Photos: R. Naas & Jaeger-LeCoultre
Every time I visit a watch factory, I find wonderful new details about the things that separate one from another. Recently, I had the privilege of traveling to Le Sentier, Switzerland, to tour the Manufacture of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
There, I was struck by the amazing vertical integration of the brand and the incredible watchmaking prowess.
- Arriving At Jaeger-LeCoultre
- A Complex Maze of Masters
- Métiers d’Art
- Jaeger-LeCoultre Heritage Museum
Scroll down to read about my experience or use the menu above to jump ahead.
Travelling To Jaeger-LeCoultre
Visiting Jaeger-LeCoultre is an adventure that starts with the drive to the Manufacture, journeys into the heart of watchmaking, engraving, métiers de arts, and culminates with a look back in history and the making of this unique brand that is world-renowned for its famous and iconic watches such as the Reverso, the Memovox, Polaris, and more.
Leaving from Geneva in the early morning to travel to Le Sentier in the Vallée de Joux where Jaeger-LeCoultre was founded in 1833 is an idyllic drive. Along the highways, once you leave the city, you are flanked by green fields, horses, cows and even wine vineyards as the drive unfolds.
Finally, you reach the foot of the Jura Mountains (for which the Jurassic Period in history is named) to begin the long and windy climb up the steep mountains.
Now you are flanked by some of the oldest and tallest evergreens and pines in Switzerland on one side, and by steep cliffs on the other side. From time to time, you travel though tiny historic villages that were founded centuries ago and still have wonderful ancient clock towers and churches lining their streets.
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Arriving At Jaeger-LeCoultre In Switzerland
Eventually, you reach an easy 5,000 feet in elevation and are poised to beginning the journey down the other side of the mountains into the famed Vallée de Joux. This is the cradle of Swiss watchmaking. Nestled in the Vallée at about a 3,000-foot elevation, the Vallée has always been home to farmers.
Centuries ago, winters came with a harshness that brought foot-upon-foot of snow. Therefore, these farmers hunkered down and looked for alternate ways of making money.
They could open a workspace in their homes or barns and learn the trade of building mechanical watches. Soon, some people excelled and eventually taught others – until the Vallée de Joux spawned crop after crop of watchmakers.
It is here, in this rich Vallée shared by several towns and villages, that Jaeger-LeCoultre lives and – one would think – breathes. It also hosts other well-known watch brands including Audemars Piguet and Breguet.
The site of the state-of-the-art manufacture is directly on the ground where the original workshops were built. In fact, three different original buildings – built in 1866, 1888 and 1912 – join together to form the basis of the current 2,500-square-meter Manufacture where 1,200 people work.
A Complex Maze of Masters
The brand’s rich history in watchmaking and its dedication and commitment to remaining forever cutting-edge makes it a benchmark leader. In the massive manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre produces nearly every part needed to build a timepiece –from the simplest to the most complex.
Thanks to the vertically integrated concept, the brand makes all of its own tools (6,000 are currently in the workshops) for making watches. Furthermore, the swages, or stamps, are used to cut and craft each and every component.
Generally, the making of a single simple watch requires as many as 60 to 100 different tools. Furthermore, each toll will cost hundreds of hours of time to build and between $10,000 to $20,000 to make. Additionally, the Manufacture makes its own cases, bracelets, dials and movements.
On the lower floors of the manufacture, the 30 to 60 state-of-the-art CNC and other cutting machines (most costing a cool million dollars a piece) reside.
As each part is cut, it moves on to drilling the holes, polishing the rough, separating the baseplates from their metal holders, and much more.
For the brand’s regular “production” watches (not the high complications), there are a host of stages each watch part undergoes. Meanwhile, constant quality checks ensures that everything is of top-precision and performance.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Watch Production
In one room the hand guilloche and perlage of watches takes place. In another room, the employees focus solely on something as particular as cutting, polishing and finishing the moonphase disks for certain watches.
It actually boggles the mind to follow a watch from basic sheet metal to the finished product. Furthermore, that metal can be brass, steel, titanium, gold or platinum, among others.
In another room the base metal dials are cut and polished. Then in another, those dials take electroplating baths (if applicable) or are otherwise finished. In an additional area, the dials are cut with the holes into which the feet of the hands, or numerals that are applied will be placed.
