CARTIER: THE MAKING OF A MOVEMENT POWERHOUSE
It has an historic image that still defines our notions of spectacular artistry and grandeur, but a visit to Cartier’s La-Chaux-de-Fonds Manufacture reveals a Maison going all out to seal its legacy in haute horlogerie’s future.
There’s a lot of cultural baggage associated with the name Cartier. It’s Marilyn Monroe breathily intoning it in an elongated whisper in the midst of singing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’; it’s the scandalous and defiant Wallis Simpson, mistress of the former King of England, declaring “You can never be too rich or too thin”, whilst glittering in a spectacular array of Cartier jewellery that her lover had commissioned to demonstrate his passion.
In short, when you think “Cartier” you think haute joaillerie, exemplary artisans and creators of some of the world’s most spectacular baubles, which is certainly no bad thing as far as word associations go. Yet it does a disservice to the quiet but extraordinary strides that the brand has made in the fine watchmaking arena since 2008, when it rattled the vanguard of haute horlogerie with incendiary force after creating its first Geneva Seal watch, the Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillion.
From Cartier’s point of view it was a declaration of intent signalling that it was serious about pushing its watchmaking credentials, though it still had to disprove the generally held industry theory that the Ballon Bleu was a one-off stunt with a movement that was possibly not entirely of Cartier’s own making. It did it in bullish style by establishing its LaChaux-de-Fonds Manufacture as a powerhouse of movement creation – there are now 37 movements in the Cartier catalogue, 29 of which were created since 2008. It's against this backdrop that Plaza Watch is invited for a privileged Manufacture visit to discover exactly what is going on behind the sleek glass façade for it to gain such impressive momentum.
Stepping between the two flags that flank the entrance to the Manufacture’s cavernous foyer, the pivotal figure in Cartier’s new era of watchmaking is waiting to greet us. The formidably talented Carole Forestier-Kasapi joined Cartier in 1999, moving through its ranks from Fine Watch Movement Builder to Head of Fine Watch Movement Development, then onwards to her current role as Head of Movement Creation. Watchmaking is in her blood, growing up in her family’s watchmaking business prior to studying at the Ecole d’Horlogerie, and then honing her skills at Zenith and Renaud & Papi.
Forestier-Kasapi is our host for the day, guiding us around Cartier’s inner sanctum and providing forensic insight into the watchmaking process. Set into a lush hillside in ‘Watch Valley’, the site hosts development, production and client service, and covers an area of approximately 1 kilometre, making it one of the largest fully integrated production facilities in Switzerland.
As you’d expect from a brand with such impeccable visual credentials, the impression is of light, space and air that unfurls into a network of elegant corridors. Each then gives way to glass walls and rooms that house the various areas dedicated to design, development and production. The atmosphere is more one of a modern art gallery or high tech museum than anything related to industry.
A room with banks of screens and numerous figures seated in front of them deeply scrutinising complex images of micro-engineering tells us we’re in the design and development department. Of the 135 people in the department, 35 develop the movements. There’s an impressive work rate: 60 new products created a year, with special orders taking it to more than 80. Designs first take their form with the creation of maquettes – a step now given over to the wonders of 3D printing – and then on to working prototypes. Private requests can expect the process to take between six months and three years, and up to 10 years for in-house product development.
They’re the kind of timelines familiar in fine watchmaking, though it begs the question, why did Cartier feel the need to get embroiled at this level, making their own calibres? After all, in terms of status and heritage, they have few peers within the luxury arena that enjoy the same instant global recognition.
The response is clear: It was a question of legitimacy – something which you also sense is at the core of Forestier-Kasapi’s philosophy as a watchmaker. Cartier describes itself, quite appropriately, as a Maison, having long since transcended the modern descriptor of a mere brand. Its jewellery and timepieces are
objets d’art that have been exhibited at museums and galleries across the globe (the most recent at the Grand Palais in Paris being the 27th such accolade) and it’s this heritage of craft and design that drives the desire to make their own movements. In-house creativity is what built their reputation.
