Last month, I spent a day in Schaffhausen — my morning macerated in the heritage of the H Moser Museum, my lunch consumed against the springtime ferocity of the Rheinfall, my afternoon immersed in the workshops of H Moser & Cie Manufacture. It’s hard to convey how profligate I am with time when I visit watch manufactures, or how voraciously I extract information from everything I come across. To employ a singularly accurate and probably really inappropriate simile — when I’m in a watchmaking facility, I spend time like Charlie Sheen spends money on hookers and cocaine.

So my day obviously took place in chronological order, but it would be ludicrous for me to try and tell you about it in that format. You’ll just have to trust me and stay with me while I take you through the past and present of H Moser & Cie as I remember it. Okay?


Venturing Forth

We should start with Moser in the present day, because for a long time people didn’t seem to think that Moser was the kind of watch for the person who is all about the now. I used to think that too; I first encountered H Moser & Cie in my twenties, and I made superficial decisions about things, as people in their twenties typically do.

To be fair, though, when I first got to know about H Moser & Cie, they hadn’t yet introduced the Venturer. This collection, with its narrow bezel, domed crystal and slender lugs, debuted in 2014, and quite frankly it attracted me from the very first. Its most characteristic, stripped-down iteration possesses a taut, lean beauty — angled convex fumé dial, textured countersunk small-seconds subdial, baton markers, elongated leaf-shaped hands with tapered profiles and just the very slightest curve to their upper surfaces. (Sorry about all the breathless detail; I got a bit carried away there.)

The Venturer is a watch that represents Moser’s contemporary classicism. The design admits very little in terms of extraneous flourish and reflects the keen focus of a brand re-establishing itself in the 21st century.

Roaming around the Moser manufacturing facility in Neuhausen, one of the things that strikes you the most is the youth — or rather, I should say the youthful energy — of everyone you come across. This is not to be confused with the high-octane exuberance that draws the hordes of brash Bilzerian Bros. The workshops of H Moser & Cie may be modest in size, but the professional dedication that drives the modern ambition of the watches created in these rooms is anything but.

In January this year, Moser debuted the Swiss Alp watch, an enormously enjoyable piece that neatly punctured our current obsession with connected personal devices. The Moser-produced video that accompanied its launch is a prime example of how CEO Edouard Meylan has encouraged the brand to embrace digital media in a way that other traditional companies have resisted doing.

An earlier promotional video featured the Moser team of young watchmakers and drew parallels between Moser’s perpetual calendar and today’s iProducts — the perpetual calendar was smart in the 18th century and it’s still smart now.

Here’s the thing, though — if Moser are able to position their watches with confidence in 2016, it’s only because they’ve been making the things for so damn long.

Solid Endeavour

The foundations of H Moser & Cie lie in 1805, when Heinrich Moser was born in Schaffhausen to a family of watchmakers. His father made watches. His grandfather made watches. It’s just one of those things you can’t get away from. Some people call it destiny.

After his induction into the trade via an apprenticeship under his father, Heinrich Moser went west to Le Locle in 1824. Along with the neighbouring La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle was already by that time a major centre of Swiss watchmaking. Watchmaking was so much a part of this area that civic authorities reshaped both La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle to facilitate the needs of the watchmaking industry. I’m not even kidding about this. After a massive fire that razed La Chaux-de-Fonds to the ground in 1794, the city was rebuilt in a logistically efficient grid layout, with street widths carefully calculated in order to allow the maximum amount of sunlight into the windows of watchmaking workshops. Le Locle followed suit after their own town-wide conflagration in 1833.

Within two years, Heinrich Moser had gained such watchmaking skill that he outshone his master in Le Locle and started taking apprentices of his own. Hearing of opportunities to further his career in St Petersburg, he travelled there in 1928 and established a living in that great city. He returned to Switzerland in 1848 with his fortune made, his entrepreneurial spirit invigorated by his experience in Russia, and immediately set about revitalising the depressed economy of Schaffhausen — the dam harnessing the power of the Rhine was a particular project of his.

To this day, Heinrich Moser is seen as the man who helped put Schaffhausen back on the map in terms of industrial and commercial activity. Charlottenfels Manor, the family home he built, is now the Moser Museum, preserving chapters of history that are important not only to H Moser & Cie but also the city of Schaffhausen.

