Finishing School: The ABCs of Hand-Decoration with Armin Strom
Armin Strom co-founder and master watchmaker Claude Greisler sat down with Watchonista and talked us through the Swiss independent brand’s impressive devotion to fine hand-finishing.
High-end Swiss independent brand Armin Strom might be best known for its contemporary watch designs and performance-enhancing mechanisms, like its Resonance technology developed at the Bienne-based watchmaker’s manufacture. But we should be careful not to forget that this family-owned company also excels at the fine hand-decoration of its in-house movements.
Of course, it helps that Claude Greisler, a master watchmaker and co-founder of the modern-day incarnation of Armin Strom, spent his formative years restoring antique timepieces at the La Chaux-de-Fonds watchmaking museum.
“My passion for movement decoration comes from restoration,” Greisler told Watchonista. “Training in watch restoration after graduating from watchmaking school totally changed my view about how a watch movement should be made, and how it can look. Hand-decoration is my favorite part of watchmaking because you can express yourself by adding your signature to a watch movement. The human element elevates it to mechanical art.”
Surprise the Customer
Recognizing the indulgence that high-level watch decoration can represent, Greisler added: “You can compare it to food: You could eat any food just to satisfy your hunger, or you can go to a Michelin star restaurant and be surprised by how perfect food can be made. That is what we do at Armin Strom. We try to surprise our customers by combining different decorations to make our movement parts as perfect as can be.”
Such is Armin Strom’s devotion to fine hand-finishing that, for the 400 watches it produces each year, the brand employs no fewer than 11 watchmakers dedicated to hand-decoration (compared to just three watchmakers assigned to assembly and regulation).
All of Armin Strom’s watches, from the entry-level Tribute 1 in stainless steel (CHF 14,900) to its complicated Minute Repeater Resonance (CHF 380,000), are decorated with the same level of attention, the difference being that the brand’s more complex calibres feature more components and more challenging bridge shapes that, by definition, require more time to embellish.
Generous portions of each movement are visible on dial sides, meaning owners don’t have to take off their watch and look at the back to appreciate the movement decoration. Even component surfaces that aren’t visible are finely finished.
So, which decorative techniques does the brand revel in using? With Greisler as our guide, here are the ABCs of hand-decoration at Armin Strom.
A hallmark of high-end watchmaking, anglage refers to the creation of polished bevels, or chamfers, along the edges of components like mainplates and bridges where their upper surface meets the sides. There are a few different techniques used for anglage.
Some brands cut corners, beveling at scale using diamond-cut CNC machining. Meanwhile, others are a little more artisanal, using a motorized grinding wheel with abrasive discs to get a mirror polish on the bevels.
However, the most respected anglage is traditional anglage main – accomplished by hand – and it is the kind carried out by Armin Strom’s talented team. Here, the bevel is created and softened using hand-held files and buffs, then it is polished by hand using the dried stem of the gentian plant – which removes just enough of the metal – combined with increasingly fine diamond pastes.
Anglage main at Armin Strom not only takes a long time (a watchmaker can spend tens of hours beveling and polishing by hand all the bridges of one movement), but it also takes at least six months to train new craftspeople before they are confident in mastering the technique, tools, and materials. Fun Fact: For metals that the gentian plant can’t be used on – brass, steel, gold, and German silver – components are beveled and polished with each material matched to the certain woods and specific abrasive compositions to which they are best suited.
“We’re only interested in the final result,” explained Greisler. “That all spots, scratches, and traces of machining are removed, that the beveling is flat, smooth, perfectly parallel, and mirror-polished, with no wobbling or wavering.”
He added: “We don’t mind if our artisans take a longer or shorter time to get to that result. Different factors affect the time it takes: Experience, fatigue, mood, or humidity. We don’t put pressure on our team. We just make them feel as comfortable as possible to ensure they can perform as best as they can.”
Black polishing is carried out on flat surfaces of steel components, like Armin Strom’s Resonance clutch spring, to give it a smooth, mirror-polished finish that looks black from certain angles. After pre-polishing with diamond paper, the watchmaker moves to a flat tin baseplate on which they apply the diamond paste, before gently rubbing and applying pressure to the component.
“Black polishing is one of the most difficult ways of polishing,” Greisler told Watchonista. “When you hand-polish a bevel, you can adapt as you go along. But with black polishing, it’s all or nothing. If there is one single blemish on it at the end, you have to start over again and repolish the whole surface.”
At Armin Strom, rotating parts, like gears, are decorated with circular graining. Rather than stamping, the brand profile-turns its gears for better quality, which already lends a circular pattern to their surfaces. But Greisler’s team refine it further by using a hand-operated tool to spin each gear against diamond paper to make the circular graining even more prominent.
