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Symposium: Hands of Time

More than a craft, watchmaking is, for some, a compulsion. I learned this during a recent session with Jaeger-LeCoultre’s master watchmaker Sylvain Golay (pictured below). I also learned that in the realm of fine watchmaking, one ill-timed sneeze can blow apart an entire afternoon’s work.

Golay is one of the few people who can produce Jaeger’s Calibre 101, the world’s smallest mechanical watch movement, but on this day he faced an even more challenging task: transforming me and nine other novices into watchmakers.

The occasion was Jaeger-LeCoultre’s first Master Class (800.JLC.TIME, www.jaegerlecoultre.com), a special workshop held in partnership with some of its top dealers. For six days, 10 fortunate watch devotees—mostly clients and collectors, plus a few eager journalists—relished the tutelage of Golay.

The prospect that I could exhibit the dexterity and discipline required for watchmaking seemed nothing short of miraculous. There have been times while chopping onions at home that I have been asked—with requests politely veiled as offers of assistance—to step away from the cutting board. My technique is so haphazard that it tortures my husband to watch me handle cutlery. He prefers to prep the vegetables himself, chopping them quickly into neat, consistent cubes with the skill of a La Varenne graduate. So it was with no small sense of irony that I found myself seated at a watchmaker’s bench at Christie’s in Manhattan, squinting through a loupe as I struggled to coax a tiny blued screw into a slightly larger divot using tweezers and a screwdriver with a head no wider than the tip of a pencil. (Click image to enlarge)

Such a basic maneuver is child’s play for Golay, who had explained that our mission was to take apart a portion of the new Calibre 875 double-barreled eight-day power reserve movement and reassemble it in working order—all in time for cocktail hour.


Before we began, Golay, with the precision of a neurosurgeon and the casual air of a bartender, demonstrated the procedures we were to mimic. As he dismantled the movement, each component took its place in front of him in a perfectly straight line, cleverly ordered in the sequence in which it was removed. I took note as he effortlessly stood each screw on its head in an elegant flourish that I was determined to emulate.

Surprisingly, the disassembly went quickly and painlessly for me, though it was clear that what came apart so readily would not go back together with quite the same ease. But with constant guidance from Golay and his assistants, the line of components in front of me slowly disappeared. After some difficulty adjusting to the perspective of looking through a loupe, I found the movement surface had become large, clearly defined, and quite manageable. The experience was myopic by both definitions of the word: I could see only what was inches in front of me and became entranced with the grossly exaggerated yet limited field of vision.

A smile of satisfaction crept across my face as I confirmed that everything was in its proper place. However, there was something amiss: A minuscule filament (which, through the loupe, appeared as a large black thread) was corrupting the smooth metallic surface. I instinctively blew away the thread, along with all the pieces I had so carefully placed. Embarrassed but determined, I began assembling the parts once again. I had been a watchmaker for less than a day, but already I had adopted the characteristic drive for perfection. Not until I had tightened the final screw did I realize how much time had passed while I was immersed in the concentration required for maneuvering the miniature parts into their niches. This meditative art had silenced the chatter of my multitasking mind for a few hours, and I felt a sense of accomplishment from working with my hands instead of only my head.

At the moment of truth, I gave the crown a little nudge to transfer the energy to the springs housed in the double barrels, and the balance wheel began to spin. It worked. Though at some point that afternoon, the question became not whether I could make it work, but when. 

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