How many times have we looked inside our beloved timepieces and seen the gears moving and ticking, following the motionless passage of time? And we have wondered, with ill-concealed astonishment, who designed and built these perfect little machines that give us the appearance of controlling the time that so subtly eludes us? The answer is – many, especially if we are true watch enthusiasts. Well, in this little article, we will begin to discover and understand the difference between them.

automatic watch movement
Classic watch movement

A bit of history: etablisseurs and manufactures

Despite what many enthusiasts think, watchmaking in Switzerland has always been structured around a network of small, very specialized companies – sometimes, little more than artisan workshops – that produced individual pieces of watches, which were then assembled to create complete calibers, and then whole watches. And this went on for a long, long time.

During the twentieth century, over two hundred different movement manufacturers were recorded in the world of horology. They designed and assembled their products, called ebauches, selling them to different companies (this is no longer the case today). These, in turn, mounted them inside the watches as they were or customized them in some way. 75% of the market was thus, composed of what is called etablisseurs. Instead, 25% is made up of those famous brands that chose to develop the movements in-house – the so-called manufactures.

But we would be wrong to think that there is only black and white: many companies had hybrid situations, where certain calibers were produced in-house, while others were purchased from third parties. A famous case in point is Jaeger LeCoultre: the renowned manufacturer, known within the watchmaking world as “the watchmaker of the watchmakers,” sold its calibers for a long time to all three components of the Olympus of Swiss watchmaking, namely Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet.

The current situation of movement manufacturers, however, is very different. Most of these old Swiss makers have merged into a series of industrial groups, which with the Quartz Crisis, joined together to originate a single entity: ETA. This giant company has incorporated dozens and dozens of famous brands.

ETA, which belongs to the Swatch group, has, since the 1980s, become a virtual monopoly in the production of ebauches on Swiss soil, with the result that, today, the commercial production of movements for third parties no longer has the technological competition and inventiveness it had in the first part of the 20th century, given that ETA’s biggest competitors, Sellita and STP, produce clones of the latter.

Although there are a few other independent movement manufacturers in Switzerland, their output is really insignificant in terms of numbers compared to a behemoth like ETA – so the current Swiss situation of movement-making is of a huge oligopoly, partly because the development and refinement of a new watch caliber requires a lot of investment in R&D.

watch movement parts
The watch movement parts

How do you tell the movement of a watch?

In such a variegated situation, it becomes challenging to establish where a movement we see inside a watch comes from: but there are some well-tested ways to do it.

First of all, we must try to establish the manufacturer – and in this, we are facilitated by the fact that many manufacturers applied their mark on the main plate of the movement, in correspondence of the balance wheel. In the case of an automatic watch movement with a central rotor, this would probably involve removing it as well to get an unobstructed sight of the mainplate. Other times, they would do the same with the main bridge, in the outer part, under the dial (which implies removing the hands and disassembling the watch face).

But if that doesn’t yield results, you need to turn bookish and be prepared for a thorough search in some movement database.

Watch movement identification database

Fortunately, this kind of need is shared by curious people like us and by watchmaking professionals. And there are tools created for all of them – which, surprisingly, are absolutely free.

The first – and most comprehensive – is the Dr. Ranfft movement database (it’s easy to find with an online search). The database has a reasonably dated structure and looks but is impressively comprehensive. So, for example, if there is a watch movement that you can’t locate in any way, it will probably be on the Dr. Ranfft document database.

It carries news not only about the movement but also about all its technical specifications (including mainspring and winding shaft models) and versions relative to the year of manufacture. A small note: despite the monstrous amount of information and photos, it is impossible to find every single variant of a movement, which was often customized, especially in the bridges, by the customer. So it is sometimes necessary to get as close as possible.

There are other databases online, perhaps aesthetically more updated, but they are certainly less complete than this one. So, it’s useless to waste time: our advice is to go directly to the main source of information.

Moreover, another important database could be helpful in some instances: we are talking about Mikrolisk, which lists all registered watch brands and various information about the date and place of registration. It is particularly useful to establish relationships between the brand name on the dial or movement and the company that actually produced the watch. Always remember that many companies sell watches under different brands to serve their foreign clientele better.

Watch movement back

How do I find the movement number on my watch?

Although many companies have made watches for many years, and the first serial numbers date back to the end-1600s, not all movement manufacturers put movement numbers on their calibers. Even if they did, finding a reliable production list is not necessarily possible. In some cases, the archives that kept production records have been lost.

But apart from that, the buyer’s name on the movement and the serial number was a relatively consolidated practice, especially on watches of a medium-high level. Typically, these indications are engraved on the main bridge so that they are clearly visible (except in automatic watches with central rotors). When you examine them, check carefully that they have the same characteristics as those shown on the other bridges (such as indications of adjustments made and the number of jewels). Beware because it is pretty standard for certain watches to mount counterfeit movements that have been modified by affixing bogus inscriptions over the plates and bridges.

In some particular cases, the serial number may have been written in other watch elements: some places that watch companies routinely used are the inner or outer part of the case back or the space between the lugs – a solution practiced by companies such as Rolex until 2008.

Remember though that this situation is not at all universal. Several companies do not inscribe any reference number on their watches and movements, especially if we consider the most affordable lines, like quartz watches, as these movements are almost disposable today. So, if you do not find a serial number inside a movement, this does not signify that your watch is a fake. For example, Seiko does not have individual reference numbers for its watches: it just inscribes references indicating the production batch and date.

Bottom Lines

As we have seen, it is not so easy to break into an area as technical and broad as that of movements without coming up against several exceptions to the rule that seems to become the rule rather than the exception. And you have to think that this is what independent professional watchmakers do every day when they get their hands on a new timepiece and have to determine what’s wrong with it.

But back to us, these brief notes will undoubtedly be helpful in determining who produced the “heart” of our timepieces and lead us to expand our horological knowledge.