Contrary to the overarching image of incredibly delicate artisanal craft, being inside the think tank at Cartier reveals a world of ultra high-tech heavy industry.
The redoubtable Josh Sims studies the creative genius at Cartier.
With barely a whirr, a bank of three 3D printers produce in wax, layer by layer, a prototype for another Cartier watch. Soon, out will pop a 1:1 scale representation – this will be polished and painted to look much like the watch the wax pretends to be, then sent along with the first drawings and the design team’s notes to the watch division’s president for inspection. And so the cycle is repeated – rapidly, with sterile efficiency, until a new collection is created. Is this the watchmaking of tomorrow?
Cartier has been working this way for a decade – back when it became the first company in the watch industry to install these machines, which remain a sci-fi notion to much of the public. “They allow us to explore new ideas at some speed,” says Carole Forestier, Cartier’s head of movement design and a rarity for the high-end watch industry in being a woman in an executive position. “Sometimes we might hesitate about a certain design. With the Ballon Bleu, for example, we couldn’t decide whether to create a shape around the crown or not – so we just printed two models. In the end the final design was a mix of the two. But watch design entails a lot of back and forth, teamwork and discussion, so we do all we can to streamline the process.”
Forestier is taking us on a rare guided tour around the secretive Cartier Think Tank in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, where, sat at rows of CAD/CAM systems – making it look more like NASA’s Mission Control than a stereotypical cluttered watchmaker’s workshop – the 35-strong design team devises the brand’s next timepieces. It is here where computers can not only simulate on screen how a watch might work, but what
“Design is the first step of the life of a watch and if you skip it or rush it it’s never a great watch at the end. And better design means better products… that’s something the watch industry doesn’t acknowledge enough.”
special tools will be required to assemble it, what quantity of oil will then be required to keep it running, the torque required on each screw and the tolerances of the parts to within an accuracy of 5 per cent.
To auto designers such a scene may be familiar, much less so to watchmakers. Similar timescales are at work too – Cartier typically works three to five years on a movement design, and then takes two years to bring a new model to market. Given that Cartier has produced some 29 new movements in the last six years, the Think Tank has been working at quite a pace. And for every one concept that Forestier presents to management, she has worked on and rejected perhaps 10 or 12 more. “It’s better to present quantity rather than quality just to show them you’re doing a lot of work,” she laughs. Many ideas are simply too advanced, requiring technology or tooling that would take years to realise in production. But, she stresses, “no ideas out of the Think Tank are ever lost – they come back and inspire you some time later.”
“We chose to build the Think Tank without any walls between it and the laboratory next door,” says Forestier, of the room full of microscopes, high-speed cameras and various other spotless contraptions. “We think it encourages co-operation and a sharing of ideas. So there’s a lot of glass in this building.” Not all walls are down, however – security clearance is required to use the company’s WiFi, lest it be used to hack the computers.
“It’s quite unusual in the watch industry to operate a think tank,” Forestier says. “Before, we had several places used for development and decided to consolidate them all in one building, so every element of a watch starts in one location. Design is the first step of the life of a watch and if you skip it or rush it it’s never a great watch at the end. Better design means better products… that’s something the watch industry doesn’t acknowledge enough.”
Here the scene is one of calm and concentra- tion – a contrast to the actual manufacturing plant in the adjacent building. Giant contraptions with prosaic, unrevealing names – the Satisioh Machine 2, the Almac CU1007, the Chiron 3234 – run 24 hours a day, churning out precision watch parts. One machine produces some 50 kilometres of steel links every year. In another contrast, there are almost Medieval scenes of men working watch hands over Bunsen burners with all the delicacy of bomb disposal, and artisans working on Cartier’s latest metiers des arts venture; floral marquetry, using petals rather than wood or straw.
As Forestier notes, modern watchmaking is a delicate blend of high art and heavy industry, and mostly the latter. “I can’t stand it when other brands still push that old image of watchmaking in a chalet on top of a mountain,” she says. “The fact is watch production is essentially high-tech, which is an image much of the industry seems scared of. Apparently it’s all about ‘hand-made’ and ‘art’. The fact is any client who comes to the manufacture isn’t put off – they leave understanding why the watches are so expensive.”
That price will have been carefully worked out in these offices too. For while Forestier might rail against the overly romanticised presentation of much Swiss watchmaking, she is also acutely aware that hers is ultimately a commercial venture: watches have to sell.
“Do I have a dream movement in mind to make? Yes. In fact, I’m not that into watches – it’s the movements I love. But I also have a sales and marketing department – so sometimes it means the idea is just too expensive to realise right now, or it’s too large, or too something or other, or not ‘Cartier’ enough,” she says, laughing, but with perhaps a hint of frustration too. “It’s easy to work in marketing: ‘We need a new tourbillon’. Well, OK... but, of course, it’s all commercial at the end of the day. There’s always a certain price and certain quantities to any brief. You try to find a balance between commerce and creativity. That’s when you get a successful watch. But, you know, that's really not easy.