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Icons & Innovators: Inside Coup

James D. Malcolmson

The master compressor Extreme Lab is not only a ground-breaker; it is a scene-stealer. When Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the lubricant-free watch last spring, it upstaged all the advances with high-tech materials that other watch manufacturers had been touting. The watch created a sensation because it could render obsolete the regular, expensive, and vexing servicing needed to keep mechanical timepieces running in top form. Furthermore, Jaeger-LeCoultre had produced the Extreme Lab’s oil-free mechanical movement using 13 different materials and coatings in the mechanism’s construction; only one component, the escapement, is made of silicon, the material that most watch-industry observers presumed would be the sole basis for such a breakthrough.

While the release of the Extreme Lab—one of three progressive models that Jaeger introduced in 2007—may have come as a shock, particularly to those companies that had fixated on silicon, the watch actually is consistent with the brand’s character and with its record of quiet innovation. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s technical capabilities long have been an insider’s secret in the watch industry. As the largest and most comprehensive watch manufacture in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux for most of its century-and-a-half existence, Jaeger-LeCoultre has an unrivaled capacity for innovation. However, these capabilities have gone unheralded, because for much of Jaeger’s history, they have enriched other brands’ watches.

Jaeger-Lecoultre’s position as a watchmaker’s watchmaker can be traced to the company’s founder, Antoine LeCoultre, who was a mechanical genius but not much of a promoter. After establishing LeCoultre & Cie in 1833, LeCoultre started producing high-quality examples of the diminutive but critical pinions in watch movements. LeCoultre also invented the Millionometer, the first machine capable of measuring something as small as one micron. He was a precise watchmaker, but at a time when the watch industry’s brands were highly interdependent, LeCoultre applied his skills to other companies’ timepieces.

By the end of the 19th century, under the direction of Antoine’s grandson Jacques-David LeCoultre, LeCoultre & Cie had become the largest watch manufacture in the Vallée de Joux. During the early 1900s, French watchmaker Edmond Jaeger, a specialist in ultrathin movements, commissioned LeCoultre & Cie to produce watches for his collection. Through the collaboration, LeCoultre developed split-level movements that allowed Jaeger to offer small, but precise, jewelry watches. Meanwhile, Cartier, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and other clients continued to benefit from LeCoultre’s expertise. Finally, in 1927, LeCoultre & Cie introduced its first branded watches, and then 10 years later, after collaborating for nearly 35 years, Jaeger and LeCoultre merged into a single brand.

Branding is a higher priority in today’s hypercompetitive watchmaking business. Now owned by the luxury conglomerate Richemont, Jaeger-LeCoultre continues to lend its expertise to sister companies, including Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. But for 39-year-old CEO Jérôme Lambert, who took over in 2001, the primary goal is to promote his firm as a longtime leader in technical innovations, while his competitors try to do the same. Lambert is the dynamic front man that Antoine LeCoultre was not. He has been audacious, sometimes to a fault. His most ambitious timepieces prior to the Extreme Lab—2004’s multiaxis Gyrotourbillon and the triple-faced Reverso à Triptyque in 2006—were far more inventive and flamboyant than competing highly complicated watches, but both had technical problems that delayed production well after their launches.

These projects were directed by dedicated work groups—one of the hallmarks of Lambert’s organizational structure. Not only do these groups manage the development of the watches from the beginning, they remain in place to solve subsequent problems as production proceeds, as was required for the Gyrotourbillon and the Reverso à Triptyque.

Unlike the Gyrotourbillon and Reverso à Triptyque timepieces, the Master Compressor Extreme Lab was developed as a concept watch instead of as a commercial piece. In 2003, Lambert directed a group of engineers to research ways in which the firm could improve component designs and mechanical functions to enhance the company’s technical capabilities over the long term. "We were given the opportunity to make our own measurements in fundamental topics like energy, friction, and accuracy," explains Laurent Rougny, a Jaeger-LeCoultre engineer who specializes in computer simulation. "In a commercial environment, you do not always have the freedom to experiment with different approaches."

Much of the engineers’ work focused on componentry, such as balance wheel configurations. But the engineers also experimented with different coatings to see if they could reduce the friction that a watch’s moving parts generate. This testing eventually proved advantageous when Lambert broached the subject of a lubrication-free timepiece. Just two years ago, the Jaeger team was not even considering making an oil-free watch. Lambert and his best watchmakers were absorbed in building the Reverso à Triptyque, a supercomplicated version of the brand’s best-known design, which they hoped to complete in time for the model’s 75th anniversary, in 2006. But the Triptyque efforts triggered unexpected developments.

While rummaging through one of the company’s storage units that holds archival material, watchmaker Eric Coudray discovered an unusual drawing. It was a 19th-century design for a détente escapement, a regulating device used in marine chronometers. Coudray, the architect of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Gyrotourbillon, brought the drawing to Lambert and explained the virtues of the design: Because none of its parts would slide against each other, the escapement potentially could be low-friction and lubrication-free. Lambert was impressed, particularly after seeing a LeCoultre signature at the bottom of the drawing. (It is unclear which LeCoultre conceived the design.) Lambert subsequently ordered the team to incorporate an updated version of the escapement design into the Reverso à Triptyque.

