Style: The Enchanted Vallée

  • Jill Newman

In the heart of Switzerland’s Jura Mountains lies the Vallée de Joux, a small basin that is encircled by dense forests and blanketed with a heavy coat of snow and ice for nearly six months of the year. Every winter, ducks gather in the same spot near the edge of the valley’s frozen lake, where they take turns ardently paddling their feet in a small opening in the ice to keep it from freezing over—the hole is their only source of food and water throughout the harsh winter. Just as the ducks have cleverly adapted to the severe winters in the secluded Vallée de Joux, so too have the people, who for hundreds of years have made the most of their seasonal captivity by dedicating their intelligence, skills, and perseverance to the art of horology.

"Life is hard here, but the Vallée is a magical place," says Jérôme Lambert, chief executive officer of Jaeger-LeCoultre, which is located in the village of Le Sentier. "The cycle of nature and the environment—especially the persistent winters—shape our brand, our designs, and watch movements."

Indeed, the history of this venerable watch brand is entwined with that of the Vallée de Joux itself. In the 16th century, Pierre LeCoultre was among the first settlers in the valley who determinedly developed metallurgy skills to sustain the community during the long winter confinement. Centuries later, in 1833, his descendant, Antoine LeCoultre, left the fam-ily’s metal forge to open a watchmaking company. In 1903, he entered into a partnership with Parisian chronometer-maker Edmond Jaeger, and the company name was changed to Jaeger-LeCoultre. Over the course of its long history, the company generated many timekeeping innovations, including the first crown winding system in 1847, which eliminated the use of keys to wind watches. And in 1929, Jaeger-LeCoultre unveiled the Calibre 101, still the world’s smallest mechanical watch.

"To work here, you must be able to feel the spirit of the Vallée," says Lambert, speaking of the valley as though it were sacred ground. "People must appreciate its heritage, the blue of the sunrise on the lake, and its serenity."

Later this year, Jaeger-LeCoultre is offering its most loyal collectors a chance to experience that spirit firsthand with a glimpse of the Vallée’s unique culture and a rare insider’s view of the assembling of a complicated watch movement. A limited number of collectors will be invited to attend Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Class, a two-day course with only four participants per class. It will be conducted by master watchmaker Sylvain Golay, who will reveal how a watch is made from inception to completion. The tutorial will culminate in the opportunity to assemble the new XGT eight-day power reserve movement. (Golay will also conduct classes for a privileged few collectors in Paris, London, and Madrid.)

"We invest so much time and passion in creating these timepieces," explains Lambert. "We want to offer our clients a window into our world and the unusual art of watchmaking in the Vallée de Joux."

Although a few prestige watch companies offer tours of their workshops, Jaeger-LeCoultre is perhaps the first to give its collectors an opportunity to actually assemble one of its most complicated movements. The Master Class is also a chance for aficionados to learn about watchmaking from a true master who, beginning at the age of 11, learned the trade from his father in the Vallée de Joux. "To be a good watchmaker, you must be sensitive to the beauty of your surroundings, and only then can you be sensitive to the beauty of the watch movement," says Golay, an unassuming, soft-spoken man in his late 50s who is clearly captivated by his environment. "My inspiration is the tranquil Vallée, its landscape, lake, and flowers."

In fact, Golay’s lifestyle is finely attuned to the seasonal rhythm of his natural surroundings. In the spring and summer he grows flowers and mushrooms, in the fall he collects minerals, and in the winter he delights in skiing by the light of the full moon.

While Jaeger-LeCoultre employs 200 watchmakers at its manufacture, Golay works alone in a small lab where he develops complications and decorates movements. Unlike most watchmakers, he does not work on a computer, but relies only on his mind and hands to generate new watch movements, just as his ancestors did decades earlier.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s reverence for history is readily apparent throughout its sprawling headquarters. The facility is constructed around the original 1833 farmhouse that Antoine LeCoultre built. It was designed with six large windows on the top floor, one for each watchmaker who worked there at the time. Until electricity arrived in the Vallée de Joux in 1912, watchmakers worked exclusively by the light of the sun. Even today, priority is given to the watchmakers, who work on the second floor for optimum natural light, while management’s offices are on the ground level.

Visitors to the factory will find the atmosphere eerily quiet and calm, although hundreds of people are feverishly working on painstaking tasks to create 38 different watch movements for the company’s roster of timepieces. Most of the watchmakers are valley natives. Some have been with Jaeger-LeCoultre for more than 40 years, some are following in their families’ footsteps as third-generation employees, and there are always a handful of apprentices from the Vallée’s watch school, which was established in 1901.

The factory is one of only a few manufactures that still produces watches from start to finish: Jaeger-LeCoultre creates each watch component and movement, all of which are handcrafted, finished, and assembled in a series of specialized workshops.

Visiting Master Class participants will learn that many steps of the watchmaking process are still performed manually, just as they were more than 100 years ago. Assembling the five wheels within the movement, for instance, is a meticulous task in which the watchmaker, peering through a powerful microscope, uses tweezers to pick up a hair- thin pinion that is virtually invisible to the naked eye and place it in a vice. Next, he places a paper-thin wheel on top of the pinion and secures it with a gentle press. Although this appears to be a simple step, it actually requires the utmost patience and dexterity—a novice is likely to make several attempts, only to give up in frustration. Typically, a skilled watchmaker places 1,000 of these pinions in wheels during a six-hour shift.

Assembling the movement requires even greater deftness. In a pristine environment free of damaging dust and particles, each watchmaker, dressed in a white lab coat, works under a microscope that projects an image of the tiny parts on a large monitor. Like a surgeon performing a delicate procedure while viewing the patient on a monitor, the technician gingerly assembles the movement that is enlarged thousands of times on the screen. Once again, attempt- ing this scrupu-lous task gives the novice a profound appreciation of the watchmaker’s incredible dexterity and patience.

In addition to assembling the movements, Master Class participants will learn how new watch concepts come to fruition through Golay’s traditional hands-on approach and through the use of state-of-the-art technology. Employing computer-generated graphics, a team of six watch engineers is continuously working on new movements, which typically require four years to create and cost as much as $3 million for research and development. The team includes design engineer Philippe Vandel, a tall, brawny man who is quiet and modest about his achievements, though he is responsible for innovations such as the Reverso Géographique, a world timer with a push button for simultaneously adjusting the hour, city, and day/night indicator.

At the helm of the design team is director Janek Deleskiewicz, who formerly worked at Ford Motor Co. and commutes to the valley weekly from his home in Paris. "Technically, a watch is not very different from a car," Deleskiewicz says, "except that the parts are smaller." However, he adds, a timepiece plays a greater role in shaping one’s persona. "When a person looks at the dial of his watch, he sees a reflection of himself in the glass."

Rather than citing the success of a particular watch model or the burgeoning demand for their limited edition timepieces, Deleskiewicz and his colleagues prefer to speak about their passion for their craft and about how the Vallée de Joux, with its natural beauty and changing seasons, helps to fuel that passion. "Nature, which gives cadence to time, is the point of reference for our creations," says Deleskiewicz. "Our watch mechanisms are modeled on the aesthetics and balance of a flower: Each component is vital to the regularity of the whole. Each watch therefore becomes a wonderful living organism, and human beings never grow tired of exploring its secrets."

Jaeger-LeCoultre, 800.JLC.TIME, www.jaeger-lecoultre.com

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