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Jean-Christophe Babin on Precision Watch-making

TAG Heuer’s innovative and avant-garde esprit is not only found in the originality of its creations, but also in the way in which it manufactures and assembles them. To do so, the company brings together designers, production and quality engineers, with other specialists from the watch, car and medical industries. A short questionnaire with Jean-Christophe Babin, the President and CEO of the company.

Wednesday, 09.06.2010
19:15 (Cet)

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TAG Heuer is a pioneering Swiss Chronographs for 150 years. TAG Heuer unveils its new 21st century integrated column-wheel automatic chronograph movement in a new generation of the Carrera, the legendary sports chronograph series designed by Jack Heuer in 1964 and an icon of refined taste ever since.

What led you to produce in-house your own high-volume automatic chronograph movement?

Jean-Christophe Babin: The idea began in 2006, at the height of the watch industry’s boom. We couldn’t get access to the quantity of mechanical movements the brand needed to keep pace with its growth, and this was really holding us back. Also, we’ve been the pioneering chronograph brand since our oscillating pinion patent in 1887. Because of this heritage, we felt it was imperative that TAG Heuer not only rely on traditional models from manufacturers like Valjoux or Zenith, but launch its own generation calibres manufactured in-house. So we started discussions with the board and put together a plan, which ultimately led to the Calibre 1887. And here we are, three years down the road, ready to launch ourselves into this amazing adventure.

To celebrate the brand’s 150th anniversary, we wanted to launch something truly exceptional. What better way to show off our talents and “savoir faire” than by adding a new TAG Heuer Chronograph movement to our in-house manufactured roster, which already includes the Caliber 360, V4, Caliber S and the Microtimer.

We are now capable of outfitting chronographs with a full range of movements, each with a different performance profile. This is key: to remain number one in the luxury chronograph market we need to be able to produce unique, technically complicated movements and have unlimited access to mechanical movements. This is why we went in-house with the Calibre 1887.

And how did the name Calibre 1887 evolve?

For our 150th anniversary, we wanted to pay homage to a great piece of TAG Heuer heritage, the oscillating pinion, which is one of our most famous inventions. It was patented in 1887 and remains to this day among our most significant contributions to watchmaking.

By replacing the two large wheels of the anterior movements, the oscillating pinion made chronographs super efficient. It’s a truly revolutionary component, still used today in almost every mechanical chronographs made by the top Swiss watch brands.

It helped make us what we are today – the reference standard in chronographs and timing instruments for high-level sports. “The chronograph par excellence” was the motto Jack Heuer coined for it in the ads he ran in the 1960s.

And do you want to do produce more movements?

No, we don’t want to manufacture all our movements, so we’ll keep buying movements from top Swiss suppliers like Zenith, ETA, Dubois-Depraz, Ronda and Sellita. The Calibre 1887 joins our other great in-house movements, such as the Calibre 360, and those developed with partners like Dubois Depraz, such as the new Calibres 11 and 12, and with Zenith — the Calibre 36. And at the same time, we’ll keep doing what we do best: developing rare and totally revolutionary in-house movements like the belt-driven mechanical V4.

Is the movement 100% manufactured and assembled in your own facilities?

Not entirely. Like most manufacturers, we go to top-end suppliers for some parts when that makes the most sense in terms of cost and quality. It is the case, for example, of the assortment (balance wheel, anchor) we purchase from Nivarox.

For other components, we believe we can produce better ourselves. This is especially true for the key parts of the Calibre 1887 — for example, the main plate and bridges, which are manufactured in Cornol, in specifically designated areas of our main case-making factory. All the machines there are custom-made for us by Fleury. They’re fully automated, CNC controlled and totally cutting edge.

The movement is assembled in a new workshop created last year when we added a fourth building to our main site in La Chaux-de-Fonds. We use an advanced semi-automated line in a totally dust-free environment. Every movement is individually traced. Once again, the state-of-the art equipment comes from the very best Swiss machine specialist in T1. Over 20 million Swiss francs have been invested in the equipment, and the project has already generated 45 new production and assembly jobs.

What is the origin of the movement? When did the project start? 

Back in January 2006, we started looking at every mechanical chronograph on the market, and none made the grade 100% in terms of our criteria – high-volume production, unbeatable reliability, easy maintenance and reasonable manufacturing cost. Rather than starting from scratch, as was done with the V4, we purchased the intellectual property usage rights to the TC 78 of SII (Seiko Instruments Inc.), a contemporary high-end chronograph patented as of end 1997, that was only  produced in limited quantities and used by very few brands. We then  re-engineered it to fit into a Swiss assortment (balance, spiral, escape  wheel, anchor). To achieve this, we had to change the plate and the 

bridges, especially the chronograph bridge, and the oscillating  weight’s ball bearing. These changes were made to enhance the  chronograph’s precision and reliability — to ensure that it conforms  to the demands imposed by our 60 quality tests, and to make it  possible for us to industrialize it on a larger scale. In the end, the  Calibre 1887 is a Swiss Made movement produced in-house, which makes  TAG Heuer a true Manufacturer.

When will the first chronograph with a Calibre 1887 be launched, and in which series?

The Calibre 1887 will be launched next year. It will equip only a small proportion of TAG Heuer’s production.

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