JUNE 2021

Are Ébauche movements becoming collectible... again?

by Tim Green

For a long time, the world of watches was a place where almost every manufacturer relied on third-party movement suppliers. They all did it; from Patek to Audemars Piguet, Rolex to IWC. Some say that cost was the driving force, where it made little financial sense to invest in the technology, R&D, people and tools to make movements “in-house”, although I imagine that complexity also played a part too.

In recent years, driven largely by collectors, this approach has changed dramatically. Any watchmaker deemed to be ‘worth their salt’ must produce their movements in-house, or risk being ridiculed to the bottom of any prospective watch purchaser’s list, especially for those who dare ask social media, Facebook groups or forums “what should I buy next?”.

This is where a strange dichotomy has arisen: the peculiar trend for watches with “ébauche” movements (those made by third parties; often delivered unassembled, undecorated, and/or to specification, by others) beginning to rise, once again, in popularity.

 Aren’t non-"in house" movements just... a bit rubbish?

There are many great examples of famous and industry-changing watches using ébauche units, including the JLC calibre 920 adopted in the AP Royal Oak ultra-thin, the Lemania calibre 2310 in many noteworthy watches including the Patek Philippe 3970 and, of course, the Rolex Daytona 16520 with Zenith’s El Primero unit inside. Even Tudor’s ETA-based Black Bays are seeing increasing appreciation. All iconic wristwatches, not held back in the least bit by their lack of “in-house” calibres.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo Ultra Thin was designed with the Calibre 2121. Based on the Calibre 2120 this was the result of a project led by Jaeger-LeCoultre with contribution from Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin (photo by Subdial)

However, like many things in life, there are both good and bad examples of ébauche calibres. One of the most infamous being the Panerai PAM318. I love the story of this watch, to the point that I almost (but not quite) want to buy one.

These watches were produced in 150 pieces for New York with an engraving of the Brooklyn Bridge on the caseback. The idea that a luxury watchmaker, with a storied history of producing military-issed dive watches would produce a “special edition” piece with a depth rating of 30 metres despite the iconic lock-down crown guard is hilarious enough. But then, some bright spark decided to pop the caseback to look at the “exclusive” calibre OPXXIX...and WOW! Evidently Panerai never expected anyone to do this, but I for one am very glad they did.

The movement contained inside was in fact an undecorated, unbranded, nickel-based Unitas unit, commonly found in watches priced at only a few hundred pounds, not the several thousands of pounds that Panerai asked for. The movement was so poor that some owners felt that they had been sold a fake, and when they took it into the Panerai boutique, it was said that staff also thought it was a fake! Panerai later offered to replace the movement to those unhappy about it, but owners had to cover the postage costs, of course...

Calibre OPXXIX by Unitas, for Panerai

There are other examples where the movements probably should have been (or should be - present tense, in some cases) far better than they were for the price-point. Bremont is a controversial example which is bound to raise tempers amongst fellow collectors.

Onto the good… the Cartier calibre 045MC. So important is this movement that, one could argue, it is responsible for the recent meteoric rise in neo-vintage Cartier values. But why? Well, it helps that it is housed in one of the most beautiful watches produced in the last century (slight bias here, of course - guilty as charged), but it really is so much more than that. You see, the 045MC is an ébauche movement created by a firm called Techniques Horlogeres Appliquees (or “THA”), who not long ago were a small firm led by FP Journe, Vianney Halter and Denis Flageollet (who later founded De Bethune).

herefore, in essence, the Cartier Tortue reference 2396 is a watch that is not only designed by the iconic Cartier “Maison”, but also contains a chronograph monopusher movement designed by three of the most accomplished living watchmakers on Earth. It really is no wonder that the values of this watch, as well as others from Collection Privee Cartier Paris (CPCP), have climbed so drastically over the last year. 

Chrono24 price index for Cartier ref 2396

For me, the unanswered question is not “why did the values increase?” but rather “why have the values increased now?” - or in other words, what was the catalyst for change?

There are many hypotheses that you could point to, the increase in popularity of Instagram, the 2020 global pandemic and hence the rise of the watch industry in general, the rise in gold value...it would probably be fair to suggest that all of these things have contributed to some degree. My personal thoughts are that watch consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of mechanical watches and their heritage, design ethos and the stories that go with them. With the values of independent watchmakers' watches, arguably led by FP Journe, climbing so rapidly over the last couple of years, collectors and investors are naturally looking to answer the age-old question of “what will be next?”

What's next?

I really shouldn’t be so bold as to speculate as to what other watches may follow this path from overlooked classic to storming success, however there are a handful of other watches that fall into the same criteria (rare, classic design, with ébauche movement from a legendary watchmaker) that haven’t spiked in value in the quite the same way as the Cartier Tortue “Monopoussoir” watches.

The Cartier Tank (not Tortue) Monopoussoir is a watch that hasn’t surfaced publicly for sale in some time, at least not since the upward trend for CPCP watches really took hold. That particular watch is exceptionally rare though, with only 100 pcs made in rose and white gold, and I would assume with some degree of certainty that, if one were to come to market today, it would be comfortably higher than its original asking price. Like a LOT higher.

Cartier CPCP Tank Monopoussoir with calibre 045MC (photo by Monochrome Watches)

Another place to look would be within the CPCP collection itself. Tortue Monopoussoirs have led the charge but other designs from this innovative collection are following closely behind. The Tank Chinoise is a good example of this, with prices for a Ref 2684 increasing from under £10k to around £25k at the time of writing, all in the space of 6 months.

Cartier's Tank Obus CPCP, one of the many designs produced within this prestigious period of watchmaking (photo by Subdial)

The Ulysse Nardin monopusher chronograph fits, arguably, all of the criteria described earlier. It is certainly rare (175 pieces made for the 175th Anniversary of the brand), has a classic design (yellow, rose or white gold with blued hands and Breguet numerals) and includes a movement designed this time by FP Journe (not as part of THA) but executed by La Jout Perret.

Ulyssee Nardin Monopusher, housing the same Ébauche movement as Cartier's CPCP Monopoussoir (photo by Subdial)

There’s a lot of mis-information out there about this particular movement; some suggesting that the monopusher chronograph calibre is the same as the 045MC in the Cartier 2396. However in an interview at Baselworld 1999 FP Journe himself confirmed that this was one of his designs, and not one from THA. In this interview, when asked why he decided to begin his own brand, Francois answered rather hilariously with the words:

“because I was fed up of giving pearls to swine”

The current market value of the UN Monopusher is hard to define, given that so few have surfaced in the last couple of years, but suffice to say that the price point is comfortably below £20k. Compare this to anything remotely equivalent from FP Journe itself - the value in my opinion, speaks for itself.

The rights to the THA monopusher chronograph movement (used in the Cartier 2396 - the calibre 045MC) were ultimately bought by Denis Flageolet himself. It was adopted in the De Bethune DB1 monopusher chronograph, shortly following his departure from THA and on founding his own company. That particular watch has very recently caught the eyes of collectors, and in Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XIII (May 2021), with an estimate of 15-20k CHF, an example went on to realise a frankly staggering 151k CHF.

I guess it’s fair to say that the watch collecting world has woken up to the importance of these out-sourced movements, those that were once left in the shadow of their “in-house” brethren….but whose time has clearly come around again.