It’s no exaggeration to say that Switzerland’s Joux Valley was the original Silicon Valley. Back in the 18th century, a combination of being snowed in every winter and not being able to make cheese drove its local dairy farmers to diversify, pioneering the world’s most advanced horological devices, which would drop in Geneva town come the spring thaw.
As well as Audemars Piguet down the road, Jaeger-LeCoultre was and continues to be a Joux original – still overlooking the silvery Lac de Joux 180 years on, still pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in micro-mechanical form. Only, not making cheese anymore.
By contrast to Messrs Audemars and Piguet, who first tended to the all-singing-all-dancing end of Joux v1.0, founding father Antoine LeCoultre determined on one thing: becoming the go-to supplier of precision movements for Switzerland’s best brands. The Intel to everyone else’s Apple, Dell or Microsoft, in other words. He didn’t waste any time, either: it says it all that back in 1844, LeCoultre was obliged to invent the millionometer, so he could manufacture everything within thousandth-of-a-millimetre tolerances, essentially inventing the micron as we know it.
Jaeger LeCoultre on the Oscar De La Renta catwalk I getty images
In terms of full-blown, badged-up, shippable product however? It fell to LeCoultre’s third generation to team up with French marine chronometer maestro, Edmond Jaeger in the early 20th century, forming the brand we know now: a combination of Swiss technical prowess and a distinctly Parisian aesthetic. Jaeger-LeCoultre became famous for timely icons as diverse as the Art Deco-era ‘Reverso’ (flippable to survive polo matches on the fields of the British Raj), the tiny Caliber 101 (worn by the Queen during her 1953 coronation), the impossibly balletic Gyrotourbillon, even a carriage clock powered solely by tiny changes in air temperature to rank as a virtual perpetual-motion machine.
Today, all of the above (all still core-catalogue) underpins Jaeger-LeCoultre’s status as the Richemont Group’s most esteemed ‘horloger’, thanks to one binding reason: more than any of Switzerland’s other ‘manufactures’, it has mastered every single skill required to make a fine watch from the raw metal.
The coveted ‘manufacture’ status does exert some poetic license when it comes to autonomy, especially with tricky components like the ticking balance’s hairspring. But short of an alligator farm for its leather straps, Jaeger-LeCoultre can be considered the most self-sufficient of all – and that’s even accounting for the likes of Patek Philippe.
But even if you couldn’t care less about in-house CNC machinery, exhaustive 1,000-hour QC for every single watch, or using the secretions of Far Eastern bugs to glue jewels to escape levers, JLC remains the most democratic of the ‘Top Five’ grande maisons. Democratic in terms of price, you might be surprised to learn, as well as choice. For every amped-up hyper-complication (see this year’s Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpétuel, which chimes the time just like Big Ben) there’s an elegant ‘Rendez-Vous’ cocktail piece.
Brains guaranteed of course, ticking away beneath the beauty. But with brains to the beauty too thanks to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s in-house gemsetters. Oh, and enamellers. Engravers too. Marquetry if they fancy it. They’re practically showing off.
Yes there’s the Reverso but the Rendez-Vous is the choice if you want to witness some of those famed watchmaking skills in action. It’s got a moonphase, a sunbrushed dial, diamonds set into the bezel, while despite appearances, the star isn’t there to mark the minutes, but to remind you of your upcoming rendez-vous. Planning illicit meetings has never looked so pretty.