Extended photoessay: A visit to manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre

For most horological afficionados, visiting their favorite manufacture is a necessary pilgrimage along the path. I’ve had the privilege to visit a few in my time, however living halfway around the world makes this a bit more of an expedition than is convenient. However, on my last assignment to Switzerland, I happened to have a free day, and the folks at Jaeger LeCoultre were extremely accommodating…

Enjoy the photoessay – it’s more of a story of how a watch is made, and a slight deviation from normal programming, but I think you’ll find it interesting all the same.

Images shot with an Olympus OM-D and Panasonic 20/1.7 and 45/2.8 macro lenses. Each image can be clicked on for a larger version.

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I was given this and a lab coat, presumably to keep out street dust (or perhaps add to the authenticity of the experience for some). Sadly, they didn’t issue me with any tools – perhaps for my own good.

That pass, gets you into here:

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Once past the obligatory heavy Eastern Europeans (presumably there to ensure you don’t leave with any watches you didn’t come in with), one is greeted by this sculpture a little further down the hall; signed by all of the thousand employees who work at the Manufacture.

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The old Manufacture, now the reception area and offices.

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Views from this place are incredible. It’s like working in a postcard.

Life of a watch starts in the prototype and R&D department; for understandable reasons, I wasn’t allowed to take photos in here – or even go in, for that matter. From a production standpoint, things begin here – in the parts fabrication department, where things are cut, stamped, shaped, machined, CNC’d, bent…

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The output of which can be seen here – Reverso case blanks, thousands upon thousands of tiny, perfect blued screws, and a whole bunch of spare gears (I believe these are offcuts that didn’t pass QC).

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Those cases marked in red (along with other parts) are then sent to the QC department, where a laser alignment rig checks that the parts are within extremely fine (think micron level) tolerances. You can see that rig at work here:

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Next up is finishing – parts are polished, grinded, striped, anglaged, perlaged, engraved, plated, and generally prettied up in yet another department. Two things surprised me: stripes and perlage are surprisingly fast to apply; polishing a Reverso case is not – in fact, it takes a lot longer than I would have imagined.

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Anglage.

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Rotor engraving.

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Setting microscopically small jewels; that pile of what looks like dust off to the top right is actually a pile of unset ruby bearing stones. Needless to say, it takes a microscope and hands of stone.

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Anchor setting room.

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Up some stairs, with a quick pause (note scenery) and through an attic doorway…

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…takes us to the haute horologie department.

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Don’t forget your protection. And those wrapped things at bottom left aren’t sweets, they’re earplugs.

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On a tray for visitors to enjoy as you enter. Sadly, no ‘Please Take One’ sign was to be seen anywhere.

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This part of the workshop is an incredibly quiet, calm environment; you get the feeling you’re in a high precision lab rather than a manufactory – which I suppose is pretty much what it is. You’ll notice that most of the employees are plugged into their iPods; the music and isolation help concentration.

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Assembling a Spherotourbillon.

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Ta-da! Look what I made earlier. This is possibly the only photograph to date with five of them in one place…

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Beginning to case up inside a negative pressure cabinet, so dust gets sucked out.

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Moving over to another bench, we find:

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The red and blue plastic is a protective layer to prevent scratches as the watches are cased, assembled, and final adjustments made.

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There’s also a Repetition Minutes a Rideau present – but not just any one, a blue one!

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It sounded great. I suspect the double case (the movement is actually based on the earlier limited edition series of 500 in pink gold) improves the tonal qualities of the chime significantly. It also looks absolutely stunning, though I’d gladly forgo the outer slide mechanism and just have the inner watch – apparently the inner case is about the same size as a regular Reverso GT, which isn’t very big at all.

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On the way out, we pass a Gyrotourbillon in final stages of regulation. The dial on the left (which actually looks complete) is a work dial, used for adjustment only. I’m told that it takes one watchmaker between 1.5 and 3 months to assemble one of these; the huge time difference is if after assembly, it doesn’t run to spec, then the whole thing has to be taken apart and the cage re-balance and re-adjusted.

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The gemsetting atelier is next.

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I’m not a huge fan of gem set pieces (they showed me bracelet links for a Master Tourbillon, which when completed, would retail for around one million Euros – the entire thing was covered in diamonds, including the dial); however, this particular piece was pretty intriguing – it’s called a ‘chaotic’ setting, and you actually can’t see where the setting ends and the stones begin. They use around 200-240 diamonds of various sizes to cover a ladies’ Reverso case.

