In the strange, small world of watchmaking, there’s lots of money to be made on items that we would call, at best, totemic. To make those items, you still need small mechanical parts. That’s where Nivarox comes in.
UPDATE – Just realized Patrick already wrote his, but I’ll leave this up for Twitter folks. Also, Patrick: Double-post! JINX!
Nivarox makes balance springs. The name stands for “ni variable, ni oxydable,” which translates to “neither variable nor oxidable.” These tiny springs swing the balance wheel in almost every mechanical watch and the goal of invariability coupled quality metals made Nivarox one of the most important companies in the world during the 20th century. Now they’re owned by the Swatch Group, a company that has a virtual monopoly on the high-end watch market. And, interestingly, most competitors are just fine with that.
It wasn’t always thus. In the 1980s, Nivarox almost dissappeared. Ariel writes:
Listening to watch industry insiders who lived through this era in the 1980s is interesting. The tale they share is akin to retelling the story of apocalypse. For them a foreign terror and technology came in to wipe out an industry they held so dear, that held so many people together in the watch manufacturing hubs of Switzerland. Nivarox was about to be the heart of a dying creature. In 1983 the various arms of Nivarox consolidated and later in 1985 it became part of the Swatch Group that was at first a merger of the ASUAG and the SSIH. Many people of course know that the Swatch Group was started by Nicolas Hayek (who recently passed away). Many people credit him for saving the Swiss watch industry.
If you’ve noticed I keep referring to the fact that the Swiss watch industry is kept together by a series of suppliers who produce the necessary parts that go into watch movement. There are zero totally vertically integrated watch makers in Switzerland even today. The whole system of manufacturing could be halted if just one supplier stopped supplying materials or parts. This is why Mr. Hayek instructed Nivarox to produce its own metal for the balance springs. Originally sourced from a metal producer in Germany, there was just too much fear that if the supplier didn’t want Nivarox as a client anymore (which of course could happen on a whim), the entire industry would supper as watches could not be produced. Hayek’s ongoing mantra to Nivarox was “product, product, product, product.”
Read the full article if you want to learn about one of the most important mechanical manufacturers in the world and how so much of the watch industry depends on one invariable hairspring.