We Investigate the Workshop of Watchmaker Armin Strom
written by A.Morgan - 17th Oct 2011
Biel/Bienne, the bi-lingual Swiss town, is the birthplace of every Rolex and Omega watch you will ever see (well, pretty much all of them) and is the spiritual home of the Swiss timepiece industry. Nestled away in some very green looking hills (as most of Switzerland is) it seems too idyllic and peaceful to be such hallowed horological ground.
Drive along Bözingenstrasse and nestling halfway up the hill you will see the hallowed golden crown of Rolex, but drive a little further on – and be careful, you might miss it – and you’ll come across a neat and tidy white building, upon which, in delicate script, is written, ‘Armin Strom.’
Now, you can be forgiven for having not heard of Armin Strom before – I certainly hadn’t until a friend told me about them – but that’s alright. For half a decade they have been working, building a brand and creating a product worthy of the historical town in which it is being built. Only now have they begun to show to world what they can do, and believe me, it’s impressive.
A bit of background; Armin Strom – the person – is a watchmaker with some serious credentials. His speciality is skeletonisation, a technique that involves reducing the solid plates and bridges of a movement to the barest minimum amount of material to create an intricate and complicated three-dimensional structure. His work has been commissioned for unique pieces by many brands, including Omega, and has to be seen to be believed. He must have the patience of a whole cloud full of saints.
With the help of CEO Serge Michel and Head of Development Claude Greisler, Strom started his own company making watches with skeletonised ETA movements. They then progressed to creating new modules for the ETA movements, and now they have their own in-house movement, complete with a hi-tech workshop to make it in.
The building is quite unassuming from the outside, a quaint, traditional affair with a hint of the contemporary, but step inside and the true nature of the business starts to be revealed. It comes as no surprise that Armin Strom’s first major marketing venture is within the Formula One industry as official timekeeper for the Marussia Virgin Racing team; their workshop would be better described as a facility, a clean, modern unit that could be home to any Formula One team.
Work begins in Greisler’s office in the virtual world of Autodesk Inventor. All, and I mean all, the design and development is done in-house. Cases and dials are made externally, and given the huge costs required to buy the five-way CNC machines required to make them, it makes perfect sense, especially as only a thousand watches are made per year. All the parts are designed in three dimensions and each one gets its own technical drawing for manufacture.
Downstairs is the ‘engine room,’ full of clean, complex machinery, all operated by workers wearing immaculate white lab coats in an environment that is as clean and tidy as an operating theatre. Here, different types of CNC machines cut and drill the various movement parts straight from the computer modelling software. Now, to you and I, CNC machining is as accurate as you could ever need, but not to Armin Strom. Each piece is checked for tolerances of around a few thousandths of a millimetre, and the final machining is done by hand to ensure perfection. The whole process is overseen by the workshop chief, who also programmes the CNC machines and liaises with Greisler to ensure the designs are efficient to make.
For the Armin Racing range, Marussia Virgin Racing donated an engine block from Timo Glock’s 2010 Formula One car to use for movement parts. Given the secretive, complex and expensive nature of Formula One materials, it proved to be a monumental headache to get the block melted down and the pieces machined from it, but they managed it. It’s a subtle but nice feature, especially compared to other sports collaborations that I’ve seen elsewhere.
The next step is the finishing and decoration of the movement components. There are two brand directions under Armin Strom’s name; Armin Strom, which feature more classically styled watches, including the skeletonised work that Strom does himself, and the Armin by Armin Strom range, which are more contemporary and feature the exquisite in-house movements.
Strom’s workshop, where he does his skeletonising, is like stepping back in time and is a complete change from the modernity of the rest of the building. All his work is done completely by hand, and the rows and rows of different tools ordered neatly along his workbench confirm this. Skeletonising the movement takes a week, and engraving it another; it’s no wonder that Strom’s talents have been so sought-after throughout his career.
The company takes decoration very seriously, and the non-skeletonised movements receive the same amount of attention to detail as the skeletonised ones. A handful of extremely talented young watchmakers polish, engrave and bevel everything by hand. Even the perlage, usually done by a computer-guided machine, is done by hand, one circle at a time. The only part that has any computer assistance is the curved Geneva stripes done on the main plate.
Armin Strom likes to base its models on the four elements, earth, wind, fire and water. Each model that falls into this range is labelled as such, and comes with a limited number. The theme is taken further on the balance wheel bridge, with each theme receiving its own engraving – mountains, waves, clouds and flames. Every movement receives a week’s worth of attention.
Once decorated, the components require plating, be it rhodium, gold or PVD. Greisler used to send off the pieces to a plating company to do the work, but inconsistent delivery, coating thicknesses and quality drove him to purchasing what is perhaps the only small scale plating lab in Switzerland. Completely custom built, it was originally made for watch school students to learn with, but when it came up for sale Armin Strom snapped it up.
Walking into the plating room reminds me of my school days walking into the science labs; a faint acrid, chemical smell lingers in the air, and the wires, lights and screens cry out to be pushed, pulled and prodded.. Greisler explains that it has simplified the manufacturing process considerably, and that the consistent thickness of the coating makes for a better fit and less wastage. The coating thickness is factored in at the design stage, and having it within his control relives him of one massive headache.
The final stage, assembly, is undertaken in a large room at the rear of the building. Greisler tells us, as the afternoon sun spills in through the large windows, that the decorators and assemblers occasionally rotate roles to ensure that they fully understand the journey of the watch, and to keep their enthusiasm piqued. The dedication to traditional watchmaking (albeit in a modern setting) is admirable; they even have a young watchmaker going through watch school working a few days a week with them to help pass on the skills to future generations. She explains to us that she was learning how to make screws by hand – I had to take her word for it as they were so small, I wasn’t even sure if I could see them.
The completed movements await their cases for final assembly and testing, and then the watch is complete. From raw materials to finished piece, every step has been carried out with an attention to detail and a level of care that rivals brands whose watches cost twice, three times the price. You may not know who Armin Strom are today, but I don’t think it’s going to stay that way for much longer.
Just in: Having successfully put together a brand that represents his values as one of the most talented watchmakers in history, Mr Strom has now retired at the age of 73. He will continue to work with the company on an advisory basis.