A journey; if I have learnt one thing during my nine years in the watch industry, it’s that in one way, shape or form, every timepiece you see – whether in a shop window, magazine or on someone’s wrist – is on a never-ending journey. I won’t be pedantic enough to go far back into the history and timeline of watchmaking itself, however, for each brand, there is a one-of-a-kind narrative. This journey, or story even, originated years, decades, and in some cases, centuries before the final product in front of your eyes. It’s all too often a running joke between us journalists, trudging from one watch presentation to the next, deliberating what on earth the latest innovation or reiteration will unfold as, but in truth, no matter how significant to the naked eye, they are testament to countless years of thought, experimentation and references to the archives. The change of a shape, a millimeter shaved off here and there, exploring a new material – it’s all part of each individual story.
For Jaeger-LeCoultre, we are able to trace its origins back to the innovation and passion of Antoine LeCoultre, whose inventive spirit and passion led to the founding of Jaeger-LeCoultre, deep in the mountains of the Jura, pooling together its artistic talents and technical expertise under one roof for a comprehensive watchmaking experience. Today, the Vallée de Joux is a referred to as the “cradle” of Swiss watchmaking, boasting numerous manufactures in a relatively small area, straddling a natural boundary separating France and Switzerland. With a population of only 3,000, the tiny village of Le Sentier is perhaps better known as the home of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture. The hour’s drive from Geneva to Le Sentier certainly isn’t a long one, but it feels like a journey through time, slipping peacefully back through the decades with every town passed. The modern universe makes way for factories, then farmhouses and a rolling countryside with spectacular mountain vistas.
It’s worth pointing out this road was not even kept accessible during the challenging wintertime until the 1990s, and is also an appropriate start to a journey that will take us through Jaeger-LeCoultre’s own exceptional world of horology. Pulling into the manufacture draws you back in time, allowing you to picture what it looked like all those years ago; one of its most impressive features is its original workshop that housed a steam generator to power its machinery. The structure dominates its quaint surroundings at 25,000 square meters and comprises buildings constructed through the eras to house its rapid expansion.
Wandering through these buildings is almost enough to pick up on the timeline of the manufacture, originating in 1866 – you never know what lies beyond any given corner; every twist and turn spells new discovery and the energy is palpable. Of the 1,300 staff members at Le Sentier, that churn out up to 100,000 timepieces annually, there is a core team of master horologists, 45-strong, that dedicate their time and expertise to the iconic Grand Complications of the maison, such as the Duomètre Sphérotourbillon.
A dedicated Atmos laboratory is filled to the brim, with wall after wall stacked with its enchanting clocks, and one housing a special selection of closely-guarded, custom-ordered pieces. The temperature-controlled room bears an almost playful quality in the most discreet of ways, with clocks and their components scattered across worktops. In the newest wing of the manufacture, a bright, hermetically sealed room houses the Métiers d’Arts workshop; where artists work side by side to adorn timepieces with various crafts. From stonework, to hand painting, enameling and hand guilloché, it’s an all-inclusive hub of some of the most talented artisans the world has to offer. Having witnessed the level of skill, persistence and creative flair these individuals bear, it’s no wonder clients are more than willing to invest in these one-of-a-kind creations.
The highlight of the property this year, however, is the introduction of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 500-square meter Heritage Gallery, coinciding with the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in January, and dedicated to highlighting the brand’s legacy, allowing visitors an unparalleled insight into its world of creativity and inspiration. Long before its horological destiny, it was simply the LeCoultre farmhouse, but its interior is now decidedly contemporary and showcases some of its most memorable collections through the ages. We can follow the development of its key pieces from decade to decade, punctuated by key dates and playful anecdotes from the tour guide. Old design renderings are found in the archive, on display, and there is a library filled with historical books and documents. A light-filled atrium at the end houses more display cases showing off an array of iconic pieces; modern iterations of iconic models, such as the Reverso, Atmos and Geophysic, are paired with their historical muses for a side-by-side comparison.
Upstairs, there is another small workshop tucked away and designed specifically for restoring old timepieces, where experts preserve the precious crafts and individual stories of each piece. There is an unquestionable tranquility behind these glass panels, as the watchmakers get to work at their stations, breathing life back into these timepieces. An incomparable level of passion and patience comes into play, as each piece received goes through an inspection and appraisal prior to the hunt for its missing components. The workshop is the only place these watches can be expertly repaired following their unique traditional methods, offering each of its clients complete assurance that once a watch is purchased, for generations to follow, it will live on.
It’s also a wonderfully unique opportunity for visitors to explore this particular area of watchmaking in detail, as well as ask specific questions about the various pieces being worked on at the time. Most of the pieces at this workshop date back to the 1920s to the 1980s, with a few from the 19th century, and it is up to the talented watchmakers to restore both the movement and exterior to its former glory. In cases where components are irreparable or cannot be replaced with stock items, new ones will be manufactured according to original design drawings; a fine example of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s expertise and its dedicated, customized service.
Our tour comes to an end just behind the restoration workshop where a brand new interactive area allows for visitors to try on watches virtually. It’s certainly an apt way to draw the afternoon to a close – having moved us seamlessly through centuries worth of watchmaking. Now, standing on the gallery balcony, we are able to look down on all the treasures created so far, and can only imagine what’s in store next.