes you realise just why high-end in-house manufactures watches are expensive.
After our two hour flight from Birmingham, UK, we landed at La Chaux de Fonds, right next to a Breitling plane already on the runway. Maybe, Theodore Schneider was in town that day.
This was a nice touch. The clock on the airport tower was by Breitling.
We were first taken by our very knowledgeable, approachable and passionate guide, Fabrice, to one of only two original Watchmaker’s houses from 400 years ago still standing in this region.
There we were entertained by a local horn blower and were all encouraged to have a go. It wasn’t any where near as easy as he made it sound.
We were also introduced to a local “delicacy”, Absynthe. This is a 52% alcoholic beverage that tasted very sweet and very much like aniseed.
A wonderful home made three course traditional meal followed.
Fabrice then took us to the Chronometrie facility.
We were immediately taken to a conference room where local chocolate and soft drinks were provided.
Fabrice explained why Breitling had decided to create their own Chronograph Calibre, why it had taken so long and how they had created one of the most unique, high tech and efficient watch making factories in the world. One of the fundamental issues faced by the Swiss watch industry is that ETA, under the ownership of the Swatch group, have started to dramatically reduce the ebauches they supply outside of the Swatch group. Individual ETA components will still be available. In 2009 Breitling were allowed to purchase 75% built ebauches and 25% in component form. In 2010 this reduced to a ratio 50 – 50. Finally in 2011 this reduced again to 25% ebauches – 75% component form.
As we walked round the factory we saw some wonderful and original artwork and sculpture.
We then spent approximately one and a half hours on a tour through every process of producing the ETA calibres, housed in the original Chronometrie, and the new in-house calibres, which are created in the new four story Chronometrie 2. The hospitality offered by Breitling was flawless throughout. However, this could have been removed from proceedings and the day would have still been one of the highlights of my life by simply being expertly shown around the manufacturing facilities.
Understandably we were not allowed to take any photos in the assembly or testing areas.
We were shown the training area. This accommodates watchmakers from around the world when they are either starting with a Breitling Dealer or a new movement, etc, comes out. The training will last between 1-2 weeks for new watchmakers. They also perform in house training in this facility when required.
We were shown a very delicate operation whereby the technician was hand drilling small holes into the balance wheel of a movement to regulate it to within COSC limits. This is the exact opposite to adding weights to a car wheel to balance it.
The movements were then setup in house to test for a 24 hour period to give confidence before sending off to COSC for certification. Breitling send 150,000 movements per year to COSC and have a less than 0.1% failure rate. It is a three week turnaround to getting the movements returned. The watches are all sent to COSC with identical white dials to allow photographic equipment to take measurements. This is yet another indication of the investment Breitling has had to make to achieve a 100% chronometer rating for all of their movements.
The factory environment is meticulously controlled for temperature (about 23 °C) and humidity. The air is constantly recycled to maintain a cleanliness 10 times greater than a hospital surgery. In fact the entire volume of air in the factory is recycled every 10 minutes. Entry to each area is also very controlled. A programmed magnetic badge is required to open the automatic doors. An operator may only have permission for their own area.
Incidentally, the operators all perform the same tasks day-in-day out. Some of these are very demanding. Have you seen the size of a screw inside a watch movement? It takes a particular type of person to do this. The staff were young and mainly female.
We were then shown the parts department for the ETA mechanical movements. Complete ETA ebauches were highlighted as well as the kits that made up 100 movements. These kits were a lot smaller than you may imagine.
We then quickly wandered through the assembly areas for the ETA movements.
It was then time to see the highlight of the tour: The new Chronometrie 2 Manufacture which is housed in the four story building built in 2007 and complementing the original 1999 Chronomtrie building perfectly.
We walked through the Technical Department where all of the technical drawings, procedures, equipment specifications, etc, were created and maintained. There are over 2000 drawings and procedures for the in-house movements alone.
