InsightClarifying In-House Movements for the 21st Century Watch Collector

Here in the early decades of the 21st century, in-house describes a watch movement produced in just about any manner, as long as the movement wasn’t blatantly purchased from a third-party supplier. In this sense, we might say that the millions of inexpensive robot-built watches from Seiko include in-house movements, just as we say that the few handmade watches from Philippe Dufour use in-house movements. Clearly these are categorically different production methods, and yet in-house describes both, implying similarity where there is none.

I aim in this essay to clarify this confusing and sloppy use of in-house. Let’s first consider how the term arose and why it became so confusing.

Philippe Dufour nurtured his skills at his atelier in Vallee de Joux.
Philippe Dufour’s workshop. Image: South China Morning Post.
A Seiko factory is vast and full of machines.
Seiko Factory. Image: gasabo.net.

In-House in Context

Before In-House Mattered

Before the industrialization of watchmaking, in-house meant that a watchmaker personally built the movements in the watches they sold. It was akin to a restaurant indicating that the baked goods are made in-house (en maison), meaning that they have a pastry chef on staff. In-house production of watches and baked goods wasn’t especially prestigious prior to industrialization. In fact, it was rather common for watchmakers and restaurants to laud their having curated in the best movements or croissants from the best makers in town. The emphasis was on the quality of the goods, not their source.

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Vacheron Constantin’s workshop in the early 1900s. Image: Vacheron Constantin.

During the early days of industrialization, machines were quite crude. Handmade goods were often of higher quality than machine-made goods, especially when it came to clothing, baked goods, and, of course, watches. As industrialization expanded, this distinction between handmade and machine-made became more notable and popular, especially in the luxury sector. In-house wasn’t immediately an important distinction, but the emphasis on handmade goods would soon give rise to a fixation on in-house production.

The Dawn of Conscious Consumption

The interest in handmade goods took on new significance in the early early 21st century as many people awoke from the stupor of the cheap consumer goods bonanza of the 1990s to realize that fast-everything had taken hold in our globalizing economy. Consensus emerged around the notion that planned obsolescence was cheapening products, hurting the planet, and draining our wallets. Savvy consumers began to denegrade fast-fashion and fast-food, for example, echoing sentiments from the internationally popular slow-food movement.

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Carlo Petrini, founder of Italy’s Slow Food movement.

The emergence of Italy’s slow-food movement in the 1980s and 90s was a watershed moment in consumer consciousness, a moment when many people began to more broadly connect quality and good conscience with small-scale, old-school production methods. The slow-food movement rose out of protests against a proposed MacDonald’s at Rome’s Spanish Steps in the 1980s, but outside Italy the slow-food movement seemed to articulate something many people were feeling about late-capitalism: that industrialization was no longer a sure boon to humanity and may have become a detriment. The concept of conscious consumption emerged and became a notable international movement.

Fast-fashion protestors are defending the planet from unchecked consumerism.
Protests against fast-fashion and advocating conscious consumerism. Image: Getty.

The conscious consumption movement emerged along with a mounting awareness of climate change and a wide-spread belief that corporations were largely to blame. To combat the bad rap, brands of all kinds – from banks to automakers to Dupont Chemicals – began spending untold millions each year to amplify their green messaging. This messaging conditioned even more consumers to demand corporate transparency about the source of the goods we consumed and the industrial processes employed in making them.

The Proliferation of The Phrase In-House

In the luxury sector, the green messages emphasized small-scale and/or proprietary production, and in watchmaking that message often showed up as in-house. The link with environmentalism may have been weak, but the resonance with trending consumer demands was strong. Such incentives to claim in-house movement production led many firms to begin using the term quite loosely, creating novel definitions and a great deal of confusion. This semantic proliferation has conditioned consumers to fetishize in-house movements, but has simultaneously confused what in-house actually means.

The Oris Caliber 400 in-house movement.
The Oris Calibre 400 debuted in 2020 as the Swiss Brand’s in-house movement. It was developed in partnership with outside firms, but remains proprietary.

The Many Modes of In-house Production

For some traditionalists (myself included), in-house still refers to the small manufacturers making watches in the traditional manner, such as Vacheron Constantin’s custom shop called Cabinotiers or independents like Philippe Dufour. But as semantically fussy as I wish to remain, in common parlance and marketing copy in-house means many things these days. Consider this confusing list of possible meanings:

in-house (1) – movement made by hand and crude machine in a small workshop (e.g. Vacheron’s Cabinotiers, Dufour)

in-house (2) – proprietary movement made in a brand-owned factory (e.g. Moser, Rolex)

in-house (3) – proprietary movement developed and/or produced with outside partnership (e.g. Bremont, Oris)

in-house (4) – non-proprietary movement made in a brand-owned factory (e.g. Seiko)

in-house (5) – non-proprietary movement made in a factory owned by the brand’s holding company (e.g. Longines-ETA-Swatch, Zodiac-STP-Fossil)

 Grand Seiko Spring Drive watch movements are in-house.
Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive movements are built by Seiko and use patented proprietary technology.

What are we to make of this multifarious use of in-house? Has the phrase become meaningless?

At this juncture (2022), it really is up to us individuals to decide what the phrase in-house means; we can each draw the line wherever we want according to our own standards. But clearly there is no broad consensus on the meaning of in-house, and the marketeers keep running with flagrant use, further confusing the matter.

I do wonder, however, if we might begin to gain some common understanding of the five usages listed above, which point to qualitatively different categories of movement production. I assume that brands will continue to use in-house in whatever way appears to benefit them, but maybe some grass-roots clarification is possible.

Proposed Clarifications of In-House

Taking the five definitions above, I offer some clarifying terms. It is my sense that these terms help spell out the nuances we struggle to see when in-house is sloppily overused. I neither expect nor demand wide-spread adoption of these proposed terms, but do believe the delineations are clarifying, and, thus, useful.

Hand-Crafted Movement – movement made by hand and crude machine in a small workshop (e.g. Vacheron’s Cabinotiers, Dufour)

Proprietary In-House Movement – movement made in a brand-owned factory and only used by that brand (e.g. Moser, Rolex, Grand Seiko, some Seikos)

Non-Proprietary In-House Movement – movement made in a brand-owned factory, also used by third-parties (e.g. most Seiko movements)

Proprietary Movement – proprietary movement developed and/or produced in conjunction with third-parties (e.g. Bremont, Oris)

Proprietary Sister-Company Movement – movement only available to the brand from a sister-company (e.g. some Longines-ETA-Swatch movements)

Non-Proprietary Sister-Company Movement – movement by sister-company also available in third-party watches (e.g., Zodiac-STP-Fossil)

Bremont in-house watch movement.
The Bremont in-house movement is built from a now-proprietary K1 movement first developed by the Swiss company THE+. Some, but not all, of the movement’s works are created at Bremont’s UK-based facility, The Wing. Image: Bremont.

Cynically, I understand that the marketing appeal of these terms is lacking, that brands will not adopt them, and that these terms are thus unlikely to penetrate the broader watch culture. Yet, the specificity of these terms is desirable for watch collectors trying to navigate the world of 21st century watchmaking.

Perhaps, if watches continue to be so popular and watch enthusiasts continue to grow more knowledgeable about movement production, we will begin to see beyond the confusion of the phrase in-house and into the nuanced and various ways these wonderous little machines actually get made.