Stephane Belmont is a longtime executive at Jaeger-LeCoultre who now oversees heritage and rare pieces for the brand. He also has a hand in product development and marketing. He was in New York City recently for the launch of the new Polaris Geographic World Timer, a new complication that is part of a value-focused collection aimed at the American market. Introduced in January, it has a starting price point of $6,600. We sat down with Belmont to discuss the new timepiece, the importance of the U.S. market, and the collector’s market.
Tell us about the new Maison Heritage department at Jaeger-LeCoultre. Is it directly linked to product development?Yes. I still work very closely with the creative and marketing teams, but I now have a new team dedicated to heritage and to the development of rare pieces. There is still a lot to study in our history [JLC was founded in 1833, in Le Sentier, Switzerland] and it is important to share it with the team. A lot of young people have joined the company over the last year, and they take for granted that JLC is a good brand, but I wanted to take the time to proactively make everyone aware of what makes us unique. Our past helps explain why we do some things and not other things in the context of our collection going forward and what we can capitalize on. I have been with the brand for 18 years, and have been in charge of distribution, then technical development, design, and marketing, and when I took over the heritage a year ago, I still discovered plenty of things I didn’t know. It’s just amazing.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is known for its complicated mechanical watches—the Hybris Mechanica, the Duometre Spherotourbillon, the Rendez-Vous Ivy Minute Repeater. Where does the Polaris collection fit in to this mix?
If you look at the history of the brand it’s not so unusual to have sporty versions of classic models. I remember when we launched the Master Compressor in a sports collection 2002. People said, ‘What’s that? It doesn’t fit in the JLC collection.’ But we were always making sports watches. We made pocket watches for military purposes back in the 1920s. We had some watches with covers that we made in the 1930s. We’ve got letters from pilots who were using those watches. We launched the Reverso sports watch in 1931for British army officers stationed in India who were playing polo. When people started to dive, we made diving watches. Our Deep Sea was the first diving watch with an alarm, launched in 1959. That led to the creation of Polaris in 1963, which is the inspiration for the current collection. In the last few years we have focused on the Master and Reverso collections, which gives the impression that we are a classic, traditional brand, which we are, but that doesn’t mean we don’t make a sports collection from time to time.
The Polaris is aimed at the U.S. market. Was it pared down and priced to appeal to this market?
Yes, but that is true to the original design of the Polaris, which was very much designed around the Memovox [alarm] function. All the other functions were added later. When we relaunched it at the beginning of this year, we subtracted some of the functions from some of the models, not just to make it more accessible, but to return it to its original design. We focused on the Polaris because it is a watch that has been praised by collectors for years, especially in the U.S. If you look at the prices at auction, since 2000, when people rediscovered it, a watch that was originally sold for $1,500 in 2000, has been fetching $30,000 or $40,000. As for the new introductory price point in the new collection, it represents a change for us. In the past, we have introduced sporty expressions of various lines in our other collections, and they were not as successful as the classic versions of those watches because they were more expensive. We learned that the sports watch probably shouldn’t have a higher value than the classic version because it is something you want to wear on the weekend, to be a bit more rough and casual, so you expect that watch to be a bit lower in price than a similar classic model. We managed to produce a lower priced sports watch without renouncing any of the quality finishes, only some of the functions.
What is the other focus at Jaeger-LeCoultre right now?
We are very much focused on the feminine side. We’ve invested a lot in the new Rendez-Vous collection, first launched in 2012. Today, it is our second-best-selling collection, just after the Master collection, and more than the Reverso. Overall we have a balance between men’s and women’s watches. We sell about 50% men’s and 50% women’s.
Is the moon phase the most popular version? It is always touted as the ladies’ complication.
It is not doing as well as we thought, but the Night and Day model is a huge success, in both 29 mm and 34 mm models, because it is a bit more elegant and feminine than the moon phase. Last year we introduced the Sonatina with guilloché mother-of-pearl and hand painting on the dial. We will be introducing more métiers pieces like that next year.
Will you do another minute repeater like the Rendez-Vous Ivy, for which you developed a new caliber?
There is a very, very tiny market for minute repeaters. They are beautiful, and everyone loves them, but if you count all the minute repeaters sold by all the brands in one year, it would not exceed 100 pieces.
What about pieces for the collector’s market?
We are a big company and we sell a lot of watches, so maybe that overshadows our more exclusive, high complications, but they are there. Innovation, exclusivity … this is something we already propose to our collector clients. When they buy a complication from us, they can customize it with a different color dial, or different finishings or a personalized engraving on the bridges.
We hear collectors are gravitating towards the independent watchmakers. Has it affected your business?
I’m not convinced about that. Collectors look for the long term, and they know that so many independent brands do not survive, so what do they do if they buy a watch and the brand disappears? Who will repair it? Service it? And they say it’s more exclusive, but is it really? If you are an independent brand, how do you produce your watch? If you have just 10 or 20 employees, you are not making all your components. Is it well finished? It’s just assembling things sourced from others. And how do you ensure these suppliers are all working the way you want to? As a small independent, you have no power, so if a supplier provides you with something of low quality, and he says, well you can return the parts, but you have to wait two years because I’m fully booked…what do you do? You have to compromise all the time. And that’s something that the big brands never do. We don’t compromise. If there is something wrong, we can make it right, we can revise it. So I think it’s just an illusion, the dream of having something independent compared to the big brands. There is more to big brands than just the commercial component, you just have to find out about it.
What is next, aside from continuing to develop new ladies’ watches?
In the coming years, we would like to come back to a more masculine focus. We started with the Polaris. Next year there will be a new complication within the Master range, the Hybris Mechanica. It will be a grand complication, and along with that, we will offer some métiers pieces, with hand-guilloché dials covered in enamel. The focus will be on the masculine side for the next 2 to 5 years. One thing that has been very successful on the ladies’ side is to offer a range of sizes, and I think we will start doing this on the men’s side, offering a successful function in two different sizes, with two different movements—not every brand can do that.
Will there be more collections geared to the American market?
The American market has always been very important for Jaeger-LeCoultre. From the 1930s to the 1970s, we sold 50% of our watches here. At one point they were branded LeCoultre, without the Jaeger, because it was registered for something else here. So if you have a watch that says only LeCoultre, you know it was made for the U.S. market. Even today, some of the collections are named differently for the U.S. market. In Europe, the Deep Sea collection is called the Memovox collection. The Polaris is also called something else in Europe. But in America, they are known as Polaris and Deep Sea, so that’s what we call them. We are probably going to continue to do that, to tailor watches for the U.S., not just in name, but with design tweaks.