Visiting the Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture is one of those things that every watchlifestyler should do at least once in their lifetime. Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the most legendary watch brands with a very rich history that dates back to 1833, when in the remote mountains of Jura, inventor Antoine LeCoultre revolutionized the art of horology and turned the Vallée de Joux into the cradle of fine Swiss watchmaking. The JLC Manufacture is located in the small village of Le Sentier, Switzwerland —population of 3,000 next to Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux— and only about an hour away —depending on traffic— from the Geneva airport or Lausanne by car.
Heading to the manufacture, was a nice enjoyable ride along with great watch conversation with our friends from Jaeger-LeCoultre, Mark Bernardo from Watch Time, Jason Heaton from Gear Patrol, Arthur Touchot from Hodinkee —part of Haute Time UK during our visit— and Paul Boutros —long time collector, scholar and Head of Americas for Phillips. As we left dreary Geneva, we could've not wished for a better day to go into the Vallée de Joux. As we came out of the winding road nested deep in the High Jura National Park, the road turned into a winter wonderland with blue skies and the most picturesque views as we reached our destination. The views were literally postcard ready as you can see.
As we reached the JLC Manufacture the best was yet to come. This brisk afternoon in Le Sentier, was about to turn into one of the best watch experiences of our life as we were greeted by the American and Swiss flags waving at the front of the manufacture, on the side of that historical building erected in 1866 by Antoine LeCoultre, where the magical history of this rich manufacture began.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture is composed of several buildings dating back to 1866 and built during different eras as the manufacture grew in size. Today, the manufacture counts with 25,000 square meters —roughly 270,000 sq. ft.—, employs 1,300 people in Le Sentier and makes close to 100,000 watches a year. At the manufacture, a team of 45 master horologists works at its Grand Complications department where pieces like the Duomètre Sphérotourbillon are created.
As we headed inside this temple of horology, the magical aura and energy of the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture could be felt in every corner —from the tasteful flower arrangements to the elegant couches and chairs, to the Reverso wall clocks indicating the time across multiple time zones and some of the most important cities in the world. As we were greeted inside by an elegant and very friendly receptionist, we then headed upstairs to enjoy a special lunch that JLC had prepared for us.
Upstairs, a special room with a perfectly set table awaited us. With breathtaking views of Le Sentier, the Jura Mountains and the newest building in the manufacture, we sat down to enjoy a well thought menu as we were just getting ready for the special afternoon that our friends at JLC had in store for us. Just as with their watches, every single detail of this meal, was delicately taken care of by Jaeger-LeCoultre. We will dedicate a separate post to the lunch that was served, as it really deserves it.
After lunch, we were fitted with white cotton lab coats that were perfectly starched and ironed for the occasion. Just look at the sterling silver buttons with the JLC logo on them. As we headed into the different production areas at the manufacture, we were accompanied on this unforgettable experience by the Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Annual Calendar on our wrist.
As we departed the room where lunch was served, we headed to the first production area where all the components are made, where we witnessed how through the usage of die cutting machines —with a pressure of up to 1.5 tons—, Jaeger-LeCoultre makes all the different components including wheels, barrels, levers, cases and movement plates. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a real manufacture in all the sense of the word.
All components that do not meet the quality control standards to make it into a watch movement are discarded and destroyed. Only a very small number of these components is kept in canisters to be given to visitors as a memento and keepsake of their visit to the manufacture. Of course we came home with one of those nice envelopes.
From the first area where the components are made, we then headed to the area where the levers and pallets for the lever escapements are made and assembled one by one. Yes, this is not a typo, one by one. Jaeger-LeCoultre was the first watch manufacture and one of the last ones, to make its own pallets. The pallets, are the red synthetic sapphire ends located on each side of the lever that makes the escapement wheel rotate and make the balance wheel oscillate back and forth —the escapement and the balance wheel compose the regulating organ that gives life to a mechanical watch. To be more specific and colloquial, these pallets are the component that creates the tick tock sound on a watch.
With the aid of a microscope, the pallets are glued to the levers with shellac —a natural resin secreted by the female lac bug transformed into very thin gold brown filaments— by using a very fine needle. Each pallet takes a microscopic amount of shellac to keep it in place at the end of the lever and needs to be precisely inserted. This step in the manufacturing process is crucial in the correct functioning of a finished watch and is still performed fully by hand at the manufacture. After this operation, all levers with pallets are carefully inspected under the microscope for quality control purposes.
Just as if the previous step wasn't impressive enough, we then headed to where the calibres get initially decorated and partially assembled. The circular graining or 'perlage' is done by hand with the aide of a special spinning tool. When the watchmaker lowers the tip of said spinning tool, the tip creates a circular pattern that gets overlapped one by one and in a repetitive way until the different plates are fully decorated with 'perlage'.
The chamfered edges on the bridges of the different calibres are all polished by hand under the microscope. With the help of a small wooden stick, the polishing material is applied on the edges to create the perfect beveling one by one.
Then the jewelling takes place in the jewelling workshop. In this area, all the rubies —jewels— are placed on the bridges of the movement. This labor intensive task is also done one by one and under the microscope. First, the jewels are set on the plate or bridge with tweezers by the assigned watchmaker and then pressed and secured in place by a press. The rubies have two sides, one hollow and the other flat. The hollow side holds the oil so when the movement is running it lubricates it to reduce wear and tear on the components that are constantly moving. Finally, after all these operations are completed, the movements start to get their final appearance and get further decorated to then be cased inside a watch. After the watches are completed, they all undergo the 1000 hours control that Jaeger-LeCoultre is very well know for.
Later during our visit, we headed to the where the Atmos clocks are manufactured and we were able to see in person a beautiful Atmos 566 Marc Newson clear glass limited edition clock amongst other amazing complicated Atmos clocks.
After checking the Atmos atelier, we then headed to the top floor where the Grand Complications department is located. There, the head of the department who had worked for forty years at JLC, presented a few special watches to us including the amazing platinum Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 —special dedicated Insider post to follow—, the Tourbillon Perpetuel, Duomètre a Chronographe, and even the Duomètre Spherotourbillon. Just look at the size of the Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 dwarfing the Grande Reverso Annual Calendar.
The views from this area of the manufacture are simply breathtaking. Therefore, is easy to see where the inspiration comes from for the horologists working at Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Afterwards and to finalize our visit to the manufacture, we headed to the Atelier des Métiers d'Art where very special pieces are created. This is the department where hand painted dials are done, where hand engraving takes place and where diamonds are snow set into cases. To give you a better idea of how special this area is, it takes a full hour to set four to six diamonds when doing snow setting and between three to four weeks to do a miniature painting, and all of it done solely by hand while using a Leica microscope.
Right after our visit to the manufacture, we were treated to a quick visit to the Jaeger-LeCoultre museum exhibit —no photography was allowed— that holds some of the most fascinating treasures when it comes to the history of JLC timepieces. Even the special Reverso dedicated to Amelia Earhart —the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic— is showcased there along with mint examples of the Deep Sea Alarm, the Memovox, the Shark, the Futurematic and every single Reverso you can think off —dating all the way back to 1931— amongst other watches. In all, this was an unforgettable afternoon very well spent in the Vallée de Joux. Right before we departed the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture, nature gave us yet another special gift that day. Please enjoy the following pictures of the sunset in the Jura mountains of Switzerland as seen from the building were Antoine LeCoultre started his magical watch atelier.
Next time someone that is not into watches asks you why mechanical luxury timepieces are so expensive, just send them a link to this post so that they can understand some of the reasons why. Big thanks to our friends at Jaeger-LeCoultre for letting us into their home. For more info on JLC click here.