For dials that feature ink transferring, there is a whole other area. As for dials that are made of precious stones and meteorites, there is yet another department. Meanwhile, the craftsmen who build the brand’s Atmos Clocks reside in another area.
Additionally, at the top level of the workshops, there is the Rare Handcrafts division. This may well be one of the most intriguing places in the entire Manufacture. The list goes on and on.
Similarly, for the complicated watches, there is an entire department on an upper floor. It offers incredible natural lighting thanks to vast expanses of windows. These are designed to that focus on the development and assembly of the brand’s repeaters, tourbillons, perpetual calendars and other grand complications.
In the Master Complications Ateliers, you can only find the finest master watchmakers who have more than 15 years of experience. Here, they spend hundreds of hours assembling a single movement such as the brand’s Gyrotourbillon or Spherotourbillon.
With light streaming in from the full floor-to-ceiling windows all the way around, the brand’s Métiers d’Art department is where the real aesthetic magic happens.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Métiers d’Art division was completed about five years ago. Here, approximately 30 master craftsmen and artisans work side by side transforming individual watches into museum-worthy works of art.
This is where the meticulous gem setting, the engraving, and the enameling happens. For instance, it is essentially where a watch dons its guilloche dial from an antique and refurbished rose engine.
Master Gem Setters
On one side the room, master gem-setters spend day after day meticulously setting tiny diamonds into bezels, cases and bracelets. To set a single bezel of a Rendez-Vous watch, with diamonds in a simple prong-like setting, it takes about 10 hours of time.
However, the master gem setters can spend hundreds of hours setting the stones for a single high-diamond watch. Certain timepieces are set with as many as 2,500 or more diamonds. Therefore, they require a total of 600 hours to complete the piece.
Additionally, the artisans here employ a range of different gem-setting techniques. From simple pave, to invisible settings, there is also the more complex snow setting (where only four diamonds can be placed in an hour).
On the other side of the room, the engravers and painters sit side by side, painstakingly executing their respective arts. The rose engines in the room are vintage machines that Jaeger-LeCoultre has purchased and restored. All of the final engravings are done by hand.
For Reverso, Rendez-Vous and certain other watches, a host of dials are specially made using hand painting and enameling, including Grand-Feu enamel, techniques. Every dial is painted and fired multiple times, some requiring as many as a dozen different firings and paintings.
It is impossible to describe the hand craftsmanship that goes into the making of these stunning hand-painted, hand-guilloche’d dials. However, it is easy, after seeing this department, to understand how a single dial could affect the retail price of a watch by anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Heritage Museum
No tour of Jaeger-LeCoultre would be complete without a visit to the brand’s heritage museum. In this wonderful space, you can track the brand all the way back to its roots via journals, archives and antique parts.
There is even the original Micron Meter that Antoine LeCoultre created and that revolutionized the concept of precision. Before its invention, it was impossible to create a single component guaranteed to be as precise as a previous part.
But by inventing a way to measure by the micron, precision was forever enhanced.
The museum also is chocked with some of the brand’s finest watch achievements. Specimens include the famed Reverso built in 1931 for India polo players (with reversible dial), to the beloved alarm Memovox. Furthermore, newer complications such as the Duometre and the Gyrotourbillon are also present.
There is even an entire wall dedicated to showcasing some of the most elaborate and ingenious Atmos Clocks. To date, since its inception, Jaeger LeCoutlre has earned more than 400 patents and created more than 1,200 calibers.
Each of those calibers hangs along a fish-line style of material that runs from floor to ceiling. Line after line of the brand’s calibers grace the well-lit room.
On the top floor of the heritage museum, watchmakers dedicated to restoring yesteryear’s timepieces reside. Their work is visible for all who visit to see.
Having now read about our Jaeger-LeCoultre experience, feel free to peruse some more of our watch resources:
- Bespoke Unit’s Other Watch Reviews
- Jaeger LeCoultre Brand History Guide
- Other Watch Brand & History Guides
- Different Bezel Scales & How To Use Them
- Watches Homepage
"A wonderful experience to witness first-hand. Between Jaeger-LeCoultre's rich history and technical innovations, visiting the manufacture was a truly education experience."Rating: 5.0 ★★★★★