The co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, once said that “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” What he should have said was “Design is also about how it works.” In watchmaking there are a handful of watch developers who manage to deliver both aesthetic and functional standards. Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of them. The brand holds that the essence of watchmaking comes from finding a perfect balance between technical precision, artistic techniques and a refined design language that unites the two.
The story of the brand is well-known to Revolution readers by now. Before Edmond Jaeger and Jacques-David LeCoultre came together in collaboration, both were already acquainted with watchmaking. Even at its earliest, Jaeger-LeCoultre was looking at its watch and movement developments with ease of use and artistic elegance in mind. We often talk about utility in timekeeping and design, but that references watches designed for specific or minimal purposes. Every watch, whether it’s a three-hand ticker or a grand complication piece, is made with this focus on balanced watchmaking. You see this from the Métiers Rares (Rare Crafts) of the manufacture as well as the know-how of its master watchmakers, sharing the same vision: to match technical sophistication with aesthetic refinement.
It can be hard to define precision in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s terms, at least in the collector’s or layperson’s mind. Stéphane Belmont, the brand’s director of heritage and rare pieces, ascribed that to two aspects in a previous interview. “For the development of the brand,” he explained, “something that is a bit more technical will further allow us to develop new functions or technical features.” At the same time, he also described it as creating “products that are able to continue, to tell by themselves what they are, without having to explain too much.” High technicity, combined with ease of use and a self-explanatory presence, are what we perceive to be essentials in any Jaeger-LeCoultre watch.
A New Master
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s emphasis on daily-use complications with a high level of precision stems from the brand’s belief in making pioneering watches and leading innovations in watchmaking. While this is easily observed from its high watchmaking pieces, it’s in the minutiae efforts that Jaeger-LeCoultre puts into its foundation products which tell this tale.
For the upcoming SIHH fair, the brand will be focusing its attention on the Master Ultra Thin collection. The Master Ultra Thin line has always served as an intermediate between Jaeger-LeCoultre’s high arts and technical crafts, offering some of its high watchmaking masteries with rare crafts. For 2019, the maison is introducing a watch that epitomises the Art of Precision — the Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel in white gold.
The Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel brings one of the maison’s numerous artistic crafts to the front of the timepiece, while within, an improved calibre 925/2 movement delivers enhanced performance. The watch combines both into an elegant and refined design. It’s not simply a refresh or enhancement; everything about the timepiece is carefully thought out. The watch features a hand-guillochéd dial that’s further enhanced with blue translucent enamel. Hour markers are made to flow with the guilloché dial’s angles and a new polished moon shows the moon phase function on the secondary dial at six o’clock. The counter is also engraved, with a moon-like texture in a ring around the moon phase and date display. The thin case holds the calibre 925, an automatic calibre that offers up to 70 hours of power reserve.
As Jaeger-LeCoultre tells us, “In line with the continuous mission of Jaeger-LeCoultre to improve our calibers and their characteristics, we are introducing some technical improvement in the regulating organs and in the power-reserve barrels.”
The new Ultra Thin Moon Enamel brings forth two crafts — guillochage and enamelling — on the dial. A rose-engine-turned, sunray guilloché dial bearing navy blue translucent enamel makes this dial truly stunning. Rose engine turning is a special art, in part because the lathes that are needed to create these engraved patterns are usually over a century old, with few in working condition. But it’s highly prized, as the way it reflects and scatters light over the patterned surface creates a mesmerising visual effect.
Combining it with enamelling on the dial makes it doubly challenging. Enamelling was integrated as a craft within Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1999. There are a few artisans who practise this craft within the brand. It takes immense concentration to ensure that the enamel is evenly applied over the guilloché dial, and then heating it to harden the material; a process that must be repeated to bring out the beautiful navy blue. The translucent enamel allows light to still pass through it, enabling the guilloché dial to reveal its polish and style through the enamel.
The watch, which will be issued in a limited edition of 100, expands the Ultra Thin collection with refined artistic crafts to present complications such as power reserve indicators all the way to high complications such as perpetual calendars and tourbillons. Two other models in this Ultra Thin line are slated for release during the fair — find out more from our online platforms in January 2019.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is known for its performance in watchmaking precision. Since 1992, the brand has instituted an internal quality control system known as the “1,000 Hours Control”, where timepieces are rigorously tested over six weeks to ensure they meet the brand’s own expectations for precision. It started with the brand’s calibre 889, used in the Master Control Date, to demonstrate how even the foundational timepieces of the maison offer fine timekeeping. Today, all the watches that emerge from its manufacture go through this testing, apart from a few one-of-a-kind models. The process starts with standard timekeeping tests similar to what a COSC certification would require, and ventures further using what they call the Cyclotest, that sees the watch moving in the same way a regular person would wear it over two weeks. Add temperature and other environmental tests and the result are watches that are designed to work under the toughest of natural environments.
Internal testing aside, Jaeger-LeCoultre has won numerous accolades publicly for the precision of their watches. In 2009, the brand submitted two tourbillon timepieces to the Concours International de Chronometrié for the prestigious award and took home the top two prizes for accuracy. In fact, the Master Tourbillon won one of the highest marks ever awarded by the competition in its category, 909 out of 1,000 points. The Gyrotourbillon 2 timepiece came in a close second.
Since then, the tourbillons of Jaeger-LeCoultre have gone through various innovations, and the Gyrotourbillon 3 emerged in 2013 with a spherical hairspring, a first in a wristwatch. The unique hairspring design served to enhance an even breathing across all axes of movement, mimicking the Gyrotourbillon’s own design. The brand’s latest tourbillon appears in its Reverso line, the Reverso Tribute Tourbillon Duoface.
