Stone Washington
Jaeger LeCoultre’s 190-year impact—Redefining the possible in timekeeping
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By Stone Washington
October 4, 2022

“The art challenges the technology and the technology inspires the art.” ~John Lassetter, film director

“The [Quadriptyque] watch represents Jaeger-LeCoultre’s biggest strengths—its impeccable design sensibilities and supreme technical prowess” ~Neha S. Bajpai

Intro & background on Jaeger-LeCoultre

This piece will consummate the third installment to my watch review series, examining noteworthy achievements in the realm of watchmaking. The first article I did on watchmaking was on Franck Muller and the second article was on Omega. Each article centers around a single company and horological visionary, whose remarkable creations have distinguished their brand in the world of watchmaking. This work will examine the Swiss watch company, Jaeger-LeCoultre, which has obtained excellence as a luxury brand for nearly 190 years. It was founded by Antoine LeCoultre in 1833 and is currently based in the village of Le Seniter in Switzerland. Since 2000, the company has been recognized as a subsidiary of the Swiss watchmaking group, Richemont, and over the years, has further distinguished itself as being among the upper crust of Richemont’s brands. Richemont was founded as a holding company in 1988 by South African businessman Johann Rupert. It offers a unique portfolio consisting not only of exceptional watch brands, but also of top-quality jewelry, fashion, and dress accessories.

The history of the watch company grew from the persistent efforts of Antoine LeCoultre, who occupied a small watch workshop in Le Seniter. Antoine was notably successful in inventing a machine capable of cutting and fashioning watch pinions from steel. According to the “Manufactures Book of Timepieces, Le Seniter” (2007), it was at this shop that Antoine honed his skills in horological mechanics and became proficient in producing high-grade watches. Antoine’s remarkable work spurred the company’s future, developing a track-record of keen ingenuity that began in 1844 when he created the world’s most precise measuring instrument at the time, the Millionomètre. This was the first-ever device capable of measuring the micron (equating to one millionth of a meter). Three years later, Antione invented a keyless mechanism that could rewind and set watch times.

Antoine’s achievements garnered widespread acclaim that would provide him with a gold medal in 1851 for excellence in mechanization and precision at the first Universal Exposition in London. In 1866, Antione and his son, Elie, decided to establish a full-fledged watch boutique, “LeCoultre & Cie”, which employed approximately 500 people at the time. In 1903, a French Naval officer and watchmaker by the name of Edmond Jaeger invents an ultra-thin movement by which he dares watchmakers in Switzerland to refashion into an ultra-thin caliber watch. Antione’s grandson, Jacques-David LeCoultre readily accepts the challenge and creates a line of super thin pocket watches, including the world’s thinnest in 1907. 30 years later, Edmond and Jacques-David strike a partnership with one another over ownership of the watch brand, forming what is now Jaeger Le-Coultre.

Over the past century, Jaeger has produced hundreds of unique inventions and patents to its name, while overseeing the creation of thousands of calibers (mechanisms of a watch that define its movement). Many of these calibers have become manifested into revolutionary contributions to horology, earning the designation as complications. A complication is a distinctive function in a high-caliber watch that can produce a range of versatile functions and capabilities for what the watch can achieve. Some of the most distinguished of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s complication watches include, the Reverso, the world’s smallest movement (Calibre 101), one of the world’s most sophisticated movements (the Grande Complication), and a self-perpetuating movement that gives the appearance of operating ad infinitum (the Atmos clock). I will systematically examine these remarkable pieces and others that have distinguished the Jaeger brand as a revered Swiss luxury company. These distinct pieces will shed light upon the profound sophistications not only of Jaeger’s watch making prowess, but also of the unique philosophy inherent in the company’s founder and Maisons.

