Hubert Burda Media

Rise of Watch Certifications

With more brands relying on in-house quality labels, we explain how they differ from the traditional ones.

While regarded as a mark of quality in watchmaking, even the term “Swiss made” is today, a diluted representation of what it used to mean, as only a portion of a watch needs to be produced within Switzerland in order to qualify for the hallmark. Aside from this label, the world of haute horlogerie is dotted with many more certifications that are much more specific. These labels were engineered as a sign of assurance to consumers and served as an additional point of differentiation among the brands — presumably, a watch is deemed as better or more accurate, when they are accompanied by these quality stamps.

The oldest and probably most famous of these labels is the Seal of Geneva (Poinçon de Genève), which was created in 1886. This historic measure was established as a certification that can only be awarded to Geneva-based watch companies with movements that are assembled and regulated within the canton of Geneva. It was a quality seal that was originally devised to protect the name “Geneva” from abuse by brands outside of the canton that were, more often than not, producing less superior timepieces. The Seal of Geneva — awarded by a commission comprising seven members who are Swiss citizens appointed for four-year terms — has been modified over the years to remain current and relevant. Watch brands that regularly receive the Seal of Geneva include Vacheron Constantin (since 1909), Roger Dubuis, Chopard and most recently, Cartier.

The Seal of Geneva is now part of an organisation known as Timelab, whose range of activities is accredited by four international ISO/IEC standards. In addition to the Poinçon de Genève, this also includes the Observatoire Chronométrique certification. The self-prescribed aim of the independent and neutral Timelab is to provide potential customers with an additional guarantee of quality.

The other quality label widely adopted by watch brands is Switzerland’s Contrôle Official Suisse de Chronomètres (COSC), a non-profit organisation established in 1973 in Switzerland. The COSC’s standards have been set by international agreement, which makes them the same whether they are ISO (International Organization for Standardization) or DIN (Deutsche Industrienorm) standards. The organisation was founded by five cantons in Switzerland where watchmaking is prevalent (Bern, Geneva, Neuchâtel, Solothurn and Vaud) together with the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH).

Rolex has long been a proponent of external testing, even though its internal quality control facilities probably outdo COSC’s impressive equipment. Sources report that COSC’s laboratories in Geneva and Biel are almost entirely devoted to testing Rolex’s products, as the brand is the world’s largest producer of official chronometers, with numbers purportedly reaching somewhere in the neighbourhood of 800,000 pieces annually. Perhaps Rolex understands that like students in school, standardised testing and results issued by an external and bias-free entity offers more credibility than having a Rolex watchmaker rate the company’s watches as outstanding. In the same manner, Breitling’s long insistence on measuring its chronometric performance externally is akin to an airplane manufacturer having its circuitry checked by external engineers. When it comes to precision instruments, verification is important.

An officially certified COSC chronometer can be identified by a serial number engraved on its movement, as well as a certificate provided by the institute. Testing criteria is based on ISO 3159, which defines a mechanical chronometer for the wrist. There is no ISO standard for a quartz movement, but the COSC has its own standard for testing quartz chronometers. The average daily rate of a mechanical chronometer may not exceed -4/+6 seconds per day; for quartz, this value is, of course, stricter at ± 0.07 seconds per day.

Not every chronometer is supplied to the consumer with its COSC report, since this is an option that may or may not be exercised by the brand or maker. Each manufacture decides whether to reveal the exact results gathered during the certification process of the movement. Rolex and Omega, for example, do not automatically supply their chronometer-certified watches with COSC certificates, but may do so upon request of the owner.

Other independent certifications

The Qualité Fleurier is a foundation in Fleurier, Switzerland that was founded in 2001 by Swiss watch companies located in the region: Bovet, Chopard, Parmigiani and Vaucher. Its ambitious task is to unite several tests within one single certification. The Fleurier Quality Foundation is supported by the Swiss federal government, the canton of Neuchâtel, the Val-de-Travers Regional Association and the Philippe Jéquier Foundation. Certification is open to any Swiss or European Union brand that meets its criteria and its testing is conducted objectively under the supervision of a technical committee.

FQF certification may only be issued if the movement has also attained the following: COSC certification; the Chronofiable test (another Swiss certification that basically tests that a watch will age gracefully); finishing according to the certification’s criteria, which ensure the aesthetics of haute horlogerie; and the finished watch must pass the Fleuritest, a local procedure that ensures that the watch’s rate is between 0 and +5 seconds deviation per day.

Together with the offices of weights and measures in Thuringia (LMET) and Saxony (SLME), Wempe offered the first independent chronometer-testing facility in Germany in 38 years. As of 2006, its chronometer testings in Germany have been performed in an observatory — the Glashütte observatory to be exact. Thanks to official accreditation from the German Calibration Service (DKD), Wempe’s own two lines (Zeitmeister and Chronometerwerke) were Germany’s first official chronometers to have ever been tested according to the country’s industrial norm.

Wempe’s observatory facility is operated by LMET, accredited by the Thuringian State Office’s testing facility as an off-site subsidiary of LMET’s calibrating laboratory. It works on the basis of the international norm ISO/IEC 17025, which ensures global acceptance of the facility’s certificates, one of which is issued with every watch passing the test procedure and making certification. Because LMET is an independent, state-run organisation, it also ensures impartiality. The German Calibrating Service also watches over the continued competence and integrity of this facility.

The German DIN standard is similar to the international ISO norm utilised in Switzerland, but differs in one rather important point: In Glashütte, the movement undergoes its testing under real conditions inside its very own case, rather than in the temporary ones used for COSC testing.

