Sébastien Chaulmontet of Sellita
Dr Sébastien Chaulmontet of Sellita, the company’s Head of Innovation and Marketing talks about his role at the Swiss mechanical movement specialist. In addition, he provides a fascinating insight into the work undertaken by Sellita.
Founded in 1950, Sellita is a specialist producer of mechanical watch movements. Based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the watchmaking heartland of Switzerland, it supplies movements to vast numbers of watch brands in the surrounding areas and beyond.
A few years ago, Swatch Group announced that in the future its subsidiary and market giant, ETA, would focus on making movements for its sister brands within the group. This move would not happen overnight, but the intention was clearly there; Swatch Group did not want to supply as many of its competitors with ETA movements.
Some watch brands responded by developing and making their own in-house movements with varying degrees of success. Indeed, for some watch firms it took many years of fine-tuning their in-house movements before they could match the precision and reliability of ETA.
Furthermore, some Maisons which opted for the in-house route, sought to recover all of their R&D costs virtually overnight. This led several watch companies to charge over 50% more for a similar watch to its ETA-based forebear, albeit now equipped with an in-house movement. Eventually, the market spoke and prices were realigned. However, there were inevitably consumers who bought their watch at an inflated price only to see the manufacturer subsequently introduce a price reduction. Clearly, this latter action did little to engender good customer relations.
There were other movement specialists who filled the gap and supplied an increasing share of the market. Some of these companies created haute horlogerie grade movements with commensurate pricing e.g. Vaucher. Other firms produced movements for luxury watches, but also positioned themselves at more accessible levels. One such specialist firm is Sellita, one of the largest mechanical movement makers in Switzerland.
This family-owned company has been in operation for 70 years and has gained a reputation for making quality movements and supplying them to modern-day établisseurs. Today, the firm’s reference numbers have become part of watchmaking parlance, with SW200, SW300 et al frequently shown in various watch brands’ literature.
Sellita has a bright future, supplying the watch industry with an array of products in a variety of specifications. Moreover, the Swiss firm also offers its clients the option to personalise movements to their precise requirements.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Dr Sébastien Chaulmontet of Sellita, the company’s Head of Innovation and Marketing, a series of questions about his role and the company’s activities.
Interview with Sébastien Chaulmontet of Sellita
What makes Sellita special?
Sellita is special for many reasons. First of all, it is the biggest independent, family run supplier of mechanical movements in Switzerland. Its independence is pivotal for Sellita and one of its key strengths. As Sellita does not own a watch brand nor is it connected or affiliated to any group, it can supply any watch company without there being any conflict of interest.
Can you explain what your relationship was with ETA
For over half a century Sellita has been a major assembler of ETA ébauches (kits/blanks). Sellita’s business model consisted of buying ébauches from ETA, decorating and assembling them before selling them on to watch brands. Things only started to change when ETA decided to stop delivering ébauches to third parties. Because of ETA’s decision, Sellita had to become a fully-fledged movement manufacturer in order to survive. It took Sellita roughly 15 years to acquire in-house control over all the essential stages of the design, manufacturing and assembly of mechanical movements. Now, as a result of a strong vertical integration strategy, today’s Sellita has its own movement-blank factory (Gurofa), its own electroplating business (Technicor) and a bar-turning company (Helios). Today, Sellita is no longer reliant on the supply of ETA’s ébauches.
Can you provide an insight into your role and what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Well, my responsibilities are quite extensive. My main task is to conceive future products with my team. Over the last few years we have continuously extended our offering. In addition to its seven families of calibres, Sellita also offers a wide range of small to medium complications like moon phase, power reserve indication, GMT, etc. We have also massively extended our chronograph line, including various mono-pushers, regatta-counters, etc. Therefore, Sellita is now more than just a supplier of basic movements.
The second major aspect of my job is to take care of the marketing side of things, in particular, creating our annual catalogue and keeping our website up to speed. Our website has become much more interactive over the last two years and now allows our customers to configure movements online and to access all technical documents.
I note you make time-only movements as well as chronographs. We previously met when you worked at Arnold & Son and I remember you were very creative, designing an array of different movements endowed with various complications.
Do you plan to offer a fully integrated column-wheel chronograph with vertical coupling?
Yes, you can expect a new chronograph from us…
Can we expect to see Sellita unveil new complications in the future?
Yes, we do have a lot of new developments in the pipeline, but it always takes us longer than with small manufacturers as everything has to be industrialised to a much higher level and also extensively tested.
Could you envisage Sellita offering an affordable tourbillon in the future?
