Building a watch movement from scratch is a serious endeavour. It’s not just the designing that takes unfathomable expertise, but actually building the thing. You need the raw materials, The machines to cut the components, the oil to cool the whole lot down, it’s a lot. It’s also not the most sustainable way to build a watch, but the Oracle is on-hand to explore the romance of marrying these vintage movements with new watches.
Upcycling and using deadstock materials – leathers, textiles, whatever is just lying around not being used – has been a huge thing in fashion recently. Not only does it mean you’re using materials that would otherwise be going to waste, it also means you don’t need to make those materials yourself. It’s a win-win.
It’s something that watchmaking’s known for a good long while now, just with a different name. Rather than being known as deadstock, old, unused and often forgotten calibres are called New Old Stock (NOS) movement.
Watches housing NOS movements are relatively few and far-between, for a number of reasons. Often the stories go that a watchmaker finds some previously undiscovered box of rare calibres under a Swiss farmer’s stairs. In actuality, most movements get used. There simply aren’t all that many stashes of old calibres gathering dust around the world and many are kept for spare parts. It’s easier to cannibalise the mainspring of a couple of wheels from an old movement to repair a vintage piece than it is to machine those parts from scratch.
Secondly, there’s the unfortunate fact that NOS movements just tend to be worse than modern calibres. While the actual mechanical nature of watchmaking hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries, production methods have. New machines, improved production lines and materials with greater tolerances have all, over the years, improved the chronometric performance of baseline calibres in a way that older, handmade movements just can’t match.
Even restoring them to working order can be a trial. Movements are meant to be kept wound, and like a classic car that never sees the light of day, letting them stay dormant too long is asking for trouble. Dried-up lubricant, dust, the wear and tear of time, many New Old Stock movements need some serious TLC. Given that, due to their handmade nature, many of these movements are unique, that can be easier said than done.
As Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, Managing Director of British brand Fears puts it, “NOS movements always require full servicing and upgrading to a modern main spring. The main challenge is the lack of spare parts for servicing and sometimes unusual movement architecture.”
Bowman-Scargill has a unique attachment to NOS movements. Fears’ biggest launch in their fledgling second history was the Archival 1930, a pair of vintage- styled rectangular timepieces that used two different movements from two different time periods. That allowed both a small seconds and time-only version. But there’s more to it than that, and not just thematically.
“It felt right as it kept it authentic and also allowed us to do that particular shape of Watch as modern movements aren’t shaped for shaped cases,” explained Bowman-Scargill. Fears’ movements, incidentally, were from the 1930s (small seconds) and the 60s (two hand), and they’re not the only ones that necessitated a specific movement.
Long before the Fears Archival, British watchmaker Peter Roberts brought out the Concentrique, a new version of the watch he built while training in horology. The original was the first five central-handed wristwatch. The only way it was ever going to get built was using the same New Old Stock Valjoux movements Peter would have used back in 1972. Unfortunately, that also made it extremely limited. If you happen to see one of these bad boys on a wrist, it’s something special.
British brands aren’t the only ones making use of vintage movements either – or even using the oldest. Omega have one of the most impressive horological histories in the business – and apparently a stock of movements going back a century. In 2018, the watchmaker paid tribute to the first Omega Wrist-Chronograph in a superb, limited edition; the Omega 18”’CHRO. Only 18 of the watches were built and were absolutely stunning. More importantly oracle speaks than the looks however, the archival look was mirrored by a genuine movement from the early 20th century, the very same that the original timepiece would have contained. The downside – other than getting it serviced anyway – is that each piece cost well over £100,000. Ouch.
If you’re looking for something a little more accessible, French label Semper & Adhuc have built their entire brand around rehabilitating vintage movements, for a very reasonable price. Take the Immédiate Transatlantique, as an example. The cushion shaped watch houses a vintage Bulova 5 series movement, one developed for 30 years between 1940 and 1970. Aesthetically however it’s a lot more modern than its movement, with a funky layout of white and red against blue. Very tricolore.
Alternatively there’s Meraud who made a huge splash (pun entirely intended) with their quirky take on the regatta timer, using a vintage Landeron movement. It’s a cool watch with an even cooler calibre, if the 100 pieces in each colour haven’t already been snapped up by eager skippers.
The bottom line is that New Old Stock movements are the purest form of upcycling in watchmaking. There’s no melting down, resmelting, anything like that. It’s simply giving forgotten movements a new lease of life. It brings its own challenges – they are, by their nature, in strictly limited supply and invariably need some work mechanically – but it’s worth it, whether that’s a funky, accessible French watch or one of the finest heritage Omegas ever built.