Three-hand automatic watches are the most popular kind of mechanical watch, and the calibers that tick inside them are some of the most affordable, reliable, and wide-spread ones out there. If you value vertical integration and technical individuality, you’re surely on the lookout for watches with in-house calibers.
Without going into the much-discussed criteria associated with the label “in-house,” we can say that the selection of affordable watches with stand-alone automatic movements has increased. More and more brands are presenting their own calibers, starting with classic automatic movements. Some manufacturers are even hoping to supply up-and-coming brands with movements, in addition to using them in their own watches. In this article, we’ll show you how this process has looked for two very different brands.
The Tudor and Kenissi Story
The relatively unknown company Kenissi is inseparable from Tudor, Rolex’s sibling brand, and its rise on the watch market. Of course, it’s difficult to say how much this success was due to the introduction of in-house movements thanks to Kenissi and how much had to do with the acute Rolex shortage. It is, however, indisputable that Tudor is experiencing success on the market and is positioning itself as a legitimate choice in its own right and not jut a Rolex consolation prize.
An important building block for this was the introduction of the first Tudor in-house caliber in 2015. Before deciding to build their own, Tudor had opted for ETA movements. In making the move to in-house, they didn’t use Rolex’s existing infrastructure in Biel, Switzerland, or even build a vertically integrated facility within the Tudor brand. Instead, they made the arguably unconventional decision to found a separate company for making movements. Why venture down this unusual path given that a high level of vertical integration is one of the core values of their role model Rolex?
When considering this question, keep in mind that the Rolex SA has only been around since 2004. It came about when Rolex Montres SA, independent up until that point, took over the Biel-based Manufacture des Montres Rolex SA. The movement manufacturer Aegler was behind Rolex in Biel and had a business relationship with the founders of Rolex stretching back to the 1910s. As the exclusive producer of calibers for Rolex, they operated under the name of the crown and functioned as a single entity, but they were owned by the descendants of the Aegler founding family. This is in contrast to Rolex Montres SA, which was under the ownership of the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. With Rolex Montres SA’s takeover, the creation of Rolex SA, and other strategic acquisitions of suppliers, the foundation was laid for the almost complete verticalization of Rolex.
Now back to Tudor in 2022: In the context of their move into a new building in Le Locle, Switzerland, which Tudor and Kenissi were to share, the separation of the two firms seemed more of a technicality than ever. Why continue to maintain these separate structures when Rolex had worked for years towards the merger with their movement manufacturer?
The answer will be clear to most people who have been following the events surrounding Kenissi: While Rolex would never make its movement production available to an external brand, Tudor did exactly that within just two years of opening Kenissi. And what’s more, since Kenissi is separate from the ownership structures of the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, it was possible to involve external investors in the company.
Kenissi first supplied a movement for the Breitling Superocean and went on to supply Chanel, Norqain, Fortis, and TAG Heuer watches. You might have noticed that this list includes both independent brands and competitors from large corporations. Chanel probably has the closest relationship to Kenissi, having acquired 20% in the company shortly after the haute horlogerie brand F.P. Journe got on board. This serves as a good example of the importance of exclusive technology in calibers, regardless of whether we’re dealing with mid-range watches or high-end pieces.
Kenissi – The Movements
Kenissi produces two families of movements, which are known as MT56 and MT54 at Tudor. They differ with regard to their dimensions, especially their diameters. MT56 movements have a diameter of 32 to 34 mm, while MT54s measure just 26 mm.
The first Tudor watch to be equipped with an in-house movement was the North Flag, which contains the MT5621. Interestingly, it has a power reserve indicator, which was done away with on its successor, the MT5612. The North Flag has since been discontinued, taking the MT5621 with it. The MT5612 is still used for Tudor’s three-hand models with a date display, including the 41-mm Black Bay.
The much sought-after Black Bay Fifty-Eight with its compact dimensions uses the equally compact caliber MT5402, with three hands but without a date display. This space-saving caliber was introduced in 2018, three years after the MT5621. Variations of it are used in some of Norqain’s more compact models as well as in the Chanel J12.1, and have a date display and (in the case of Chanel) an individually designed rotor that obscures its similarity to the Tudor version. When it comes to Tudor, you can only catch a glimpse of this movement in the Black Bay Fifty-Eight 18K, as it’s otherwise hidden behind a thick case back. The rather industrial look of Kenissi movements fits in well with Tudor’s robust brand image and serves to separate it in appearance from the more highly positioned brand Rolex.
This visual step away from Rolex is a smart move in terms of brand positioning, since the Tudor/Kenissi calibers largely hold their own against Rolex’s. Especially in the first few years after the launch of Kenissi movements, there were a number of Tudor watches that were even technically superior to their Rolex counterparts. How could that be the case? The answer is that Rolex took its time introducing its new generation of movements with up-to-date power reserves.
