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Blog: A Visit to the Longines Watch Factory

Date: 23 October 2019

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have either changed or added to significantly.

The section below is from my page about Longines.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact Me page.


A Visit to the Longines Watch Factory

A Longines watch of mine from 1877 won the competition in 2017 to find the oldest Longines watch in the UK. Part of the prize was a visit to the Longines factory in Saint-Imier, Switzerland, so in September 2018 I flew from an overcast, cool and wet Manchester to a sunny and surprisingly warm Geneva; the temperature was over 30°C!

I stayed overnight in Neuchâtel, a town with many interesting ancient buildings on the side of the large Lake of the same name. In the morning I was collected by a Longines driver and we headed north to Saint-Imier. As the car climbed up into the mountains that separate Neuchâtel from the Saint-Imier valley my ears popped like when taking off in an aeroplane. At the highest point of the road, a col between towering peaks of the Jura mountains, the SatNav indicated an elevation of 1,119 metres. From this point the road snaked down through woods into the valley of Saint-Imier, to the town of Saint-Imier itself.

St Imier and Longines Factory 1920s
St Imier and Longines Factory 1920s. Click image to enlarge.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photograph, but the scene looked almost unchanged from that in the postcard dated 1920 shown here, with Saint-Imier in the background and the Longines factory in the immediate foreground. The road from Neuchâtel enters the image just above the bottom left corner

I was welcomed to the factory by the ebullient Mr Walter von Känel, who has worked at Longines since 1969 and been President since 1988. I had taken two Longines watches with me, the pocket watch from 1877 that won the UK competition, and a wristwatch that I had recently cleaned and restored. The wristwatch was quite a bit newer than the pocket watch, the Longines’ heritage department had told me that it had been invoiced to Baume & Co. in London on 17 February 1911. We had a lively chat about Longines, my interest in the company and research, and my collection of Longines watches.

The factory is quite unlike most that I have previously visited. There is no need for hard hats and protective footwear, no noise of heavy machinery bashing metal or flashes of welding. In the Longines factory everything is calm and quiet, the only regular sound a cheery ‘bonjour!’ from everyone I pass.

But the virtually silent factory is actually hard at work. It is bursting at the seams with workers, the atmosphere is calm but positively charged. Everywhere are figures sitting at workbenches, looking intently though eyeglasses or microscopes at watches, manipulating parts into place, vacuuming away any trace of contamination, and contrôling, contrôling, contrôling.

Here I want to mention that in French, ‘contrôle’ does not mean the same as the apparently similar word ‘control’ in English. In English, to control means to make something happen, e.g. you control the flow of water into a sink by turning the tap. In French, to ‘contrôle’ means to observe or examine, e.g. ‘contrôle des passeports’ means that passports are examined. In the Longines factory, contrôle means to examine something to make sure it is working properly and that it looks right; that all the functions operate correctly, the hands line up, and that there is no dust or anything else that shouldn’t be there under the glass.

Longines Factory Today
Longines Factory Today. Click image to enlarge.

Unlike making movements, which is mainly done by robots these days, fitting dials and hands and casing requires humans: no machine has the fineness of touch or the clarity of vision to produce something that is visually perfect and will pass the scrutiny of even the pickiest customers. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs in the production areas, so I hope my descriptions will conjure up the atmosphere

Production Department

Manufacturing a Longines watch is divided into stages called T0 to T4. The manufacture of basic components is T0, assembly of these into a movement is T1, fitting the dial and hands and casing the movement is T2, fitting the strap or bracelet is T3, and T4 is the documentation and final contrôle before dispatch. The word contrôle is repeated like a religious mantra, which in this factory is exactly what it is.

Stages T2 to T4 are performed at Saint-Imier by Longines, as well as all design and development work on new watches. Because of the workload there are also three other Longines T2 departments at other sites. In 2017 Longines made one and a half million watches, of which the T2 department at Saint-Imier assembled half a million. They are aiming to achieve two million watches per annum within a few years.

Longines stopped making movements in-house in 1987 and today uses movements made by ETA. There are two lines of T1 movement manufacture in the Saint-Imier factory, operated by ETA, making L592 and L888 movements. The ‘L’ prefix indicates that although these are based on standard ETA movements they are specially customised for Longines, as are all the movements used in Longines watches.

I was kitted out with a lab coat and overshoes and we went into the T2 assembly area. Here people were quietly putting together watches, with an emphasis on cleanliness, quality and contrôle. Dust is the major enemy, hence the lab coat and overshoes. Every workstation is equipped with three hoses, two vacuum and one blower, and the vacuum hose with a fine brush was in constant use at every stage. After every stage the watches were carefully contrôled under magnification before passing on to the next.

