Chopard Alpine Eagle – the movement (part one)
This feature provides a behind the scenes look at the making of the two new Chopard Alpine Eagle movements. Angus Davies travels to Fleurier Ebauches to witness first-hand the making of the Calibre Chopard 01.01-C and Calibre Chopard 09.01-C.
Sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, my companion deftly twirled the steering wheel, negotiating the numerous bends in the road with notable aplomb. The road was draped in a blanket of fog, inhibiting her capacity to see ahead. Looking at the satellite navigation screen I noticed the indicated route switch back and forth, threading the tree-clad hillside. As the car descended the slope gingerly, I wished for our journey to come to an end as swiftly as possible. Finally, we arrived at our overnight accommodation in Fleurier and I breathed a sighed of relief.
The following morning, after consuming a healthy breakfast, I ventured outside and acknowledged the bright blue sky with a cheery smile. I had stepped from the darkness into the light. Suddenly I could see everything in my midst. My eyes were in a heightened state of readiness, eager to observe the making of minute watch components in macro detail.
Image – Fleurier Ebauches
The Swiss luxury marque has two movement facilities in the municipality, albeit on this occasion the newer Fleurier Ebauches site was the focal point of my visit. It is within the confines of this modern facility that the Swiss marque crafts the movements for the new Chopard Alpine Eagle models. The Calibre Chopard 01.01-C and Calibre Chopard 09.01-C are used within the 41mm and 36mm models, respectively.
Image – Calibre Chopard 01.01-C
Chopard is a byword for luxury, however, there is no escaping that some of the brand’s watches proffer incredible value for money. While my preferred Alpine Eagle model, measuring 41mm in diameter and sporting a blue dial, costs a not inconsequential £11,200, its specification would suggest a higher ticket price. Therefore, I was eager to establish the reasons for the keen pricing of this beautifully appointed new model.
My itinerary necessitated spending time looking behind the scenes at the making of the movements in Fleurier before travelling to Geneva to see how the other components are made, the assembly of the watch and its final regulation.
In this feature, I look at the making of the Chopard Alpine Eagle movements – the Calibre Chopard 01.01-C and Calibre Chopard 09.01-C. Later, in a separate article, I will focus on the work undertaken at the Genevan site.
It all starts with the barquette
The ground floor production area is termed ‘T0’, subscribing to an industry-wide naming convention. One side of the room features floor to ceiling windows, bathing the area with natural light, a useful resource when inspecting components at close quarters.
State of the art CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines are used to make bridges and main plates. The main plate is effectively the chassis of the movement to which other components are affixed. Despite the incredible tolerances of the CNC machine, all components are subsequently checked with a micrometer. It is imperative that the main plate is to specification. Should it be out of tolerance then all other affixed components would be out of position, potentially impairing the performance / reliability of the watch. Staff are fastidious, working to a high level of precision, typically 1-2 microns (a human hair usually measures 50-70 microns).
Image – CNC machine
The programming of CNC machines takes an inordinate amount of time and requires much expertise on the part of highly skilled technicians. Such is the protracted nature of the programming phase it often takes longer than the entire machining process.
Everything starts with the ‘barquette’, a square plate of brass. This blank is fed into a CNC machine, along with a series of identical brass plates. The CNC machine performs a multitude of cutting and drilling steps with absolute precision.
Image – an array of parts processed using a CNC machine
The production area was spacious and operating-theatre clean. Indeed, despite the CNC machines using cutting fluids, the floor was dry and free of soils. I glanced to the right and noticed colour-coordinated files and visual aids conveying modern-day production principles. Watchmaking know-how is omnipresent, but Kaizen, Kanban boards and 5S are also very much in evidence, an indication that the company has embraced the best working practices from other industries. A culture of continuous improvement and quality pervades the area, conferring reliability and efficiency for the benefit of Chopard’s clientele.
Chopard has also invested in other forms of modern plant, including spark erosion machines, used for making steel components, and profile turning machines for producing pinions, screws and an array of other minuscule parts. The level of in-house expertise is remarkable.
