Inside The Manufacture: With Jaeger-LeCoultre In Switzerland, Pt. 3: Handcrafts And History

Jaeger-LeCoultre is located in the village of Le Sentier, in the Vallée de Joux, only northwest of Geneva. The Vallée sits in a fissure in the Jura Mountains, which run pretty much along the Swiss-French line and structure a natural boundary between the two nations. It is anything but an extremely huge area geographically, and yet, along with Geneva, the Vallée and its 10 or so villages produce a disproportionate number of extravagance watches. In the event that 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 remainder of Switzerland (a circumstance which led the inhabitants to take up watchmaking in the colder time of year, on the hypothesis that the fallen angel looks for some kind of employment for idle hands). A couple of years ago, while visiting another company in the Vallée – Audemars Piguet, which is only a short distance from JLC, in Le Brassus – I was told, shockingly, that it was not until the mid 1990s that the road associating the Vallée to Geneva could be kept open through the whole winter. As you drive up from Geneva itself, the city gives way fast to moving wide open 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 season. The orange poles along the road are so you can see where the edge of the road is in wintertime and it’s normal for the day off, the coldest months, to be profound to such an extent that it’s above the markers.

It’s about an hour’s drive from downtown Geneva, however it seems like a couple of hundred years back as expected. One of the many fascinating 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 control its machine instruments) is still exactly where it was in 1866, and throughout the long term JLC has quite recently added more structures onto the back of it (with the date of each addition on each new structure), like a snail developing new spirals for its shell.

Out before the manufactory, and across the road, is an apiary – Jaeger-LeCoultre actually makes its own nectar, everything being equal, on premises, and in the event that you visit you may move a jar to take away with you (it’s heavenly). One asks why a watch manufacturer would have an apiary – perhaps it’s an offer of spiritual connection from the hardworking watchmakers to the proverbially productive honeybee.

Certainly, the two watchmakers and craftsmen, and bumble bees, labor long and hard to create something of concentrated refinement. One part of the manufacture where you can see this clearly is in the Rare Crafts Atelier, which presently houses about 30 or so craftspeople, practicing enameling, motor turning, engraving, jewel setting, and other decorative handcrafts all under one rooftop. The Rare Crafts Atelier was intended to cultivate better interaction among the craftspeople working there, and also allow them to see the gradual completion of a work in advancement straightforwardly as each craftsman makes their contribution.

One of the crafts most firmly related to 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, during the 1990s. Merczel was an enthusiastic amateur artist, who, in his spare time, managed to rather miraculously teach himself enameling, recreating critical procedures through research and investigation. I initially met him years ago when his atelier was in a completely unique structure, a kilometer or so from the main manufactory, yet since my last visit to JLC a couple of years ago, enameling has been moved back into the main structure (and I’m told Miklos is still especially with the company).

The youngster above is completing his apprenticeship and was sufficiently thoughtful to show us a practice piece he’s been dealing with: an enamel dial, after the painting The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. Making enamel dials is a lengthy, and can be a rather dangerous interaction, especially terminating (where any stray drafts, dust particles, unwanted variations in temperature, or outright bad karma can demolish a long time of work). Enameling starts with pounding hued glass into a very fine powder and then blending it in with a carrier liquid (usually, water or oil) and applying it to a dial, at times with a brush so fine it comprises of a single hair. The dial is then terminated to soften the glass particles and allow them to shape a single surface (the cycle is called vitrification)  A less costly alternative is alleged virus enameling, which isn’t enameling in any way, yet rather, painting with a thermosetting epoxy tar. You can get great outcomes with it, yet it’s viewed as something of an alternate route, and JLC utilizes just the more labor concentrated and technically troublesome grand feu enameling.

The metal utilized for this practice watch is copper; for a piece made available to be purchased, gold is generally used.

The manufacture has a plethora of various examples of enamel work that have accumulated throughout the long term; some are works-in-progress, some are demonstration pieces saved for display purposes. Working with a generation of a painting presents various explicit challenges, as the enamelist’s abilities as a draftsman have to equal those of the original artist – however on a lot smaller scale; the enamelist also has to control tone to exactly match the original work of art.

Above, case enameling after the famous Deco era painter Tamara de Lempicka. Beneath, enamel case after Alphonse Mucha’s famous Art Nouveau era arrangement of the four seasons (this one is Summer).

Not all enameling is miniature painting – enamel is also utilized as a visual accent in non-representational decoration as well, as in the perpetual calendar shown below.

The piece appeared beneath, after Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over The Rhone (not to be mistaken for the somewhat later, more familiar painting referred to just as Starry Night) was especially troublesome, as Van Gogh typically utilized a heavy impasto, sometimes prior brushes altogether and painting with a palette blade, or in any event, crushing paint onto the canvas straight from the cylinder. You can’t do impasto (or, Lord knows, extract color from a cylinder) with enamel, along these lines, in addition to the usual challenges, the enamelist who decorated this moment repeater had to create a hallucination of the strategy rather than just duplicate the actual method.

We also had a chance to take a stab at motor turning – in this case, utilizing an antique rose motor to create the spiraling decoration known as guilloché. Rose motors are quite simple in their basic principle. To make a pattern on a dial, for instance, you place the metal plate you want to engrave in the headstock of the lathe (a rose motor is a sort of lathe) and carry it into contact with the cutting head of the rose motor. Turning a hand-crank completes two things: rotates the work piece around its own axis, and also moves it back and forward; the combination of the two actions is what creates the Spirograf-like pattern characteristic of a great deal of guilloché engraving. How much the work piece moves back and forward is controlled by a multi-lobed cam, and cams can be swapped out to allow the creation of a variety of impacts. The best outcomes come from utilizing a steady speed of rotation on the hand-crank, and keeping extremely even tension on the workpiece as you press it against the cutting head. In the first of the three pictures underneath, you can see the brass cams on the left hand side of the lathe, whose shape gives the rose motor its name.

One of the most intricate decorative crafts practiced at JLC is pearl setting, and the most troublesome strategy is probably supposed snow setting. Snow setting, as the name proposes, is meant to mirror the sparkling appearance of newly fallen day off. It takes a long time to complete each piece, and over a thousand diamonds are utilized to decorate the Reverso case you see here. For each diamond, a small 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 an adjusted shape with the tip of a specially made shining instrument. The diamonds are arranged by diameter, however their final mien is left to the jewel setter.

These are all extremely traditional horological decorative arts, and their utilization in watchmaking returns many generations. In many instances, these methods became at least partially lost; enameling in particular was in danger, for a period in the late 1990s, of falling into such neglect as to risk irreplaceable trade privileged insights vanishing. The actual crafts need, to varying degrees, the years-long cultivation of unmistakable abilities, and what’s really unusual isn’t such a huge amount to see them being utilized in very good quality fine watchmaking, as it is to see them all being done under one rooftop, as they are at JLC and a couple of different manufacturers. Beauty in Swiss fine watchmaking generally starts from the back to front, however – at least at Jaeger-LeCoultre and some other very good quality makers – you can have both an undercover, and unmistakable, work of real art, in a single watch.

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