The final stage in the T2 area is regulation and pressure test. The watch timing machines take 16 watch heads at a time, and the testing is computer controlled. Watches are pressure qualified to either 30 metres water depth, equivalent to a static pressure of 3 atmospheres, which is adequate for everyday use, or 200 metres for diving. Watches qualified to 30m undergo pressure and vacuum tests in air. Watches qualified to 200m are also submerged for a period in water pressurised to 300 metres. They are then put on a heated bench and allowed to warm up and a drop of water at room temperature is placed on the glass. If more than a minute amount of condensation forms on the inside of the glass, the water resistance is suspect. A very tiny amount of condensation is not unexpected during this test, because normal air contains some water as humidity, more or less depending on the season.

The split between mechanical and quartz watches manufactured by Longines today is about 80/20: 80% mechanical, 20% quartz. I was surprised to learn that the majority of watches made are simple ‘three hand’ models displaying hours, minutes and seconds. Watches with ‘complications’ such as chronographs form only about 7–8% of production.

Stock and Shipping Department

In the stock and shipping department the watches are fitted with a metal bracelet or leather strap, the T3 stage. The split of bracelets to straps is about 80/20; 80% metal bracelets, 20% leather straps.

The details of the watch are then contrôled and entered into the computerised production records. Every watch produced by Longines since No. 1 in 1867 has a serial number against which all the details of movement type, case style and material, bracelet or strap etc are recorded. When I visited they were logging serial numbers in the 48 million range. The watches are then labelled and bagged along with their documentation, guarantee card and so on, ready to be put into retail packaging.

All Longines watches, from the T2 department I saw and the other, off site, T2s come into this department for the T3 and T4 stages. The numbers are huge. On an average day they receive 6,000 to 9,000 watches. On one day in November 2017, in the run up to Christmas when every retailer wants stock, they received 12,000.

I was shown through a window the compact warehouse where there are no humans but robots are constantly shuttling boxes of watches in three dimensions: new watches being placed into stock, and stock being called off to fill customer orders. The assembled orders pass to the packing department on the ground floor where they are put into transport boxes and dispatched all over the world.

The department does not occupy a huge area and such large numbers of items to be manually processed, checked, documented and put into store, and then allocated to customers’ orders and dispatched, requires rapid handling and a swift and sure logistical system. The whole process from instructing the T2 departments how many of which models of watches to produce in anticipation of orders, through all the production stages to finally calling off stock in response to customer orders, is handled by the planning department using a sophisticated computerised production and stock control system.

Customer Service Department

The customer service department handles the service and repair of customers’ watches from all over the world. There are two sections: one that handles servicing and repair of modern watches, and the heritage department which handles repairs to older watches.

In the heritage workshop are ten watchmakers who service and repair watches that cannot be handled by the service department. In addition to the benches and equipment found in any watch repairer’s workshop, there is a machine room with heavier machines that can be used to replicate any missing or damaged part, so that any Longines mechanical watch can be repaired and restored.

The heritage workshop has stocks of original factory components dating back to the nineteenth century, a benefit of the unbroken history of watchmaking on the site. They also have an active policy of buying up old spare parts from around the world wherever they can be found. Before my visit they had recently acquired 200kg of spare parts from an overseas company, to be catalogued and placed into the drawers and cupboards in the stock room.

There is a goldsmith jeweller attached to this department who performs repairs to cases and bracelets. He showed me a gold case from a Longines 13ZN chronograph for which he was rebuilding the lugs from scratch.

The department that services more recent watches is, of course, very well organised. When a watch is received it is first photographed to document the state in which it arrived. It is then examined to establish what work needs to be done and confirm the availability of spare parts. If spares are not available because of the age of the watch, then it becomes a candidate for the heritage workshop. Once availability of any necessary parts is confirmed an estimate is prepared and, if this is accepted, work begins. The case is passed through an automatic cleaning system: ultrasonically cleaned in soap and water, rinsed in ultra-pure water to avoid spotting and then dried with warm air. The movements are stripped, cleaned, reassembled and oiled, with parts replaced as necessary.

Longines policy is to put into stock enough spare parts for servicing watches for at least 15 years after the model has ceased production. Spares are often available for much longer than this, but I was shown a Longines ‘leaf’ watch that had come in for repair from a Chinese customer. The Leaf is an extremely thin, less than 2.0 mm, Longines quartz watch that requires a special thin battery. Unfortunately the manufacturer of the battery ceased production some years ago. At that time Longines bought a large number of the batteries for stock but, like all batteries, they had only a limited shelf life which has now passed, so the Leaf watch can no longer be serviced.