The Atmos clock

A phenomenon that defies traditional mechanical clocks, the Atmos does not need to be wound manually. It is capable of running on thermal energy, deriving its power source from the surrounding temperature and atmospheric pressure alterations in the immediate environment. The Atmos is nearly self-sufficient, capable of operating on its own for years on end without any human intervention. Designed as a mechanical torsion pendulum clock, the caliber is powered by a mainspring, self-wound by the ongoing expansion and contraction of liquid-to-gaseous ethyl chloride. The matter is trapped in an internal hermetically sealed metal bellows, with the rising temperature causing the ethyl chloride to vaporize and expand into a chamber, serving to compress the spiral spring. As temperature drops, the gas condenses and the spiral spring expands, which constantly winds the mainspring of the clock.

This scientific-based watch personifies the power of thermodynamics. The torsion pendulum consumes less energy than a regular pendulum and the clock is sustained upon zero friction. The idea for the Atmos clock grew from the first such timekeeping mechanisms driven by atmospheric pressure that were crafted by Cornelis Drebbel in the early 17th century. Drebbel crafted 18 of these, one of which was given to King James the VI of Britain. Inspired by the heritage of the Art Deco movement, the prototype Atmos was created by French engineer, Jean-Léon Reutter, based out of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1928. An observer can see all the clock’s mechanisms from varying angles floating within its clear case. This self-winding clock represents an engineering and scientific marvel among Jaeger LeCoultre’s collection.

Grande Complication

The company’s Grande Complication watch inspired an ongoing series of Jaeger’s watches under the name, “Master Grande Complication”. This series was originally released in 2010, coming exclusively in white gold, and was later provided in a rose gold version in 2015. Its most recent 2020 edition is offered in pink and white gold diamond encrusted bezels. Jaeger is respected by many to be a diversified watch company, offering a range of designs and complicated features to each new iteration of watch released in a series. The Master Grande Complication personifies this nicely, by offering a host of unique options in different tones of gold, while providing variations of its complicated features. To distinguish a watch as a “grande complication”, it must provide a chiming bell complication (typically a minute repeater), a timing complication (a rattrapante chronograph), and a calendrical complication (perpetual calendar). The chime and timing complications are synchronized to play a musical tune or score at a certain interval of time, usually every quarter or half hour.

The newest iteration of Jaeger’s Master Grande Complication takes a leap beyond the ordinary, featuring not only a minute repeater, but also an orbital flying tourbillion and a counterclockwise rotating planispheric star chart. The chart rotates every solar day, determined by the Sun undergoing two sequential movements through its zenith (highest point), transpiring close to 24 hours on average. It also is synchronized with every sidereal day, which is traced by the First Point of Ares in the sky, where the plane of the ecliptic intersects with the celestial equator. This is akin to using a fixed star to direct the motion of the complication. The intricate webbed frame of the watch’s face provides a geometric lacework around the tourbillon and an elaborate star chart. With the minute repeater function, the watch employs a series of hammers to strike the gongs and create music.

Gyrotourbillon

A tourbillion is among the most recognized and impressive feats of watchmaking. Designed to increase accuracy, a tourbillon is a self-rotating cage that contains the watch’s escapement, balance wheel, and balance spring, each revolving synchronously as the movement is running. Invented by the prominent French watch company Breguet, tourbillons were created to counteract the negative effects of earth’s gravitational pull on the accuracy of the balance wheel and spring. A regular tourbillion rotates on a single axis, completing one revolution every minute (some complicated watches may vary). However, there are some tourbillions that defy this by rotating on a double axis, creating a unique multi-dimensional effect on the cage. Enter, the Jaeger LeCoultre gyrotourbillon, which was first released in 2004 under the name “Gyrotourbillon I”. Jaeger sought to correct any potential positional errors to the balance and escapement by having each rotate in different directions to cover every possible position.

