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Quick visit: Girard-Perregaux in La Chaux-de-Fonds

by Peter Chong on March 14, 2020
Watches

We had the opportunity to visit Girard-Perregaux in La Chaux-de-Fonds last November, and here is our account of the tour and photographs.

I have always been fascinated by the grand old maison of Girard-Perregaux, even from my early days. I first visited the manufacture and Villa Marguerite sometime in the early 2000s, and have not revisited till this visit in November 2019.

The Girard-Perregaux La Esmeralda.

The Girard-Perregaux Manufacture

Girard-Perregaux is a full manufacture, meaning that they make or are capable of making all the components for the watches in-house in one of their facilities. Currently, as they share a CEO with Ulysse Nardin – Patrick  Pruniaux, some of the manufacturing facilities are shared. Here are some highlights from our tour of the facilities.

Turning Department

The Turning Department is not one which every manufacture has. Turning a method where small parts are manufactured using a turning engine. Examples of a turning engine is the lathe, milling machine or drill press, to make parts. The work piece to be machined is turned by the machine, and a cutting tool with a single edge is used to remove material from the rotating piece to generate a cylindrical shape. The tool is manipulated to make its cuts precisely to make shapes on the work piece. Traditionally, these machines were spun by hand, and later industrialization brought electric motors to do the work of turning. Control of the cutting bit had traditionally depended on the hands and skills of craftsmen.

Turning Department, where the screws and other rotational work is done.

However, modern machines are now controlled by computers…using computer numerical control (CNC), for better precision, accuracy and consistency. and are used to make screws, pinons, pivots and the like. (Extracted from an article I wrote for Parmigiani blog describing the work done at Elwin, a subsidiary specializing in turning). At GP, we saw the Precitrame MTR312 Rotary Transfer CNC machine doing this work.

The Precitrame CNC Rotary Transfer Machine.

Along the Turning Department, we also saw rows of CNC and Wire Erosion equipment which are responsible for making the plates and components for the movements.

Movement assembly

We then moved into a room with a production line. This line is housed in a clean room environment, and comprises of an automated conveyor belt system.

The line consists of several stations, each specializing in one aspect of the assembly. The movement is moved along via a conveyor belt and is presented to each watchmaker to perform her specialized task. When complete, the watchmaker pushes a button and the partially completed movement is whisked to the next station for the next assembly stage. The line is U shaped for efficiency, and the final station consists of a testing machine which measures the movement and compares it to design specifications.

Interestingly, the stations work on both GP and UN movements, as can be seen in the photograph below.

As we understand it, the standard base movements used in GP and UN watches are assembled here.

We moved to another building which houses the Haute Horlogerie department.

Haute Horlogerie Department

We then move to the haute horlogerie department, where the movements are assembled atelier style. Each movement is assembled and finished by one watchmaker from start to end.

Hand polishing the anglage.

Here, we see the watchmaker using a hand held drill to make the anglage on the sides of a high end watch. The movement part is held in place by a special, purpose built tool, and the anglage is applied by hand using only the watchmaker’s skill and judgement.

100% crop detail of the hand polishing.

Sometimes, a sharpened stick of pith wood is used to make the final polishing, and sometimes a brass burnishing tool is used. Here we see a watchmaker using this technique to make the final black polish to a tourbillon bridge.

Using the a burnishing tool to make the black polishing on the chamfered screw mounting holes on the tourbillon cage.

In the following photograph, we see the watchmaker assembling the tourbillon. As shown, she is inserting the balance wheel into the tourbillon’s bottom cage.

Tourbillon assembly.

On another station, the watchmaker is almost complete in his assembly, and showing off his work.

At the Atelier, hand assembled tourbillon. Almost complete.
Detail of the tourbillon movement.

It was interesting to see the full assembly of the tourbillon movements in the Haute Horlogerie department.

I also visited the restoration department, where the watchmakers work on watches returned to the factory for repair and refurbishment. This are typically complicated watches for regular servicing as well as vintage watches for complete restoration. But I did not take photographs there. Perhaps leaving latitude for me to return to make a full story on the restoration of vintage GP watches.

Photo Notes: All photographs with Deployant watermark are taken hand held with the Phase One IQ4 150 and Schneider Kreuznach 45mm Blue Line lens.

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