Not long ago, HODINKEE’s Stephen Pulvirent published a story on common mistakes enthusiasts new to watchmaking can make, and which can and should be avoided (this, in turn, was a follow-on, from a different perspective, to Ben Clymer’s story on the same subject from 2016). Such lists are quite interesting for a number of reasons, partly owing to the fact that making mistakes is probably to some degree unavoidable as one’s tastes develop, in which case they are not so much mistakes as necessary learning experiences. Still, though, I think in both cases my colleagues made some excellent points, and there are certainly basic perspectives which, if adopted, will go a long way towards increasing one’s enjoyment of wristwatches (or anything, really).
One of the most fundamental, for instance, is to trust your own tastes and not try to make yourself like something merely because it is popular. Today, this is perhaps even more difficult than ever before, owing to social media, which creates enormous pressure to appeal to the lowest, and therefore broadest, common denominator. (There is a reason so many of the most popular Instagram feeds within any particular subject tend to all look alike.)
While I have always felt on pretty solid ground with respect to my tastes in watches, which have not really changed in any fundamental way in thirty years or more, I have certainly wasted a great deal of time in other departments of life trying to convince myself I liked something, simply because it was, if you wanted to think of yourself as a discerning person, what you should like. I think, for instance, of the many years – decades, actually, and it gives me little pleasure to admit it – that I spent drinking very iodine-y Islay-style single malt whiskies because that is what I thought a real urbane sophisticado should like. After a couple of decades of this pointless masochism, it finally hit me while I was in the middle of trying to gag down a perfectly decent Lagavulin that what I was experiencing was not pleasure, but something more akin to being buried up to my neck in peat, set on fire, and then having someone try to douse the flames with seawater. It was, in short – just for my tastes, I hasten to add – thoroughly unpleasant, and with nary a backward glance, I have been enjoying light, heather-y, flowery whiskies which would not challenge the palate of a three-year-old ever since.
The reason I bring this up is to point out that with watches, as with anything else, there is a great deal that can and should be left up to individual tastes and the evolution of those tastes (or the absence thereof). However, it’s also true that within any craft, whether it is distilling spirits, making furniture, or making watches, that there are certain standards which, when they have become expert consensus, have become expert consensus for a reason. Otherwise, connoisseurship would not exist because there would be nothing to learn. The answer to questions about qualitative standards is not, in fact, always, “it depends.”
This brings me to a quite interesting point which a couple of commenters raised in reply to Stephen’s story on mistakes for newcomers to avoid. At one point in the story, Stephen, in discussing the error of thinking that in all cases, an in-house movement is better, remarked, “Would I want a Lange 1 powered by an ETA with a module on top? Nope, not really. Am I intrigued by Patek Philippe slowly converting its chronographs over to new calibers developed in-house, replacing the Lemania-based movements they used for years? Yes, absolutely. But do I think any less of the Historiques Cornes de Vache because it does use a Lemania-based caliber? Not a chance.”
In the comments following, someone remarked, “In the article, you wrote ‘Would I want a Lange 1 powered by an ETA with a module on top? Nope, not really.’ Are Lange 1’s not in-house movements?” Another community member replied, “I think Stephen is just posing a hypothetical situation in this case. Although I would have liked him to elaborate more on the point: a Lemania-based Vacheron is okay but an ETA + module in an ALS is not? Where do you draw the line between the two?”
There are a number of reasons why an ETA 2892-A2 with (say) a Dubois-Depraz chronograph module on top is an admirable thing. It’s an interesting piece of engineering; it also makes it possible to produce a self-winding chronograph quite a bit less expensively than working one up from scratch, and so on. But it is not appropriate in an haute horlogerie watch, and the reasons do not, in fact, have all that much to do with whether or not the movement is in-house or not – or rather, that it’s an outsourced movement is not the only reason such a thing would be inappropriate in a Datograph.
The movement of a watch is, fundamentally, a machine, and the most restrictive perspective is to judge it simply based on how efficiently it performs its task. If it’s reliable, as precise as is necessary for the needs of the owner, and can be manufactured with a minimum of effort and expense, it should be something worth accolades. And it is on those points. But it is also a combination which sits lower on the scale of horological values than the caliber L951.7 in the Datograph.
Partly, this simply has to do with the movements themselves. An ETA 2892-A2 with a module is, first of all, a compromise technical solution, and it is intended to be one. There may be perfectly valid reasons for using it – a relatively comparable solution economically might be an ETA 7750, but for various reasons (movement dimensions, supplier availability, and so on), the movement-plus-module solution may be preferred by the manufacturer. It remains the case, however, that combining an automatic base caliber with a module is not as elegant a solution as a fully integrated self-winding movement, even taken just from an engineering perspective, which is part of the reason that, by and large, haute horlogerie makers avoid it.
