The Vallee de Joux, nestled in the Jura mountains, is Switzerland at its postcard best: rolling farmland, cows, and nearby peaks that promise ski-ready snowfall. And it has watchmakers, of course. More than a few big names make their home here: Audemars Piguet, Breguet, and Blancpain to name a few, as well as Jaeger-LeCoultre. Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the most established names in the watch industry, known especially for its movement prowess. The brand has always been at the village of Le Sentier, in the heart of the Vallee de Joux, where the idyllic view stretches out in all directions. The Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture building looms large over the road, and a closer inspection reveals it is a somewhat hodge-podge assemblage of various architectures – signs of success over the years as various expansions and additions have been added over time.
The central building of modest sizing is Antoine LeCoultre’s original atelier, which he built out of the family barn in 1833 as an ambitious 30-year-old. From a family of watchmakers, LeCoultre was intimately familiar with the craft – and apparently frustrated with the way things were being done. At the time, the various movement production disciplines were typically split up in one-man cottage workshop industries with little communication. Within his own family, in fact, he may have found wheels and pinions and gears that would not work each other, leaving a watchmaker a lot of additional work to get those parts to comply. By bringing these skills together under one roof, LeCoultre founded the first manufacture as we know the concept today.
It quickly flourished. LeCoultre was a watchmaker and precision-obsessed inventor in his own right, developing the first tool capable of measuring the micron in 1844; one of his other significant inventions was an early key-less winding and setting systems for pocket watches in 1847. The atelier’s first extension was in 1866, and a separate building constructed in 1888. By this time, LeCoultre was a reputed supplier of components and calibres – especially complicated ones – and was referred to as ‘La Grande Maison.’ The manufacture employed hundreds of watchmakers and was one of the biggest in the Vallee de Joux.
Today, Jaeger-LeCoultre employs over a thousand people at the manufacture, about 200 of which are watchmakers. The rest are dedicated to the various disciplines of watch construction; there are 180 skillsets in all. Expansion never stopped – the building that houses the high complication and Atmos clock ateliers, for example, was built in the 1960s. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture now covers 25,000sqm. Under one roof, it builds movements, cases them, and even has its own engravers, enamellers and jewellers – it likely has even exceeded Antoine LeCoultre’s dreams watchmaking integration.
The original building, Antoine’s atelier, still forms the centre of the manufacture, though it has been reworked into the Heritage Gallery. The centrepiece is the spiral staircase on which are strung examples of the 1,200-plus calibres it has developed – including Calibre 101, made in 1928 and which remains the smallest calibre in the world – and displays of its many iconic timepieces including the Reverso, the Memovox, and the Geophysic. The Atmos clock and its ingenious self-powering mechanism are well-represented by shelves upon shelves of examples, some highly decorated.
To one side are the archives, brimming with evidence of the manufacture’s accomplishments and importance throughout history. Order books are filled with famous horology clients – Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and the like – which explains Jaeger-LeCoultre’s reputation as ‘the watchmaker’s watchmaker.’ As a typical example of how the industry once worked, one exhibit is of a pocket watch from around 1900: the movement, a flyback chronograph, is signed by LeCoultre, while it was cased by Patek Philippe and sold by Tiffany. Chronicled here also is how the French watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger, sought a manufacturing partner to build an ultra-thin calibre of his own design. He met with the LeCoultre manufacture in 1903, then run by Antoine’s descendants, and the success of the project – and the marrying of Parisian style with Swiss technical prowess – would eventually lead to the renaming of the company as Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1937.
Amidst the displays of vintage tools and replicas of watchmaker’s desks from 200 years ago, beneath the large windows that would have once been those watchmaker’s only light source, the Heritage Gallery still has flashes of the atelier that it once was. The various workshops of today’s manufacture, filled with lab coats, LED lights, and wireless headphones, does seem quite far removed from the vintage charm of Antoine’s old studio. But the quietness and dedication remain, as the watchmaker’s watchmaker still takes its craft very seriously.