When you are fortunate enough to have a fully integrated Manufacture at your disposal – one of the few to gather every watchmaking specialism under its one roof – it would be a shame not to share it with customers eager to learn more about the intricacies of an Haute Horlogerie timepiece. For Jaeger-LeCoultre, which employs 1,200 people on its production site at the heart of La Vallée de Joux, the home of time measurement, such a unique situation warrants an equally special concept; ideally one that satisfies the industry’s new focus on customer experience. The “Grande Maison”, as the company is known, has dubbed this new venture “Atelier d’Antoine”; a combination of themed tours of the Manufacture with hands-on introductions to the workings of a mechanical movement. Set among the unspoiled surroundings of the valley and its lake, this exploration of the wheels and pinions, gongs and hammers of watches that delight enthusiasts from Anchorage to Adelaide is exactly the kind of experience-based connection customers want. And that Jaeger-LeCoultre delivers.
Announced last year, Atelier d’Antoine is now up and running with a first discovery workshop on the theme of chiming watches: a speciality in La Vallée de Joux that has been part of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s heritage for the past 150 years. A second workshop on the Reverso, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, is scheduled for autumn. A programme of masterclasses will follow. As a complement, three half-day tours of the Manufacture familiarise participants with the history of the firm and the stages in the making of a watch, with its many innovations and inventions, or with the technical and artistic professions which the brand is helping to keep alive. The full experience of workshop and tour, in small groups of never more than eight, takes one day: a solid introduction to this fascinating world.
For a newcomer to mechanical horology, there is something especially magical about chiming watches. They are, of course, remarkably complex calibres but they are also musical instruments in their own right, demanding both acoustic and mechanical precision. One of the two experts leading the workshop explains how “of the 1.2 billion watches sold each year, five million are mechanical. Of these, only two to three hundred are equipped with a minute repeater function, and barely a dozen are grande sonnerie, which chime the quarters in passing and repeat the hour every quarter. At this level, it’s no longer about business. This is watchmaking as an art.” An art indeed, though one that requires a rare degree of competency, as participants see for themselves over the course of the morning as they are invited to consider, for example, the background noise of a ticking escapement or the rub of an oscillating weight and how this affects the sound of Westminster chimes on four gongs. The devil is in the detail when explaining how power is transmitted through gears to activate hammers and enable us to “hear time”. Not forgetting specialities such as trebuchet hammers, modelled on medieval catapults, or the three-dimensional helical gong inside the Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle.
After the theory comes practice, illustrated during a tour of the production workshops by master watchmakers, prototype makers, artisan decorators and movement builders, in particular those tasked with crafting the brand’s chiming watches. Participants learn how the case of the Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle has been reengineered with 83 components, or how it takes two weeks to programme a 7-axis CNC machine which then takes three and a half hours to produce the helical gong from a block of metal whose alloy is a closely guarded secret. And this isn’t all. Each gong is then hand-filed to perfection in a process that takes an entire day for each one. There is no rushing, no cutting corners: every stage in the process takes the time it takes. A single grande complication chiming watch will be assembled, taken apart and reassembled multiple times over a period of nine to twelve months to ensure its proper functioning, strength and clarity of sound, and to decorate each component.
The visit ends with a walk through the Heritage Gallery, a museum space displaying outstanding examples of watches made by Jaeger-LeCoultre since it was established in 1833 whose walls are lined with registers and other documents from the historical archives. The gallery is also home to the restoration workshop. A sneak peek at the ten-piece limited edition Reverso Tribute Minute Repeater puts the finishing touch to a day that proves, were ever it needed, the best way to understand and appreciate Haute Horlogerie is from within.
Information and bookings: https://online-booking.jaeger-lecoultre.com/