The combination of a base caliber with module also does not particularly lend itself to an aesthetically pleasant visual experience. This is not to say that there is not a basic fascination exerted by all mechanical watches – if that fundamental fascination with mechanics did not exist, HODINKEE, I, and probably you, the reader, would not be here. But it is also true that movements designed from the ground up to be inexpensive to produce in large numbers tend to reflect, aesthetically, the priorities of their designers. If you are making millions of movements a year, you are, generally speaking, going to be much better off if you reduce the number of necessary operations to the absolute minimum necessary for acceptable quality and performance. That means that considerations like visually pleasing execution are very far down on the list of priorities (and other basic indications of a higher grade movement, like the decoration of movement components, go right out the window). This has less to do with the modular nature of the 2892-plus-module arrangement and more to do with making sure the economics of making the movement make sense – the ETA 7750 is an admirable piece of engineering and is indeed a fully integrated chronograph movement, but at the same time, it reflects, in a number of respects, the goal of making a self-winding mechanical chronograph movement inexpensively.
Finally, I think there is also the matter of the degree to which the quality of the movement is harmonious with the overall desired quality and perceived aesthetics of the watch. The caliber L951.7 represents the values of A. Lange & Söhne to such a high degree that the watch, without it, would not be a Lange watch. It might be attractive, it would certainly be less expensive, and it would be possible to produce in much, much greater numbers. But the loss of the in-house Lange caliber would mean the loss not just of a qualitatively and objectively infinitely more interesting and beautiful movement – it would also mean that the inner character of the movement and the outer character of the rest of the watch have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. What we want in a watch, at any price, is not just an execution that is appropriate to the cost.
What is a much better and more holistic standard for evaluating a watch is to ask to what degree each aspect of the watch is on a philosophical continuum, from a quality perspective, with every other aspect. By this standard, the ETA-plus-module approach is hilariously inappropriate – such a mechanical solution has as little to do with the tactile and visual qualities of the rest of the Datograph as a rubber clown nose would on the face of the Venus de Milo (though the surrealists among you may disagree). It is utterly antithetical to the spirit of the entire enterprise – as if Abraham Lincoln had thought to himself, “You know, this Gettysburg Address I’ve written: It ain’t bad, but maybe I’d better start by warming them up with a few jokes.”
On why an outsourced Lemania caliber is fine in the Cornes de Vache, there are a number of reasons grounded in the same generally agreed-upon set of criteria as to what constitutes an haute horlogerie movement. The reason, again, has little to do with whether or not the movement is supplied, but it has a great deal to do with what can be done with the movement once the kit is received from the supplier. The Vacheron caliber 1142 goes a very long distance from the base Lemania caliber 2310 (which is, in the interests of accuracy, now Manufacture Breguet, I ought to mention), and some of the journey is taken through some mechanical modifications, but primarily via all the work that is done to decorate the movement components and to adjust the operation of the movement so as to provide a pleasing tactile experience to the owner. Lower-grade chronograph movements can be a very mixed bag but, in general, if you compare the pusher feel between an ETA 7750 and the VC caliber 1142, or the Lange Datograph, you will have to conclude that there is no comparison. The finer chronographs offer a direct, tactile experience of beautiful precision machinery in operation. The 7750, by comparison, tends to require noticeably more force to push through the detent at start, stop, and reset, and the experience is not so much of an elegance on a continuum with the rest of the watch, as of a fundamentally mechanically sound mechanism being called on to do its duty.
Moreover, a fundamental aspect of evaluating a movement is that how well it is made, and what you can do with it from a fine adjustment and aesthetics standpoint, is far more important than the question of who made it. A high-grade movement, in general, will be one which not only can be adjusted to function more precisely than a lower grade one, it is also one which can aesthetically be brought to a higher standard as well. The VC 1142 has a sinuous beauty and a logical, harmonious relationship of part to part, as well as an intrinsic visual clarity, that lends itself admirably to being highlighted by traditional high-craft movement finishing. Mass-produced calibers, on the other hand, can be very visually satisfying as pieces of precision engineering, but they express little if any of the cultural craft context we expect as a minimum from an haute horlogerie movement. Due to the fact that saving costs in manufacturing is a priority, they do not, in their architecture, general layout, and execution, lend themselves to the exertion of the craft of movement decoration either.
I want to close, however, by making an appeal for understanding and even praising the role played by mass-produced movements like the 2892-A2 and the 7750. Not all movements are created equal, but they were never meant to be, and they were never meant to be evaluated by a single criterion or single set of criteria. (If I were to have added anything to either Ben or Stephen’s story, it would have been, “Evaluating all watches as if they were the same watch.”) The 2892-A2, the 7750, and other movements such as the entry-level automatics from Seiko are miracles in their own way as well. To be able to produce reliable performance and accuracy in such large numbers was a dream of the watchmaking industry for decades, even centuries, and it has not actually been all that long since the dream started to come true. A cheap movement at the low end, once upon a time, probably meant something like a single jewel pin-pallet mechanism which was impossible to service and which kept time poorly. A so-called cheap movement nowadays is made to a high level of precision and can be made to keep time with chronometer-grade accuracy.
A Lange Datograph is as much a statement of a kind of philosophy about watchmaking, and the perception of time, as it is anything else, but it is also one of a fairly rare number of watches which really aspire to that, both inside and out. The 2892-A2 might not satisfy the same aesthetic and performance criteria as, say, the VC 1142, but there is no reason whatsoever why it should not put a smile on an owner’s face for reasons of its own.