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Family jewel: A visit to the Carl F. Bucherer manufactories

Date: Jan 03, 2010,09:37 AM -  (view entire thread)

Family jewel: A visit to the Carl F. Bucherer manufactories
Report by Marcus Hanke


When I received the invitation to visit Carl F. Bucherer's technical development center in a small Swiss town named Sainte-Croix, I tried to find that village in Google Maps, but did not find it. Google Earth seemed to be unaware of that particular settlement as well, so how should I find it? Using my classic education to my advantage, I then took a - gasp! - printed atlas from the shelf, nearly choked from the ton of dust covering it, and searched the index for Sainte-Croix in Switzerland. There it was, located a few miles west of the southern end of the Lac de Neuchâtel, and I had my destination.

View on the Southern end of the Lac de Neuchâtel, from the road to Sainte-Croix  


As a footnote to this I have to state that, meanwhile, both Google Maps and Earth, do list "my" Sainte-Croix now. Apparently, my unsuccessful search has brought the logical infobots, or whatever these programs are called, to life and Google corrected its error. It is only too tempting to believe I am really that influential!

Sainte-Croix is indeed a small village without any particular highlights, other than its spectacular location within the mountains of the Swiss Jura region. Its proximity to the French border is responsible for the dominance of the French language, and of French employees, who are commuting from their homes to the fine mechanics and electronics industries in the Swiss Jura. While Switzerland is lacking a supply of specialized workers and watchmakers, France across the border is lacking jobs, which explains the daily migration. The presence of good employees might also be a reason why Bucherer did not only keep this facility which is so distant from its main factory near Biel, but even decided to expand it drastically.

The small village of Sainte-Croix

But I should not start my report somewhere in the middle of the story, so let me return to the beginning: For many watch enthusiasts, "Bucherer" is not among the traditional names of the horological history. Some even consider it to be a "newcomer" without historical background, and go so far to dismiss its products as "wannabees". They could not be more remote from the historical facts, and it is necessary to offer some basic data to proof that Bucherer is indeed a member of the exclusive circle of watch manufacturers being in the business for a long era, without interruption, and still owned by the original owner family.

In fact, Bucherer started with the series production of its own watches 90 years ago, in 1919. Already thirty years earlier, in 1888, Carl Friedrich Bucherer initiated this tradition when he founded his watch and jewel shop in Luzern. This shop eventually became the major Swiss distributor for watches that it is today, with subsidiaries in many countries. Still, the main shop is located in Luzern. Carl Friedrich Bucherer's sons were trained watchmakers and casebuilders, thus it is not astonishing that Bucherer offered watches produced in the own workshops already before 1919. These were, however, unique pieces made on custom order, while the series production of ladies timepieces started only after the end of World War I.

Soon after, the Bucherer family started to develop and produce their own chronographs and precision chronometers in Luzern. The tight interaction with the distribution channel of the own watch shop network helped to make the name known for high-class watches in the world. Vintage watch experts know that Bucherer also assisted some of the famous watch manufacturers by ordering large numbers of watches, which were sold through the Bucherer chain. Even brands like Patek Philippe and Rolex considered it not a shame, but merely natural, to have their products sold with the print "Bucherer" on the dials; either together with he manufacturer label, or even replacing it. These watches are today well sought-after rarities.

On the production front, Bucherer massively increased its importance as manufacturer of mechanical chronometers, when it acquired the manufacturer "Crédos", and relocated its manufacturing closer to the Swiss Jura, to Lengnau near Biel. Before the quartz crisis swept away a substantial part of the European watch industry, Bucherer/Crédos were third among the manufacturers entering chronometers for observatory tests. 15,000 chronometers were leaving the production facility every year!

Small roads lead to Sainte-Croix. Many fortifications along the nearby border proof that in the history, relations between Switzerland and France were not always as relaxed as they are today.

The firm position of the watch and jewelry distribution helped overcome the consequences of the quartz crisis, and the manufacturing competence of Bucherer remained intact. Meanwhile, the company had been transferred into the hands of Carl F. Bucherer's grandson Jörg, who is still on the helm today. The decision to keep a low profile in the global competition of the watch industry, by limiting the distribution of Bucherer watches solely to the Bucherer shops, might be an important reason for the brand's survival during the crisis. However, it kept production numbers low, and - more important - massively reduced the brand awareness among the general public. Consequently, when Jörg Bucherer launched the brand "Carl F. Bucherer" in 2001, and initiated a world-wide distribution outside the Bucherer shop network, most people, who were not aware of the house's long and continuous history, believed in a completely new brand, rather than a reorientation of an old brand.