Potentially yes, there is basically no complication that we couldn’t do. The only question is if there is widespread demand for such a complication. Sellita will focus solely on complications that appeal to a large audience. Our strength is producing high volumes, hence we choose to focus purely on complications where there is high potential interest. We will not enter the market of “niche” complications, others do it much better than we could.
Sellita offer different types of movement executions. Can you describe what constitutes your basic level of finishing and what additional details are provided with your highest specification of finish?
For every movement, we offer a vast array of executions, both in terms of escapement and finish. You first have to distinguish that type of escapement / chronometric precision is required. There are four categories of escapement: “standard”, “special”, “top” and “chronometer”. The higher you go the better the precision.
Then you have the finish/decoration choices. Basically, all kinds of decorations are available. Each client can choose the finish and galvanic treatment they wish to have. The possible combinations are almost infinite. Therefore, each client has its “own” / tailor-made movement.
Depending on the choices made, a calibre can cost 2-3 times more than the basic execution of the same calibre. This point is important to keep in mind when people compare two different watches with the “same” calibre. The calibres used might have the same reference number, but may be very different.
An increasing number of brands are employing silicium for escape wheels, hairsprings and pallet levers. Is this something you offer? What are your thoughts on using silicium?
No, currently we do not offer silicium components. The main reason for this is because of their intrinsic fragility. Silicium components are extremely difficult to handle and are very brittle. Sellita produce movements which must be serviceable by any qualified watchmaker around the globe. It is essential that our movements can be easily handled. Silicium components would add weakness which is not offset by the advantages of silicium (lightness, anti-magnetic, etc.). Instead, we like to use components made in nickel-phosphorus, using Liga-technology. They are as precise in terms of tolerances and can be made with a very low mass. Furthermore, to a large extent, nickel-phosphorus components are also anti-magnetic.
Often in the watch industry we talk about the difficulty in making the assortment and, in particular, hairsprings. Do you make these components in-house?
Indeed, the assortment is the most complicated group of components to manufacture. In Switzerland there is only one company capable of producing large quantities of high-quality assortments: Nivarox-FAR SA. Historically we have always relied on this company and continue to do so.
I have heard that you offer a semi-bespoke service where indications can be positioned to suit the client’s dial design or encompass specific complications. Can you provide an overview of what type of services you offer?
Yes, we have launched a second brand called Manufacture AMT to offer these services. Basically, everything is possible, from an entirely new calibre especially designed and reserved for a client to smaller aesthetic modifications of existing calibres. We also develop a lot of additional complications based on clients’ requests. Last, but not least, we also offer a lot of custom-made skeleton movements.
Which movement are you most proud of?
I am proud of all the calibres we have launched so far but of course my focus always lies on the one we will launch next. I can already reveal, it will be an amazing new automatic movement with a long power reserve.
What I am also proud of is that we offer very interesting movements and complications at very attractive prices, allowing more people to enjoy Sellita quality. The Swiss industry needs to offer more audacious and innovative products to a larger audience and not only in the high price segment. Our mission is to help brands to launch such products by providing them with interesting and innovative movements.
How important is it to be based in La Chaux-de-Fonds?
Being in La Chaux-de-Fonds is very important as we are in the cradle of watchmaking and, more specifically, industrial watchmaking.
What are your future aspirations for Sellita?
To stay independent and to serve the whole industry as we have for the last 70 years.
While Sellita has been in existence for the last 70 years, its prominence has grown exponentially in recent years. Some firms that once used ETA calibres have inevitably migrated to Sellita, boosting the latter firm’s fortunes.
Likewise, other companies which offer Manufacture movements also sell products endowed with Sellita calibres. While the Manufacture movements may be used in premium lines with corresponding prices, the same firms still want to compete in lower price segments. Sellita facilitates this with its high-quality products. Should a brand want its movements to deliver the high chronometric precision or have impressive finishing, Sellita can accede to these requests.
Recently, I chatted to a CEO of a watch brand and he likened Manufacture AMT to AMG, the sub-brand of Mercedes-Benz known for its personalisation options. He went on to describe how movements can be adapted to meet a client’s needs or, if necessary, new movements can be made.
From a marketing perspective, if brands can procure movements which suit a particular dial design or deliver certain functions, this should facilitate creativity. This proves a tantalising prospect for any watch buyer who yearns for something different.
Finally, Sellita is able to offer reliable, precise and attractive movements at very keen prices. It achieves this not by leaving out desirable components, but by making large volumes of product, thereby achieving economies of scale. Thanks to Sellita, mechanical watches have become increasingly democratised and that, in my opinion, has to be a good thing.