Why Swiss Watches Don’t Come Cheap: A Visit to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Manufacture
The Vallée du Joux was shrouded in fog when I pulled up in a car from Geneva that Tuesday morning. The road cutting through the green hills disappeared into the milky white mist and took us past the small town of Le Brassus and into the even smaller village of Le Sentier. Suddenly, we stopped in front of a midsize building. We had arrived at the worldwide headquarters of luxury Swiss watch brand Jaeger LeCoultre.
We were welcomed into the manufacture by our guide Gwenaëlle Pourcelot, who took us up four stories into a cozy receiving area with panoramic glass windows that framed views of the haze-covered small town.
“We are in Maison Antoine, which is named after our founder, Antoine LeCoultre,” Pourcelot said. “The original building was erected in 1866 but today the whole manufacture measures about 25,000 square meters and is the biggest in the Vallée du Joux.” The area is well-known in and out of Switzerland as the home of some of the finest watchmakers in the world, but Pourcelot was quick to highlight that JLC was a manufacture in the truest sense of the word.
“There are some watch companies that merely assemble the watches, but at JLC, we make virtually all of the components in our watches, from the tiniest screws, balance wheels, hairsprings, pinions, levers, and tubes. Almost everything is created here, in-house.”
After a quick coffee and pastry break, Pourcelot gave us white lab coats to put on and led us back down to start the tour of the manufacture. On the way we walked past officers and employees, all of whom gave us friendly smiles and a quick “Bonjour!”
We started in the production area where all of the watches’ components are made. Pourcelot explained how software, machine, and human hands all work together to create parts like the wheels, bridges, and plates based on precise specifications.
Pourcelot then led us to a room where staff were busy shaping and outlining the components, a process known as rondage. Perlage, meanwhile, refers to the intricate art of decorating the movement main plate and the inside of the watch case. JLC has a patented “sunray” decoration that is a bit more intricate than the regularl way of decorating the case. I had to wonder about the painstaking process of creating a pattern purely out of aesthetic reasons, which owners can’t even see unless they take apart their watches, but Pourcelot said it was just another way to demonstrate the laborious, intensive process of crafting a mechanical watch.
We stopped by the engraving department where details such as the name, caliber number, jewel number, and the words “Swiss Made” are engraved on the movement. Here Pourcelot mentioned the Caliber 101, purportedly the world’s smallest watch movement, with just 98 components and a total weight of just one gram.
One other fascinating aspect of JLC’s watchmaking process was the manufacture’s use of shellac, a natural glue derived from butterflies in Southeast Asia, to attach the pallets to the levers, which are the components that are responsible for the tick-tock sound of the watch.
Stopping by the Metiers Rares or Rare Handicrafts department, we witnessed artisans painstakingly decorating the watches with engravings and enameling for special collections.
“All our enameling is done in-house,” Pourcelot said. “We can reproduce a painting on the back of the case, mixing powder and oil and then use high fire to ‘bake’ it in temperatures of up to 800 degrees. There are 17 to 24 layers of enamel for each of the dials.” To illustrate the technique, she showed us a personalized artwork in the caseback of a Reverso, one of JLC’s most iconic watch models.
The artisans who do the personalized engraving, meanwhile, use a dry pen to do a thin metal outline and then a chisel to engrave, using lacquer as they go deeper into the material.
Finally, at JLC’s gem-setting workshop, we watched from behind glass windows the manufacture’s experts painstakingly crafting a timepiece with precious gems.
“The Reverso that is most gem-setted in snow setting has 4,000 diamonds,” Pourcelot said. “To put four diamonds is about one hour of work, so in this watch, just for the setting, it’s already more than 1,000 hours of work. And then, of course, you have to create the components and assemble the movement and so on.”
It was becoming increasingly clear to me then how justified the cost is of most luxury mechanical timepieces. It’s difficult to put a price tag on something that goes through hundreds, even thousands of man hours to produce.
The next stop was to the workshop where another JLC exclusive is made—the Atmos clock. Any fan of the brand would be familiar with the mechanical watch invented in 1928 that relies on atmospheric pressure to function. While it once used mercury and ammonia as a power source, in 1936, the manufacture began using ethyl chloride, which was just as sensitive to changes in temperature.
