Have you ever asked yourself: What is the most important part of a watch? Your answer and mine are probably the same: its movement. It is the “engine” of the watch, which is the most important and sophisticated. In the world of mechanical watches, watch movements are always such an interesting topic, bringing a lot of discussions and heated debates. One example of watch enthusiasts’ interest in watches is the story of Calibre 1887 by TAG Heuer that I wrote on Novatime before.
For the newbie or anyone does not know much about watches, a common thought is that each watch will be equipped with a separate movement. However, the fact shows that many models of watches from different brands are equipped with the same type of “engine”. For instance, the two models Khaki Navy BeLOWZERO 200m Auto  and Tissot Le Locle Automatic  together use the movement named 2824-2.
2824-2 is also used for numerous models of many different brands. According to unofficial statistics , there are over 400 models of large watch brands using this machine directly. The statistics do not include the models of the less popular brands. In fact, there are also many small brands use this movement . Furthermore, there are a large number of watch models using the movement developed base upon the 2824-2 platform as mentioned in the following part .
2824-2 is given the title “workhorse movement” by watch enthusiasts for its unique features such as minimal design, ease of maintenance, and affordable price while still ensuring performance, reliability, and accuracy at acceptable level . It has been ranked on top in a list of the most used Swiss mechanical movement in the watch industry.
In terms of the extensive distribution and high applicability, 2824-2 is deserved to be a monument in the watch industry. Perhaps people might wonder that who made this famous calibre? The answer will lead us to a manufacturer whose fame and achievements have made a remarkable impact on the development of the entire watch industry. Around them are not only the impressive numbers of classic calibres, the far-reaching influence on many watchmakers, but also misunderstandings and underrated recognition of their role and mission.
ETA –The real manufacture
ETA SA (ETA), “the father” of 8242-2 as well as a number of other popular movements in the watch industry (2892.A2, 2836-2, 7750,…) , is a Swiss company specializing in designing and manufacturing watches, quartz, mechanical movements (automatic and manual), and semi-finished products (ébauche) . ETA is currently owned by Swatch Group, the leading corporation in the global watch industry.
Technically, ETA is capable of producing all parts of a complete watch. Therefore, ETA is considered as a real manufacture (or “manufacture d’horlogerie” , which means the company can produce the watch themselves). ETA’s movement and parts are produced to supply for Swatch Group brands (Tissot, Mido, Hamilton, Longines, Omega, etc.) and Swatch Group’s competitors’ ones  such as Richemont (IWC, Baume & Mercier, Montblanc, …) and LVMH (TAG Heuer, Bulgari and Zenith).
ETA designs and manufactures over 200 different calibres for the most demanding features of the watch . Of all the ETA’s calibres, 2824-2, 2892.A2 and Valjoux 7750 are the most well-known ones for their wide use and high efficiency . ETA movement is also the platform for developing the derivatives of many brands such as Omega, TAG Heuer, Hamilton [13-15], etc. This partly reflects the ETA’s scale and influence on the Swiss watch industry.
In the early 20th century, the Swiss watch industry was operating on a relatively “spontaneous” basis. Small factories specialized in producing various parts of watches then sold them to larger companies to assemble into semi-finished products. Following this, these companies provided semi-finished products to independent watchmakers so that they could customize, decorate, and manufacture the complete watch.
As the First World War broke out in 1914, factories in Switzerland had to use machines and workforce for the military due to a huge demand for ammunition. At the end of the war, these factories returned to the traditional industry of manufacturing watch parts. Due to the spontaneity, the production’s output was too large and exceeded the consumption of the watch industry. In such a competitive situation, watchmakers were forced to sell their products with much cheaper price in large quantity for Swiss and foreign watchmakers. Many US companies bought cheap watches immediately, and then took full use of their industrial volume capability to produce cheaper ones. This was a death-blow to the Swiss watch industry. Many Swiss companies got into financial trouble. As a result, the entire debts of the Swiss watch industry reached up to 200 million francs at that time.
After recognizing the risks and competitiveness of the spontaneous condition, Swiss banks have set up The Switzerland Watch Alliance (abbreviated in French as “FH”) in 1924 with the attendance of 3 out of 4 companies. In 1926, Ebauche SA was established by the three largest watch manufacturers including ASSA, FHF, and AM. The alliance operated on a basic agreement that includes: 1/ Price control; 2/ Standardization of watch parts for maximum production and cost reduction; 3/ Regulations in purchasing from foreign businesses. By the early 1930’s, more than 90% of Swiss manufacturers joined in the Alliance. Many watches assembling and selling companies quickly realized the benefits and gradually joined afterwards. On the other hand, Louis Brandt, Omega, and Tissot merged to form a new company named SSIH in 1930.
