Sharp needles - Hands on

It may be January of 2021, but an article about hands doesn’t always have to be about washing them! The hands of a watch can be a key part of its identity.

In fact, hands are such an important feature of the watch face that, often, you don’t really see them.

Many choices, few suppliers

There are countless different styles available, but very few suppliers. They include Universo (founded in 1909, a European leader, now part of the Swatch Group), Fiedler (Switzerland’s oldest surviving watch hand manufacturer – its mother house was founded in 1848), Waeber HMS, Aiguilla SA, GVA Montres, MPI in Asia and La Pratique, which has been based in Morteau, France, since 1907.

Quai des bergues Midnight in Geneva, PIlot Type 20 Blueprint, Memoris Superlight © Czapek, Zenith, Louis Moinet

A difficult year

These suppliers offer thousands of products, some standard, some less so. And, as you would expect, the public health crisis has not worked in their favour. “We predicted a decline of 18%, and we ended the year down 25%,” explains Laurent Waeber, Managing Director of Waeber HMS SA in Fleurier. The company works mainly for the Richemont group, but also for LVMH, Kering and some independent watchmakers.

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Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary © Grand Seiko

Time for a new economic model?

Other variables have affected the market. “We’re being asked to be more agile and reactive,” Laurent Waeber continues. “But that’s difficult when labour represents 65% of our costs. What’s more, Asia has become more competitive in terms of both quality and reactivity. In Switzerland, on the other hand, we have the ability to produce small batches of 300 or 500 units. In Asia, if you’re ordering less than 3000 units, they’re not even interested.”

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Endurance Pro, Capeland Shelby® Cobra 1963 Dan Gurney © Breitling, Baume & Mercier

Another positive factor for Swiss producers is single-batch orders. “There’s almost no repetition,” Laurent Waeber adds. “We get an order for a design, a single batch of a few hundred pieces, and the client moves on to something different. For us, that means we must be absolutely perfect from the get-go. That requires experience and savoir-faire, which we have, but that’s not necessarily the case in Asia.”

Timeless creations

Some hand shapes have remained virtually unchanged for generations. The classic example is the hollow apple shape, otherwise known as the Breguet hand. These slender blued hands feature a hollow circle near the tip. They remain a signature style for the Breguet brand, although they have been widely copied by countless other watchmakers.

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H5 © HYT

The same goes for the spear-shaped hands that, although they are not protected by copyright, are a defining feature of Cartier’s style, or the “Snowflake” hands used by Tudor. Other very popular designs include the leaf-shaped hands used by Frédérique Constant. Finally, in recent years we have seen a resurgence in the popularity of “cathedral” hands, often paired with vintage designs. These highly visible hands with their generous lume infill are a key element in the success of the Pilot watches produced by Patek Philippe and Zenith.

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Reine de Naples, Maillon de Cartier © Breguet, Cartier

Creative independence

Niche brands sometimes have trouble securing a source of hands, because their order volumes are so small. This has led some companies like Hysek to bring production in-house. Others still manage to find suppliers that are happy to fulfill small orders of highly creative products. This is the case for Ateliers Louis Moinet, who over the years have developed and refined their “dewdrop” hands. It also applies to the Roman hands that Czapek developed with Waeber HMS, “which have become a key part of the brand’s identity,” as Czapek CEO Xavier de Roquemaurel explains.

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Slim d'Hermès GMT © Hermès

Maker’s marks

If they don’t go as far as creating their own special shape of hand, many watchmakers imprint their identity on the seconds hand counterweight. The star of Montblanc or of Zenith’s El Primero, the T of Tissot and the B of Breitling, the cobra on the Capeland Shelby by Baume & Mercier and the nautical letter B for Breguet – these are just a few examples.

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Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, Slimline Moonphase Manufacture, Black Bay Bronze © Patek Philippe, Frédérique Constant, Tudor

There is also no shortage of different hand shapes – baton (Hermès, Nomos), skeleton (almost all of Greubel Forsey’s output, for example, or HYT, where they are coated with lume) – or finishes. Most hands are made of steel (which may or may not be blued), gold (at the higher end) and some showcase a special finish (Grand Seiko’s “zaratsu” polishing). The possibilities for artistry are endless, despite the diminutive canvas.

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