“Consistency is key here,” said Greisler. “The graining specialist must manually gauge the pressure needed for each gear to ensure the same aesthetic each time. When you look at the overall gear train, you want each gear’s finishing to look the same.”
“When watchmakers of the past started using ruby jewels to guide the pivots, they wanted to highlight these valuable natural rubies by polishing the countersinks by hand to make the ruby appear bigger,” explained Greisler.
He continued: “So, even though, today, we all use synthetic rubies, at Armin Strom we respect this past tradition by creating and polishing countersinks by hand. We open up the bridge with a cutting tool to create the countersink, then polish it with wood and polishing paste. It takes up to half an hour to finish each countersink in this way.”
Côtes de Genève
The backs of Armin Strom’s Tribute 1 and Gravity Equal Force are spectacularly adorned with straight Geneva stripes – or Côtes de Genève – while the back of its Dual Time Resonance bears them in an eye-catching circular pattern. In both cases, the pattern is created by guiding an abrasive disc by hand over the workpiece, but it needs to be done carefully.
“With any decoration, you want to remove as little material as possible so as not to change tolerances and cause problems for the watchmakers assembling the movement,” said Greisler. “For me, the sign of well-made Geneva stripes is when the lines are defined, but the surface remains smooth and flat, with no material visibly removed.”
Not part of the movement but powered by it, all of Armin Strom’s in-house-made hands, whatever the material, are hand polished. Featuring multiple levels, flat surfaces, and rounded edges, they require a studied mix of polishing techniques.
“Flat surfaces like the axes of the hands are black-polished, while rounded elements, like the central circular bevel and edges of the hands, are polished by hand using wood and diamond paste,” commented Greisler.
Matte and Frosted Finishes
In Greisler’s eyes, the shine of polished components is better appreciated if offset by a contrasting texture. Thus, it was equally important for the brand to master matte and frosted finishes. A subtle matte finish – like on the mainplate of the Mirrored Force Resonance – can be achieved through hand-applied sandblasting.
But another technique the brand utilizes is hand-frosting, which produces an even grainier texture, such as that seen on the Armin Strom Orbit. Here, the decoration specialist uses small hand movements to rub the component on abrasive pastes, grains, glass pearls, and aluminum oxide to achieve this relatively coarse surface finish.
Known as “spotting” in English, perlage is the fish scale pattern typically found on portions of the mainplate. To create this, the watchmaker makes subtle contact with the workpiece by lowering a rotating abrasive rod onto it, gradually making a pattern of overlapping circles.
“You could achieve a decent perlage using a CNC machine,” admitted Greisler. “But doing it by hand, like we do, means you can adapt the pattern to the conditions of that particular component. Maybe there are traces of machining in certain places that require extra attention. You can then decide if you should go a little bit deeper here or remove a little bit more material there.”
One way to liven up the surface of a component so that it catches the light and the eye is to create a sun-brushed pattern, also known as soleillage. Using a rotating lathe and abrasive tool, Greisler’s team deploy this decoration to dramatic effect on the mainplate of Dual Time Resonance.
Sometimes a linear decoration best serves a specific component. Take, for example, the brand’s distinctive finger bridges on the Tribute 1, Gravity Equal Force, and Orbit.
The smooth, shiny hand-polished bevel around the edges is beautifully counterpoised by straight-graining on both the bridge’s top surface (satinage) and sides (traits tirés), an effect achieved by gently scraping the surface against diamond paper.
Despite the word “tremblage” deriving from the French for “trembling,” the painstaking art of tremblage is historically associated with Glashütte-based German watchmaking. And to execute tremblage correctly, a hand-engraver uses a selection of chisels to make a series of tiny openings in the material to create a distinctive glinting texture. But to keep this texture uniform, the engraver must consistently apply the same pressure with each chiseling action.
“We are lucky to have on our team two watchmaker-engravers who trained in Glashütte,” says Greisler. “So, when it came to decorating the balance bridges of our Dual Time Resonance and Minute Repeater Resonance, we felt we could use their rare skills in tremblage to great effect. This slightly matte, slightly reflective finish was what we were looking for exactly.”
Less Can Be More
Of course, having all these decoration techniques in your locker is one thing; knowing how to deploy each one judiciously is another.
Greisler concluded: “We want to use these different decorations to help guide the observer where to look on the movement. If the choice of decorations is too busy, it can become difficult to know where the eye should focus. The skill is to highlight certain parts, let them breathe, or make them pop out while visually calming down other elements. Sometimes less is more because that’s when you can really appreciate what is before your eyes.”