Australian philosopher Peter Singer once said he would never understand why anyone would buy “expensive mechanical watches”, and that’s not an unreasonable perspective to take. I mean, why are some Swiss made watches so expensive? Well earlier this year I found the answer during a visit to the famous Jaeger-LeCoultre watch factory.
I was in Geneva to attend Watches & Wonders, which is the largest physical watch event in the world and welcomes everyone from Rolex and Patek Philippe to Jaeger-LeCoultre and Cartier. The event is of an almost unimaginable scale, with booths for each brand spanning multiple levels, many of which contain their own restaurants, bars and lounges, as well as countless spaces to watch the endless watches.
If you’re even a little interested in watches or horology, Watches & Wonders really is a kid’s candy store, as the entire industry comes together to show off its latest creations to retailers, journalists and collectors. But as much as it’s about the watches on display, it’s also about the people in attendance, with the fair serving as a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones while you’re there.
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After the best part of a week wandering the lavish halls of Watches & Wonders, it was time for the next leg of my horological journey through Switzerland. Alongside a number of my Australian colleagues and friends, we were about to spend the next two days in the Vallée de Joux, not only the home of Swiss watchmaking, but also the location of the factory. Jaeger Lecoultre.
Our contingent piled into a minibus for the journey through the Jura mountains, taking in the truly spectacular scenery around us. The weather had been unusually cold for so late in the year, with snow falling on the city of Geneva while we were there, and sure enough, as we started to climb the temperature dropped and patches of snow appeared in the forests around us.
Although you might not expect it, snow has played an important role in the history of watchmaking in Switzerland over the past two centuries. While 19th-century Swiss farmers could harvest the rich soils of mountain valleys during the summer, winter left them with nothing to do, so they turned to watchmaking.
It may seem strange that today the best watches in the world are created by brands established in a climate of watch farmers, but that is exactly what happened. It’s also why so many brands have worked so closely together over the years and still have deep relationships despite being ostensibly competitors.
Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet, Blancpain and others were all established within a few miles of each other, which led them to work closely together to supply each other with movements, cases and other components. Indeed, during our visit to the Jaeger-LeCoultre factory, we had the chance to stay at the Hôtel des Horlogers d’Audemars Piguet, when it was not yet open to the public. It’s not what you know, as they say.
On the morning of our Jaeger-LeCoultre factory tour, we began with a tour of the archives to see some of the first watches created by the brand, as well as gaining insight into the order books which featured names such as Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. Jaeger-LeCoultre enjoys the nickname “the watchmaker’s watchmaker”, in reference to the large number of other brands for which they manufactured movements.
Leaving the past behind us, we have entered the present moment of the modern factory. While the factory has grown from the original workshop that Antoine LeCoultre established nearly 200 years ago, it remains in the same location and houses no less than 180 different watchmaking skills under one roof. . In fact, it is one of the only watchmakers in the world to continue to manufacture everything in-house.
If you’ve come this far and are still wondering why Swiss watches are so expensive, here’s your answer: Jaeger-LeCoultre watches are much more handcrafted than you might think. In an age where everything is mass-produced, where production lines run all day without human intervention, it is truly special to find something that has been created with care, expertise and creativity in pursuit of artisanal perfection.
For example, while some of the large movement parts are milled in multi-axis CNC machines, almost all of the thousands of other components still require a human hand to cut or press them into the correct shape. And that’s before the components have to be decorated, with experts in their respective decorating fields meticulously applying Côtes de Genève, perlage and black varnish using a microscope.
After touring the areas of the factory dedicated to making the main internal components, we toured the expert craftsmanship department, with master engravers, stone setters and enamellers all in the same room. The decades and decades of experience required to achieve this level of skill would scare off many would-be craftsmen, but those from Jaeger-LeCoultre are truly among the best in the world.
The level of skill is such that clients will be able to work closely with the various craftsmen to produce their own creations, either in near-photorealistic engravings or richly colored enamel works of art. What is admirable about this department is that without Jaeger-LeCoultre incorporating these skills and techniques into its watchmaking, many of these methods would otherwise be lost to history.
The next stop on our tour of the Jaeger-LeCoultre factory was the complications department, an area that does exactly what it says on the tin: making complicated watches. When I say complicated, I mean really, really complicated, inventing marvels like Caliber 185 with 800 components, Caliber 184 with 1050 different parts and many more.
To illustrate just how technically sophisticated Jaeger-LeCoultre is as a watchmaker, it has over 430 registered patents and 1,300 unique calibres. This means that the factory not only produces watches for its customers today, but also researches and develops watchmaking technologies for the future every day.
After our factory tour was over, we were treated to a taste of watchmaking at Jaeger-LeCoultre, with a session that had us trying to assemble a Reverso watch case. The iconic rectangular timepiece may look simple, but its cobweb-like rubber gasket and a quartet of miniature screws were a real challenge to put together.
After about 40 minutes of slow work screwing the case pieces together, one of us asked how long it would take an experienced Jaeger-LeCoultre watchmaker to assemble the Reverso case. Our instructor gave us a smile before responding.
“We sometimes have to remind them to slow down, because we don’t want a case to accidentally get scratched during the assembly process. But for most of them, it wouldn’t take more than a minute.
So while Peter Singer might turn his nose up at mechanical watches that “don’t work as well as a $50 or $100 quartz watch,” it’s because he doesn’t understand the driving force behind watchmakers. like Jaeger-LeCoultre. The value of a work of art is not in the paint or the canvas, but in how the artist’s intent is executed.
The same goes for a watch: it is mechanical art.