Inside the Case: Touring the Jaeger Lecoultre factory

Jaeger Lecoultre Duometre Quantieme Lunaire

I arrived at Geneva Airport and was transported to a small hotel in Le Locle. I had just enough time to get settled and was whisked off to the Jaeger Lecoultre factory to be given a grand tour. This initial tour was perfect as it opened the door for a million questions to be asked.

After the tour, we had a brief meeting to determine where my interests lie for the rest of the visit. I told them I was interested in seeing and spending some time with the people who work on watches. I also wanted to see the machine shops and, of course, (and especially) the design and engraving areas. (I also got to see where the diamonds and jewels are woven into their new “snowflake” jewel settings. More later on that.)

The machine shops are where everything from cases to barrel arbors is manufactured. In one of these shops, I watched a long steel rod as it inched its way through a lathe to become one of the many micro parts used to manufacture the incredible JL. One lathe was producing barrel arbors. I took one of the arbors out of a small metalscreened “catch basket” which catches the newly made pieces. I looked at the barrel arbor and realized at that moment that this is truly a company that makes their own watches. (I knew this already but it really hits home when you see one of these small parts that you take for granted being produced right in front of you.)
In another room there are about 10 people working in the area where the “sled” for the “Reverso” is made. (The sled is the part of the case that the rest of the “Reverso” slides on.)

Jaeger_LeCoultreIn its raw state you can see that it is, of course, a sled while the next craftsman is smoothing off the edges and another person is engine-turning the inside of the slide. After each polishing or grinding action is done, a measurement is taken to ensure that the tolerances are still OK. One miscalculation would mean that the “Reverso action” would not operate correctly and that sled would have to be thrown away. The specs on each piece of a Jaeger are there for a reason. There is no room for error.

Each case I was told has over 50 parts – it’s one of the most complicated cases to make and probably the most demanding in the industry. On each case sled, you have the hinge, a stop (a small spring-loaded ball bearing), the lug ends and more. When you look at a Jaeger after seeing one built, you can appreciate the fine tolerances used to keep it working for years and years. I have never heard of a “Reverso” being sent back because of a malfunction.

The watch itself in the reversing case is also a marvel and this reversing case module is also beautifully designed. When the watch is assembled and ready to go, it is a “masterpiece.” This “Reverso” design makes round watches look clumsy. I brought my new Jaeger “Grand Sport Automatic” with me to the factory. The dial side is black and the reverse side is blank and ready for engraving. I was going to just
give them free reign as to what they could engrave on the back of the watch. BUT after speaking with the engravers I was convinced that I should be the one to make the selection. I did not want initials or a monogram; I wanted something special!

SIDESTEP: Just before I got to the engraving area, I walked around and spoke with one of the artists who creates the enamel work on the precious metal watches. He was working with one of the colors for a “Moucha” engraving on the back of a rose gold “Reverso.” I could have watched the procedure for hours but had to continue on my fantasy tour of JL.

Back to the engravers and my watch. We talked about and looked at some copies of Moucha prints and other artwork that would look great on the back of the watch. A few of the choices were a sailboat, a surreal line drawing, and a portrait. I asked if they had ever done a Moucha on a stainless steel watch and the answer was “No.” Then Dominic, the person in charge of engravings, handed me a Moucha drawing, which was a portrait of a beautiful woman carrying fruit. I humbly asked if he could engrave that on the back of my watch. He said “Yes.”

I took the watch off my wrist and handed it over to him. He said it would take about three weeks to complete and that he would take very good care of it. I worked out the price to have it engraved, and I left my new watch there. I knew it was in good hands because that’s where it was born.

NOTE: Exactly three weeks later I received a package from JL. My watch was in that box. I had much anticipation about seeing it with the new engraving. I had just purchased this watch and had only worn it for a few days before I left for the trip, so I was excited and I wanted it back. With nimble fingers I opened the box. There was another box inside that one. I snipped off the plastic strap that was holding the inner box closed and opened the lid. There was the “Certificate of Engravure.” Ahhhhh yesssss, perfect!!! I lifted the next layer of cushion out of the way and there in a PROTECTIVE WRAP was my watch. I wanted to see the watch and all of this unwrapping was slowing me down.

Finally I had the watch in my hands and under the loupe. Beautiful! I had expected a good engraving but this was spectacular.The lines are clean and sharp. The likeness to the Moucha artwork is fantastic. This is really a work of art, done by artists who really care about what they do. This engraving was done by Jaeger-LeCoultre and you can tell.

Am I happy? Yes, very happy. “Jumping up and down” happy. Doing “Reversos in the air” happy.

I’ll get back to the engraving again in a minute, but let me move on to the cover of this issue.

Jaeger LaCoultre Reverso.
Jaeger LaCoultre Reverso.