Unfortunately, everything has completely changed by next historical event. The Great Depression, which globally began in 1929, threatened directly to the entire Swiss watch industry and caused 2000 unemployed. In spite of price control effectiveness and monopoly protection, Ebauche SA did not have the power to dominate the Swiss industry. ASUAG, a new organization with high capability of control and general orientation was formed thanks to the support from the federal government.
There was another company standing out the Alliance Ebauche SA, ASUAG. It was Eterna, which was established by Joseph Girard and Urs Schild in 1856 with the initial name “Dr Girard & Schild”. After that, Eternal was renamed in 1905. By 1909, Eterna marked itself as a big company with about 800 employees and produced 2 million watch parts each year . Theodor, the son of Urs Schild, realized that similar risks to the other companies in the watch industry can only be solved when joining the Alliance of Ébauches SA & ASUAG. However, Ebauches SA merely specialized in movement and semi-finished products. Thus, Ebauches SA finally decided to join the Alliance by separating the current company into 2 newly-born ones: Eterna which specializes in producing the watch and the other was ETA SA with the specialization in movement manufacture.
The Savior after the Quartz crisis
The well-oriented efforts always bring in good results. During the period of 1930 and 1940, it’s time for restructuring the watch industry by means of merging Unitas and Valjoux into Ebauches SA . The Swiss watch industry has gained some new significant achievements. In the 1960s, we witnessed great efforts to re-establish the watch industry. Swiss banks put an enormous investment into these watches and movement manufacturing companies. Ebauches SA then rapidly showed its powerful position in the global. The good news was that Switzerland exported 84 million of watches just in 1974 .
People often say: A nice day sometimes is the forecast of new coming storms. The Swiss watch industry suffered serious threats again. The conflict between Arab and Israel in 1973 led to a ban on oil export from OPEC. As a result, the long-lasting shortage of material weakened the global economy. This event has been known as “1973-1974 oil crisis”.
The consequence was that declining purchasing power had a direct effect on the Swiss sales. Besides, a high investment made it slow down the product regulation. At the same time, Japanese brands launched an enormous amount of quartz watch with simple design and lower price. For a decade, from 1974 to 1983, the annual export volume fall down from 84 to over 30 million units per year . This milestone is now also known as ‘Quartz crisis”.
The majority of Swiss watch manufacturers were on the verge of extinction after suffering from Quartz crisis. Some tried to adapt to their own destiny. Facing the chance of existence, merging and restructuring along with development strategies customization became urgent measures at that time. ETA merged with Schild. Ebauches SA then reduced the number of the machine from 136 types to 40 while ASUAG collected the entire units of smaller manufacturer under the control of ETA. . In early 1980, ETA showed it vital roles in pulling the Swiss watch industry out of the crisis by taking responsibility in manufacturing watches with a new name: Swatch Group , whose reputation is now widespread as a watch industry leader.
Nicholas Hayek, a Lebanon businessman, is the first person to initiate this idea. Swatch Group is the result of merging SSIH and ASUAG together with new ideas about watch manufacture: Developing simple-designed watches, massive production, model variety and affordable price. . Along with the reputation of Swiss quality, Swatch immediately dominated the market with the rapidly increased sales. This is the premise for Swiss watch’s recover.
The project team leader made the first Swatch watch, Ernst Thomke then became the CEO of ETA. He applied the successful approach to Swatch into the ETA’s product development’s strategy. The new idea focuses on optimizing and standardizing machine, massive production and price reduction was the main core leading to the success of Swiss watch industry on the global scale. In the stage of machine engineering, ETA was regarded as the nucleus of this revolution. ETA has become a saviour of the Swiss watch industry in such that way.
The story of Quartz Crisis as well as Swatch Group’s history are such an addressing topic, so there would be a separating article for it. For anyone interested in this topic, you can access some documents [25-28] mentioned in the reference section.
Today, as a part of the Swatch Group, ETA supplies watches to both inside and outside companies. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a large number of ETA movements are used directly in hundreds of models of many different brands. ETA is a wide and deep vendor. Their role is similar to that of Intel in the technology industry. Many watch brands cannot produce their own calibres and obviously, they will not be able to high-qualified watches without a steady supply from manufacturers like ETA. The machines will be modified a bit such as engraved the decorative pattern, printed watches brand’s name. Some companies also “rename” to impress that it’s a movement they own, not a machine purchased from a third party like ETA .
Each type of movement supplied for watch brands by ETA will have one or more different quality levels out of four following ones: Standard; Elaborated; Top and Chronometer. These quality levels differ in terms of calibration conditions, accuracy, and maximum allowable errors during the day. From Standard to Elaborated, Top and Chronometer, watch parts are also decorated with gradual polishing level.
Some of ETA’s most famous movements:
- 2824-2: The most popular calibre, an automatic movement with 25 jewels, includes the function of displaying the date next to the hour, minute, second display. This movement is used in many watches from low-end to high-end segment.
