It is the scale of Rolex’s building on Rue François-Dussaud that astonishes the visitor. Four glass towers – connected by broad, glazed walkways, and subterranean avenues – soar into the Geneva sky. From the top-floor dining room the views of the city are panoramic. Four storeys below ground the view may not be as picturesque, but it is more horologically rewarding. Here, arranged on a double floor of reinforced, 5ft-thick concrete and protected from inquisitive visitors by cinema screen-sized panes of plate glass, is a sprawling, multimillion-franc, 5,000sq ft space packed with machinery.
There is enough in the way of blinking lights, gleaming metal, flickering monitors, robotic arms, rotating wheels and unfamiliar nameless mechanical apparatus going about its arcane functions to convince you that you might just have strayed onto a set for an instalment in the Star Wars franchise. The sense that the eerie, ordered calm could be shattered at any moment by a lightsaber-wielding Jedi pursued by stormtroopers is never quite dispelled. Out of sight, underground and unforgivingly lit, the look is slightly sinister, that of an austere high-tech cyber-dungeon – fitting, given that this is a sort of torture chamber for timepieces.
Quality control is, of course, a part of any good business and, given the products being made and the characteristics of the nation making them, Swiss watches have a reputation for meeting certain standards – standards historically enshrined in such independently administered quality programmes as the Geneva Seal and COSC (the official body responsible for testing Swiss chronometers). However, in recent years certain leading manufacturers have felt that these long-established certifications do not go far enough. In 2009, Patek Philippe announced it would be abandoning the Seal of Geneva in favour of its own in-house quality seal, reflecting the mix of traditional artisanal savoir faire and advanced manufacturing techniques that characterises its relatively small annual production.
“I had been thinking that we should go a bit further than the Geneva Seal and set our standards rather higher,” Patek’s then-president Philippe Stern explained at the time. For Stern, it was important to make clear that this was not a question of improving the standard of his watches, but rather of raising awareness of standards that comfortably exceeded a highly respected industry benchmark. Interestingly, a couple of years later the Seal of Geneva increased its requirements considerably.
Similarly, the underground testing facility at Rolex is designed to ensure that its standards remain higher than those of COSC and in 2015 it announced its new quality rating, the Green Seal, with stricter criteria than its previous Red Seal. It is a shame that Rolex rarely allows visitors to inspect its testing facilities, as they make impressive viewing. In front of each pane of glass is a lectern-like screen on which rows of watch faces appear. They flick by so rapidly that at first the eye thinks the same watch is constantly readjusting itself – it is, in fact, hundreds of watches appearing at an almost synaptic rate. At intervals during the 33-hour test each watch is photographed by a 2D and a 3D camera to check its timekeeping.
Grouped according to power reserve and level of waterproofing, in boxes the size of a case of wine, batches of watches are spun in a machine until fully wound. Next they move to a small Ferris wheel on which they rotate while each box also turns on its own axis. After the watches have been tested for airtightness, a giant robotic arm, seemingly on loan from the studios in which the Transformer films are made, moves boxes through seven static positions (COSC only does five). Together with the Ferris wheel this simulates real-life wear. The different positions and the length of time the watches spend in each have been arrived at following extensive statistical studies carried out by Rolex.
Then, like a doctor with a stethoscope, a microphone system listens to the oscillating rotor before the watches are tested for water-resistance in six hyperbaric chambers able to reproduce the conditions of immersion at depths of up to 8,200ft. A seventh chamber exists to test the Rolex Deepsea model (£8,900) to 16,000ft.
Next is the thermal shock test. The watch is heated and a cold metal rod is applied to the sapphire crystal. It is then examined for any signs of condensation forming on the inside. Finally, if it passes all that and remains accurate to within –2 to +2 seconds per day (as opposed to –4 to +6 in the COSC test), it is observed until it stops and the time noted to check the watch’s power reserve.
It is a remarkable thing to witness and has about as much to do with the traditional vision of a white-coated, white-haired Swiss watchmaker bent over a bench with a loupe as a Formula One car (Rolex is, of course, the official watch of F1) has in common with the Gold State Coach built for George III. Since the start of Green Seal testing each Rolex has had to pass this assault course or be sent back upstairs to the factory. What’s more, all this is done after the watch has already passed the official and independent COSC test to achieve chronometer status.