Next door was the Laboratoire. This is where all of the in-house testing takes place. Some of the incredible equipment include a SEM capable of 40,000 magnification and a 140,000 frames per second high speed camera. Tests performed in this area include Pusher Force Resistance, Oil Viscosity/Density tests, etc. With the latter in mind Breitling developed their own Escapement Oil for the new calibres. An interesting fact that was quoted: 1 litre of escapement oil is sufficient for the entire Swiss watch industry for one year.
We saw mainplates being produced from brass plates and then being sandblasted. The equipment was very high end. 70 plates could be worked on at one time. 25 machines were only operated by 4 people at a time. In the same area we saw a cleaning machine that was developed by Breitling. It was the entire length of the room and took 2 years to develop. It only uses water and soap, instead of the usual solvents which can be harmful to watch components.
The pre-assembly area was very interesting. This is where the 346 components required for the Calibre 01 are assembled into 71 different sub-assemblies for the final assembly. We were shown a large scale working model of the new bi-directional rotor which reduces winding time from about 20 hours to about 9 hours. We were shown the process where the jewels (rubies) are placed into the mainplate and the coupling of the spring to the balance wheel, etc. Incidentally, the Calibre 01 uses a mainspring that is 550mm long to achieve the 70+ hour power reserve. 500Kg of Nivarox spring is enough to supply the whole watch industry for 12 years.
The next area is probably the most talked about and famous for the new Manufacture: The main assembly. This was developed utilising techniques only previously used in the medicine industry. A fully computerised system tracks and monitors the movements as they are transported through the 36 stage process in little white plastic modules that traverse a shuttle. 28 of the stages are manual. Each operator has their own procedure that they are responsible for. The automated shuttle system is so clever it knows when operators go for their breaks and redirects the movements to the next available stage before returning the movements after the operator has returned. It will also return movements which fail the test associated with an individual stage without affecting the rest of the movements. Not only is it very clever and cutting edge but also wonderful to witness in motion.
We were also shown around the large Micromechanics area. This is where components for prototypes are produced, etc. The equipment is also cutting edge. We were shown a cutting machine that is able to cut multiple wheels at once to a tolerance of 5 microns (or 200th mm). We met a very passionate machinist who insisted on a lengthy explanation of his new machine, in french. Our good natured guide, Fabrice, translated on the fly.
The final part of the production tour ended at the Quality Control department. The pushers, bezel, date change and crown are all given a good workout here. This is also the area where the water resistance check is performed. No water is involved. Instead a pre-programmed air pressure, relating to the water resistance is set. The chamber is then monitored to see if the air pressure drops. If it does the Water Resistance is not met. We saw the brand new Blue Sky Navitimer 01 Limited Edition here. It was gorgeous.
During a Calibre 01 production the movement will receive over 1000 individual checks and will be placed 30 times on the time checking equipment.
It takes a minimum of 7 months to produce a movement. The calibre 01 takes about 1 year.
Amazingly it takes about three months to produce a bracelet.
The tour was finished off in two special rooms. One is a Museum highlighting patents, developments and rare timepieces from Breitling’s remarkable history.
The second room is the factory’s own boutique with its own bar.
This is where clients can book time to come and look at the full range of Breitling watches. One special piece of information we learnt was that the tour will be available to members of the general public sometime during 2013. This will conclude in the Boutique where everyone will be given the option to buy either a Navitimer 01 or Chronomat 44 exclusive to the factory boutique only. These two special pieces will have a sapphire glass back (something which should be included, or at least optional, on all in house calibre timepieces in my opinion) and also the option to have anything LASER engraved on the stainless steel perimeter (within a certain number of characters).
Breitling’s incredible hospitality was not yet over as each member of the tour was presented with some wonderful collectible Breitling goodies. This included a bust of Leon Breitling, a rucksack, Breitling the Book, a Breitling pen and the new style orange Breitling cap.
I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have been invited to attend this tour. It was an excellent experience that anyone with an interest in watchmaking and technology would truly appreciate.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in making this happen.
All words by Richard Atkins. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.