Watches & Jewellery | The Haute Seat

A watch isn’t a watch until it’s been ‘finished’

A top watch blogger unveils the mysterious process of finishing

A watch isn’t a watch until it’s been ‘finished’

August 14 2011
Ben Clymer

When a person pays real money for a watch, one assumes, or hopes, at least, that considerable time has been spent “finishing” said timepiece in a dark corner of the Vallée de Joux using centuries-old techniques. Finishing is, to those who wouldn’t deem themselves a watch nerd, decorating pieces of a watch’s movement to, well, basically make it look pretty.

Some examples of finishing include striping, polishing, and bevelling. Few watches are finished to a very high standard (remember, this is mostly aesthetic anyway); in fact most mass-produced pieces go through almost no finishing at all. A grade above that are the watches that are finished by machine – not necessarily a bad thing, as machines offer watchmakers a chance for perfection, a true rarity in mechanical wristwatches. But, if someone wants a real watch complete with real finishing, it has to be done by hand. And, as with all things wonderful in this world, there are few places on earth where you can see it done, and done well.

Recently, I had the chance to personally view two manufacturers that take finishing very seriously: Vacheron Constantin and A Lange & Söhne. Each impressed me with unique and different practices.

Vacheron, typically fairly conservative, is considered part of the holy trinity (along with Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe). Having been around for a shade over a quarter of a millennium (really; the company is 256 years old) has provided Vacheron with a fair amount of practice in the finishing department. But the hand-chamfering (or bevelling) process must be seen to be believed. Essentially, the goal is to eliminate the edges between the surface of the component and the flanks, creating a 45-degree angle instead of a sharp 90-degree angle. This process creates more surface area and allows light to play off the components.

This is executed by Vacheron’s most skilled craftsmen (they have to complete an 18-month training programme) using tiny files, pastes, soft pieces of wood, and even stone to scrape away and polish the metals. Hand-bevelling and the other hand-finishing processes can account for one-third of the cost of any Vacheron timepiece. So next time you wonder why a Vacheron watch costs what it costs, think about these men and women sitting there for hours at a time, loupe over eye, straining with soft pieces of wood. For further details on Vacheron’s bevelling process, including a video of how it's done, click here.

A Lange & Söhne isn’t 250 years old like Vacheron; in fact, it’s not even 25 years old. Regardless, the brand’s Glashutte-bred pieces are considered some of the finest in the world, on a par with the greatest among its Swiss peers. Lange does practise a bevy of finishing tactics, like Vacheron; what sets it apart is the fact that every single one of its roughly 4,000 watches each year features a hand-engraved balance cock.

The art of balance-cock engraving (pictured) dates back to the early 20th century when A Lange & Söhne was in the practice of building grade “1A” pocket watches (if you’re doing maths in your head as to how a company less than 25 years old was making watches 100 years ago: Lange was expropriated to the pro-Stalin East German government in the late 1940s and was dormant until its revival in the early 1990s). No other major watch manufacturer puts as much effort into the balance cock as Lange. A group of six master engravers works on each piece and completes five to 10 custom engravings per month, plus an additional few dozen totally original, but non-custom engravings, usually in a floral pattern. Every Lange owner can visit the manufacturer to meet the man or woman who personally engraved his/her watch’s balance cock, knowing that the timepiece in question, like every other one made by A Lange & Söhne, is unique.

For further details on A Lange & Söhne’s balance-cock engraving, including a video of how it is done, click here.

Now, next time someone questions why a great watch costs as much as it costs, you’ll be able to knowingly reply, “Because countless hours of work hand-finishing its components are put in by the best craftsmen in the world.” Odds are, most people will never even see the end product of such incredible hand-finishing, but just knowing it’s there is the ultimate in chic.