The Rue François-Dussaud building is just one of four huge sites around Switzerland where the brand manufactures everything for its watches: not just its own bracelets, cases, movements, dials and so forth, but its own gold, its own springs, even the five different sorts of grease and oil that it uses. If there were a way to fabricate the water in which parts are rinsed, I am sure Rolex would do that too. Hundreds of thousands of square feet of factories, 7,000 employees, an army of robots that move around the factory floor, giant silos of components accessed by automated shelf-stacking robots and even an internal rail system are all devoted to the manufacture of the small object we know as the wristwatch.
Rolex will not divulge either the cost of its investment in the new testing facility or the total number of watches tested in a year – but tens of millions is a safe bet for the former and the high hundreds of thousands for the latter. In short, it is a mammoth undertaking, all to test that a watch operates faithfully to within a couple of seconds per day. But Rolex feels it is worth it.
The inescapable inference to draw from this huge investment of time and money – though Rolex is, of course, too discreet to say so; in fact, too discreet to say anything much – is that the official COSC testing is all very well in its way, but falls rather short of truly reflecting and testing the capabilities of today’s most sophisticated watches.
It is a feeling shared by Omega head Raynald Aeschlimann. If Rolex can be said to have a rival in the field of making robust, high-precision, high-performance timepieces, it is Omega, which has introduced what it calls a Master Chronometer certification, guaranteeing accuracy to within a five-second band of 0 to +5 seconds in a 24-hour period. In April, when the brand opened a new factory on its campus in Bienne, it also unveiled an in-house facility to test its watches and validate its new standard.
In addition to promising the customer an accurate watch, Omega particularly wanted to certify its timepieces’ anti-magnetic qualities. In recent years, Omega has made much of its work to make its watches resistant to strong magnetic fields (see “Defence mechanisms” on Howtospendit.com). Magnetism generated by all sorts of domestic appliances, mobile phones and personal gadgetry can drastically affect the smooth functioning of a watch. Omega has set about countering this – not in the traditional way of shielding the movement with a soft iron inner case, but by devising amagnetic components.
“We wanted to certify that the chronograph is still functioning under a magnetic field of 15,000 gauss in different positions,” explains Aeschlimann. At first Omega approached COSC and asked if, in effect, it was interested in creating a super-COSC test. “After what’s been happening in the market in recent years, in some ways COSC was looking a bit old,” says Aeschlimann frankly. “I saw there was an opportunity to give certification for more than just a watch’s movement,” he adds, referring to the fact that COSC tests only the movement rather than the final cased watch. Aeschlimann suggests that COSC was interested, but that other brands that submit movements to COSC were, understandably, reluctant to introduce a first- and second-class system. “I’m not saying at all that it has no value – COSC is very well known, and the fact that it’s an independent test adds a lot of weight,” he says.
For Omega, having independent certification was of great importance, and so the brand brought the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS) on board in order that METAS employees could independently test watches before awarding them Master Chronometer certification status. And with the opening in April of a new factory on the Omega campus in Bienne, the space allocated to METAS has increased by 400 per cent.
The Metas certification involves eight tests, three of which concern magnetism, while the rest deal with chronometric precision, power reserve and, of course, water resistance. These are not straightforward hurdles to clear. Take, for instance, test number three: “deviation of daily chronometric precision after exposure to 15,000 gauss”. The unmagnetised watch is subjected to a field of 15,000 gauss and then allowed to run for 24 hours in a magnetised state, during which its precision is calculated. The following day it is demagnetised and the chronometric precision tests are run again – the aim being to show that the difference between the magnetised and demagnetised performance is negligible. At first, 20 per cent of the watches submitted to these eight tests were deemed in need of further adjustment before being resubmitted, but by the beginning of this year that proportion had dropped to 15 per cent. Originally, the Master Chronometer certification process was expected to take 10 days, but such is its complexity that Aeschlimann openly admits that for each piece it takes about 20 days to complete the testing (although now that Omega has moved into its new factory this is predicted to decrease, as testing will be able to take place 24 hours a day).
The extra delay to production notwithstanding, Aeschlimann believes that the value of the new certification is such that, as the tests are independently assessed and in theory open to other watchmakers, within a decade many other brands will be submitting their watches for Master Chronometer testing.
Then again, they may decide to go it alone and create their own bespoke quality certification.