A 3D-printed prototype of a Tudor Black Bay P01 watch – the designer here is exploring how an offset crown might look and feel
A visit to Tudor’s headquarters in Geneva is a visit to the heart of a paradox. For starters, there really is no such thing as “Tudor HQ”. What there is, in a light industrial district to the south-east of central Geneva known as Les Acacias, is Rolex HQ: a number of interconnected monolithic glass buildings laid out over two city blocks.
The ten-storey factory buildings stretch out forbiddingly, clad in darkly tinted glass with taller blue-green tower blocks at the entrance. In distinct contrast to its unassuming neighbours (a handful of car dealerships, an electrical wholesaler and a maker of fitted kitchens), it gleams spotlessly. The whole site is surrounded by neatly maintained lawns and planted with trees of completely uniform height and size; flagpoles line the driveway and atop each of the main buildings is a large yellow crown logo, with Rolex in green letters ten feet tall beneath them. The rooftops are either covered in grass or solar panels. You could walk around this miniature campus for hours, peering in vain at the opaque glassy slabs, without deriving the slightest hint that it was also home to another brand.
This will make sense to watch fans: Tudor was established in 1946 by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf with the explicit mission of providing watches for customers not yet well-heeled enough for Rolex ownership. It has always been a wholly owned subsidiary of Rolex and for years was marketed and advertised in the same catalogues.
Unlike its parent company Rolex, which produces a set amount of each of its watch models, Tudor’s timepieces are only assembled once a customer places an order, so there is never any surplus stock
It is a paradox for modern-day Tudor, however; having gamely played the role of younger sibling for several decades, the product lineup grew stale around the turn of the millennium, and the Tudor that emerged into the light in 2010 following a three-year process of rebranding is no longer a scaled down sidekick but a company with a vivid identity all of its own. That makes not having your own front door – let alone your logo on the roof – a bit awkward.
To many, Tudor’s one-line pitch is still “Rolex quality at lower prices”, and as selling points go, that’s not at all bad. But the reality is that modern Tudor has made a distinct habit of doing things big brother won’t, like limited editions and retailer collaborations, heritage revival models and working with materials Rolex’s conservative ethos doesn’t allow, such as bronze, ceramic and fabric straps (of which more later). And once you do penetrate the exterior of this green and gold temple to find the red and black Tudor-branded zones within, you realise the two brands really are doing things differently at every step of the watchmaking process.
Sometimes, that’s out of pragmatic necessity: Tudor’s value proposition makes it futile to attempt the kind of all-under-one-roof approach adopted by Rolex (which makes everything save for the hands and sapphire crystals, even going so far as to smelt its own metals). It buys in its dials, cases and bracelets as well as some movements; Tudor has been producing its own movements since 2015 but relies on third parties for some models – notably receiving chronograph calibres from Breitling in exchange for time-only movements. Tudor also takes a fundamentally different approach from Rolex in managing its production: whereas Rolex carefully controls stocks of its most sought-after watches, Tudor says it builds everything to order, an outlook that requires extremely efficient manufacturing practices.
A member of the “train station” team prepares watch parts for distribution to workers around the assembly room. The components arrive here via an automated system
The facilities at Les Acacias don’t cover movement manufacture – the most complex and time-consuming part of building a watch – instead, that takes place at a site elsewhere in Geneva (soon to move to Le Locle as part of a joint venture with Chanel). But it is where the watches are designed and tested, and it is home to the final assembly workshops, where all the disparate parts come together to become watches. Managing that process requires careful co-ordination.
At the heart of the operation is The Church. Not a statement of faith – this is the nickname for the vast centralised vault of parts that forms the backbone of the assembly process. A fully automated system that holds millions of components over five subterranean storeys, it can deliver the necessary box of bits to Tudor’s assembly floor in less than a minute. The boxes arrive with the “train station” team, who manage the flow of parts in and out, and their distribution across the assembly room floor, where 60 technicians in white coats are steadily turning them into watches. The coats, by the way, have fine metallic strips woven through them, which are given a low magnetic charge to attract dust away from the watches. As is standard practice, the room is also kept at higher air pressure than those around it, with air blown from ceiling to floor – all to keep the dust out.
A casual glance across the room wouldn’t reveal anything particularly notable among quality watch brands – but the closer you look, the more Tudor’s dedication to marginal gains reveals itself. It follows Japanese industrial methods, such as the “5S” doctrine, which states that only the absolutely necessary tools should be used, and each has its own outlined space at every identical workstation. Every employee can switch places (signing into each desk with a fingerprint scanner) and find things exactly as they are used to. Another Japanese ideology, the “kaizen” principle of constant improvement and evolution, is embraced: little changes are made week in, week out, and a prototype workstation is up and running in one corner, ready to be rolled out across the floor.
A batch of watches prepares to undergo pressure testing in a hyperbaric chamber to at least 10 per cent greater than their rating
Tudor invests heavily in aspects of production that are neither glamorous or photogenic: improvements that the customer will never feel – except, perhaps, when it keeps the price below that of its rivals. One such example is a machine commissioned especially for the painstaking process of fitting hands to a dial – a critical procedure that can require six months’ training to perfect by hand, and can be a common cause of repetitive strain injuries. Tudor has a machine that switches between different models of watches on the assembly line, a task that used to take 30 minutes and now takes 30 seconds. Or take the microphone developed to listen for the “click” as the date wheel of the movement rotates into position, or the torque winding tool for screwing in the crowns. Even the quality-control team have bespoke 3D-printed holders to work on the watches at a comfortable angle. It’s an ergonomic consultant’s dream.