“It was so popular that for a time, Atmos clocks were the preferred gift of the Swiss government to visiting dignitaries and heads of state,” Pourcelot explained. “Used properly, it never needs to be rewound and is perhaps the closest we have come to creating a perpetual machine.” On the way back up to Maison Antoine for lunch, Pourcelot took us to a curious watch set into the wall in one of the hallways. Peering into a glass enclosure, I could see an Atmos clock that our guide said would indicate the precise time, year, as well as the phase of the moon that was accurate up to the year 2496.
After lunch, Pourcelot led the way to the JLC museum. Here she explained the brief yet fascinating history of the brand.
“During the summer and spring, (residents of the Vallée du Joux would) go to work in the field, but during the winter, because of the snow, they could not cultivate the field,” Pourcelot said. “They could not leave the manufacture. They had to stay there. So what was there to do, especially with two meters of snow outside? So they decided to work on watchmaking components. Why? Because all around us, we have woods, the Joux forest, and on this forest, at the time, we had iron, which the people decided to extract and start to create watchmaking components.”
This, the guide said, was the circumstances that led to the foundation of what we now know as Jaeger LeCoultre. “Antoine LeCoultre was the son of a farmer,” she said. “He worked in the farm and with his father, who was also a blacksmith. During the winter, he started to create machines and tools and watchmaking components.” Pourcelot pointed to a small item encased in glass. “The first invention of Antoine LeCoultre is this music box. He created it in 1825. And this is the first music box with what we call a one-key piece keyboard.”
After LeCoultre created a watchmaking movement, he went to Geneva in order to sell it to other watchmaking companies. He did that a few times and after a few years, he was so knowledgeable about watch movements that many watchmaking companies wanted to buy a LeCoultre movement.
“Here you have the example of a Patek Philippe watch and in it you have a LeCoultre movement,” Pourcelot said, pointing to a watch made by a rival watchmaker.
“We are used to saying that LeCoultre was a kind of Einstein at the time, because he was a genius,” she added. “He never stopped inventing new things—new components, new machines. And that’s why, until today at the manufacture, we still have this innovation spirit. That’s why we have so many patents. Innovation is really in the DNA of the maison.”
For a manufacture that’s 185 years old, you’d expect countless novelties and innovations over the years, all of which would be impossible to fit into a museum. Pourcelot explained that they decided to showcase just 12 of the manufacture’s biggest inventions in a special exhibit in the museum. This includes the creation of the millionometer, the first instrument in history that is able to measure the micron, which is a unit smaller than a millimeter. Antoine LeCoultre developed it to measure the precision of the components he created.
“It was quite strange to say that this kind of tool could be invented in an isolated valley in the middle of nowhere,” Pourcelot said.
LeCoultre also invented a keyless winding system, which replaced the need for pocket watches that required keys to be rewound. In 1907, together with Edmond Jaeger, LeCoultre developed the Caliber 145, which, at 1.38 millimeters, is one of the smallest movements for pocket watches in the world. “We produced this watch until the 1960s,” the guide said. “We produced more than 400 pieces of this watch in this movement.”
Pourcelot also mentioned the invention of the Reverso, JLC’s iconic model created for British polo players based in India. “They wanted a watch that would be able to sustain a polo match,” she said. “So the company decided to work on the swiveling case. On one side you had the hour and minute, which was important during a polo match. You could swivel the case and protect your watch from the shocks of the ball.”
Other highlights in the collection included the Memovox, the company’s first alarm watch; complications in the Reverso including the date, a second time zone, a minute repeater, a tourbillon, and others; the maison’s first gyrotourbillon created in 2004; and collaborations with artist Marc Newsom for the Atmos clock.
Before we knew it, we had reached the end of the tour and it was time to bid our goodbyes. If there was a takeaway from the visit, it was a deeper understanding of how mechanical watches are crafted and how tradition and innovation can come together to create a true work of art. By that time, the fog had lifted and the sun was turning the green hills into brilliant gold.
Lucerne, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, Glorietta 4, and Shangri-La at the Fort and Jaeger-LeCoultre, Greenbelt 5