They certainly haven’t held back on that front. 2010 saw a reinterpretation of the traditional complication, the Astrotourbillon movement, or the minute repeater flying tourbillon, in which the chime mechanism assembly is displayed on the dial face. This was followed by the Astrocalendaire, equipped with an innovative perpetual calendar and powered by a tourbillon; the Astroregulateur is an entirely new complication that defies the effects of gravity in vertical positions. Other innovations simply re-imagine the aesthetics of watchmaking, such as designing a skeleton movement in which the architecture of the bridges replaces the dial with Roman numerals.
Behind this creativity and seriousness of ambition is of course a market reality. Cartier were historically reliant on suppliers to provide their movements, to become a bona-fide manufacture, and benefit from spectacular growth in the haute horlogerie sector, its watchmaking credentials had to be radically transformed. Being late-comers to the world of movement creation means they’ve attacked it with impressive ferocity.
Forestier-Kasapi is open about the need to make up ground and about Cartier’s desire to take a bigger share of the men’s market. Its classic Tank and Santos models notwithstanding, it knows it is perceived as a feminine brand – its women’s models account for 2/3 of sales in the US.
The new focus on asserting its credentials as a creator of timepieces for men is clearly apparent in its latest marketing push ‘Shape Your Time’. The stylish and surreal promotional film aims squarely at men, visualising the story of a father telling his young son about the tradition of watches being handed down through the generations. The ensuing 90-second journey through ‘ Cartier time’ sweeps through each of its eras from its first inventions to its latest innovations.
On the subject of pure innovation, again Cartier has decided bold is best. In 2009 it embarked on the Cartier ID Programme (ID representing Innovation and Development), with no less a mission than to ‘conceptualise the future of watchmaking’. Thus far, the programme has led to the creation of two groundbreaking concept watches: ID One, the adjustment-free, lubricant-free watch, and ID Two, the energy efficient watch.
The ID One defies the need for adjusting throughout its lifetime, as per regular mechanical movements, through the use of movement components manufactured in carbon crystal, with a very low friction coefficient. As a result, the need for liquid lubrication becomes obsolete, whilst other regulating com- ponents have been made insensitive to thermal variations and magnetic fields.
ID Two’s aim is to improve the efficiency of a watch movement. In most watches only a small amount of energy is used productively, the rest is lost via friction or air resistance that further reduces power. The brainwave from the team at the Manufacture was to remove the cause of aerodynamic pressure instead of trying to mitigate it. In other words: they got rid of the air, instead creating a sealed vacuum for the movement. Despite the simplicity of the solution it brought with it some equally extreme technical difficulties. To avoid the risk of leaks, the engineers had to design a case in just two parts, without any screws whatsoever. The seals between the case block and the back, as well as those surrounding the setting crown, have been made more airtight by the addition of nanoparticles.
As the day continues we pass through the various departments contained in the facility: The internal foundry where every watchmaking tool used within Cartier is created; the glass blowing section where sapphire glass watch faces are shaped by hand – each one taking an hour to produce; the shock testing lab where prototypes are put through their paces; the polishing room, where more than 50km of watch links are produced per annum; the library-like concentration of the assembly area, where deft fingers put together all the resulting components; even an accidental visit to the laundry in the bowels of the building (the result of a mispressed lift button) where row upon gleaming row of Cartier emblazoned lab jackets await redistribution.
The overall impression is one of extreme commitment, which Forestier-Kasapi puts down to the Manufacture corresponding to Cartier’s 4 pillars of quality: aesthetics, ergonomics, integrity and chronometry. For a watchmaker some still consider something of a Johnny-come-lately to the field of movement creation, the old guard had better watch their back. Cartier very much means business, and it’s already started to define the future of the industry.
“Cartier very much means business, and it’s already started to define the future of the industry.”