LeCoultre was a high-end movement manufacturer, however, its penchant for elegance, accuracy, and reliability soon translated to its own watches.
Vintage styling characterizes this brand’s offerings, with both intricate, often complicated mechanical movements and high-end quartz. The founder was an innovator in ultra-precision measurement and manufacturing, and his company has since upheld this legacy of invention.
Among other things, for example, this watchmaker was the first to use sapphire crystals in a mass-produced watch. This and other important developments, such as the Reverso reversible polo watch, make this a very cutting-edge brand.
Some of the watches use the “Dual-Wing” approach, that is, a movement split into a complication compartment and timekeeping compartment. Overall, precision defines this brand’s image, and its watch tests have a reputation for exceptional stringency.
"Effortless Innovation!" Jaeger-LeCoultre creates movements and designs with masterful finesse.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is a distinguished brand, for both its own watches and its movements in other companies’ timepieces. Through the years, watchmakers such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin have used the company’s movements.
Simply continue reading in order to learn about this brand’s history from the start. For instance, you’ll learn about the origin of its name, its crowning achievements and why it’s still going strong today.
Otherwise, follow the links below to skip ahead:
- The Winter Watchmakers: Le Sentier
- Founding And Invention: The First Years
- Taking Le Sentier Into The Future
- Jaeger And LeCoultre
- The Reverso: Sports Watch With An Introspective Side
- Atmos: Timekeeping In Perfect Conditions
- Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Ébauche Movements
- Polaris: A Classic Diver’s Watch Resurfaces
See Bespoke Unit’s Watch Reviews
The Winter Watchmakers: Le Sentier
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s history begins in the village of Le Sentier in the Vallée de Joux of western Switzerland. Early on, because of the area’s iron mines, metalworking-related professions became common in the village.
For example, smiths and cutlers became common but also, more relevant to our story, watchmakers. Many family workshops, even those specializing in other goods, like cutlery, manufactured watch components during the long winters.
This is because the families stayed inside for most of the winter. Thus, goods which required long hours in the workshop but less material were more cost-effective.
Founding And Invention: The First Years
With its small population, however, what the village needed for watch production to pick up was some degree of automation. Charles Antoine LeCoultre provided just that when he invented a machine to cut watch pinions.
Because a watch movement’s pinion is so important, an apparatus to quickly and consistently create one greatly increased watchmaking efficiency.
Not long afterwards, in 1833, Charles Antoine and his brother François Ulysse LeCoultre first opened their workshop. Charles Antoine would continue to invent devices to improve efficiency and accuracy; for instance, the Millionomètre he completed in 1844.
With the Millionomètre, the workshop could reliably measure microns, that is, millionths of a meter. Because of its great importance, the brothers kept the device proprietary.
In 1847, he devised a manner of keyless winding using the crown, therefore eliminating the need for a separate key. In this case, a button activated a lever that switched the crown between time-setting and winding functionality.
At this time, watch components were made by many different artisans across the valley. There were no complete manufactures that made movements, cases and assembled watches but, rather, many specialists.
However, in 1866, Charles-Antoine and his son Elie brought a full-capability manufacture under their company LeCoultre & Cie.
Taking Le Sentier Into The Future
This was the first such manufacture contained in one building in the Vallée de Joux, but Charles-Antoine had further plans. In 1870, using his inventions, he created the first partially-mechanized assembly line for complicated movements.
During that same year, the company employed 500, earning its reputation as the Grande Maison of the Vallée de Joux. Although Charles Antoine LeCoultre died in 1881, he ensured that his company and hometown continued modernizing.
In 1883, the LeCoultre factory received electric lighting, even though Le Sentier did not yet have electrical infrastructure in place. The company achieved this with an on-site steam-powered generator.
Further, steam trains connected the Vallée de Joux to other parts of the country starting in 1886. This was, of course, partly thanks to the now-booming watch industry of the Vallée de Joux.
When the 20th century arrived, LeCoultre & Cie. was a well-established manufacture with hundreds of movement designs to its name.
During this period, the firm was the primary movement supplier for Patek Philippe in Geneva.
Jaeger And LeCoultre
In 1903, LeCoultre partnered with French watchmaker Edmond Jaeger in order to make ultra-thin movements of his design. Though originally from Andlau in eastern France, Jaeger’s workshop was in Épernay, a town along the Marne in the Champagne region.
Jaeger was discriminating in his search for a skilled workshop he could trust, but LeCoultre & Cie. fit the bill.
Indeed, his designs were impressive. For example, his basic watch movement was only 1.38mm thick, while his minute repeater movement was 3.2mm thick. He also designed a 2.8mm thick chronograph caliber.
LeCoultre manufactured these movements, and from 1907 to 1922, Jaeger entered an exclusivity agreement with Parisian jeweller and watchmaker Cartier. This agreement meant that Jaeger’s movement designs would only appear in Cartier watches during the exclusivity period.
Jaeger and LeCoultre’s next collaboration was Ed. Jaeger Limited in London, under which they made automotive dashboard instruments. Though this was in 1921, it honored the Cartier contract because these were not watches or watch movements.
Atmos: Timekeeping In Perfect Conditions
Because of the company’s illustrious reputation, Switzerland’s government chose its Atmos clock as a standard gift for important guests. The clock’s case is a glass chamber filled with chloroethane gas, since chloroethane expands and contracts dramatically around room temperature.