Visiting the Moser Museum is a bit of a trip — you feel as if you’ve literally stepped back into Heinrich Moser’s family home. The entrance hall is still liberally studded all around with 19th-century hunting trophies — you see representatives of the ibex family, chamois, red deer, one lone snarling bear. One of the rooms on the upper level has been turned into a recreation of Heinrich Moser’s private watchmaking studio, containing shelves and cabinets lined with archival watches and instruments, a workbench laden with horological apparatus and artefacts of Heinrich Moser’s travels.

A travelling trunk piled high with replicas of Heinrich Moser’s personal and business papers sits next to the glazed fireplace, while a stuffed toy dog is the key to an anecdote drawn from Moser’s extensive family correspondence that provides a beautifully vivid glimpse into his inner life. The curator of the Moser Museum, Mandy Ranneberg, described to me the long journey that Heinrich Moser took to reach St Petersburg, and his acute dismay and subsequent depression upon leaving Frankfurt when a peasant stole his faithful poodle as it was running behind his coach. Moser was unable to stop the coach and the thief got away with the beloved dog. (“That asshole!” I gasped, and Mandy nodded grimly.)

It feels strange to call it a museum, as if it were nothing more than a collection of old objects. The Moser Museum is maintained with as much affection as if the family were still resident on the premises. In a sense, they are. Across the hall from the family room, which adjoins the watchmaking studio, a richly appointed room represents the life of Heinrich Moser’s son, also named Heinrich (but called Henri), and his efforts to expand the family business into the Near East. Personal effects, photographs and journals lie around the room.

The narrative of Moser’s family unfolds (scandalous marriages, Communist sympathisers, domestic estrangement) and you almost forget that you were initially drawn here by your interest in watches. But I have to admit that I wasn’t displeased about being led off the path of watchmaking discovery; I found that behind the watch story was an incredibly moving human story.

There is a reason why the Endeavour was given that name. Out of all the Moser watch collections, the Endeavour is easily the largest. It encompasses all the familiar complications of H Moser & Cie — the perpetual calendar, the perpetual moon phase, the dual time and the signature Moser big date. In terms of design, the Endeavour has always seemed to me like the most established of all the Moser watch collections. That’s partly because it is; the other two collections (not counting special editions such as the Swiss Alp) were introduced in 2013 and 2015. The Endeavour also just looks like a more mature watch, though. Its proportions are more traditional, there is a solidity about its appearance, a gathered strength. This is a watch for someone who’s ready to build something — a family, a business, an industry, whatever. An empire.

Here in the Moser Museum, they’re renovating the wings of the villa, including the gallery where the estate’s art is usually displayed. From the grounds you can look across the city and see the Rhine, where Moser built his hydro-electric dam. The renewed activity that the dam brought to Schaffhausen was a prime factor in its industrial growth in the latter half of the 19th century, attracting an American businessman named Florentine Ariosto Jones who, with the help and advice of Heinrich Moser, subsequently set up his own watch company in the city.

If you’re familiar with the internal product narrative of H Moser & Cie, you’ll probably realise I’m talking about the watch collections out of sequence. The collections are linked to different stages of Heinrich Moser’s life, so I should have started with the Endeavour collection and then gone on to the Venturer. That’s one way of looking at it — a strong, conventional way, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But this is not your conventional manufacture story. Neither is H Moser & Cie your conventional watch company.

Pioneering Spirit

The H Moser & Cie manufacture in Neuhausen is located in a little industrial park, surrounded by greenery. Its immediate neighbours are not from the watchmaking industry. This is in pretty sharp distinction to most other watch companies that are based in Francophone Switzerland and concentrated in the same handful of places.

Something else that’s different about the H Moser & Cie manufacture — they make their own hairsprings. If you only ever learn one thing about the watch industry supply chain, let it be this following fact. The one thing indispensable to the function of a mechanical watch is the regulating organ (made up of an oscillating combination of hairspring and balance wheel), the component that gives a timepiece its chronometric ability. Without the hairspring and balance, you don’t have a watch, you have a wind-up toy.