The lubrication-free escapement suddenly put Jaeger-LeCoultre on equal footing with companies that for years had been developing silicon parts for their own lubrication-free escapement designs. Lambert, however, wanted more, and mindful of the research his engineers already had conducted, he organized them into a product team with the objective of building an oil-free watch. Joining Rougny were Jean-Claude Meylan, head of movement research, and Stephane Sogne, a young specialist in the industrial application of various materials.

"At the time, Jérôme was quite optimistic about the prospects for successfully completing the watch," recalls Stephane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s product development manager, who oversees all of the company’s new watch projects. "While he admitted there were no obvious or easy solutions to the many engineering problems, he thought we had all the potential to solve them, given time."

The engineers who actually had to perform the work, however, were not quite as sanguine. "Personally, I thought it was risky," admits Meylan. "I was hopeful solutions could be found somewhere for most of the problems, but I thought it would be difficult."

Conventional mechanical timepieces rely on oil to lubricate multiple points in the movement. The escapement, which many watch companies have reworked, is only one of several lubricated points that the Jaeger-LeCoultre team had to reengineer. Metal pinions that pivot in tiny bearings composed of synthetic ruby—the watch’s so-called jewels—support wheels, levers, and other turning parts. These jewels require oil to function properly, as does the spring barrel, the watch’s power source, which generates friction as the spring unwinds. Indeed, every moving part—from the rotor to the winding stem—needs lubrication, posing an engineering challenge that is compounded by the small scale of these components.

Some solutions came easy to the Jaeger-LeCoultre engineers. Graphite powder, a common household lubricant used on hinges, performed perfectly inside the spring barrel. Friction at other points, including the winding stem, destroyed five different types of coatings before a nickel-Teflon compound proved effective.

The engineers are particularly proud of their replacement for oiled jewel bearings: a colored ceramic called Easium. Used in nuclear reactor pumps where temperatures can exceed 2,000 degrees Celsius, Easium has exceptional lubricity in a variety of conditions. In the Extreme Lab, it is used in concert with a molybdenum disulfide compound that coats the pinions. Molybdenum is a common lubricant additive, but this formulation has the added quality of becoming even slicker over time.

Jaeger-LeCoultre, unlike many other watch brands, did not invest in the technology to create lubrication-free watch parts from silicon wafers. So it is surprising that the company utilized a conventionally designed (and supplied) silicon escape wheel for the Extreme Lab instead of the proprietary escapement design that it had debuted in the Reverso à Triptyque. "We believe silicon is a partial rather than a total solution," explains Belmont, "and we used it where we felt it is appropriate."

As the Master Compressor Extreme Lab project evolved, the team tapped more fundamental research that Jaeger-LeCoultre had initiated, including advances unrelated to eliminating oils. To make the tourbillon carriage lighter, the watchmakers fabricated it from magnesium, which required them to create new machining procedures for the metal because it kept deforming and clogging the existing tools and became flammable at high temperatures. The team also applied its knowledge about balance wheel inertia and aerodynamics, settling on a new, more efficient balance wheel configuration, which features a twin-armed shape and dense iridium-platinum weights.

"Jérôme began to see this watch as a showcase for all the work our research and development department has accomplished," says Belmont. In fact, Lambert displayed a personal interest in the project throughout its progress, occasionally suggesting alterations that were more sensational than practical. After reading that watches often stopped in arctic conditions because their lubricants froze, Lambert insisted that the Extreme Lab should be able to function at temperatures as cold as -40 degrees Celsius, adding yet another hurdle for the team to overcome. "It did increase the pressure on us a little," Meylan says dryly, "but we managed to make it work."

Despite the challenges of such a monumental undertaking, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s technical staff recognizes the opportunities that the Master Compressor Extreme Lab project afforded them. "In my experience, most engineers in other industries only get to apply a fraction of what they know," muses Rougny. "But this is like Formula One racing. The company has made a priority of progress at all costs."

Jaeger-LeCoultre, 212.308.2525, www.jaegerlecoultre.com

Deep Thinking

From the deck of a 60-foot trawler just off the Hawaiian island of Lanai, Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Jérôme Lambert directs an elaborate operation: He is preparing to film Jaeger-LeCoultre’s newest dive watch, the Master Compressor Diving Pro Geographic, as it is lowered, with a robotic camera, to its operational limit of 1,000 meters.

One-thousand-meter dive watches are no longer rarities, but this timepiece has an additional feature intended to make the long descent especially compelling: a depth gauge. Previous attempts at equipping watches with such a device have been beset by problems with seaweed or sand clogs in the sealing gaskets, but Jaeger-LeCoultre addressed these issues with one of its existing technologies. The expandable membrane that powers the company’s Atmos clocks creates a perfectly sealed medium for translating ocean pressure into a mechanically indicated force. Despite the success of Lambert’s production, the film is not nearly as fascinating as the watch itself.

Double Vision

The extreme lab represents an engineering breakthrough, but another revolutionary Jaeger-LeCoultre timepiece, the Duomètre à Chronographe, might appeal more to devotees of classical watchmaking. Its design prevents the engagement of the chronograph mechanism from affecting the accuracy of the watch itself. The Duomètre has twin power trains—one for the time and one for the chronograph—which are engaged and disengaged directly at the regulating organ of the watch. Because no energy is transferred, no precision is sacrificed. The simple, elegant solution overcomes what has been a persistent problem with chronographs.

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