Hundreds of years ago, every part of a watch was made by hand. Skilled artisans would painstakingly carve out each component using watchmaking tools and hand-driven lathes, then expert craftsmen would hand-assemble these components to create a timepiece.
Today, many watches are still made partially by hand, but entirely handmade watches are almost unheard of. Crafting a watch solely by hand simply no longer serves the goals of most watch manufacturers—or watch wearers, for that matter.
A finely made mechanical watch combines two elements: precise technology and attractive design. Attractive design is something that can certainly still be accomplished with handmade materials. However, the hyper-precise technology found in the best high-end watches today is next to impossible to achieve using hand-operated tools alone.
Modern Watching Making Techniques
Modern technology has greatly influenced today’s watchmaking. CAD, CAM, and CNC technology, in particular, has all but taken over how we design watches. A Swiss-made pocket watch from the 1800s would have been designed by a watchmaker who drafted out his ideas on paper. But a Swiss-made wristwatch from 2021 was likely designed by a team made up of digital designers, watchmakers, engineers, and programmers.
Using computer technology to design watches has led to a huge amount of innovation in mechanical movements. Modeling software and digital design tools have allowed brands to discover ways to make their watches more precise and compact. Yet, such precise and compact watches can be close to impossible to create by hand, which is why so many watch parts are now made by programmers and engineers, rather than watchmakers.
Modern technology has also led watch manufacturers to use materials that don’t lend themselves to handcrafting. For example, many new watch movements now feature silicon parts that are best made by machines.
Another reason machine-made parts have become so common is the newfound importance of the label “in-house.” Watchmakers and watch consumers alike now see in-house manufacturing as prestigious and desirable, so more brands are shifting to in-house production. Using more machines just makes sense for a brand that’s trying to create everyone in-house, since it would take a village to hand-make every part of a high-quality watch within a reasonable time frame. If a watch brand wanted to handcraft every part of a watch, they would have to employ individual artisans that specialized in handcrafting sapphire crystals, watch faces, tourbillons, bezels, stainless steel bracelets, and dozens upon dozens of other watch components.
When you factor in how complicated watch design has become—not to mention the rigorous quality control standards high-end brands hold themselves to—the challenge of hand making every piece of a watch becomes greater. A watch today may feature a perpetual calendar, a chronograph function, lunar phases, repeater functions, GMT functions, and so on. Luxury sports watches can also have features that require incredible precision to execute, such as advanced water resistance. The level of craftsmanship and time needed to make this type of modern watch makes handcrafting one impractical, if not impossible.
What Does “Handmade” Mean Today?
Many modern luxury watches are described as being “handmade,” but this descriptor rarely means the watch was entirely handmade. More often, it means that the watch was hand-assembled, hand-finished, or both.
Making watch parts by hand is rare in the modern watch industry, but a number of luxury watch companies employ some hand-making techniques when creating their timepieces. It’s common for luxury watch brands to hand assemble their watches, either partially or fully. Examples of brands that hand assemble at least part of their timepieces include Rolex, Omega, Seiko, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Breitling, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, IWC Schaffhausen, and TAG Heuer. Some of these watch brands, like Patek Philippe, hand-assemble every part of their watches. Others use machine assistance. For example, Rolex watches are largely hand-assembled, but a machine helps with alignment and pressure during assembly.
Hand finishing is also common among high-end watch brands, so much so that it’s considered fairly standard. Again, however, finishing may be machine-assisted. At Rolex, watches receive an initial polish from a machine but are hand finished and polished afterward. With that said, some watch brands don’t use machines during finishing. Case in point, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin are both well-known for the high quality of their traditional hand finishing techniques.
Handmade Watches: A Rare Treasure in a Modern World
While most modern watches are made using modern machines, a select few watchmakers still create fully (or almost fully) handmade watches. The Switzerland-based company Oscillon specializes in creating completely handcrafted watches using century-old techniques. The Swiss watchmaking company Greubel Forsey uses hand-operated tools to create 95% of their Hand Made 1 model. Then, there are a few independent watchmakers, like Masahiro Kikuno, who work alone and make their watches largely or entirely by hand.
But though handmade watches are still being created, they’re uncommon, to say the least. Due to the expertise and time needed to create a handmade watch, they’re also extraordinarily expensive. The price of a mostly or entirely handmade watch will have six or seven digits. While they were once the norm, entirely handmade watches are now a luxury that a rare few horology enthusiasts can enjoy.