04/15/2024
 5 minutes

Visiting the Hublot Factory

By Chrono24
Hublot-2-1

Visiting the Hublot Factory

By Sarah Elipot

In a Swiss watchmaking landscape dominated by century-old manufacturers, Hublot, which was founded in 1980, is a relatively young brand. However, this hasn’t prevented Hublot from becoming a first-rate manufacturer – the brand has even been making its own chronograph movement, the UNICO, since 2010. Hublot also cultivates the image of an innovative company, claiming to be an expert in the “art of fusion” and a pioneer in materials research. But what does Hublot look like behind the scenes? Let’s take a trip to Nyon!

Gare au gorille. Photo : Michael Winkelmann
Beware of gorilla (Photo: Michael Winkelmann)

It’s a brisk December morning when I arrive in the outskirts of Nyon, where Hublot’s headquarters and production facilities are located. As I enter the lobby of the main building, I’m greeted by a large blue sculpture of an Orlinski gorilla. It’s as if the gorilla signals to visitors: We at Hublot like the modern, the disruptive, the angular. Not far from the statue stands Jean-Pierre, his wrist wrapped in one of the company’s sporty timepieces. Jean-Pierre is the former production manager, and my guide for the morning.

The tour begins with the building that houses Hublot’s parts manufacturing and machine shops, inaugurated in 2015 to double the production area. Almost all of Hublot’s watch components are manufactured here in Nyon. On the top floor, machines hum and operators bustle. This is where the raw material arrives – brass, steel, titanium, gold – in the form of long rods that are then reshaped by some thirty machines to form a cog here, a barrel bridge there. At the far end of the workshop, an elaborate machine toils silently. Unlike the others, its operating fluid is not cutting oil, but a surprisingly alien green liquid. What process is at work here? Wire electrical discharge machining, or EDM, in which material is removed from a workpiece by a series of rapidly recurring electrical discharges, transforming thin copper plates into filigree parts. “As you can imagine, it’s a bit of a challenge to fit all the components into one box. It’s a bit like a game of Tetris, and sometimes you have to reduce the size of the components,” explains Jean-Pierre.

L'atelier d'usinage. Photo : Michael Winkelmann
The machine shop (Photo: Michael Winkelmann)

One floor down, the components are polished, brushed, sandblasted, coated, set, engraved, and/or bead-blasted. This is also the workshop in which the eight apprentices recruited by Hublot each year can be found. You may be wondering whether these apprentices are mainly young men, but it’s actually fairly balanced. As Jean-Pierre explains, “Watchmaking is meticulous work that attracts women as well as men.” (Might the watchmaking industry be a place of gender equality? To be further explored elsewhere…) In the workshop, Xavier is carefully setting three different colors of diamonds into a bezel, according to the setting plan of a watch model I can’t quite identify. His movements are sure, precise. It takes him twenty-five minutes to set a bezel.

Sertissage d'une lunette. Photo :  Sarah Elipot
Setting a bezel (Photo: Sarah Elipot)

The level of vertical integration here is impressive, to say the least: The Nyon site employs nearly 600 people in 38 different trades, and Hublot has a dedicated machine for every operation, right here on its premises. “This gives us a great deal of independence and freedom. For example: To test a new screw for a new type of case, we bought a screw-cutting machine that enables us to manufacture and test our screws immediately. We could certainly call on a nearby screw-cutting company, but the lead times can be as long as 10 to 12 months.” And the market, as we all know, doesn’t wait around.

We return to the historic building via a footbridge overlooking the tracks of the little red train that shuttles Hublot employees from the Nyon main station. Below us is Lake Geneva, and behind, the Jura Mountains. There’s definitely something extra special about Switzerland’s industrial campuses. The next stage of the tour takes us to what forged Hublot’s reputation (no pun intended): the Metallurgy & Materials lab, which works closely with the company’s R&D division. It is here that Hublot’s trademark ultra-hard ceramics with bold colors are born. The engineers at work in the lab – some of whom, I’m told, come from the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne – spare no expense. Hublot’s bright red ceramic, for example, required the construction of a new kiln capable of preserving pigments throughout the firing process, so that carmine red does not turn to burgundy. Magic Gold, an 18-karat gold reputed to be truly scratch-proof, is one of the brand’s flagship materials and the fruit of an unexpected marriage: “an alloy of gold and ceramic.” I wonder, do ceramic and gold melt and merge? Emulsify like olive oil and vinegar? The short answer is no, they don’t: an initial firing solidifies the (round) ceramic particles, fixing them in their shape, and the molten gold then fills in the gaps to create a matrix. You’d have to zoom in 200 times to see the structure of the material. Of course, all these technical innovations don’t happen overnight, and it can take up to two years to develop a new material.

To visit the assembly workshop, a white coat is mandatory. Watchmakers wear latex finger cots and work under laminar flow hoods. It only takes a single particle of dust to compromise the precision of a movement, and the demands made by Hublot in this respect are very high: the tolerance is +/- 10 seconds per day. Movements that fail to meet this tolerance are rejected by quality assurance. Winter light floods the room as the watchmakers work with extreme concentration and in monastic silence, assembling components, oiling rubies, and mounting hands on dials.

Une horlogère à l'assemblage. Photo : Michael Winkelmann
A watchmaker assembles a watch (Photo: Michael Winkelmann)

Finally, Jean-Pierre shows us a few examples of complicated movements. Now, we know that Hublot is fond of concept watches, and I find myself with a Ferrari Tourbillon movement before my very eyes. This movement boasts the longest power reserve ever made: 50 days. The design of the Ferrari Tourbillon was clearly inspired by a car engine and, in a nod to Formula 1 pit stops, the watch is wound with a small wheel gun reminiscent of the those used by mechanics to change racecar tires.

When Jean-Pierre describes a final, highly conceptual complication – a mechanism inspired by an ancient device for calculating the position of the stars – my blood runs cold. Obviously, the name of the device doesn’t immediately spring to mind, hence my naïve question: “Like in Indiana Jones?” “Yes,” Jean-Pierre confirms, “it’s an Antikythera mechanism.”

L'Anticythère d'Hublot. Image de synthèse : Hublot
Hublot’s Antikythera (Image: Hublot)

Reader, this is a very special piece indeed, and to understand what I’m talking about you’ll need to have seen Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Hublot has recreated three copies of the mechanism at the heart of the film, with all the data it provides being powered by a mechanical watch caliber. Admittedly, much of the information provided by the Antikythera – like the Egyptian calendar, the calendar of the Panhellenic Games, and the Callippic cycles – is now obsolete, but it’s impressive nonetheless. One of the three modern versions of the Antikythera is on display here in Nyon in the Hublot workshop. Less rusty and cumbersome than the machine attributed to Archimedes, the Hublot version is worn on a rubber strap (what else?). Could this mechanism take me back to the Roman siege of Syracuse? No technological challenge seems too ambitious for Hublot!

I would like to thank Jean-Pierre for his insights and anecdotes, as well as the Hublot employees who were kind enough to show us their work.

Courtesy of Hublot


About the Author

Chrono24

The team behind the Chrono24 Magazine consists of Chrono24 employees, freelance authors, and guest authors. They're all united by a passion for anything and everything…

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