- 2892.A2: an Automatic machine with 21 jewels, date, hour and month functions similar to 2824-2, but the thinner and more high-quality than 2824-2. It is often used for high-end watches, especially thin-typed ones.
- 7750: Known as an automatic mechanical calibre (chronograph) with 25 jewels, date, hour, minute, second, and time recordings. This is the most widely used movement for chronograph watches.
Thanks to designing and manufacturing capabilities along with its long history, ETA not only supplies standard movements for watch brands but also provides licenses for other manufacturers to use the original design of the ETA movements for customization, editing, etc … to make their own calibres. Many companies, from mid-end to high-end segments, have made choice of using the ETA’s product as the starting point for their proprietary movements. The typical one is Tissot with Powematic 80 on the platform of 2824-2; Hamilton with H-10; H-21; H-31; H-20S; Mido with Caliber 80; Longines with L619.2; Omega with Caliber 1120; TAG Heuer with Caliber 5, Caliber 16, … and countless other examples. The main advantage of using ETA movements are a good quality, proven stability, and reasonable price. Especially, brands can shorten the research and development process to launch the product to the market quickly.
In spite of not being regarded as a real in-house movement and lacking attraction from watch collectors, the quality of the ETA based calibres is unquestionable. They inherit the stable quality platform from ETA and more useful features’ improvement.
For the reputation in the watch industry through the provision of watch’s movement as well as the licensing of standard machine designs for other manufacturers to develop their own brands, ETA has proved its influential position. The Swiss watch industry has been benefited not only from the ETA’s support in standardizing design, increasing productivity and reducing costs but also receiving the design and manufacturing standards from ETA, which plays a decisive role in accelerating the process of research, innovation for development. For “ETA based” movements, Swiss watchmakers find out a paramount solution to balance productivity gains, reduce costs, and maintain better marketing tools.
ETA has proven its crucial contribution to the Swiss watch industry in such a way.
What is the position of ETA?
In fact, many people are not very eager when hearing about ETA. The main reason comes from the fact that the ETA based watch is not produced by ETA. In other words, the calibre is not “in-house” in this case. However, it must be objectively determined that the in-house watch has many different levels of quality. Many of the in-house watches that I’ve tested have low quality and stability, far losing out from ETA movements at the same price range. Obviously, for high-end in-house watches come from brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breguet, the quality, and aesthetics are superior. However, you will have to spend about five to ten times amount of money to own real in-house watches like that. The comparison of “real quality” among them is always a controversial issue.
The key selling point of ETA lies in their capability in making huge amounts of movement with such a good quality uniformity in many different configurations. The accuracy, reliability, durability, and aesthetics of the ETA are also excellent compared to its cost. I wonder: Is there any in-house watch that can compete with ETA in the same price range? Probably not. If someone says the ETA is a bit boring just due to the less decorative pattern. It is not important either ETA or in-house watches for non-skeleton models.
Personally, I think the reason why “ETA” receive underrated comments might be due to its own popularity, not for involving factors. Thanks to its technical and production potentials, ETA is capable of researching and creating sophisticated movement inferior to any company in the market. But they do not follow that direction because it is not their goal and mission. They do not pursue racing or flaunting technology that is intended for very small productions. Their goal and mission are to make the products that many customers need in large quantity, high and stable quality, at the best possible price. This task is not simple, especially in the current competitive situation with many countries having superior production capacity. ETA will not obtain the current position as it does today if they do not continuously innovate, create and set new standards for the watch. That is the silent grandeur of the ETA – the backbone of the entire Swiss watch industry.
In a recent day, the ETA may “be entitled” not selling calibres for outside watch brands of the Swatch Group . Then, maybe people will recognize how decisive the role of the ETA is.
ETA – the first company in the mid-19th century, formally established in the 1930s and becoming a part of the mighty Swatch Group today. It witnesses vicissitudes in the history of the Swiss watch industry. ETA has partly contributed greatly to Switzerland’s renaissance in the watch industry. With a long history of research, development and production capabilities, hundreds of years of experience and diverse portfolio, ETA is a giant in the watch industry. No company can produce a variety of watches in large number, with uniform quality, stability and affordable price as ETA.
In the current context, when technology launches smartwatch to the market, ETA may once again be under the pressure of finding out a new approach to keep its growth while preserving core values of the Swiss watch. We have not had a chance to see what they are doing, but there must be a lot of on-going R & D projects. That’s ETA’s working principle: Silent but always have the right solution.
Nova @ Novatime Lab.
This article was written in Novatime Lab’s Technical Report (Watch Research). It can be updated in the future for better quality.
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Author: Hoan Nguyen
” Winners never quit & quitters never win ”