Once assembled, each watch is diligently tested. First by hand, on quality-control benches at the back of the room, where one of the main tasks is removing any human bias that may have crept in along the assembly line, which is said can account for differences in perception of up to five per cent in various different companies. The cased-up watch is checked for its accuracy – Tudor regulates both its in-house and outsourced movements to a daily standard of -2/+4 seconds, a significant improvement on the COSC chronometer tests that the individual movements will already have passed.
And then there is the most important test – for the end user, at least: checking the watch’s water resistance. Up to 100 watch “heads” – cased-up watches without straps or bracelets – are stacked in trays before being lowered into a hyperbaric chamber (a dustbin-sized tank full of water 5cm-thick reinforced steel walls) where they will be subjected to pressures beyond their stated depth ratings.
Every Tudor timepiece is assembled in a 3D-printed cradle
Regular models, typically water-resistant to ten bar, approximately depths of 100m, are tested to a further ten per cent of stated maximum, while dive watches (those with ratings in excess of 300m, such as the 500m-rated Pelagos) are tested to a further 25 per cent. Bronze-cased watches are only sent down in batches of ten, which Tudor says reduces the time spent in the water. Even though the brand uses aluminium bronze which is far more resistant to corrosion than ordinary bronze, you don’t want the watch to begin its process of patination before it even reaches the customer.
Having submitted to these checks, each watch is dispatched to an underground chamber where it will spend three days being put through a fully automated series of tests. (It is common practice for Rolex’s buildings to extend as far underground as above; among other things, they have their own customs office down there so that watches can be exported directly from the factory without the need for border checks.)
Very few watches fail a quality control check at this point, largely because every part is tested to its limits earlier in the lifecycle of a new watch: we visit the R&D rooms where miniscule components (in this case, a single escapement pinion) are stress-tested to simulate ten years of life; crowns are pushed, pulled and turned ad infinitum, and the strength of the hands is assessed by using them to turn the movement, sending the force backwards through the watch.
Besides its 150-year-old jacquard looms, Julien Faure also has these modern, computer-controlled ones. The neon yellow strands of the loom are made from Kevlar and allow for fine detail
Tudor also let us observe an aspect of its watches that’s very rarely seen by journalists: the process of making its straps. Normally there’s a good reason this isn’t part of the itinerary – even the top brands outsource this part, mostly from outside Switzerland, and they would be made almost entirely by machine. Tudor also outsources its straps, but they are a cut above the rest – even, we would venture so far as to say, Rolex cannot tell such an interesting story about the humble means of affixing your watch to your wrist.
When Tudor bounced back in 2010, it was decided that it could break step with Rolex and offer watches on fabric straps; this coincided with – and arguably helped to create – a wider trend of watch aficionados becoming interested in swappable straps and more casual looks. For this it turned to French textile studio Julien Faure, a family-owned firm near St Etienne, in the heart of France’s textile region. Since the renaissance, the towns around Lyon specialised in weaving ribbons and other narrow fabrics, with dozens of cottage industry businesses. Founded in 1864, Julien Faure is one of the few remaining, and as others have gone out of business over the years, it has made a point of buying up their machinery and preserving the knowledge base – it still operates jacquard looms that are over 150 years old.
A Tudor Caliber MT5601 movement on an assembly carousel
That’s not to say there haven’t been modernisations along the way. Julien Faure was the first to computerise its design process in the 1980s – it couldn’t find anyone that had been sufficiently interested to develop software for jacquard looms, so hired coders and created it itself. It became the number-one software package for textile weavers around the world. A version of the original program is still used today, allowing each design to be visualised in 3D before being loaded on to the complex machines. A single ribbon can have 500 strands of yarn in the warp (running the length of the design) with four or five different wefts and as many as five layers. There are more than 150 colours of yarn in the stockroom across multiple materials. This kind of intricacy allows Julian Faure to make everything from Papal vestments to illustrated “novelty” braces. The machines have been updated, too. Alongside the wooden looms are modern equivalents, strung with neon yellow strings of Kevlar instead of cotton.
When Tudor approached in 2009 asking for a simple NATO-style fabric strap, it’s no surprise that the request was seen as somewhat simple. They considered making it in silk, but durability was an issue, and it still wasn’t sufficiently impressive. After some thought, Tudor and Julien Faure settled on the idea of weaving the NATO strap – which normally consists of layers of fabric stitched together, with the spring bars between them – in a “monobloc” construction. It would comprise one single piece of fabric with the tunnels for each bar woven into it. The result would be something slimmer than anything else on the market, with fewer seams to fray, and the positioning of the bars would be more precise, meaning the watch would be less likely to slide around on the wrist.
The end result was patented. It uses 500m of yarn per strap, passes all of Tudor’s resilience and strength tests and takes around half an hour to weave. Once woven, the straps are sent to another company for cutting, perforating and edge finishing, as well as adding the metal buckles. From there, the finished straps are shipped to Tudor in Geneva, where they, like everything else, enter The Church, ready to be summoned to the assembly floor.
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