Only the elite of the horological world can bear these marks of distinction
LUXURY WATCH BRANDS SUBJECT THEIR TIMEPIECES TO THE MOST STRINGENT TESTS TO AFFIRM THEIR DEDICATION TO QUALITY.
Being objects of precision, high-end watches need to be rigorously tested for timekeeping accuracy and examined to ensure that their fit and finish will meet the high expectations of their future owners. Most brands conduct such qualitycontrol checks internally, but some turn to independent bodies which run their own tests. These range from the basic – like the Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometres (Association for the Official Swiss Chronometer Certification), better known as COSC – to the comprehensive, such as Qualite Fleurier.
Testing well over a million movements a year is COSC, the biggest and most prominent testing body in Switzerland. The bulk of its certificates go to three brands: Rolex, Omega and Breitling. In 2011, it certified over 1.4 million movements for the three brands alone. Because it certifies such enormous quantities, COSC certification is a largely automated process.
Set up in 1973 by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry and five cantons where watchmaking is a major industry – Bern, Geneva, Neuchatel, Solothurn, and Vaud – COSC tests watch movements to ensure that they meet the ISO 3159 standard for chronometers.
Mechanical movements undergo a 16-day test in five positions and at three temperatures, during which they must meet certain standards. For example, the average daily timekeeping variation for a mechanical movement of over 20mm in diameter must be between -4 and +6 seconds. Compared with other certification processes, COSC is not exceptionally stringent. The pass rate for certification is approximately 95 per cent.
Once a movement passes the test, it’s issued with a certificate. Some, but not all, brands include a COSC certificate with the watch.
Movements are tested without their cases – after the test, they are sent back to the manufacturer for assembly. This gives rise to one of the biggest criticisms levelled at this certification: What is tested is not exactly what ends up on the customer’s wrist.
On the other hand, the Chronofiable test considers the reliability of a movement by simulating actual wear. Conducted by Laboratoire Dubois, an independent testing agency in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Chronofiable test uses a specially developed machine to test a watch over 21 days, equivalent to six months of wear.
Amongst other things, Chronofiable ensures that the watch is shockproof by subjecting it to 20,000 impacts of varying magnitude. It also tests bracelets and straps by subjecting them to mechanical traction.
However, it only tests samples from each production run, ranging from five to 40 watches, depending on the production size, because its primary goal is to identify potential defects in each production batch.
Fondation Qualite Fleurier
An independent body which tests and certifies individual watches with its own seal, the Fondation Qualite Fleurier (FQF) has a comprehensive testing procedure: It combines COSC certification, Chronofiable, the proprietary Fleuritest, and several production and finishing criteria.
The basic criteria for the seal is that the timepiece be Swiss-made, in the strictest sense possible. The entire watch, except the strap and clasp, must be made in Switzerland. This means that while raw materials can come from abroad, processing of all materials – into a semifinished or finished state – must take place within Switzerland. Subsequent decoration and assembly must also be done within the country’s borders. This is far more stringent than the rules governing the “Swiss Made” label on watches, which essentially specify that over 60 per cent of the value of a movement, as well as its assembly, must be Swiss in origin.
In addition to the origin, the FQF seal demands certain manufacturing and finishing standards, such as the rule that screw heads must be flat and polished, with the slot and rim bevelled.
After COSC and Chronofiable testing, the final stage of FQF certification is the Fleuritest. Here, the watch spends 24 hours strapped to the Fleuritest machine, which simulates the wearing cycle of a watch on a person’s wrist over 24 hours. Throughout all of this, the watch must keep time to an accuracy of 0 to +5 seconds.
While the FQF seal is probably the most complete testing procedure available, it is only used by four brands, the same ones which set up the foundation in 2001 – Chopard, Bovet, Parmigiani and Vaucher, a movement maker that is the sister company of Parmigiani. This limits the appeal and prestige of the seal.
Poincon de Geneve
Passed into law in 1886, the Poincon de Geneve, or Geneva Seal, is the oldest watch certification standard in existence. Conceived to protect Genevan watchmakers from unscrupulous copycats making low-quality timepieces, the Poincon de Geneve has since evolved into a mark of quality used only by high-end, Geneva-based watchmakers, so much so that it is widely regarded as the most prestigious mark of quality.
For many decades, the Geneva Seal was solely concerned with decorative aspects of the movement. This meant that if the components were finished to the right standards, the resulting movement would have the Geneva Seal, whether it was reliable or not. And to obtain the seal, a sample movement had to be submitted for certification, after which all movements in the series would receive the seal, without any subsequent inspections to ensure that the quality was consistent.
A big blow to the Geneva Seal came in 2009, when Patek Philippe, arguably the grandest of all Genevan watchmaking houses, dropped the seal after more than a century of using it on its timepieces. The brand replaced it with an in-house Patek Philippe Seal which was more stringent than the Geneva Seal at the time.
In response to criticism, Timelab, a non-profit body backed by the Geneva Cantonal government, which administers the Geneva Seal, announced sweeping changes in the shape of a new set of more rigorous standards in 2011 that finally helped put its criteria on a par with the certification’s public perception.