At the close of last year we had the pleasure to visit H. Moser & Cie in Schaffhausen (Neuhausen am Rheinfall to be exact). In an industry dominated by giant-sized luxury groups, H. Moser & Cie is one of the few remaining independent & family owned Swiss manufactures out there.
The original company was founded in 1828 by Heinrich Moser. Both the company and the man himself have left quite a mark on Schaffhausen. The brand carries a rich history which you can explore in-depth in the lovingly curated ‘Moser Museum’ overlooking the city of Schaffhausen. The brand essentially rose from its ashes in 2002 and was consequently acquired by the Meylan family in 2012. Now, with Edouard Meylan at the helm, H. Moser & Cie is determined to #MakeSwissMadeGreatAgain.
Note that when talking H. Moser & Cie, we include its sibling Precision Engineering AG (‘PEAG’). PEAG specializes in the development and manufacture of high-quality escapement components. Both companies sit under the same roof, sit at the same desks, and operate as one ‘Moser’. PEAG also supplies other (highly respected) brands with their components and offer an alternative to the dominant Swatch Group’s Nivarox. This is certainly no small feat and they are one of very few to be able to do so.
The fact that H. Moser & Cie not only manufactures the movements in-house, but also the escapement and hairsprings, makes them ‘very rare’ indeed. Without further ado, lets have a look inside the H. Moser & Cie manufacture and how they make this work.
We begin our tour with a visit to the team tasked with the research and design of the movement & escapement components. The engineers explain to us how they spend their days knee deep in CAD drawings, working out various solutions in order to perfect what is essentially the art of telling time. It is also here that they will work out solutions for other brands so as to provide them with bespoke escapement components. All very technical and impressive to behold. We were also shown a work in progress which appeared positively mind-blowing and I can’t wait to see it in a working watch, but no pictures allowed of that one – you’ll have to wait and see.
It is in this same room that the engineers further perfect the escapement components, including the hairpsprings. It is the birthplace of engineering marvels such as the below pictured cylindrical hairspring. You very quickly understand, that H. Moser & Cie takes ‘making our own movements’ very serious.
H. Moser & Cie has everything movement-related under one roof, this allows the engineers and watchmakers to constantly interact. Once a prototype is designed and made, it is tested (literally) in the room next door by the watchmakers. This then allows the watchmaker to provide feedback to the R&D team, which in turn helps them fine-tune the design.
A unique innovation that they came up with a while back is for example the “interchangeable escapement module”. It was developed for ease of adjusting, cleaning & servicing. At the time of service, this enables the watchmaker to swap the existing escapement module in its entirety with a new pre-adjusted module. All it requires is the removal of two screws and the module can be swapped. This leads to a much improved time needed for servicing a watch. It also means that the escapement modules can be perfectly finetuned at the Manufacture in Switzerland, to then be shipped – in perfect condition – to service centers around the globe. Helping speed up the time needed to service a watch, and also ensuring the quality is up to Manufacture standards. Below you see the assembled module:
Once a module is completely assembled and regulated these will be mounted to test movements, and then undergo minimum 10 days of testing before receiving the green light. This to make sure that everything’s running at the correct rate and is fit to leave the test lab. These then move to the watchmakers, who will assemble them to the final watch movement. The assembled movement will itself again undergo 10 days of testing. While we haven’t seen this particular process in its entirety (we didn’t stay over for 10 days), essentially the movements are placed in specialized testing machines and at the end of each day there’s a check for accuracy.
Moving away from design, we head to another floor. Away from the peaceful oasis where the watchmakers worked their magic in silence, we find ourselves in the company of those familiar big red machines. It is here that numerically controlled milling machines produce the key movement components, plates and bridges. Contrary to what one would expect, there isn’t an entire legion of said machines lined up here. Instead, we find not more than a handful, slowly working their way through the batch of the day. Each machine is left under the watchful eye of an operator.
