Keeping the Faith in a Seal of Quality

New York Times, February 25, 2013

GENEVA — At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva last month, two eagles took turns to preside over the entrance to the Roger Dubuis booth, like heraldic sentries guarding a royal shrine.

On loan from Les Aigles du Léman, a local sanctuary, Darshan, a two-year-old Eastern Imperial eagle with glossy brown feathers, and Sherkan, a 13-year-old bald eagle familiar to Genevans as the mascot of the local ice hockey team, brought a note of drama to the mostly genteel displays of other exhibitors.

Dramatic in appearance but tamer than they looked, they posed gamely for the cameras for hours on end, unruffled by the crowds or by an even larger sculpture of a golden eagle hanging above their heads.

Spanning more than 4.5 meters, or 15 feet, the gilded metal bird, decked with nearly 2,000 feathers, took 25 people three months to make. The purpose of all this aquiline activity was to draw attention to Roger Dubuis’s redesigned Excalibur collection, and the exclusive quality hallmark that distinguishes all of the watchmaker’s timepieces.

“It was a platform to discuss the Poinçon de Genève,” said Jean-Marc Pontroué, the chief executive of the brand, referring to the Geneva seal, a 127-year-old hallmark identified by a distinctive eagle-and-key stamp.

“In 1995, when Mr. Dubuis founded the company, he said that all the calibers would have — no exception — the Poinçon de Genève,” Mr. Pontroué said. “It became like a religion in our company.”

To qualify for the seal, which is considered by many to be the finest expression of Swiss watchmaking, a timepiece must meet standards for aesthetic detail and timekeeping precision that are checked in a rigorous 12-step certification process. Only mechanical watches assembled and adjusted in the canton of Geneva are eligible.

Established in 1886 when the authorities of Geneva put into law a guarantee to thwart Swiss counterfeiters from using the Geneva name on shoddy movements, the hallmarking process was overseen by the Geneva watchmaking school, the École d’Horlogerie. The school’s mandate, however, was limited: It applied exacting aesthetic standards, including to components like polished pivot-shanks that only a watchmaker could see, but it did not set similar standards for a timepiece’s mechanical integrity.

In 2009, Patek Philippe, based in Geneva, abandoned the hallmark in favor of its own in-house quality guarantee. “Mr. Stern felt that the seal needed to be more dynamic in nature as well as encompass all aspects of the watch and not just the finishing process,” said Larry Pettinelli, president of Patek Philippe USA, referring to the president of Patek Philippe, Thierry Stern.

At the time, many in the industry took Patek’s step as evidence that the hallmark had lost its relevance.

“When Patek came out, we thought the Poinçon was dead,” said Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, founder and owner of Agenhor, a supplier of complicated movements.

But proponents of the seal fought back. For those familiar with the history, the Roger Dubuis eagles at the salon took on special symbolic meaning.

The year that Patek went its own way, Timelab, a private foundation established by the Geneva state legislature in 2008, took over the certification process.

Headed by a council representing the watch industry and the local government, the foundation set up a technical commission “composed of seven experts chosen for their competence and their knowledge in the field of fine watchmaking” to oversee the hallmarking process, said Laurent Oberson, director of Timelab.

The commission has since made several changes to update the process, including a widening of the criteria in November 2011 to take into account not just how well the movement is finished but also the precision of the entire cased timepiece.