After a component is made it is decorated. The purpose of decoration is to remove signs of machining, improve corrosion resistance and enhance the visual appearance of a part. Furthermore, some forms of decoration are traditional and pay due reverence to the techniques employed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Main plates are adorned with a series of overlapping circles, termed ‘perlage’. Each circular motif overlaps its neighbour by 50%. At the nearby Chopard Manufacture, where ultra high-end L.U.C calibres are made, perlage is applied to the main plate using a small hand operated machine. It is the consistent application of pressure and the careful placing of a rotating peg that delivers a peerless result. A skilled operator will have spent several years acquiring the necessary expertise to imbue surfaces with the cloud-like decoration.
However, at Fleurier Ebauches, a fully automated process creates the coveted perlage motif. The method at Fleurier Ebauches may be different, but it is equally valid. Purists may point out that when embellishing a surface with perlage, the hand applied technique delivers a superior result. Personally, I would tend to agree with this viewpoint, albeit the Fleurier Ebauches technique still provides an attractive result, surpassing the standard found on many similarly priced watches.
Image – the automated application of Côtes de Genève motif
The oscillating mass found on the Calibre Chopard 09.01-C is embellished with Côtes de Genève motif. The parallel stripes adorning the rotor are imparted to the surface using automation. Traditionally, a rotating, abrasive head is positioned adjacent a bridge or rotor. The part is fed into the machine, taking care to ensure the head imbues the surface with a series of parallel lines. The Fleurier Ebauches method is less time consuming than the traditional technique employed at Chopard Manufacture, however, it remains highly attractive. A connoisseur with a loupe in hand may point out that the Geneva stripes on the L.U.C bridge are better defined. They would be correct. The L.U.C components have been subject to two or three separate ‘passes’ beneath the abrasive head compared to just one, however, the parallel stripes found on the Fleurier Ebauches movement remain exquisite.
Image – movement bridge (Calibre Chopard 09.01-C), embellished with Côtes de Genève motif (prior to electroplating)
In some cases, a surface receives no decoration. For example, where the heel of a bridge sits upon another surface, no decoration takes place which would, by default, remove material and cause parts to wobble, impairing the overall stability of the calibre.
Brass can oxidise over time, hence after the movement parts have been decorated, they are electroplated. This process ensures all brass parts retain a showroom-fresh appearance.
The movement assembly area is a dust-free environment. Indeed, the hygienic surroundings are virtually aseptic. Prior to entering the pristine production area, I donned a white watchmaker’s coat and affixed disposable overshoes to my beloved Church’s. My hosts were keen to ensure their hospitality did not cause any potential contamination risk. Indeed, this degree of fastidiousness significantly reduces the risk of contaminants marring the pristine components and adversely affecting reliability.
The romantic image of a watchmaker, labouring over one watch in a snow clad atelier, is soon dispelled. The main plate moves along a high-tech production line. One or two components are added to the main plate by an operator and it is then passed to another worker who undertakes the next assembly task. The nature of the work is time consuming, albeit the division of labour ensures staff possess a thorough understanding of their respective responsibilities. This approach provides consistency, mitigates the chance of human error and heightens productivity.
Throughout every stage, the progress of each movement is monitored. Should something later be found remiss, the source of the problem can be identified and remedied. Movement performance is displayed in realtime on computer screens. Lubricants are carefully controlled and added automatically with due consideration to viscosity and volume.
Regulation and testing
After the regulating organ (the balance wheel and hairspring) is fitted, the movement undergoes a variety of tests.
The hairspring should breathe concentrically and remain flat. If this is not the case, the watchmaker will manipulate the hairspring manually, bringing it within tolerance.
The movement is placed on a Witschi timing machine in order to ascertain the rate accuracy, the amplitude and the beat error. The trained watchmaker will move the ‘raquette’ or index regulator to adjust the rate. If the watch has a significant beat error (an asymmetrical oscillation of the balance), the collet of the hairspring is adjusted. There is no substitute for the expertise of a skilled watchmaker and each movement at Fleurier Ebauches is painstakingly checked and adjusted to ensure precise and reliable operation.