It is here that we see the various stages it takes to go from brass plate to main plate. Quite striking to see. And while it may appear ‘ready’, this is still a deceptively long way from the finished product. We are talking ‘Haute Horlogerie’ here, so this should be no surprise:
Hereunder we see a nice example of a raw bridge and how in the very end, after all the manual work that comes after, it’ll look in the finished product:
But there’s more. Moving down in size but up in complexity, let’s talk date windows for a second here. I believe we can all agree that date windows can make or break a watch design, and most often it is the latter. H. Moser & Cie is very proud of their (big) date, and most (myself included) will agree that they did indeed nail it with their design. Now, look on the picture below of their highly praised Perpetual Calendar, just look how big that date is. Now imagine 31 days in a month, the date ring is clearly not big enough to foresee 31 such huge numbers, agreed?
So class, how do they do it? They do it by manufacturing two disks that act as one. Pictured below are those very disks. These are very – very – thin. While we didn’t take a masterclass in date dial making, we did understand that it was apparently quite the challenge to get these manufactured given the very small tolerance and also painted in a way that the disks can still move freely along eachother (and not block eachothers movement).
Now, moving on to the smallest of parts. These are too small to be made by the machines used pictured above. Instead they are made by use of electrical discharge machining, a method mainly used in the aerospace industry requiring expert machinists. The process is also known as ‘wire erosion’, a manufacturing process where a shape is machined by use of, crudely stated, wires & electrical sparks. Different wires are used for different results and enable very high accuracy making it ideal for making the smallest parts.
As mentioned, Moser also manufactures the escapement in-house, including the balance wheels and hairsprings you’ll find dancing away in a.o. Moser watches. Here under you see how a balance wheel comes to life.
Balance wheels come in all shapes and sizes too at the Moser HQ:
You’d think that at least the screws were outsourced, but you’d be wrong. Even the smallest of screws, I’m talking less than a millimeter here, are manufactured right there on-site.
Important to mention, in case one would get confused, is that no purely machined part will end up in your Moser watch. The shot below shows how an artisan is manually checking everything that leaves the machines for imperfections, burrs and smoothing that out as a first step. Once the parts pass this initial quality check, they are moved to the Atelier de Finissage, where the perlage, moser stripes etc. are completed.
Now, having looked at the main components and how they are made, let’s dive into the unknown. The world of hairspring manufacturing.
It really is an entirely different world when comparing to what we have seen above. As we entered this room, I felt the room had a Breaking Bad kind of vibe (in a very cool way). Where anything we have seen so far had a distinct ‘Manufacture’ feeling, this felt a lot more like a laboratory. A lot of specialized machinery was located here, all focused on creating a seemingly simple spool of hairspring wire .
Through a lengthy, complicated and complex process, the wire is slowly worked into a coil of viable hairspring material:
The end product from the above process is essentially a big spool of seemingly innocent looking metal wire. And that’s just the start. Below, we witness another step in the making of the hairspring, which I thought for sure was done by a machine. The coiling of the hairpsrings is done – by hand.
With nothing more than a pair of tweezers and the pictured contraption, the artisan is loading and coiling two wires at the same time. I’m not quite sure how long it took to coil these, but it was certainly not the quickest of processes. I was baffled this was done by hand. In the more normal world there are of course machines who can do this job, but that wouldn’t be very ‘haute horlogerie’ and as we can see not the Moser way either:
Once coiled in a little metal lookin ring (picture below), the hairpsrings will still be heat treated and undergo several steps before being deemed a viable specimen allowed to move onto the balance wheel.
Now, at the risk of repeating myself, in modern watchmaking one expects computers and machines to do a certain job, for example the ones requiring super-human accuracy. It was therefore again quite mesmerizing to find out that you still find highly-skilled artisans tasked with the job of getting each and every hairspring the perfect Breguet overcoil, entirely by hand.
