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Movement manufacturer - What is ETA?

Movement manufacturer What is ETA?

The name is omnipresent in the watchmaking world. But what actually is ETA? Answer: it’s much more than just a movement manufacturer.

The cognoscenti pronounce it as a word – Eta – not E.T.A. But this is not an armed separatist organisation; it’s a subsidiary of the Swatch Group, the world’s biggest watchmaking conglomerate. ETA makes movements, both quartz and mechanical, fully assembled or in kit form, for brands in its own group and for external clients. It’s a powerful, largely independent, multifaceted company, whose exact size and footprint is difficult to pin down with any accuracy. What is sure, however, is that it is omnipresent in the watchmaking industry, and its position is unassailable.

Within the vast portfolio of Swiss watch industry players, only fifty or so have the capacity to make their own movements, and even those are rarely fully self-sufficient. The hundreds of others call upon specialised companies, of which ETA is by far the biggest. The majority of Swatch Group brands don’t make their own movements. ETA thus makes calibres for Tissot, Longines, Mido, Swatch, Rado, Hamilton and Flik Flak. And that all adds up to tens of millions of units. ETA also makes most of Omega’s calibres, even if some of them are exclusive to the brand. Like all movement makers, ETA has a catalogue of off-the-peg items, but it can also produce pieces on commission, within their own autonomous units if necessary.

What is ETA?

ETA provides movements for Swatch, including this entry-level automatic © Swatch

The catalogue includes all the most popular calibres, including the six legendary references: 2824, 2892, 2894, 6498, 7001 and 7750. Then there are their larger-sized variants, designed for contemporary oversized watches, and other variations that feature complication modules. And, while we’re on the subject of mechanical movements, there are also some very small ones. ETA also produces more than 100 different quartz movements, mostly analogue but some digital.

ETA’s strength comes first and foremost from its history. Through all the upheavals and crises of the 20th century, many manufacturers of movements and other watch parts merged, or were forced to merge in order to survive. ETA is the sum of the manufacturing activities of firms including Valjoux, Unitas, Peseux, Tavannes, Ebauches SA (which was a result of the fusion of FHF and A. Schild), to mention just those names that are familiar from vintage watches. Into this crucible also went the manufacturing heritage of the company probably responsible for designing more movements than any other: Longines.

Another of ETA’s strengths is its complex industrial fabric. By taking over the assets of other companies, ETA found itself with multiple production sites. Far from being a problem, this has become an advantage. The company has a presence in all of Switzerland’s labour pools, and it can call upon a highly qualified, productive and geographically stable workforce. That’s what explains why such remote regions as the Franches Montagnes and the Vallée de Joux have become international centres of excellence.

What is ETA?

ETA’s headquarters in Granges © ETA

The third reason for its power is that ETA is a central component of the Swatch Group’s industrial framework. It supplies itself from sister companies which themselves are often the product of successive mergers: Nivarox FAR (balance wheels, balance springs, escapements, springs and screws), Comadur (rubies, magnets), EM Microelectronic (integrated circuits) and Micro Crystal (electronic oscillators).

Like all sizeable industrial concerns, ETA is based on a culture of quantity. Its margins and prices are a direct consequence of high production volumes. These volumes are what give it an unprecedented overview of industry statistics, enabling it to identify weaknesses and bottlenecks in the production chain, over the short, medium and long term. This analysis goes all the way back to the people who design the movements, who, with the aid of their experience, propose modifications which, in turn, increase the reliability of production. This has reached a point now where ETA is able to supply movements for under CHF 500, which will pass COSC certification.

What is ETA?

ETA develops products on request for brands in the Swatch Group, like this enlarged Valjoux calibre with column wheel, for Longines © Longines

ETA’s real clout, however, comes from its technical heritage. When mechanical watchmaking began to recover, around the mid-1990s, ETA was the only company in a position to offer relatively inexpensive mass-produced mechanical movements. This was how it came to have so many clients, so many watch companies, on its books. But before the boom reached its zenith, in the 2000s, Swatch Group’s management decided it was time to start wielding some of the power they had gained by virtue of the company’s enormous reach. They announced that they would cut down on delivery of movement blanks – unmounted movements – which are the nitty gritty of the watch industry. Movement blanks are watchmakers’ primary material: they personalise them to leave their stamp on the watch as a whole. ETA thus became more and more expensive, while remaining competitive and omnipresent.

ETA in effect owns the de facto standards of Swiss watchmaking: calibres 2824, 2892 and 7750. While they are in the public domain, ETA has the experience and the dedicated industrial tooling to make movements better and faster than anyone else. All of ETA’s mechanical movements are available in several different finishes, from the most basic for the entry-level brands to meticulously decorated versions, even if they are machine- rather than hand-finished. Almost all of them are capable of passing the COSC’s tests if required.

ETA movements have been cloned and modified by competing manufacturers, of which Sellita is the biggest. Differences are minimal, and that’s the point. Client brands can use the movements interchangeably, depending on supply and price, without needing to change their dials, cases, hands or processes. Today, alternatives exist, and it is possible to secure base movements from other suppliers. But these other suppliers will always look to the monolothic ETA as the industry standard, the movement maker of reference.

What is ETA?

Example finishes on a standard calibre, the Unitas 6498 © ETA