If your perception of a “Swiss-Made” watch involves a wizened watchmaker hunched over a desk overlooking the verdant Vallée de Joux in the Jura Mountains, this article could very well shatter that image. There are more Chinese-made parts in modern timepieces than most Swiss watch companies would like to admit. This is a contentious topic has generated much debate in the past, but Lausanne-based start-up CODE41 is on a mission to bring more transparency to a notoriously opaque industry.
According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH) requirements, for a timepiece to be deemed “Swiss Made” only 60 percent of the manufacturing costs of a watch need to occur in Switzerland. This means that it is fair game for brands to turn to Asia disproportionately in the production process. In an ideal world, there should be no blowback to manufacturers admitting production of some components happen in China. However, given the fact that a “Swiss Made” watch can sell for a premium over watches made in other countries just by virtue of those two words printed on the dial, it does seem unfair companies are only required to have a little more than half of their components to be of Swiss origin.
Enter Claudio D’ Amore, a Swiss-Italian designer who has worked with brands like TAG Heuer, Montblanc, and Parmigiani Fleurier. In 2016, he founded CODE41 with the aim of offering total transparency on the development, costs, and origin of the timepieces the company would make. The start-up’s first crowdfunding campaign, built on the promise of delivering high quality watches at fair prices and transparency on origin of parts, raised 543,150 Swiss Francs at the end of 2016. The first CODE41 model, the Anomaly-01, is a Miyota-powered mechanical watch with a machined dial that seems to be part of the mechanism itself.
In keeping with their insurgent ways, the start-up sells directly from their website, cutting out the intermediaries of traditional distribution model and halving the retail price (the Anomaly-01 range ranges from $734.48 in steel to $1,525.40 in carbon fibre). More importantly, CODE41 also pioneered a new labeling system for their watches. They introduced the concept of TTO (Total Transparency of Origin) as an alternative to the industry-standard Swiss Made tag. According to the TTO manifesto, the brand would choose “Swiss and international parts based on their distinctiveness and high value for money; not in order to meet the criteria of a deceptive Swiss Made label.” So the watches, according to Code 41, “would be manufactured in the very Chinese workshops, which have been producing many of the components for Swiss brands for decades.”
What really sets apart CODE41 from other start-ups and micro-brands is their ability to involve the community. Designs and ideas are presented to stakeholders and members get a say in the final look and feel of the product. A voting process decides the final design and choice of movement; it is a way of working that is very different to what is considered norm in the industry. For their sophomore effort, a more conservatively designed timepiece called Anomaly-02, CODE41 opted to use the ETA-2824-2, a workhorse Swiss-made movement used widely in the industry. To their credit, they managed to keep prices reasonable again with the Anomaly-02 range starting at $858.81.
The company upped the ante for their third project, X41, by introducing a new haute horology movement conceived specifically (with inputs from the community) for the brand. Developed by specialists Timeless Manufacture, this new movement features a peripheral rotor that allows for uninterrupted views of the movement via the exhibition caseback. The movement has been designed and manufactured entirely in Switzerland and despite the fact the watch easily qualifies for the Swiss Made tag (90 percent of the work was done in the country), CODE41 prefers to go with its TTO label.
The X41 had a distinct open-worked dial with its big date and peripheral rotor (a feature seen only in high-end movements) and is available in a choice of titanium or high-tech AeroCarbon (a carbon fibre-variant favoured by the aerospace industry) with prices starting from $5,500. There are four version of the X41 and 1,650 pieces have already been sold since launch. Day41, their fourth project is offered in two case sizes – 37 mm and 40 mm – to appeal to a broader audience and features an avant-garde open-worked dial. An automatic movement made by STP, a Swiss firm owned by the Fossil group, powers this watch.
CODE41 is now working on their most ambitious project yet – the NB24 will feature an in-house cam-driven chronograph movement. The chronograph’s moniker, NB24, is a hat-tip to their brand ambassador, the paraplegic racing driver Nigel Bailly. The Belgian will fulfil his dream of participating at the 24 Hours Le Mans next year when he turns up at the legendary race as part of all-paraplegic driver team. Specialists Concepto are developing the movement and the watch is currently in the prototype stage and is expected to launch with pre-orders in January next year.