Inside the Grand Maison Of LeCoultre

·8-min read

Although one tends to think of Geneva as the cradle of watchmaking, the reality was that in the 1800s, the Vallée de Joux, a day’s horse ride away was where watchmakers plied their craft. Isolated in the winter months and nary a thing to do for half a year, farmers turned idle time into watchmaking, each working independently, cutting and grinding tiny gears in their attics or by the windows with natural light, producing complete watches by the time spring had sprung. Among them, Antoine LeCoultre, a watchmaker whose farmhouse from 1833 still stands and from those foundations, the annexes of the Grand Maison – Jaeger-LeCoultre.

An inventor who balanced both intellect and imagination, LeCoultre transformed his family’s small barn into a watchmaking atelier and began to create timepieces of great accuracy. He pioneered keyless winding: a timepiece that could be wound without a key – a revolution for the era since repeatedly opening a pocket watch for winding was a surefire way of introducing dust and other contaminants into a movement. as well as a means to measure microns (the Millionometre) which led to a major breakthrough for precision in the industry.

At a time when almost all watchmakers used to work from home, each with their own specialty and crafting techniques. The company was famed for bringing all the watchmaking skills under one roof. With close to two centuries of horological expertise, Jaeger-LeCoultre stands alone in its command of complicated watchmaking.

During the 150 years since the Manufacture developed its first minute repeater in 1870, chiming watches have been a particular forte, with 200 calibres demonstrating its mastery of all forms, from relatively simple alarms to highly complex sonneries and repeaters. In parallel, the Manufacture’s engineers and designers have patented numerous innovations that redefine the benchmark for acoustic quality and beauty. By 1888, the Manufacture was the most important company in the region, not only due to the use of machines and its extraordinary production capacity, but also its sizeable employment. It is then, the Manufacture earns its first nickname: Grand Maison.

Inspired by the exceptional scenery of the Jura mountains and guided by the same spirit and creativity of its namesake founders, the Manufacture’s historic building sports a fully renovated façade. For five months, the Luc Chappuis Maison restored the historic appearance to what was once a compound with a hodge lodge of annexes surrounding an old farmhouse. Paying homage to the past while meeting new energy saving standards, we pass beneath a signage which hints to the Grand Maison’s raison d’être – “Manufacture d’Horlogerie” (Watchmaking Manufacture) written in appliqué letters above the entrance.

In 1931, born at the height of the Art Deco period, the Reverso perfectly epitomised the spirit of its time – a dazzling and exuberant modernity that changed everything from music and art to architecture, fashion and sport, and introduced a radically new aesthetic language and case design: a reversible case giving sportive military officers playing a round of polo a robust timepiece that they could “reverse”, placing the crystal face down and presenting its hardy, steel caseback towards the rigours of the sport.

Inside the heart of watchmaking

Ushered into Atelier d’Antoine, we were guided by an instructor and a technical expert from the Manufacture in explorations of the technical ingenuity of its unique swivelling case, and traced trace the evolution of the Reverso through the decades, not only as a canvas for personalisation and artistic expression, but also as a home to high-watchmaking complications like the Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon.

Precision tourbillons are a noted speciality of Jaeger-LeCoultre, as proven by the 2009 Concours International de Chronométrie timing competition. Reconciling the needs of the Gyrotourbillon with impeccable chronometric requirements is a balancing feat that can only be accomplished with the experience and skill of the Grand Maison.

The workshop later concluded with a unique opportunity, as we were tasked with the challenge of assembling a Reverso case – a task normally entrusted exclusively to the artisans of the Manufacture giving us rare insight into the dexterity and patience required of someone to be recognised as a watchmaker for Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Innovation in the domain of chiming watches has been one of the foundation stones of mechanical expertise at the Maison since 1895, when the company was awarded a patent for the world’s first silent strike regulator. There are extremely few watchmaking manufactures that possess in-house expertise in sonnerie wristwatches. There are even fewer that have been making them since 1870, accumulating one and a half centuries of experience and savoir-faire. There is only one watchmaking manufacture in the world that has over 200 chiming watch calibers in its historical and modern inventory — La Grande Maison du Sentier.

