We’ve been taking a pretty up-close look at certain aspects of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufactory in parts one and two of our coverage, in which we looked at the creation of the Atmos clock, as well as two historically important tourbillons – the first wristwatch and pocket watch tourbillons JLC ever made. Before going any further, let’s take a quick step back and take a slightly bigger picture look at both the factory and at JLC’s history.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is located in the village of Le Sentier, in the Vallée de Joux, just northwest of Geneva. The Vallée sits in a crevice in the Jura Mountains, which run more or less along the Swiss-French border and form a natural boundary between the two countries. It’s not a very big area geographically, and yet, along with Geneva, the Vallée and its 10 or so villages produce a disproportionate number of luxury watches. If you go a little further, you run into the larger towns of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, which are also veritable hotbeds of haute horlogerie. The Vallée de Joux itself has historically been isolated for a significant percentage of the year from the rest of Switzerland (a circumstance which led the inhabitants to take up watchmaking in the winter, on the theory that the devil finds work for idle hands). A couple of years ago, while visiting another company in the Vallée – Audemars Piguet, which is just a stone’s throw away from JLC, in Le Brassus – I was told, to my surprise, that it was not until the mid 1990s that the road connecting the Vallée to Geneva could be kept open through the entire winter. As you drive up from Geneva itself, the city gives way fast to rolling countryside with farmhouses, vineyards, and the occasional factory or village, and as you head up the switchbacks over the mountains you can see snow on the ground even this time of year. The orange poles along the road are so you can see where the edge of the road is in wintertime and it’s not uncommon for the snow, in the coldest months, to be so deep that it’s above the markers.
It’s about an hour’s drive from downtown Geneva, but it feels like a couple of hundred years back in time. One of the many interesting features of the Manufacture is that it’s in the same place as the original workshop, established in 1866 by Antoine LeCoultre and his partner, Auguste Borgeaud. In those days the Edmond Jaeger hadn’t yet given his name to the company, which was called LeCoultre Borgeau & Cie. The original 1866 workshop (which had a steam generator to power its machine tools) is still exactly where it was in 1866, and over the years JLC has just added more buildings onto the back of it (with the date of each addition on the side of each new building), like a snail growing new spirals for its shell.
Out in front of the manufactory, and across the road, is an apiary – Jaeger-LeCoultre actually makes its own honey, of all things, on premises, and if you visit you might get a jar to take away with you (it’s delicious). One wonders why a watch manufacturer would have an apiary – perhaps it’s a gesture of spiritual kinship from the hardworking watchmakers to the proverbially industrious honeybee.
Certainly, both watchmakers and craftsmen, and honeybees, labor long and hard to produce something of concentrated refinement. One part of the manufacture where you can see this very vividly is in the Rare Crafts Atelier, which now houses about 30 or so craftspeople, practicing enameling, engine turning, engraving, gem setting, and other decorative handcrafts all under one roof. The Rare Crafts Atelier was designed to foster better interaction among the craftspeople working there, and also allow them to see the gradual completion of a work in progress directly as each craftsman makes his or her contribution.
One of the crafts most strongly identified with Jaeger-LeCoultre is enameling, and as many of you probably already know, grand feu enameling at JLC was essentially established single-handedly by a watchmaker named Miklos Merczel, in the 1990s. Merczel was an enthusiastic amateur artist, who, in his spare time, managed to rather miraculously teach himself enameling, reconstructing critical techniques through research and experiment. I first met him years ago when his atelier was in a completely different building, a kilometer or so from the main manufactory, but since my last visit to JLC a couple of years ago, enameling has been moved back into the main building (and I’m told Miklos is still very much with the company).