The company takes credit for being the first to create the gyrotourbillon, a claim that is contested by rival independent watchmaker and the “master of complications” Franck Muller. In a previous article that I wrote on Franck Muller, I examine how he unveiled his version of the gyrotourbillon, “Revolution 3”, in 2004, shortly before Jaeger LeCoultre, by collaborating with inventor Pierre-Michelle Golay. Jaeger’s gyrotourbillon rotates on two different axes, while Muller’s rotates on three, each on a different time cycle (one-hour, eight minute, and 60 second). But like Muller’s watch, Jaeger’s gyrotourbillon also boasts a perpetual calendar and a rare complication known as an “equation of time”, measuring the difference in the basic time displayed by a watch and the solar time that can vary over time depending upon Earth’s orbital journey and the angle of its axis. To underscore the versatility of the company, Jaeger has retrofitted the gyrotourbillon across a host of its most prominent watches, including the Master Grande Complication and the Reverso. The brand has won multiple prizes in various competitions over the accuracy of its tourbillons across these watches, including the 2009 Concours International de Chronométrie timing competition which saw the success of both the Master Tourbillon Caliber and the Gyrotourbillon 2.

The Reverso

Perhaps the most iconic and distinctively recognized of Jaeger LeCoultre’s excellence in horology is seen through the Reverso. Inspired by the Latin phrase, “I turn around”, this ageless and widely sought-after watch has been an icon of the brand for 91 years. According to volume 59 of the Revolution International watch magazine, writer Neha S. Bajpai provided a powerful interpretation of the watch, stating that “in a world obsessed with stainless steel sports watches, the Reverso has etched its place amongst the horological pantheon with its versatile and deceptively simple swiveling case” (pg. 52). The Reverso is rectangular watch defined by its unique swiveling case, allowing for the wearer to push the face of the watch on a tract and switch it over to display a second face. It essentially allows the wearer to possess two watches-in-one, enabling one to change the preferred display based on a particular mood or occasion. To this end, the Reverso underscores Jaeger’s penchant for being a varied watch brand, allowing one to promote the many angles of beauty in the watch, which serves to elicit a broader range of appeal before onlookers.

According to the Revolution magazine article the origin of the Reverso dates back to a polo match held in India during the 1920s, when a band of officers in the British colonial army challenged Swiss businessman Cesar de Trey to produce a watch that was stout enough to handle the difficulties of a polo match without wear and tear. Answering the challenge, de Trey solicited the help of Jacques-David LeCoultre and Edmond Jaeger, who were both masters in micromechanics with their watch brand. They had success in miniaturization with the creation of the small and condensed rectangularly shaped Duoplan watch in 1925. After LeCoultre and Jaeger consulted the help of Rene-Alfred Chauvot, they obtained success in creating the perfect rectilinear case in March 1931, capable of being slid in case to flip over to another display. Fit with a classic Art Deco shape and design appeal, on top of its dart-type indexes, baton-shaped hands, and three decorative gadroons to accompany the bottom and top of the watch, the Reverso proved to be a super successful watch.

Introducing the most complicated Reverso: Hybris Mechanica Caliber 185 “Quadriptyque”

In celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Reverso in 2021, Jaeger LeCoultre unveiled its most complicated iteration of the watch ever devised. Transcending the sophistication of even the Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2, the Hybris Mechanica collection showcases 11 astounding complications and 12 patents wrapped into one ultra-sophisticated calibre displayed over four different watch faces. Culminating what is known as the Quadriptyque, the Jaeger brand has succeeded in unveiling a true marvel of watchmaking that rivals even that of Franck Muller’s supremely complicated watch, the Aeternitas Mega 4, which is arguably the most sophisticated watch ever made. According to Revolution magazine, the Quadriptyque was crafted over the course of six years and “represents Jaeger-LeCoultre’s biggest strengths—its impeccable design sensibilities and supreme technical prowess” (pg. 54). It is the first watch to present four perfectly functioning displays, and unlike the Aeternitas, it does not overwhelm you with a confusingly busy dial. This watch is part of a ground-breaking collection that has introduced 20 fascinating milestones in the realm of haute horlogerie. These include, the Master Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon, the Atmost Mysterieuse, and the Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpetuel, each breaking new ground in watchmaking sophistication.

