September 17, 2015
Thursday was the longest day of the trip. We had to wake up early to take a two hour bus ride to the dial factory in the mountains, followed by a trip to the gem setting and polishing factory.
Another highlight of my trip was the dial factory. We arrived at Cadrans Fluckiger close to 10:00 AM. It was founded in 1860 by Zelim Jacot, and purchased by Patek Philippe in 2004. They grew the number of employees to 110 from 50 when they purchased it. The average production time for regular run-of-the-mill dials is four to five months, with exceptional dials running more than six months. The dial production can be classified into four main categories; galvanic, varnished, jewelry, and mother-of-pearl.
Galvanic dials are those given their final color by electroplating. The electrolysis process is completed by applying a metal coating to the dial surface, and then given a chemical bath using liquid solutions of other metals such as gold, silver, rhodium, etc. Varnished dials are those who final color is produced using a colored varnish. While this seems simple enough, the conditions in which the varnish is applied are extremely specific and strict, so that no other particles or dust can adhere to the dial while the varnish is being applied. Jewelry dials are those set with precious gemstones. And mother-of-pearl dials are those whose mother-of-pearl plate is cemented to a dial base.
Once we watched a PowerPoint on this process, of which there can be 12 steps or more, we began a tour of the facility. First we were able to meet with the one man who currently completes guilloché on the dials. This is an extremely rare art because there is no school in which to learn these processes. In addition to there being no schools, there are also no new machines being built that can produce it in the traditional way the Patek desires. There was a machine from the early 1900s that is still operational today and was being used when we walked in. Fernando (the guillocheur), also completed making a guilloché machine using old parts from museum pieces, it took him two-and-a-half years to complete.
Fernando told two great stories. First was how he learned the secrets of the former guillocheur at Patek Philippe. Fernando decided years ago that he wanted to learn from this former master craftsman, so he took him out for coffee one Sunday. They talked about almost everything for hours, but did not touch on their trade. They went out for coffee again the next Sunday, but again, no discussion on how to become a master craftsman, and certainly no sharing of secrets. This exchange went on for a year before the retired guillocheur said, “Ok, you seem pretty serious about this, I will start to share my secrets with you.” They continue to have coffee to this day. The second story is more heartwarming. Fernando sits next to a window facing the mountains, it is an absolutely stunning view. But instead, he turns his chair to face the other side of the building, to windows that are 40′ away. When we asked him why he said it is because his house is just on the other side of the street. When he faces his house, he can see his children playing in his front yard after school. We all teared up.
Right next door to Fernando is the enameling department. It is a very small and clean office with what looks like an easy bake oven. The lady who was working that day explained how difficult it is to enamel the dials. She will enamel both sides of the dial for oxidation purposes, as well as having similar tension on both sides of the plate. Typically it will take five to six coats, and five to six times in the fire before one dial is complete. She then will enamel the numerals on the dial, which is an even harder and more exacting science than the plain dial itself. She loses half of her dials to spoilage due to cracking, shrinking, peeling, etc. Perhaps this is why there are so few enamel dials produced by Patek Philippe. She actually put a dial in the kiln for us while we were there, but we are not allowed to discuss how long or at what temperature it was set.
Aside from enamel dials, there are many other finishes that can be applied for a variety of aesthetic looks. Dials can be matte, sandblasted, velvet, satin, vertical satin, or sunburst in their finish. Depending on the finish, they are completed by hand or use very specialized machinery.
Once a finish is applied to the dial, it will then go back for electroplating or painting, or any other process that may need to be completed such as stamping out for subdials, etc. One of the next steps is then applying the indexes and markers to the dial. Two methods are used, riveting and pointing. Riveting is used for thicker dials with larger markers. Pointing is a method where compressed air is used to apply the markers, typically on thinner dials or smaller markers. The individual applying the markers by pointing used her bare foot on the pedal for compressed air, so that she had a better feel on how hard to push the pedal so as not to apply to much or too little air pressure. Once the indexes are applied the dial is essentially complete, save for quality control testing to ensure the markers will come detached.
After the dial factory we travelled by bus to another factory where the polishing, gem setting, and more cases are produced. Another highlight for me was the gem setting and the traditional methods that are used. Patek Philippe will start with a solid case and carve out the metal for the gems. This traditional method creates a much stronger setting for the gems, as opposed to soldering or lasering on additional metal. Additionally, the gem setter will set the gemstones at the same height, and ensure that they are all axially parallel. This level of detail takes time and an amazing eye. You will notice the beauty in the sparkle and brilliance, and can appreciate such dedication.
The polishing of the cases was similar to that of the dials but on steroids. For example, the Nautilus has no less than 55 operations that take place to polish it, 40 for the case and 15 for the bracelet. A worker — wearing protective gloves — takes one case at a time into an enclosed case that sprays high velocity grains on the case, producing the sand blasted finish. For a sunburst case back, a worker takes a dial and using a special polishing wheel and powder, slowly polishes from the center of the case back to the outside. We were fortunate enough to attempt this. And again, the level of consistent pressure and slow movement is extremely difficult to achieve. It is understandable why some companies choose to use robotics for much of their assembly and production, but not Patek Philippe. The training that takes place is a minimum of two years for polishing, but typically at least five years until a worker can be independent.
The last phase of our day was seeing the case production factory. They produce roughly 60 percent of their cases in this factory, and 40 percent in Geneva. The two processes that are used are a machining that involves turning and milling, or a complete machining on CNC machines. Either of the operations are incredibly detailed, and are even checked with sophisticated 3D machines after production to make sure they are as specific as they need to be. One of the most interesting factoids was learning about how specific they are on something such as a pocket watch or case back that opens. They make sure that it can open at a certain resistance, stop at a specific angle, and even clicks closed with a certain sound. These can all be things that are assumed to be simple, but are far from it.
We left the facility later than anticipated, and made our way back to Geneva through the mountains. We did get to see Mont Blanc in the distance, which was quite exciting, on our way to dinner. We dined at an Italian restaurant L’oberge d’Onex, similar to a family style dining experience but for the entire restaurant. We arrive and are immediately force fed a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and pastas. They go from table to table with all of their dishes. At the end of the meal they bring out glass jars full of candy and other desserts. You want to stop eating but you just can’t. It was an easy night of sleep after being that full.