In the 21st century, Jaeger-LeCoultre channelled its creativity towards producing the most energy-efficient and volume-optimised chime possible in the Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle. It featured an innovative gong system that resurrected the idealised chime of antique pocket sonneries: demonstrating new levels of excellence to its mastery of chiming watches. In the 19th century, repeater chimes were regulated primarily by an anchor-and-flywheel mechanism, which resulted in a characteristic buzz that can be heard underlying the chime of antique repeaters and some modern watches that still use the old system. Jaeger-LeCoultre patented a new silent strike governer in 1895 that uses friction and centripetal forces to regulate chiming.

The Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle’s automatic calibre 950, unites the two apex values of chime quality that were previously thought to be incompatible — power and beauty: an idealised chime by creating an entirely novel gong configuration: Two gongs, welded together at their base, travel in the same direction around the periphery of the movement, making one near-complete tour before dramatically arching upwards, traversing the entire height of the movement. They then diverge and take a terminal semi-arc around the other side of the movement, stopping just before their ends meet. By maximising the space occupied by the gongs, the calibre 950 boosts its capacity for sound transmission.

The Restoration Workshop

Here, antique watches are put into the expert hands of about ten watchmakers. The immediate proximity of the Heritage Gallery makes their job easier. Benefiting from direct access to the original plans, they can draw on this living memory in order to reproduce components that are impossible to repair or that have changed, for antique watches, pocket watches and other treasures entrusted to them by their owners for a complete restoration. The rich collection of nearly 6,000 stamps or swages, manufactured by the Maison for their unique movements and preciously preserved at the Manufacture, is also available for this precise watchmaking work.

The Heritage Gallery

Presenting the iconic timepieces and collections of Jaeger-LeCoultre. It offers visitors a unique, connected experience as well as total immersion into the key stages of the Maison’s history and the art of watchmaking. On two levels, immense display windows are set in a vast space full of light with a pure décor. One part encloses the Maison’s archives, varying from the written record of technical plans, patents, drawings, old books, client registries, advertisements and catalogues which mark out the history of Jaeger-LeCoultre to meaningful chronological benchmarks set in the very attic where Antoine LeCoultre himself worked.

In the centre of the Heritage Gallery, a monumental glass wall captures your attention. Around a staircase that is as white as snow, this transparent wall exhibits 340 of the 1’ 262 mechanical movements designed, created and assembled by the Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture. The smallest movement in the world is nestled among them, the calibre 101 weighing barely one gramme which was developed in 1929. Throughout the visit, it is hard to not let yourself be captivated by the 413 patents of the Maison and it is here that it dawns upon us that at the heart of La Vallée de Joux, Jaeger-LeCoultre is the home of time measurement; and that’s not hyperbole, movements from the Grand Maison an literally be found in vintage watches from the Big Three: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet.

Employing 1,200 people on its production site, bringing together 180 different skills under one roof, it is one of the only true Manufactures with the capacity to produce all its watches in their entirety, from design to production. The Grand Maison enjoys a reputation for extraordinarily finished watches today but back then, it was also for its ébauche movements. Many of its most celebrated calibres originate from the 1960s and with integrated watch manufacturing facilities being cost prohibitive and inefficient at the time, many of the industry’s top watchmakers used the brand’s impressively ultra-thin yet reliably robust movements.

Beyond making movements for its own watches, Jaeger-LeCoultre also created movements for some of Switzerland’s most prestigious marques, such as the calibre 920 used by no less a triumvirate than Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. And in the 1980s and 90s, JLC movements could be found in Chopard and IWC timepieces as well. It was here, at the end of the visit of this building filled with history, we realised how it earned its greatest honorific: the watchmaker of watchmakers.