As far as high-comps departments go, Jaeger-LeCoultre is right up in the most rarefied air of exhilarating places to be for a young watchmaker. But first, how to get there? What traits and qualities does JLC look for in the process of hiring the best and brightest new watchmakers? Stéphane Belmont, Director of Heritage and Rare Pieces, explains what it takes.
What skills do you look for in the technicians who will work in the high complications department?
There is not one type. We have very different personalities who work in this department – the diversity of the people is key to achieve those complications because you need people who are very quick to capture an idea and begin to engage their skills.
They will find the solution as a team almost right away. The attitude is, “Ah yeah, I think I can do it.” They are very intuitive and they feel like they will find a solution. You also need other people, who are much more settled, that will then, from the time of this first idea, very carefully develop every single part, check that everything can work and do the real hard work of developing the watch.
At the same time, you need people who are into the design, the aesthetics and see how you will combine the complications and place the functions. All of these people need to interact with each other. If you talk to a designer, and you are a watchmaker, you need to be able to accept that if the designer says you’d rather have the function on this side, it’s for some reason – even if it seems to be impossible from the watchmaking point of view, you need to consider the opinion of the other matters, too.
The beauty is that once it is done, it seems obvious. But this is the result of a great diversity of people. It’s also a lot about people being open to listen to the experience of others. To be very much interested in the history of the brand. To understand the meaning of what we do and why we do it a certain way.
What are the common traits of this diverse group of people in the high complications department?
The main characteristic is their passion. And their interest to create the best for the client. They always think about that day when they must face the client with a watch that should feel like a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch.
What is different about working at Jaeger-LeCoultre compared to other watch brands? Is there anything distinctly different about the culture, or the approach, in your view?
I think the team at JLC know that no matter what crazy idea they might have, if it makes sense in terms of watchmaking, in terms of marketing and so on, you’ll find a solution to make it happen, and that it will be the best solution. This makes people confident in the fact that they will get through the process, no matter how hard or even impossible it seems to be. One of the other main differences is that we don’t take things from the past and just improve them. We reinvent everything from a white sheet of paper. This year, the gyrotourbillon (on the Hybris Mechanica Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpetual) that we presented was totally new. The minute repeater that can be adjusted forwards and backwards, to have the retractable push button, was totally new.
To make the Hybris Mechanica user-friendly was one of the objectives we set ourselves for the 21st century. Any watch should be very easy to use, no matter if it’s very complicated or not. To make people just enjoy the beauty of the mechanics without having to care about reading the instruction booklet telling you “don’t adjust the perpetual calendar between 10pm and 4am, don’t move the hands when it’s striking and so on”. Our team is ready to reinvent everything so that it performs better and is easier to use.
Do you ever have moments when you think to yourself that a mechanical watchmaker working on fantastical creations for the wrist just should not exist in this digital world?
All the time. Every day. And still today when I look at the Gyrotourbillon 1 that we did 15 years ago. It’s still something unbelievable. When you know how much it takes to create just the aluminium carriage around the tourbillon and how people spend hours just trying to make it beautiful. They spend hours trying to cut the aluminium to make it great. Every piece we do is a fascinating story.
Is it a kind of childlike existence for the watchmakers? This digital world is not meant to be centred around fantastical whirring machines. Why do people still want them?
Because you can see what’s happening. You can understand — at least try to understand — and you see the functioning, you see the beauty of the finishings and you can feel the materials. You can feel that you are using different materials. It’s just a mechanical wonder. It’s living. It’s breathing. And when you look at this, you can hardly believe that with just a bit of brass and steel, and maybe gold, you can achieve something like that.
Something that is also fascinating is that 100 years ago, 200 years ago, watchmakers managed to make that level of finishings and to invent the perpetual movement like the Atmos clock, or maybe to create the calibre 101. Still today, nobody can create a new perpetual clock, or do a smaller movement than the 101.
Today, in a world where everything is available, it’s quite difficult to be surprised by something. To get that feeling like a little child, to see something new, when all of a sudden you go, ‘Uh!’ We are driven to create these moments for people.
What is the unique selling proposition of Jaeger-LeCoultre in 2019?
We do complications of the 21st century and that’s the main difference we have with all the others. We live in these times and our complications reflect the way people will love to wear mechanical watches today. The simplicity of using the watch, no matter how complicated. And the beauty in the complexity of the watch. To be able to bring the best in terms of watchmaking in a watch that is easy to wear, easy to use, that’s what is for us the definition of 21st century watchmaking. To do this, you must have the ability to miniaturise everything so that it remains elegant and wearable – there are very few companies that are able to bring all those elements in one single watch.
How is it viable to create watches with such a high percentage of individually tooled components?
The reason we can do that is that we’re fully integrated. And we can be fully integrated only because we produce a certain number of watches. It’s important to sell quite a large number of classic watches in order to have all the crafts under one roof and to use almost all the technologies. If you don’t produce a large number of watches for a high-end company then you don’t have enough people, and you don’t have enough experience to create all these parts.
We don’t have a separate production for all these parts, it’s all made within the existing departments, so we rely on the experience of the people producing the regular watches to create the exceptional parts, and that’s by having everything at your disposal that you can do that. You will see that many companies cannot create exceptional watches because they just don’t produce enough watches and they cannot have the equipment and the know-how. And if you rely on suppliers, you’re dead, because they just want to sell, they don’t want to spend time improving or trying to make something they’re not used to doing.
If you and I were sitting down now to write an ad for the newspapers to attract the best new talent in watchmaking, what would you write in your ad to draw new watchmakers to Jaeger-LeCoultre?
This is one of the very rare jobs where you can see the product from the creation to the end. I don’t see any other company where you can really have the whole broad picture and to be part of a team where we will start with the idea, the vision, then you will see the creation of all of the parts, and the assembling, and then you will be able to face the final client. That is something that is unique. To make a beautiful product and to see the result of your work, that’s probably the most gratifying thing that can happen to anyone in a job.