While the problems about batteries were explained to me, my 107-years-old Longines wristwatch was quietly ticking away on my wrist. I have mentioned that a mechanical watch is the most reliable timekeeper for space travellers; evidently this is also the case for time travellers!

Longines Museum

Longines has a long history of timing sporting events, and supplying timepieces to explorers and aviators. The museum has many interesting artefacts covering this aspect of the brand’s history which I will not describe here, but if you are a collector of Longines watches from any era, a visit to the museum should be at the top of your priority list. However, my principal interest on this visit was to examine the ledgers where details of my Longines pocket watch and wristwatch were recorded as they made their way through the factory 141 and 118 years before.

Pocket Watch

1877 Watch on Ledger
1877 Longines Pocket Watch on Factory Ledger. Click image to enlarge.

My Longines pocket watch that won the competition to find the oldest Longines watch in the UK has the serial number 94,237. It has a key wound and set 15 jewel Longines calibre 19B movement, with right angle lever escapement and club tooth escape wheel. It was invoiced to Baume & Company in London on 11 August 1877.

The image here shows the watch resting on the page of the ledger that records its production as one of a batch of six numbered 94,233 to 94,238. You see more images and read a full description of it at Early Longines Pocket Watch.

The case of this watch is unusual for a Swiss watch at the time, in that it is made in sterling silver, including the inner cuvette. Swiss hallmarking of watches was not introduced until 1880, and this watch was made before then. When this watch was made in 1877, Swiss silver watches were usually stamped ‘Fine Silver’ without a fineness, which was probably ⋅875, the higher of the two standards for silver made legal for hallmarking in 1880. The inner cuvette was usually made of base metal and stamped ‘metal’ or ‘cuivre’.

This watch with its case made of sterling silver is one of the small number of Swiss watches that were made between 1874 and 1887 that had their cases hallmarked in a British assay office. This required silver of sterling standard, which is ⋅925, and the inner cover also had to be made of the same grade of silver or the case would not be hallmarked. If you look at the wording in the box directly underneath the watch, the word sterling is visible in the top line, and the word anglaises in the bottom line. There also appears to be mention of the name Baume and gilt ½, all of which suggest that this watch was made to a specification of Baume's, with sterling silver case and gilt half plate movement in the English style. If you can read the rest of what its recorded, please let me know what it says!

Wristwatch

Wristwatch on Ledger
1910 Longines Wristwatch on Factory Ledger. Click image to enlarge.

The Longines wristwatch that I was wearing carries the serial number 2,422,201. It is fitted with a Longines manually wound mechanical movement, cal. 13.56. The cal. 13.56 is a 13 ligne savonnette movement with straight line Swiss lever escapement, first manufactured in 1891 when it would have been fitted to small pendant hunter watches. When a demand for men’s wristwatches arose, the 13.56 was the correct size and layout for an open face wristwatch. Details of the movement of this watch can be seen at Longines Calibre 13.56 movement.

Wristwatch number 2,422,201 was one of a batch of six with serial numbers from 2,422,197 to 2,422,202 which, with a number of others, were invoiced on 17 February 1911 to the company Baume & Co.

In the image here the wristwatch is shown lying on the page of the ledger where a clerk recorded the details of the progress of the batch of six movements through the factory during December 1910 and January 1911. On the facing page (not shown) the first date recorded is 16/12, 16 December 1910. This is followed by 19/12 for the gold plating, 23/12 for the movement complete, 10/1 (January 1911) for the escapement, including the specialised work of vibrating and fitting the balance springs. The batch then entered regulation on 16/1 and was passed nine days later on 25/1. Casing took from 27/1 to 30/1. The final entries in the left-most column show that the batch was finished on 6 February, and blue stamp marks against every entry on the page show that they were all invoiced to Baume & Co. on 17 February 1911.

The wristwatch has a case manufactured by the Geneva company of François Borgel. Longines manufactured many of their own watch cases in house, a visit by the BHI in 1905 reported that there was always about 1,000kg (that's a ton!) of silver bullion in the factory being processed into cases. But cases made by Borgel to his patented design were recognised as being exceptionally robust and well-sealed, and Longines was a long-standing customer. Many officers heading to the front during the Great War selected wristwatches with Borgel cases as being the best protection for a watch destined for the mud of the trenches. This wristwatch was almost certainly originally bought by a British officer in the years before the Great War.


If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact Me page. Back to the top of the page.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved. This page updated October 2019. W3CMVS.