The movements in both of Kenissi’s lines usually come with a power reserve of 70 hours, a chronometer certificate, a robust balance bridge, and a silicon hairspring. The latter is rather rare at Rolex, even though the brand was involved in the first patents of silicon escapements.
The Oris Story
This charming, independent brand from Hölstein, Switzerland, makes no secret of the fact that some of their watches are assembled by external partners and contain components and movements from external specialists. And yet, despite this lack of vertical integration, Oris advertises in-house calibers – something that might be considered justified considering the exclusivity and sourcing of the movements from various Swiss suppliers, depending on which definition of “in-house” you want to use. Of course, it’s difficult to draw clear lines here. Does every component need to come from a company’s own workshops? What about hairsprings, sapphire crystal, and jewel bearings? If you follow these thoughts to their conclusion, there won’t be a single brand that counts as producing “in-house” calibers. That’s why my very subjective standards for the designation “in-house caliber” are that it implies a certain degree of technical autonomy and can’t be applied to every brand.
Today, we can be happy that Oris still exists in its current form. There was a time when the brand had almost 1,000 employees and even made their escapements themselves. Then, with the quartz crisis and their acquisition by the ASUAG (the precursor to what is today the Swatch Group), the brand was in danger of fading into obscurity. Fortunately, a management buy-out enabled them to transition to Oris SA, and they’ve remained in this company structure until today. Between their red rotor and automatic movements made by ETA, Oris managed to regain a place on the reinvigorated market for mechanical watches. A return to its former size and extent of vertical integration was and is out of the question. But after many successful years working with externally produced movements, the brand once again pursued the goal of working with more in-house technologies.
They took the first step – or, more accurately, leap – in this direction with the introduction of the caliber 110. On the occasion of their 110th birthday in 2014, the brand released this high-quality manual movement and ended Oris’ long era of ETA movements.
Unlike the numerous brands that developed identical automatic movements in the face of a looming halt in delivery from ETA, Oris got off to an ambitious start with a manual movement with a 10-day power reserve. Technical features such as asymmetric gears, the impressive power reserve, and the 34-mm diameter (without date display) ensured that the movement was positively received. However, the watches equipped with this movement didn’t have an easy time on the market. Perhaps it had to do with their large dimensions (over 43 mm), or maybe it was their relatively high price point for Oris (over $5,000). In the end, these models all but disappeared from the Oris catalog, making way for the caliber 400 family with its much broader appeal.
Oris – The Caliber 400
After the technical success but unpopularity of their 10-day manual movement, Oris went back to the basics with an automatic movement for the brand’s core collection. This time the movement did without any frills or complex features and focussed on more value for the buyer.
The result was a 30-mm automatic movement with a 120 hour (five day) power reserve, high magnetic resistance, and overall robustness and easy maintenance. All the competition promised the same – after all, who is going to advertise their fragile calibers? But Oris sealed the deal with a ten-year service interval and a warranty of the same length.
This is all made possible by a solid design that dispenses with showiness and superlatives, thus avoiding any unnecessary complexity. The double barrel look like a single one with longer springs. It moves the gears using an optimized geometry with minimized torque.
The springs are tensioned by a slide-bearing, unidirectional rotor. This is rather rare today, as bidirectional rotors are generally seen as more technically advanced and effective. However, this isn’t an opinion shared by everyone – even Patek Philippe and Girard-Perregaux have movements with unidirectional rotors. As long as this suffices for winding a watch in the course of a typical day’s activities, there’s no reason not to go unidirectional.
When it comes to the ETA 2824-2 or its near clone, the Sellita SW200-1, the minute wheels are some of the most delicate components. Oris consciously went with a more simple design in order to be able to uphold its promised service interval and warranty.
And they didn’t resort to solutions like a lower balance frequency, which would have meant sacrifices in precision. Another problem that can arise in watches with large power reserves is the inconsistent force that the barrel exerts on the movement. The larger the power reserve is, the larger the range of forces that the escapement will have to perform flawlessly under. This is why in double barrels you’ll find springs made of a special alloy called Bioflex, which is produced by the spring specialist Générale Ressorts and makes flat torque curves possible. The escapement and pallet are made of anti-magnetic silicon and reduce the amount of regulation necessary.
All of that pays off, since the caliber 400 doesn’t just perform up to chronometer standards, but exceeds them. The watches aren’t officially certified, but their performance is guaranteed, which has a positive effect on prices for the watches.
With prices around $3,000 and a debut in the bestseller Aquis, it’s all but confirmed that an in-house movement with broad appeal is the way to go. The ProPilot X Calibre 400, on the other hand, is a more futuristic and daring choice, with its titanium case and bracelet.
If you’re wondering whether Oris can achieve the commercial success they had hoped for with this movement, here’s some news for you: 2021 was the best fiscal year for Oris SA since their founding, and according to the brand, they couldn’t meet the demand for the caliber 400 with the amount they had produced.