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We appear to have found the Atmos division.

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I actually found this portion quite fascinating, as you seldom see so many of these in one place – and more interestingly, so many vintages; there were clocks here dating from easily fifty years go. I suppose it’s one of the few products whose fundamental parts have changed very little over time. Interestingly, they still cure the balance suspension wire; except these days, it’s done with weights and electric current rather than horse urine and time.

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Oh look, a Klimt! In all seriousness, this was an incredibly stunning piece which I think few have been lucky enough to see in person.

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View from the employee canteen.

I did also visit the museum, but wasn’t allowed to take any photos. Suffice to say there are some incredibly rare and very interesting pieces in there. And while all the Atmoses are running, charmingly none of them show the exactly same time :) MT

I would like to say a personal thank you to Marina Shvedova, Janek Deleskiewicz, Cecile Tichant, Alexis Delaporte, Reena Tan, and all the patient employees whom patiently answered my endless barrage of questions.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. “Views from this place are incredible. It’s like working in a postcard.”

    That’s Switzerland for you!

    Nice photo essay btw.

  2. Just incredible photography and writing Ming. Your work continues to blow me away!

  3. This Post is Poetic & Surreal ++ Beautiful

  4. Great blog post Ming. You must have had a wonderful time on your tour. It is impressive to see so many nice watches.

  5. You are one of the best photographers in the world for small pieces / watches. You have been working for them professionally before and they don´t let you take some shoots in their museum? Strange!!! Perhaps something like a missunderstanding? Ha, but you have been paying it back with your sentence: “And while all the Atmoses are running, charmingly none of them show the exactly same time”. I laughed so loud!

    Let me tell you a thought of a total consumer objector (yes I am something like this): 2 weeks ago I bought my first watch since 1984 (The 1984 watch was a Seiko like this one: http://www.digitalwatchlibrary.com/DWL/1work/seiko_a828_4019). The 2012 was a Casio LCD Quartz watch 1980es Remake. It shows the time perfectly right for me (about 1 second per month) ….. and: It costed EUR 23,32 at amazon, Ha ha, This is why I laughed! But the really weired about this: It was your blog and your awesome pics of some Jaeger le coultres that Inspired me for looking for the perfect watch in the net, that fits just for ME, will say MY PERSONAL WATCH (as my increadibly cheap Olympus E-PL 1 with set Zoom 14 mm – 42 mm fits so perfectly for me as my first serious Photo Camera since my 1980 Canon AE-1). And I have asked myself: Where have I been the last 30 years?
    The week after the next week I have time to take some product shots with the Nikon D 7000 of my friend Stefan, and I am sure we will Top your Jaeger pictures with some shoots of my new Plastic Casio, ha ha, I will put it in my blog ;-) I will inform you!
    Ah, here we go:

    • Haha, thank you. No, they don’t let anybody photograph in their museum. Who knows why?

      Looking forward to the Casio ;) For what it’s worth, I’ve got a couple of Seiko 5s too – they’re about the same price, but they also have a manufacture automatic movement – which is unheard of below about 5,000 EUR anywhere else. :)

  6. Matthew D says:

    Looks like an amazing experience. Well documented…somehow watchmaking is incredibly interesting to me and you’ve managed to capture much of what makes it so (precision, precision, precision, and quality). Great series. And yes, you’re fortunate to have gone.

    • Thanks Matthew. I was already in the neighborhood for another assignment, they were nice enough to give me the tour (I do own four of their watches, whether it makes any difference or not).

  7. Roberto says:

    Thanks for this romantic travelogue. Life inside a factory can be tough but you caught the essence of it at its best.

  8. I’m surprised at the size of this factory. I figured such expensive watches were built with just a handful of people since they didn’t sell many at all. I guess I was wrong (or maybe I overestimate the price of these watches). Is Urwerk as big?

    • Wrong – JLC sells about 50,000 watches a year. Coincidentally, I was also at Urwerk – they (and the other independents) sell far, far fewer watches; most of them are less than 10-man operations in a single large room.

  9. william jusuf says:

    Ming..

    you are living the perfect life man :)

    kudo

  10. Michael says:

    I can even feel the intimacy between you and JLC…. :D

  11. Michael says:

    You are sooooooooo lucky. :)

    Man, the place is so peacefull….. totally the opposite of my workplace :D

  12. Brilliant. My favourite blog post for some time.

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