The vast majority of regulators in the Swiss watch industry are made by one specialist company located in Villeret. This expertise is really hard to come by; we’re not even kidding about this. If you’re a watch company that makes its own hairsprings and balance wheels, it’s a BFD.

All right, so if you want to be absolutely pedantic about it, H Moser & Cie don’t make their own regulators — they are made by a sister company, Precision Engineering AG (PEAG), which occupies the same building. But it’s a fine distinction, and we won’t let that distract us.

I’ve visited two other hairspring facilities — Rolex and Nivarox. (Well, actually I’ve visited five, but I wasn’t allowed to view the hairspring workshops in three of them.) Why is it hairspring expertise so difficult to acquire and why are people so secretive about it? I mean, it’s just a bunch of really small wire spirals, right?

The specific alloy used in the proprietary Straumann hairsprings made here in Neuhausen is called PE4000 and is a complex formula developed by the team headed by Dominique Lauper at Precision Engineering. I spoke with Dominique Lauper at this most recent Baselworld and honestly this guy is a goldmine of information on materials science. You might not imagine that this extremely specific area of expertise would have that much bearing on high watchmaking, but holy crap you would be so wrong.

The main constituents of PE4000 are iron, nickel and chromium, followed by bits of molybdenum, beryllium and titanium. The presence of all these elements are required in order to give the hairspring its particular combination of qualities. Because of how tiny the hairspring’s cross section is, the alloy has to exhibit near-perfect isotropy (material uniformity). So this is already a pain in the neck. Then the alloy, which comes in spools of 0.6mm thick wire, has to be slowly passed through several dies of decreasing diameter and flattened to impart the desired cross-section. At this point, the wire is unbelievably fine — it can be as thin as 0.0152mm, depending on the type of hairspring (just for comparison, the average human eyelash is about 0.07mm thick). The wire is then coiled, heated and manually separated. Thereafter it goes elsewhere to get its terminal curve and balance wheel; it gets housed in a movement and then a watch and lives happily ever after.

It should be clear to you by now that making hairsprings is one of those things that is simple in theory but extremely difficult in execution. Anyone with the right machinery can make hairsprings, but very few people can make hairsprings to the correct specifications and levels of performance needed in a mechanical watch. This is work that demands focus and unremitting perfectionism, qualities that do not naturally occur in human behaviour except when directed at activities involving Pringles and an Xbox (in my experience anyway). Would I ever be able to work in the hairspring facility at PEAG? There was this extremely obliging and patient young man who showed me around the workshop, and when I asked him if there was any task in the hairspring manufacture process that could be accomplished by a hungover person, he looked at me with such horror in his eyes that I was obliged to pretend it was a (very bad) joke.

As if having a magical hairspring-producing workshop in the basement wasn’t enough, H Moser & Cie are continually hard at work trying to create new and innovative mechanisms to inhabit their watches. The Moser big date, for example, that provides a straightforward and intuitive alternative to other existing date indications (tiny date wheel, energy-sucking double-wheel big date, hard-to-read pointer). Or their double-pull crown, which simplifies the process of getting the crown to the correct position for setting the time or date. Their modular escapement and their modular tourbillon impart several practical advantages to the servicing and maintenance of H Moser & Cie watches — and if you’re any kind of watch collector you’ll appreciate the attention paid to after-sales issues.

The fact is, H Moser & Cie do things differently, and it’s a good kind of different. You just don’t realise it, because honestly their watches don’t advertise this fact. They embrace classic design — even their new sports watch, the Pioneer, is classically good looking despite its rubber strap, SuperLumiNova accents and dark case inserts. And it’s something that’s starting to appeal more and more to the discerning consumer who is fed up with today’s hyper-saturated culture of flashy self-aggrandisement, the consumer who would prefer a high-performance timepiece that is solidly made, packed with in-house expertise, easy to use and read, well provided for in the after-sales department, and is aesthetically attractive without announcing his net worth or making him look like an asshole.

All this I realised after spending just one day with H Moser & Cie. I could easily have spent far more. Those of you out there who wear one of their watches, is this what it’s like every day, spending time with Moser? Tell me, how does it feel?

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