What you are looking at is a platinum, 8-day, Jaeger. It is called “Reverso Septantieme XGT.” (The XGT means Extra Large Grande Taille.) The engineering and design work that went into this timepiece was time well spent. I sat with Master Design Engineer, Mr. Phillipe Vandel, who has been with Jaeger for over 20 years and has designed all of their watches during all this time. “This one was a chore,” he said. “We wanted to produce an 8-day movement that was a true 8-day movement. We had the idea that a movement utilizing 28,800 beats per hour would require a huge mainspring to power it for a true 8 days. To retain the 28,800 frequency while still powering an 8-day movement, was the engineering feat.”

NOTE: There is usually a trade-off with the size of the mainspring and the beat of the balance, along with having to wind a watch forever. In some of the 8-day watches you may have to wind over 80 times just to get the mainspring at its fully wound position. Then in order to keep the watch timed so that it keeps reasonable time, the balance wheel has to run slower which means less accuracy. But not so with the Jaeger! Instead of one large mainspring, two mainsprings are used. Each mainspring is thicker than normal and each barrel holding the mainsprings works in tandem with the other.

The mechanical manually wound Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 879 is not only a first in the history of the “Reverso” but a watchmaking exploit: just a few turns of the crown are enough to rewind the watch and ensure that all functions run smoothly for more than a week. It takes only 50 turns to completely rewind the watch, far less than the number of turns required to wind a comparable timekeeper. Moreover the barrels use the technology of an automatic movement: they have no buffer, but rather a slip-spring to absorb the excess winding. In keeping with the spirit of this masterpiece of “Belle Horology,” its finely decorated movement is crafted in 18K solid gold, pink gold for the pink gold version or white gold for the platinum version. The case itself is the largest “Reverso” ever made.

Back to the engraving and jewel setting… REVERSO NEVA: Inspired by the word “NEVA” (meaning “snow” in Italian) Jaeger has created a “NEVA” method of setting jewels into the cases of its watches.

I visited the jewel-setting facility, which is about 5 miles from the main factory. Through the security doors up yet another flight of stairs and into a workshop with about 12 people working quietly on Jaegers. (Some of the people there were apprentices while others have been doing this for many years.) I watched as one of the craftsmen began the process of setting a very tiny diamond. He had started with larger stones and by the time I was watching, he had to place the next smaller stone (which was gradiantly smaller) into the design. It’s as if he massaged the gold into a very pliable metal, set the stone and then pushed the surrounding gold into the diamond so that it stayed in place. That’s the only way I can describe it.

Limited series of 500 in 950 PT platinum as well as 18K pink gold.
Mechanical manually-wound Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 879, crafted and decorated by hand, in 18K white gold for the platinum version and 18K pink gold for the pink gold version 28,800 vibrations per hour, 8-day power reserve, 224 parts, 25 jewels, 5.30 mm high
hours, minutes, small seconds at 5 o’ clock, large date, day/night, power reserve
Platinum model: guilloche ruthenium-colored solid silver, with powdered floral silvered numerals and appliqué gold-plated JL logo.

This method of setting stones is called “Neva.” I call it “Organic diamond setting.” The way it is done is similar to the way rock walls were made in New England, Ireland, Scotland and other areas where creating these walls was done to define land – and they were set or placed by hand without mortar (and they are still standing after centuries of wear, weather and time). These landowners used form, space and nature to create structures to fit in with the environment and which will last forever. That is exactly what Jaeger has done with gold and gems-setting. No two bejeweled Jaegers will ever be alike and each piece truly has its own personality.

NEXT: The “Master Compressor Memovox” This I have to study some more. It is a watch that will be a collector’s item. However, I do not totally understand the way it was done because I did not have time to see the inner workings of it. I do know that I would love to have one. The “alarm part” of this watch is what an alarm watch should sound like. It is done with the idea that, you wanted an alarm watch to ring on your wrist, well now you have one. This is not a quiet buzz or vibration; it is an actual ring. This is something that has been cultivated over many years and it was created to wake you up if you so desire.

The screw-locked crown in the past represented the best water-resistant solution. The JL technicians wanted to further increase its reliability over the long term. They came up with a revolutionary idea based on ensuring the crown is held securely in place by blocking it. When the key is in the “closed” position, the crown is immobile and thus perfectly secure. This is the role of the compression key, which presses against one of the waterresistant joints by pushing against an inner cone. A single half-turn of the key releases the crown. Meanwhile, the white and red arrows on each of the two crowns show at all times whether the key is open or closed. The compression mechanism is housed inside the case and is consequently sheltered from sand, dust and humidity. No lateral pressure is exercised on the watch movement when handling the crown and so in no way does the compression mechanism affect the running of the watch. Again, I have not seen the insides of the “Master Compressor Memovox,” but I will, and then we can see the mechanism firsthand. “Memovox” means “voice of memory” and you will never forget it once you hold it in your hand.

I could go on for another few pages on what I saw at Jaeger. This tour was one of my fantasy tours come true. Owning a Jaeger is owning a piece of horological history and your grandchildren will look upon it as a wise investment.

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