The Geneva Seal (Poinçon de Genève) and the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres) are two certifications used in the watch industry that have resulted obsolete now.
Let’s start with the most famous and used one: the COSC. This laboratory measures during 16 days the performances of a movement in 5 different positions; to summarize, the tests will consist in checking the accuracy of the movement within a tolerance fixed at -4 sec / +6 sec per day. One can discuss whether a -4 seconds / + 6 seconds deviation per day is a lot, too much, normal or insignificant; it recalls me the discussions between sailors in favour of catamarans and those in favour of monohulls: endless.
So, I hear you asking yourself: “why the hell should this COSC certificate be obsolete now?” Well, for many reasons. First because nobody is actually buying a mechanical watch for its precision, especially in the price range where the COSC operates. Let me recall that the COSC delivers about 1 million certificates per year, representing roughly (and only) 3 % of the total production of watches in Switzerland. The first client of the COSC is Rolex, followed by Omega and Breitling – funnily, each one of these brands has one person representing them seating on the Board of Directors of the COSC (8 directors in total) – and I would bet the Spanish budget’s deficit on the fact that nobody actually buys any watch from these brands for their supposed accuracy.
Second because the COSC is the heir to the too many private laboratories that existed since the 19th century (COSC was created in 1973). As a heir, it has also inherited the weaknesses of its ancestors, being basically that the COSC tests movements and not watches and that the COSC needs to have a hand to indicate the second to achieve its program of trials.
Let’s have a look at the first point (the main one): the COSC makes its tests on movements without case. Several comments:
- what is going to happen to the movement once inserted into the case is therefore not taken into account. One can easily understand that the casing of a movement is a delicate operation that will require pressure on the movement to find its place in a case made to avoid any possibility for the movement to … move. Yes, the casing of a movement does change the movement’s functionality;
- the certificate issued by the COSC and given with the watch is numbered but not dated (well it is dated on a separate sheet, the one that gives the result and that is kept by … the brand). Who will tell you that your movement did not actually spend several months or years waiting for its case or dial or both?
- since the movement is not protected by its case, it is exposed to dust, fingerprints, humidity and other kind of things that are not helping the movement to work adequately. It means that once the movement is back to the manufacture from the COSC it will need to be cleaned. You can easily imagine that to clean a movement the watchmaker will have to disassemble part of the movement, hence making the COSC certificate irrelevant!
Well, I think you can see the point now. Obsolete! Useless! A pure marketing gimmick.
The second hand needed to conduct all the tests also disqualifies several watches that do not have it. The AP Royal Oak Jumbo for instance has no second hand and could not be submitted to the COSC.
These issues together with the duration of the trials (16 days) drove several brands not to use COSC certifications and to make their own tests: Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger LeCoultre… these brands do not use COSC certification at all. And their products are not less accurate than the ones from the brands using it.
As a conclusion on that point, we could say that precision is an argument that almost made the watch industry disappear from Switzerland in the 1970s, when the quartz movements left the Swiss with their accuracy’s issues in a bad position. It seems that now the Swiss learned the lesson and nobody comments about accuracy nowadays. Surely they understood that nobody cares and the ones who care will not consider any mechanical watch at all. A mechanical watch is about emotion, not precision. This is why COSC certificate in its actual way will disappear, unless brands keep on being happy to pay about CHF 10 per watch for nothing.
OK, let’s see the other endangered specy: the Geneva Seal (Poinçon de Genève).
This seal was set up in 1886 as a law by the Government of Geneva. Its purpose was to define the “haute horlogerie” standards applicable to the Swiss watch production. In fact, its goal was much more to protect the Geneva based brands from the competition of the brands based in Vaud or Neuchatel. In fact, many watch retailers were ordering at the end of the 19th century watches to watch makers from Vaud or Neuchatel and were adding their names on the dial. And the clients found that these watches were often better than the one produced in Geneva.
So this label is much more a protecting law than a true tool to organize the watch industry in different categories. That being said, it is true that the conditions mentioned by the Geneva Seal are the benchmark for the haute horlogerie; only the first condition – only companies registered in the Canton of Geneva are admitted – makes it obsolete.
Another point is the fact that the Geneva Seal is everything but a precision control of the watch, since the Geneva Seal procedure consists in receiving ONE movement to homologate all the similar movements with its seal. The brands are in charge of controlling the correct application of the rules… Wow! Like if footballers were left alone to be their own referees during a match!!!
The fact that Geneva wanted in 1886 to protect its own watch makers is difficult to justify nowadays. This law has been changed in 2009, but the geographical restriction is still valid. This restriction has caused for example Patek Philippe to launch its own seal, something rarely seen in any industry around the world. But we shall come back on that issue later.
Normally, a quality label is convincing if it is given by an independent authority to all possible candidates, irrespective of their origin. And if controls are made by the same authority, not when they are surrendered to the persons supposed to be controlled!
All right, let’s have a closer look at the situation. Patek Philippe had to stop using the Geneva Seal because it has two workshops in Vaud and Neuchatel cantons. These workshops are in Le Brassus and La Chaux-de-Fonds because these places are the best ones to find highy skilled watch makers, that are not that many in Geneva. In fact, most complications consisting in tourbillon and/or minute repeaters of the Geneva brand are produced in their workshops outside Geneva.
Here for example, Patek had a double problem: first respecting the conditions of the Geneva Seal, that state that the movement has to be assembled and cased in Geneva; and second a problem of pride management towards its best watch makers: by using the Geneva Seal, something quite useless for a watch maker of Vaud or Neuchatel, the fact that his work needed to be finished by someone else in Geneva just to get the Geneva Seal was, well, badly perceived. So Patek had to leave the Geneva Seal.
But a simple departure without destination was not possible; joining the Fleurier Quality neither since this is another geographically restricted label. So the only solution was to create its own seal, the Patek Philippe seal. Quite arrogant, but it worked! Of course, it was impossible to copy the Geneva Seal, so Patek had to invent something. They did it by adding the after-sale service and the “habillage” (case, dial, hands, crown, bracelet or strap, buckle…) to the standards regarding the movement – these ones are very similar to the ones of the Geneva Seal. So Patek announced in a serious tone that its seal was going beyond the exigencies of the Geneva Seal, since it was not limited to the movement. We do not want to throw the stone at Patek, they were left with no choice. Maybe they could have decided to give up the seal, like Audemars Piguet or Breguet do (not to mention Greubel Forsey, Philippe Dufour, Romain Gauthier, DeBethune, Haldimann…), but this might have raised more questions than launching their own seal.
This issue is showing clearly the limits of the Geneva Seal and it is urgent for the Swiss Government or the FHS (Fédération de l’industrie Horlogère Suisse) to propose a seal that would avoid such kind of gimmicks; the Swiss watch making industry needs clear rules to protect it against its worst ennemy: itself.