This clock powers itself with ambient atmospheric pressure and temperature fluctuations, therefore, it can run almost indefinitely on its own. The Atmos is a 1928 design by Swiss inventor Jean-Léon Reutter, but Jaeger-LeCoultre is its primary manufacturer.
Between 1936 and 1946, the company developed effective methods to create this clock. Inside its sealed chamber, the Atmos will both run for an extremely long period, and do so with incredible accuracy.
When placed on a level surface and at appropriate temperatures, the moonphase model deviates by a day every 3,821 years.
The Reverso: Sports Watch With An Introspective Side
For British officers in colonial India, watches were a necessity in order to stay on schedule.
However, many found their watch crystals cracked after vigorous rounds of polo. During one such match, one officer challenged Swiss watch expert César de Trey to find a watch safe for polo. De Trey then sought out LeCoultre’s help.
This was because LeCoultre was well-established as an expert in creating innovative movements to fit any conceivable timekeeping requirement.
Hence, in 1931, Jaeger and LeCoultre, still separate companies, envisioned mechanical protection against the rigors of this gentleman’s sport. Edmond Jaeger and Jacques-David LeCoultre cooperated with René-Alfred Chauvot in order to create a watch with a reversible inner case.
This design has changed little since 1931. While in its open position, the Reverso is a tastefully subtle Art Deco-style rectangular watch. Polished gadroons sit transverse on either side of the face; otherwise, the case’s smooth steel surface is unbroken.
Its leather strap, with both alligator outside and soft calfskin on the inside, sits snugly against the case. Therefore, there is no visible gap between the strap and case, or between the strap’s edges and the conical lugs.
The carriage containing the movement and face unlocks with a press to the right; afterwards, it slides freely. When the carriage reaches the rightmost point on its track, it pivots, facing inward against an interior steel panel.
In this configuration, the steel caseback faces outwards, concealing the dial from swinging polo mallets and speeding balls.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Ébauche Movements
Jaeger-LeCoultre has a reputation not only for extraordinary finished watches, but also for its ébauche movements. Top watchmakers use the company’s impressively ultra-thin yet reliably robust movements which follow in the fine tradition of Edmond Jaeger.
Many of its famous movements originate from the 1960s or are, otherwise, further developments of movements from that decade. Jaeger-LeCoultre movements feature, for example, in watches by the Big Three: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet.
One movement series is notable because it appeared exclusively in watches by these three industry giants: the caliber 920. This 1960s movement is an extremely thin automatic caliber, only 2.45mm in thickness; further, it uses Patek Philippe’s Gyromax invention.
Gyromax is a balance wheel with turnable weights around its circumference which, when adjusted, modify the wheel’s inertia. With the weights’ heavier sides facing towards the wheel’s center, for example, the wheel is able to move faster.
Besides the basic version, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s caliber 920 came in three variants: date, date with seconds and second time zone. Since 2000, the rights to this caliber are with fellow Richemont watchmaker Vacheron Constantin, as calibers 1120-1122 under that brand’s nomenclature.
Another movement of note is the 1.84mm-thick Caliber 839, often in association with the very similar 838. This masterful design, with features such as a large-diameter balance and Kif antishock system, is extremely reliable for its thickness.
This manual-wound movement powers watches by Jaeger-LeCoultre itself, in addition to Chopard, IWC and Van Cleef and Arpels.
Polaris: A Classic Diver’s Watch Resurfaces
In 2018, Jaeger-LeCoultre released a new collection based on the 1968 Memovox Polaris, in order to celebrate its 50th anniversary. In this collection, the Polaris Memovox most closely resembles the original and is, likewise, a diver’s alarm watch.
The Polaris Memovox, similarly to many of the brand’s models, hides an impressive movement in a tastefully conservative case. At 42mm in case diameter, the watch has a generously wide dial, thanks in part to its extremely narrow bezel.
The new Memovox, like its forebear, uses an unusual three-crown design in order to operate all of its functions.
The top, 3 o’clock crown winds the alarm when in its normal position. Pulling it outwards leaves it in the alternate position, from which you can set the date and alarm time. Turning clockwise advances the date, while counterclockwise rotation changes the alarm time.
The middle crown only has one position; turning it rotates the bidirectional inner count-up bezel. Finally, the lower crown, also with only one position, sets the time.
Super-LumiNova lume appears on the hands, indices, and Arabic numerals, while a rough texture surrounding the indices eliminates competing reflections.
Unlike many alarm watches, this alarm sounds with a resonant ring befitting a larger clock, rather than a shrill buzz.
This comes at a cost, however. Its rich and pleasant alarm tone is possible because of a resonance chamber on the caseback. This makes for an exceedingly thick watch, at 15.9mm.
Despite the fact that the old Memovox was a diver’s watch, the 2018 Polaris Memovox is not. It lacks screw-down crowns, therefore Jaeger-LeCoultre advises against manipulating the watch’s controls underwater.
Keep Learning About Jaeger-LeCoultre
This brand earned its reputation making high-end ultra-thin movements, while preserving handsome vintage styles in its own watches. Watches such as its Reverso and Polaris lines, for example, embody an effortlessly retro aesthetic.
Finally, keep reading watchmaker brand histories, in-depth reviews, and other useful articles on watches here on Bespoke Unit:
- See all of our in-depth watch reviews
- Learn about the Richemont group and its brands
- Educate yourself on the parts of a wristwatch with our comprehensive guide
- Read our quick primer about different types of movements, in order to learn their differences, advantages, and disadvantages
- Lastly, find all of this and more at the Bespoke Unit Watch Homepage