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.

Plaza Watch International - - Contents - WO RD S JOSH SIMS

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.

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