For the Quadtriptyque, Face One of the watch features a beautiful hand guilloche background, a flying tourbillon, a perpetual calendar featuring the leap year in red, and a Grande date indicator. Face Two of the watch presents the complex minute repeater function, fit with the patented silent chime governor (first unveiled in 1895) that cancels out buzzing noises from the anchor system, trebuchet hammers, and crystal gongs used to play the music by activation of a slide lever above the crown. On Face Three, the watch features the first and only Synodic lunar calendar, which also displays draconic and anomalistic cycles (motion of the moon in relation to its position to the Sun and the Earth). This can be utilized to predict lunar and solar eclipses, in addition to supermoons.

Together, the Synodic lunar calendar represents a true astronomical feat of greatness unseen in any other watch. Face Four of the piece provides the various phases of the moon as seen from the Southern Hemisphere, and features a decorative and gradient blue lacquer background of stars. The featured moon is made of pink gold. Limited to only 10 pieces (10 total watches offered on the market), the Quadriptyque is an ultra-rare, prominent marvel of modern watchmaking that incorporates many of the greatest achievements in Jeager Le-Coultre. It is priced at USD $1.62 million and comes only in a white gold case with a blue alligator strap.

Conclusion—how the Jaeger LeCoultre philosophy pushes the boundaries of Horological possibility

Since its founding in 1833, Jaeger LeCoultre has established a firm foothold in watchmaking excellence, producing a rich variety of phenomenal pieces. Beginning with the invention of the most precise measuring instrument, the Millionomètre in 1847, to the creation of the Reverso in 1931, and now the issuance of one of the most complicated watches of its collection, the Quadriptyque. There are many other notable horological spectacles that Jaeger has created over the years, including another iteration of the Reverso, known as the “grande complication à triptyque”, released in 2006 as the first watch in history to ever be equipped with three dials powered by a single movement. Additionally, the brand boasts of creating one of the world’s most complex sonnerie wrist watches via the Hybris Mechanica Grande Sonnerie, comprised of 26 complications and capable of playing the entire Westminster chimes melody. It achieved certain quality chimes that other watches could not.

The company is also known for partnerships and philanthropy, having teamed up with the likes of the iconic British luxury car company, Aston Martin, to produce the joint Aston Martin Jaeger-LeCoultre gentleman's race watch – the AMVOX1 in 2004. The collaborative design was inspired by the two companies’ mutual appreciation and stylistic appeal to the Aston Martin cars. The LeCoultre name has also been prominently featured on the big screen, seen as the cherished keepsake of the master of mystic arts, Doctor Strange. In both Doctor Strange (2016) and the sequal, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), the hero donned the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Perpetual, considered to be an unusual choice. Although it becomes damaged during an ambush in the first film, the watch is a prominent symbol of timekeeping throughout the movie, representing the imperfections, yet stable beauty of time with its cracked appearance. As a company, Jaeger LeCoultre represents an imperfect watchmaker in the pursuit of top-quality excellence, pushing the boundaries of timekeeping to new heights akin to Doctor Strange pushing the boundaries of time and motion with an infinity stone.

This is all to say that Jaeger has distinguished itself not only in the realm of complications in horology, but also in cinematic spotlights and collaborations in the luxury car market. Jaeger’s most symbolic watch, the Reverso, emphasizes how the brand is one of many faces, capable of fitting the proper occasion and providing the epitome of functional convenience in games like polo. The sophistication of its many faces and astronomical complications is brough to new levels with the Quadriptyque, while the gyrotourbillon underscores the company’s revolutionary scientific developments, revolving from the company’s founding to its modern-day status. Jaeger LeColutre continues to be a powerhouse of stellar sophistication in watchmaking and beyond, continually pushing the boundaries of possibility.

© Stone Washington

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Stone Washington

Stone Washington is a second year PhD student in the Policy Studies Program at Clemson University Graduate School. Stone is employed as a Research Assistant in the Legal Policy Department at the Manhattan Institute, where he recently completed the Collegiate Associate Program. He is also employed as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Clemson's Department of Political Science and serves as a WAC Fellow for the Pearce Center for Professional Communication. Stone is a recent addition to the Steamboat Institute's Emerging Leaders Council.... (more)

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