The Reverso has long been an icon of the specialist watchmaker, first emerging as a case designed for sturdiness in sport use. The sport in question is the elegant game of polo, where flipping the case via a side-locking mechanism shields the crystal from potential impact damage. Since then, the reverse case has been used for various purposes, from decorative arts such as miniature painting and enamelling to functional design. The Duoface represents the latter, offering up a second timezone on a second watch dial.
Adding a tourbillon to the Duoface line represents a particularly challenging effort for the master watchmakers of the maison. After all, while most tourbillons are viewed from one side of the watch, in the Reverso Tribute piece, it needs to be appreciated from both sides of the case. That meant that various elements of the tourbillon cage typically housed around the back of the movement had to be shifted or eliminated altogether, to provide an unblocked view of the rotating cage and escapement on both dials.
The solution for this came in the form of ball bearings to maintain the flying tourbillon’s carriage as well as its free-sprung balance. Naturally, the oscillating rotor and automatic-winding mechanisms were also removed. The brand-new calibre 847 exposes the tourbillon on the lower half of the dial with a sunray-finished blue dial on the first display and a smaller time display on the reverse side. Keeping its design consistent with the exposed tourbillon, elements of the movement are exposed through the baseplate which is itself worked with a sunray guilloché with the tourbillon as its centre. Thanks to the ball-bearing mechanism supporting the cage’s movement, the supporting bridge is largely skeletonised and offers a relatively unhindered view of the rotating regulating organs.
A side bonus of this new design is in the slimness of the case. The Reverso Tribute Tourbillon Duoface measures just 9.15mm thin in a platinum case, a feat of mechanical engineering that isn’t highlighted enough. Only 50 pieces will be made; this is a spectacular watch to acquire.
Merging the Two
Possessing artistic capability and technical excellence are necessary for any watchmaker of excellence. However, merging the two beyond just aesthetics demands more. Here, we see the maison stand out.
The aforementioned Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3 offers an aesthetic attuned to its engineering through a multi-layered display, cleverly instituting a digital display of its chronograph operation on the seconds dial. Despite the complexity of the movement, it is conveniently legible on all fronts, with the Gyrotourbillon drawing the viewer’s eye first, before the time display leads to the seconds hand. The deep blue of the day-and-night display complements the blued spherical hairspring, so you miss nothing out.
Legibility is something that the brand often cites as essential to complex timepieces. One perfect example is the Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique Quantième Perpétuel, that offers up a precise tourbillon bearing a cylindrical hairspring and perpetual calendar display in a conveniently readable format. Three subdials on the upper portion of the watch indicate the date, month, year, day and moon phases using a combination of analogue and digital indicators, while the lower third is pre-occupied with the tourbillon carriage.
The cylindrical hairspring, the mono-axial equivalent of the spherical hairspring in the Gyrotourbillon, delivers better isochronism compared with a flat spring without taking attention away from the watch’s functions. What’s more, by using a digital year display, it makes the watch calendar-proof — simply swop out the century numbers to have it working into future centuries. Flip over to the caseback and you’ll see a beautifully decorated baseplate with virtually no hint of the complex 431-part 985 calibre operating ceaselessly within. That is the amalgamation of technical and artistic performance, adding a level of mystery by keeping the cams and levers of the perpetual calendar hidden under the hood.
The Rarified Arts
The use of translucent blue enamelling in the Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel highlights one aspect of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s artistic abilities that few manufactures partake in. Most watchmakers will collaborate with or invite an external master craftsperson to work on its artistic dials. The maison’s own artists and master craftspersons, housed under its Métiers Rares, offer numerous crafts done internally.
In the past, the maison’s gem-setters, engravers and enamellers were spread out across the manufacture. However, the development of the Hybris Artistica collection in 2014 led the brand to bring these 30 artisans all into one division, the Rare Crafts Atelier. This has allowed for the exchange of ideas and the development of new processes. Within the atelier, artisans interact and discuss their work, ensuring that each stage of decorating the case, dial or movement is designed to facilitate the next. These are delicate operations; each component that enters the atelier may take hours, if not days, to perfect.
A perfect example of the artistic excellence needed to achieve breathtaking dials can be found in the Rendez-Vous collection. Take the Rendez-Vous Moon for example. Four years ago, the brand debuted a new moon phase complication with the whimsical and enchanting line. The brand emphasised its exacting standards of precision with a moon phase complication that’s accurate to 972 years. (Conventionally precise moon phases have an accuracy range of a one-day deviation every 2.5 years to 122 years in comparison.)
Not only did they decide to develop a highly precise moon phase watch, they also presented it in an artistically challenging way. The dial is made in a midnight blue paillonné enamel, with the artisan adding the decorative element made from white-gold leaf that’s added to the enamel and heated in the oven to seal it. That’s further combined with engraving work on the white gold base to create the texture of leaves that cover the dial, which are themselves treated in a different enamel process to achieve two different effects on the dial. Add to that the mother-of-pearl Moon and a fully diamond-set bezel and lugs, and a resplendent, skilfully crafted watch is created.
The Rendez-Vous Celestial brings together all the crafts of the Rare Crafts Atelier into one watch. A celestial star map painted by hand on a thin plate of lapis lazuli, surrounded by a white gold ring marked with golden beads to indicate the minute track is only the beginning of this challenging design. The skeletonised hour markers are hand-crafted and polished, resting on the upper dial that comes in a variety of different options, such as a guilloché dial with enamelling or in-laid with mother-of-pearl, each perfectly cut to fit seamlessly with the next. And within, the calibre 809/1 traces the movement of the stars across a dial while keeping accurate time.
The combination of artistic and technical precision is exactly why within the watch industry, Jaeger-LeCoultre is referred to as the watchmaker’s watchmaker. And that’s precisely why it continues to mesmerise Revolution’s pages.