The young man above is finishing his apprenticeship and was kind enough to show us a practice piece he’s been working on: an enamel dial, after the painting The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. Making enamel dials is a lengthy, and can be a rather risky process, especially firing (where any stray drafts, dust particles, unwanted variations in temperature, or just plain bad luck can ruin weeks of work). Enameling begins with grinding colored glass into an extremely fine powder and then mixing it with a carrier fluid (usually, water or oil) and applying it to a dial, sometimes with a brush so fine it consists of a single hair. The dial is then fired to melt the glass particles and allow them to form a single surface (the process is called vitrification) A less expensive alternative is so called cold enameling, which isn’t enameling at all, but rather, painting with a thermosetting epoxy resin. You can get great results with it, but it’s considered something of a shortcut, and JLC uses only the more labor intensive and technically difficult grand feu enameling.
The manufacture has a plethora of different examples of enamel work that have accumulated over the years; some are works-in-progress, some are demonstration pieces kept for exhibition purposes. Working with a reproduction of a painting presents a number of specific challenges, as the enamelist’s abilities as a draftsman have to equal those of the original artist – but on a much smaller scale; the enamelist also has to control color so as to exactly match the original work of art.
Above, case enameling after the famous Deco era painter Tamara de Lempicka. Below, enamel case after Alphonse Mucha’s famous Art Nouveau era series of the four seasons (this one is Summer).
Not all enameling is miniature painting – enamel is also used as a visual accent in non-representational decoration as well, as in the perpetual calendar shown below.
The piece shown below, after Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over The Rhone (not to be confused with the slightly later, more familiar painting known simply as Starry Night) was especially difficult, as Van Gogh typically used a very heavy impasto, sometimes foregoing brushes entirely and painting with a palette knife, or even squeezing paint onto the canvas straight from the tube. You can’t do impasto (or, Lord knows, squeeze pigment out of a tube) with enamel, so, in addition to the usual challenges, the enamelist who decorated this minute repeater had to create an illusion of the technique rather than simply duplicate the technique itself.
We also had an opportunity to try our hand at engine turning – in this case, using an antique rose engine to create the spiraling decoration known as guilloché. Rose engines are pretty simple in their basic principle. To make a pattern on a dial, for instance, you place the metal disk you want to engrave in the headstock of the lathe (a rose engine is a type of lathe) and bring it into contact with the cutting head of the rose engine. Turning a hand-crank does two things: rotates the work piece around its own axis, and also moves it back and forth; the combination of both actions is what produces the Spirograf-like pattern characteristic of a lot of guilloché engraving. How much the work piece moves back and forth is controlled by a multi-lobed cam, and cams can be swapped out to allow the creation of a variety of effects. The best results come from using a very steady speed of rotation on the hand-crank, and keeping very even pressure on the workpiece as you press it against the cutting head. In the first of the three pictures below, you can see the brass cams on the left hand side of the lathe, whose shape gives the rose engine its name.
One of the most intricate decorative crafts practiced at JLC is gem-setting, and the most difficult technique is probably so-called snow setting. Snow setting, as the name suggests, is meant to mimic the glittering appearance of freshly fallen snow. It takes several weeks to complete each piece, and over a thousand diamonds are used to decorate the Reverso case you see here. For each diamond, a tiny well is drilled in the metal. The diamond is set in place, and then four prongs of metal (here, white gold) are raised over its edges to hold it in place. Finally, each prong is given a rounded shape with the tip of a specially made burnishing tool. The diamonds are sorted by diameter, but their final disposition is left to the gem-setter.
These are all very traditional horological decorative arts, and their use in watchmaking goes back many generations. In many instances, these techniques became at least partially lost; enameling in particular was in danger, for a period in the late 1990s, of falling into such disuse as to run the risk of irreplaceable trade secrets vanishing. The crafts themselves require, to varying degrees, the years-long cultivation of very specific skills, and what’s really unusual is not so much to see them being used in high end fine watchmaking, as it is to see them all being done under one roof, as they are at JLC and a few other manufacturers. Beauty in Swiss fine watchmaking generally starts from the inside out, but – at least at Jaeger-LeCoultre and some other high end makers – you can have both a covert, and overt, work of real art, in a single watch.
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