Similar to what haute couture is to fashion and haute cuisine is to food, haute horlogerie represents the highest standard in watchmaking. The direct translation of “haute horlogerie” from French to English is “high watchmaking” but the label encompasses much more. Haute horlogerie and luxury watches are often used interchangeably—but that is largely incorrect and does a disservice to what true haute horlogerie represents. If you have ever wondered what defines high horology, here is a brief guide to what haute horlogerie means.
Prior to the onset of quartz watches in the late 1960s, all watches were mechanical watches. However, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed battery-operated quartz watches swiftly take over mechanical watches in popularity thanks to their lower price tags and perceived practicality. The label haute horlogerie was coined around this time to differentiate between costly traditional mechanical timepieces and cheaper novel quartz watches.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the tide was turning in favor of mechanical watches again. As a result, watchmakers that stuck to their mechanical roots were in the right position to ride the wave back to the top. While it is no secret that quartz watches still outsell mechanical timepieces, when it comes to recognition and prestige, mechanical watches reign supreme.
So, what makes a luxury watch worthy of the haute horlogerie label? Although there is no singular definition, there are certain criteria that are typical of these ultra-high-end watches.
First and foremost, haute horlogerie watches generally include intricate complications and mechanisms. In watch-speak, a complication is any function beyond time indication. For instance, calendars, chronographs, multiple time zone displays, power reserve indicators, and repeaters, are all popular watch complications. While a tourbillon is not strictly a complication (it serves to improve timekeeping precision), it is prevalent in the haute horlogerie space due to its complex construction and whimsical beauty.
Numerous haute horlogerie brands proudly develop and build their mechanical movements in-house. Alternatively, if they use base movements, these brands greatly modify and decorate the movements to transform it into something they would be proud to put their name on.
Another defining characteristic of high horology is the finishing and decoration of the watch and movement, customarily done by hand. Traditional finishing and decoration techniques include polishing, chamfering, engraving, perlage, guilloché, circular graining, Geneva stripes, and others. In the pursuit of excellence, haute horlogerie brands indulge in decorating movements even if these movements spend most of their lives hidden behind casebacks.
Many haute horlogerie brands include a special hallmark on their watches to signal superior mechanics or finishing. These can be industry-standard seals, such as the Geneva Seal or Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) certification, or in-house guarantees like the Patek Philippe Seal or Qualité Fleurier mark.
Another widespread characteristic of haute horlogerie pieces is the use of traditional artisan crafts (or métier d’arts in French) to decorate watch dials. Practiced by only a few masters, these old-world craftsmanship techniques include enameling, hand engraving, miniature painting, marquetry, and so on.
In short, haute horlogerie is the quest of combining mechanical mastery and elaborate beauty in one timepiece.
In today’s market, haute horlogerie brands can be divided into two main categories: longstanding legacy Maisons and modern innovative brands. Some examples of the former include marques like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet (a trio often referred to as the Holy Trinity of watches), Breguet, A. Lange & Söhne, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Ulysse Nardin, Jacquet Droz, and Bovet.
On the other hand, newer brands such as MB&F, Richard Mille, Urwerk, De Bethune, HYT, and Parmigiani Fleurier take a modern approach to haute horlogerie by continuously pushing the boundaries of conventional horology.
While complex to define in words, identifying haute horology timepieces among other luxury watches is not as difficult because these are the pieces that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
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