In-house certifications

In December of 2014, Omega — one of the largest providers of tested chronometers after Rolex — announced a new chronometer certification in conjunction with the Swiss Federal Office of Metrology and Accreditation (Metas). At press time, the only watch to have been introduced with Omega’s new so-called Master Chronometer Certification is 2015’s Globemaster.

Even if the privately held COSC is accredited as a Swiss Calibration Service laboratory by the state-owned Metas, Omega obviously feels that offering Metas-certified chronometers instead of COSC-certified ones differentiates itself — perhaps from its number-one competitor, Rolex.

Quality has also been a signature element of a Patek Philippe timepiece since the very beginning. Thus, the brand has always subscribed to the disciplined elements contained in the Seal of Geneva, which guaranteed a certain level of quality. In fact, 100 percent of the watches leaving the Patek Philippe factory were stamped with this highly coveted hallmark signifying quality in no uncertain terms until 2009.

When it introduced its own quality label in 2009, it wanted to include functional elements such as accuracy, cases, dials and other aspects of a finished watch. After 120 years of being stamped with the Poinçon de Genève, both CEO Thierry Stern and his father Philippe Stern decided to have their company’s watches indented with a new sign of quality, which they felt included more standards — particularly where they cannot be immediately seen — thereby guaranteeing a higher level of excellence to the brand’s traditional clients.  Inside the watch, it includes meeting a prescribed timing rate of -3/+2 seconds per day for timepieces with mechanical movements more than 20mm in diameter. The complete, encased watch embarks upon the timing test so as to more accurately resemble true wearing conditions. As a comparison, all current Swiss quality seals only test uncased movements.

Jaeger-LeCoultre likewise writes its own rulebook when it comes to the benefit of its clients, and the quality and accuracy it feels its own watches deserve. Before a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch leaves the Le Sentier factory, it must pass the company’s strict 1000 Hours Control. Here, the brand tests and certifies its own finished watches, reproducing the conditions of real-life wear. For close to six weeks, these watches undergo a series of tough trials.

The watchmakers in Montblanc’s factory also do everything possible to uphold the quality of the brand’s manufacture movements (not its purchased movements) through a label it calls the Montblanc 500 Hours. This stamp includes a comprehensive testing programme conceived to validate the brand’s quality by simulating the first year of a timepiece’s life as it is worn. In a dedicated laboratory, every Montblanc watch powered by an in-house mechanism is tested under conditions that emulate what a watch might encounter when it is worn for 500 hours, or almost three weeks.

It may not come as much of a surprise to learn that both of these brands were at one time presided over by the same CEO: Jérôme Lambert, a very clever brand leader and enthusiastic perpetuator of quality.

The future of certifications

Not every watchmaker believes in certifications, particularly external ones, but Jean-Claude Biver, the current CEO of TAG Heuer and head of luxury conglomerate LVMH’s watch division strongly acknowledges their importance: “I think certifications are good. Would Rolex be Rolex without the COSC? And the Patek Philippe Seal is just genius.” CEO of Zenith Aldo Magado similarly acknowledges their importance to the chronograph-maker known for its high-speed movements. “Zenith has a long history of winning chronometric awards and certifications are important to the brand to demonstrate its quality in performance,” he expressed. “We will probably send more timepieces in the future for certification.”

Although the rigour of these tests are well-demonstrated, whether they are actually needed today is another question altogether. Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie, considers it a marketing tool that’s not essential. “We don’t have external certifications on our watches,” he explains. “We try to communicate our quality ourselves.” The brand, for example, offers a double balance spring escapement with a large balance wheel to ensure that its timepieces are precise. Each watch is also carefully calibrated by hand to ensure that timekeeping is consistent.

To be fair, Moser also produces only a small quantity of watches a year, compared to TAG Heuer or Breitling, which enables them to maintain such internal standards of quality. In a way, external certifications are a brand audit. If some movements are consistently rejected due to a particular aspect of testing, it could well be an issue within the factory the brand needs to improve on. That’s not to suggest that quality control isn’t as stringent in a larger firm, simply that there are more opportunities for gaps in the system that need to be fixed.

Today, many Swiss watch labels do not subscribe to testing because standards of precision today are relatively high in watchmaking — most well-regulated standard movements will pass chronometer testing whether they possess a certificate or not. Even the most inexpensive ETA calibres gives an average of ±12 seconds a day, with a maximum of 30 seconds over the same period. Yet, as Meylan rightly points out, there are those who use certifications to distinguish themselves from the competition.

In this year’s Concours International de Chronométrie, none of the aforementioned watchmaking brands took part in the event. The record holder of this competition and 2011 winner was Greubel Forsey with the Double Tourbillon 30° Technique, which still holds the highest score (915) since the competition was revived in 2009. Interestingly, Greubel Forsey doesn’t participate in external testing.

The results of this year’s competition revealed some surprising statistics. Of the 28 watch brands submitted, only six passed all the tests. The winner in the classic competition was Tissot, with a score of 908 out of 1,000. The competition also revealed that one anonymous submission scored 931 points, the highest ever obtained. However, since it was an anonymous submission, they could not award the timepiece. Philippe Fischer, chairman of the competition, commented: “I am disappointed at the small number of participants and I hope the causes can be found in the uncertain state of the watchmaking business since the beginning of the year. I dare not contemplate that the precision and reliability of the products might be merely brand advertising slogans, not based on actual measurable performances.”

As for the future of these quality labels, the question then has to be put to you: Is a five-second deviation from your schedule so precious?