Automatic movements are checked using an elaborate machine which simulates the watch being worn, validating the oscillating weight energises the mainspring as intended.
Once the movement is deemed acceptable it is packaged and sent to Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC). On arrival at COSC, the movement is held at 23°C for at least 12 hours, thereafter, it is tested over a 15 day period. The certification criteria includes testing the movement at three different temperatures and in five different positions. Only if the movement passes the raft of COSC tests is it certified as a ‘chronometer’ by the independent accreditation body.
A closer look at the movements
Chopard could have used one movement for both the 41mm and 36mm versions of the Alpine Eagle and enjoyed greater economies of scale. However, the Swiss firm has a reputation for horological rectitude and would not countenance housing an undersized movement within one of its models. Each version of the Alpine Eagle has its own unique calibre, optimally sized for its case.
The Calibre Chopard 01.01-C resides within the 41mm version of the Alpine Eagle. It incorporates a partially openworked oscillating mass. The movement measures 28.8mm in diameter and has a thickness of 4.95mm. The chronometer-certified calibre (COSC) is comprised of 207 components, including 31 jewels. The power reserve is sufficient to deliver 60 hours of autonomous operation.
Image – Calibre Chopard 01.01-C
The four spoke balance wheel oscillates to a frequency of 28,800 VpH (4Hz). The rate is adjusted with a curb adjuster (raquette). Looking through the spokes of the balance wheel, the eyes encounter a sea of pristine perlage gracing the main plate. The bridges eschew the ubiquitous Geneva stripes in favour of becoming colimaçon.
Chopard has endowed the leading edge of each bridge with a gleaming bevel, conferring comely contrast with the bridge surface and its flank. Each screw is pristine and sports a chamfered rim. While the Swiss marque has embraced cutting-edge production methods it has not abandoned fine watchmaking practise.
The Calibre Chopard 09.01-C may be smaller, but it is no less virtuous. It measures a diminutive 20.4mm in diameter with a comparatively slender height of 3.65mm. The automatic movement contains 147 components, of which 27 are jewels. The balance within this movement has a lower frequency of 3.5Hz. This confers chronometric precision (COSC) while at the same time providing a power reserve of 42 hours. These are worthy attributes for a movement of such modest proportions. Unlike its larger sibling, the Calibre Chopard 09.01-C is embellished with Côtes de Genève motif.
Image – Calibre Chopard 09.01-C
Both the Calibre Chopard 01.01-C and Calibre Chopard 09.01-C illustrate the impressive in-house capability of this luxury brand.
Assuming a movement has passed all functional, chronometric and aesthetic controls, it is dispatched from Fleurier Ebauches to Chopard’s Genevan facility. It is during its time in Geneva that the movement will morph into a complete watch.
Image – Chopard HQ, Geneva
However, while the creation of an Alpine Eagle is a collaborative effort between the sites at Fleurier and Geneva, with the latter site bringing each element of the watch together to a glorious conclusion, there will always be a part of each timepiece that will forever be Fleurier.
Beneath the elevated position of the Chapeau de Napoléon (Napoleon’s hat), a restaurant clinging to the hillside above Fleurier, Chopard makes movements in its impressive Fleurier Ebauches facility.
Some of the tasks which are performed by hand on the brand’s costlier L.U.C models are delivered using automation at Fleurier Ebauches. This approach provides cost savings while upholding the high standards of finishing and product quality for which the firm is renowned.
While the history of Chopard dates back to 1860 and its watchmaking expertise is consistent with this impressive patrimony, the Swiss marque has shown a willingness to embrace technology and the best industrial working practises for the benefit of its customers. It is by adopting this approach that the Chopard Alpine Eagle movements proffer a remarkable blend of performance and value, a winning formula that is clear to see.