Another breach with the tradition was the new design of the Carl F. Bucherer watches. Compared with the previous watches simply branded "Bucherer" and featuring a very conventional and timeless-classic design, the newly launched "Patravi" series was drawn massive, boldly, clearly much more masculine. This design has become the red thread common to the CFB watches, even if the more recent "Manero" and the various Ladies series show a somewhat reduced presence.

Thus Bucherer is going its own way, and not following the herd, blindfolded. This is indicated by the fact that I have been invited to this small village of Sainte-Croix. While most in the industry lamented about the economic crisis of 2009, with investments being postponed or canceled altogether, Bucherer continued to invest a lot of money into the facility here, expanding its operative potential. What does Bucherer have to do with Sainte-Croix? Like many other watch manufacturers, especially smaller ones, Bucherer had teamed with an independent research and development company, to assist with the creation of innovative mechanisms and technologies. Before this specialist's abilities could be lost to the appetite of one of the large watch and luxury groups, hungry for new ideas and technologies, Bucherer acquired its former partner, the "Techniques Horlogères Appliquées SA" (THA)  in 2007, and added it to its own collection of companies. Instead of relocating the whole department to the main facility in Lengnau, considerable effort was invested, new machinery purchased, staff hired, to make the Sainte-Croix subsidiary, now called "Carl F. Bucherer Technologies SA", a valuable asset for the company strategy.

Here I am now, warmly welcome by the staff and CFB's energetic CEO, Thomas Morf. My first question, "Does this investment pay off?", was most impressively answered by the presentation of the brand new A1000 automatic movement, most recent and important product of the brainwork at Sainte-Croix. This movement features a highly innovative technology to relocate the oscillating mass that transforms the kinetic energy into the tension of the mainspring, from the movement's back to its peripheral question.

See pictorial and discussion here:

This approach has been subject of heated debates already, mostly concentrating on the question of efficiency and technical reason. I frankly admit to have been a member of the skeptics myself, but a long discussion with Philippe Roerich, Managing Director of the Sainte-Croix facility, and Dr. Albrecht Haake, Executive Vice president of the Technologies branch, convinced me that there was much more behind the concept than just to find another way to attach the rotor. Indeed, what I was presented there was so impressive that it deserves an own in-depth article, which will be published later this year.

Cal. CFB A1000, backside

Cal. CFB A1000, front with big date and weekday indication

Then I was led through the production halls, which left an impression of bristling activity, but also spaciousness. The latter is not astonishing, since the factory building offers ample space for future expansions. Several machines are to be delivered within the next months, and will start to produce components and tools. However, no complete watches are assembled here: Sainte-Croix is the place where all necessary parts and components for the self-developed mechanisms are made, prototypes and pre-series movements; and of course the A1000. The major share of Carl F. Bucherer's output is produced and assembled in Lengnau.

Part of the A1000 movement

The dominant machinery of the production part must not distract from the fact that here in Sainte-Croix the emphasis lies on construction and testing. Consequently, many offices are stuffed with large drafting screens, CAD-workstations, and of course all tools necessary for the control of the output, and for testing the performance of the new . What impressed me specifically, was how the staff undertook creative measures to test whether the new movements would be able to meet all hazards they could possibly be confronted with. This was illustrated by an interesting setup I saw in one of the offices: a G-shock simulator. For mechanical movements, especially self-winding ones, massive shocks are a very large risk. The mass inertia of its moving parts, most notably the oscillating mass of the winding mechanism, can cause damages to bearings and the gear train. Additionally, the movement's heart, the escapement, can be affected, with the regulating mechanism becoming maladjusted. Therefore, it is the standard in all movement manufacturing companies, to subject their movements to shocks with high G-forces. Common G-shock rigs consist of a hammer, hitting the movement from the side at force of several thousand Gs. This single impact, however, does not simulate repeated shocks. This is why the CFB technicians developed their own testing machine: On a rig, a movement strapped to a massive steel block, is lifted by a motordrive, and dropped. Not once, not twice, not ten times, but many hundred times, over and over again. After a day or two, the movement is thoroughly checked. Those that do not pass all subsequent tests, are returned to the assembly, stripped and checked in detail.

Self-developed G-shock test rig. The empty watch case was placed there only for demonstrational purpose

It is also important to state that all movements produced are subjected to the full repertoire of tests and quality controls, including the detailed control of all parts dimensions, correct angles, levels, drillholes, etc. of all plates, bridges and wheels. Larger companies with high production numbers cannot do this, but draft only small samples, leaving the majority of movements tested only before shipment.