You read that right: Each and every single spring passes the hands of an artisan, who will give it that perfect Breguet twist at the end. Once bent into a close to perfect shape, each spring is quality tested by these artisans. One of such checks involved projecting the finished spring over the ‘perfect’ pattern by use of the below pictured retro-cool microscope:
The detailed manual work that we saw baffles the mind a bit. I recall taking the below picture, and I was pretty much convinced this young watchmaker was basically ‘posing’ for my picture, holding his tweezers down and striking a cool pose for the shot. It is only when I checked the picture zoomed in on the desktop when back home that I noticed he’s actually cleaning up a part of the escapement.
Talking about striking a pose, I have to share a little anecdote. As we moved through the rooms in which the watchmakers toil away, we met a particular artisan as he was stationed behind a big hulking microscope. We found him silently staring into said microscope as we entered his workspace. He was also holding a little stick in his right hand which he placed on a semi-finished movement. It looked like the man was taking a short break, say a micro-scope assisted power-nap. Either that or he was doing me a huge favor for a nice picture and sitting as still as he possibly could. I politely tell him “Please, don’t mind me, just go ahead, no need to pose”
He holds this position for quite some time and all of a sudden, the man springs to life, sets a check-mark on a paper and nods approvingly. The man was visibly satisfied with whatever on earth just happened. It turns out that he was checking the alignment of the pallet fork, and making sure the jewels from the fork were interacting nicely with the escape wheel. He turns on a large screen above the microscope and shows us how he does it. And true enough, while he sits seemingly as still as a statue, he’s ever so gently checking the alignment by moving the fork ever so slightly. A man with laser focus.
Imagining how that must require a high level of constant focus & concentration, I asked “what to do if they don’t align? Send it back?”. It turns out, this is where they have to essentially re-align the jewels manually on the fork to give them just the right reach. This is done by use of specialized equipment located near his desk and it isn’t a process done in a few seconds either. As we’re talking absolutely tiny parts here, I imagine how frustrating it could be if I were tasked with a similar job (laser focus has never been my strong suit). And so I spontaneously say “Man, that has to be a pain!”. I mean, in my defense, if you’d ask me to do that, I’d just bin the thing and move on to the next one. That is also, why I’m not a watchmaker of course. The reaction of this man, who clearly loves his job more than most, is that this is in fact a great challenge, and part of the job that is quite exciting indeed. He explains us with much enthusiasm how this would then be dealt with, and it just put a huge smile on my face.
Above you can see a batch of movements that are going through this quality check at the hand of this patient and focused artisan. The little notebook shows his comments for each as they went through his tests. Below a close-up of the man himself at work:
Moving on, we briefly take seat behind the watch maker’s assembly table. What you see here is an ingenious workflow setup. A single watchmaker has several calibres of the same family lined up on a miniature conveyor belt. Essentially, it works a bit like this: Let’s say a bridge will need to be secured with a certain type of screw, requiring a certain size of screwdriver. In this case, the watchmaker will take that particular screwdriver and those particular screws, and move through the batch of movements securing that particular part. Never having to search between screwdrivers or screws and efficiently moving through the workflow.
This is a clear time-saver and leads to a much improved work process. Note that it is one and the same watchmaker who will assemble the movement from start to finish, in true haute horlogerie fashion.
When all is said and done, the movements will be cased and the watches will be strapped, wrapped and made ready to ship to their new owners.
As we were passing through, we had the pleasure to see the striking Endeavour Perpetual Moon Vantablack concept being finished. A stunning watch to behold and a perfect sight to finish our tour that afternoon.
And so, we have learned that not only is H. Moser & Cie responsible for some of the best satire ever exported from Switzerland, they make a mean watch too.
Visiting H. Moser & Cie was a fascinating and enriching experience. I found it refreshing that they were absolutely transparent as to what was made under their roof, and what was not. It should also be said that, to visit their Manufacture implies seeing the future of Swiss watchmaking. I mean this quite literally as the team at H. Moser & Cie is quite the opposite of what one could possible expect to see in this otherwise aging industry. What we found was an overall young team of motivated individuals working side by side. It has that a start-up vibe to it, and I mean that in a very positive way. H. Moser & Cie, ‘Very Rare’ indeed.