While some people dread the onset of winter, it’s this season that gave rise to what would become Jaeger-LeCoultre, a pioneer in the production of fine timepieces.
In the 18th century in a Swiss valley community, Abraham-Joseph LeCoultre built a forge that, many years later, would evolve into the workshop and headquarters for a world-famous company established by his son, Antoine. In addition to his work as a blacksmith, the elder LeCoultre was also a farmer and a beekeeper, which influenced his understanding of both mechanical operations and natural design. At the forge, LeCoultre and his neighbors spent many a winter’s evening creating movement blanks, dials and pinions for watches. They were also well known for their expertise in lapidary, which aided their ability to create watches of great precision.
In 1833, Antoine took the knowledge he had amassed from 30 years of working with his father and founded LeCoultre Manufacture. Innovation was at the company’s core. Antoine invented at least two revolutionary items within the first 15 years in operation: the Millionometre and a crown-winding operation. The first invention allowed for accurate measurement to a thousandth of a millimeter. This development ultimately led to widespread adoption of the metric system by the Swiss watchmaking industry. The other innovation, a crown-winding system, superseded the key-wind approach previously used to set time. A variation of this system is still in use in modern-made mechanical watches.
Award-Winning Moment: Displaying in 1851 at The Great Exhibition in London, Antoine LeCoultre received a gold medal for a gold chronometer. The recognition was the first of many accolades the company would receive for precision mechanics in timekeeping.
At the turn of the 20th century, the company’s management passed into the hands of a new generation. Renowned watchmaker Jacques-David LeCoultre assumed the helm following his grandfather Antoine’s passing. Until his own demise in 1948, Jacques-David was instrumental in developing and expanding the company.
Significant to its growth, LeCoultre & Cie started creating movements for other premier watchmakers, including Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and the firm’s first client, Patek Philippe.
Royal Wearers: Queen Elizabeth II is said to have worn one of LeCoultre & Cie’s revolutionary timepieces known as the Duoplan Calibre during her coronation in 1953. With 74 parts, the Calibre weighed in at only one gram.
As the 20th century ticked forward, another watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger, was implementing new timekeeping methods of his own and, not unlike LeCoultre & Cie., was supplying other prestigious makers – in Jaeger’s case, Cartier.
Over time, the competitors would collaborate to design the first watches for use by civilian and military pilots during World War I. The two companies formally merged as a single operation in 1937.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s timepiece innovations include: A durable timepiece with a clever face-flipping mechanism used to protect the crystal (it’s said this model – the Reverso – was created in response to a polo team’s problem with watch faces incurring damage while on the playing field); the first 100% automatic watch without a winding-crown; the water-resistant Geophysic chronometer, which is impervious to magnetic fields and shock; a timepiece with a built-in alarm (Memovox) that sounds like the ring of a vintage telephone; and development of the world’s first diver’s watch with a built-in alarm (Deep Sea) to remind a diver when it was time to surface. The company also participated in the creation of the first quartz wristwatch in 1967.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Famous Fans: Silent film icon Charlie Chaplin, superhero and leading man Robert Downey Jr., Mad Men television actress January Jones, Academy Award-winning actor, screenwriter and producer Matt Damon; Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington, actress and model Diane Krueger, comedian and actor Steve Carrell, music mogul Jay-Z, and singer and songwriter Kelly Clarkson, among others.
In fact, Charlie Chaplin’s appreciation for Jaeger-LeCoulter timepieces is a showpiece of the museum Chaplin’s World, which opened in Switzerland in 2016. According to a report by Forbes, the watch, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox, was presented to Chaplin in 1953. The back is inscribed: Hommage du gouvernement Vaudois à Charlie Chaplin – 6 octobre 1953. The watch was discovered by crews during renovation of the house in which Chaplin and his family resided. The house is now the museum.
Enjoy this video about Chaplin’s storied watch:
A Jaeger-LeCoultre watch purchased new today costs a minimum of around $5,000 up to $2.5 million. On the secondary market, the most paid for a Jaeger-LeCoultre was $425,000. The custom Atmos 561 features uncommon red accents and sold during a Sotheby’s auction in 2013. The watch was one of two Jaeger-LeCoultre models sold to benefit musician Bono’s charity (RED).
From humble beginnings in a small Swiss village to appearing on the wrists of Hollywood heavyweights, Jaeger-LeCoultre timepieces not only keep time, they’ve set the pace in precision mechanics for nearly 185 years.