Assembly of the A1000 movement

A modern watchmaker desk with an integrated revolving "magazine" permits the quick assembly of several movements, without having to clean up the desk after each movement

After I had seen the technical development facility in Sainte-Croix, it was time to visit the main factory in Lengnau, near Biel. For any other producing company, the logistics involved to entertain these two branches would be a nightmare: There is no direct and more or less straight road connecting these two villages. Instead, Sainte-Croix can be only reached - and left - on narrow roads with tight curves - LOTS of tight curves, leading up and down over the various mountains. Then you have to pass two lakes, where the high mountains and the adjacent lake shores did not leave space for wide and easy-to-drive roads, but led to the construction of what strangers not used to it already called the "highway from hell", the highway through - and under - Neuchâtel. So if the production had been parts that needed to be transported by large trucks, it is highly improbable that the Sainte-Croix facility could be maintained. But since a full week's production of A1000 movements and various other components fits into the trunk of an average sedan, the problems are outweighed by the advantages of benefiting from the climate of creativity and the staff available in the French-speaking part of the Jura mountains.

Daniel Übelhart (left), and CEO Thomas Morf (right)

In Lengnau, I met Daniel Übelhart, who is in charge of the production at the main facility. This building is more spacious, brighter and more representative than the rather somewhat worn-looking house in Sainte-Croix. The offices and workshops are modern and fully equipped with everything a contemporary high-class manufacturer needs. All parts that are delivered by external suppliers are subjected to a scrutiny. The assembly of the unique modules and movements is done in clean-room conditions.

Here, too, all components are thoroughly checked, not just samples. The care for all details is evident in all departments I am led through. Really impressed, though, I was by the sight of the complex mechanism of Bucherer's unique "Patravi TravelTec" multi-time zone watch. This innovation bridges two watch components that are normally fully separate from each other: the movement and the case. The large chronograph is currently the most flexible GMT watch, permitting both, a quick adjustment of the main hour hand to a different local time zone, and a quick-setting of the independent 24 hours-hand to another distant time zone. Part of the complex mechanism necessary to assure flawless operation had to be transferred into the case itself, which also explains the large dimensions of this watch: It simply could not have been made smaller than the 46.6mm diameter it possesses.

The Patravi TravelTec's casework includes part of the complex GMT mechanism

Testing of the TravelTec's case-mounted GMT-setting mechanism

Well, how can I summarize my impressions from this day I spent at the two CFB facilities? Originally, I had some mixed feelings about the launch of the Carl F. Bucherer brand. While being aware of the role and importance of the Bucherer watch and jewel shops, I had nevertheless not enough knowledge to honor the long tradition of Bucherer as a watch manufacturing company. Consequently, I made the same mistake as many of my fellow watch enthusiasts, considering the "new" brand a typical "me too"-product, trying to profit from the luxury timepiece bubble that built up in the years after 2000.

Patravi ChronoGrade, Patravi TravelTec and ChronoGrade in 18k pink gold (from left)

However, what I encountered was far from one of the many brands that were initiated with the major purpose of producing a maximum of turnaround in a minimum of time, even if this means that the brand will be short-lived. I found a brand with more parallels to my personal favorite watch manufacturers than I could believe at first: Like most of my favorite brands, Carl F. Bucherer is independent, not a subsidiary of a large luxury conglomerate with its somewhat anonymous structure. Like some of my favorite brands, Carl F. Bucherer is led by a patriarch, in its positive sense. These company patriarchs stand behind their companies. They consider them major achievements of their lives, and want to preserve them for posterity. Sustainability is their major dogma, and they do everything to keep the company structure intact and independent. Workforce fluctuation normally is low in these companies, and also the profits are mostly reinvested. Since the majority of shares is in the hands of the patriarach and/or his family, shareholder happiness does not dictate the strategic decisions.

I know that small companies like these are the nightmare of financial analysts and investment gurus, but I like them.

Additionally, the development of the watch industry during the past years has shown an interesting issue: New inventions, innovative technologies and materials, have been introduced mainly by these small and mid-sized companies, while the giants are remarkably slow in adapting themselves to what seems to be the future development of the market: to be more service-friendly, to offer new and reliable movements that will flawlessly work through extended times, new and innovative complications that are both reliable and easy to use. I realized that Carl F. Bucherer is part of that invaluable dynamics of innovative small and medium-sized, independent manufacturers that will guarantee the future of modern mechanical timepieces.

Nice monopusher chronograph with a manual-winding movement made by LJP. Originally, it was developed by F.P. Journe for Ulysse Nardin and Franck Muller

Manero MonoGraph Ladies chronograph

In this respect, my visit at Sainte-Croix and Lengnau opened my eyes, and I hope that my report will help doing the same to those readers who thought: "Carl F. Bucherer? Just one of those wannabees."



Copyright December 2009 - Marcus Hanke & - all rights reserved

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Comments, suggestions, and corrections to this article are welcome.   


Picture Summary (click to view) family-jewel-a-visit-to-the-carl-f-bucherer-manufactories


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