Le Coultre - A Brief History
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Today, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is one of the most famous watches ever
produced, but were you aware that the company got its start producing ebauches
for other companies? A little known fact about Jaeger-LeCoultre is that in
addition to producing movements for its own watches, the company has also
produced movements for famous watch houses such as Vacheron Constantin, Audemars
Piguet, and IWC. As a matter of fact, in the early part of the 20th Century,
Jaeger-LeCoultre even supplied ebauches to the great firm of Patek Philippe.
Then as now, Jaeger-LeCoultre was considered one of the finest watchmakers in
The year was 1833 when thirty-year-old Antoine LeCoultre,
son of Vallee de Joux watchmaker Jacques LeCoultre, opened a small factory in
the town of Le Sentier. Amazingly enough, the current Jaeger-LeCoultre factory
is only a few feet away from the site of the original factory. In any event,
LeCoultre soon proved himself to be a gifted watchmaker, but an even more
brilliant inventor. In 1844, LeCoultre revolutionized the watch industry with
the invention of the millionometer, an instrument with which measurements of up
to one thousandths of a millimeter could be made accurately. As a result,
precisely finished components could be manufactured, resulting in greatly
improved accuracy in timekeeping. Likewise, the metric system became the
universal measuring standard in watchmaking, while other systems were rendered
LeCoultre's motto -- "we must base our experience on science"
- was particularly true when it came to manufacturing precision movements and
tools. The artistry came later at the hands of a master watchmaker, who
assembled, decorated and regulated the movements. In short order, LeCoultre
became the leading supplier of movements, parts and tools to the watchmaking
industry in Switzerland.
LeCoultre movements were so highly regarded, in
fact, that until 1910, the company provided Patek Philippe with most of its raw
movements. It was only in later years that Patek Philippe built its own
movements from scratch. In the meantime, other companies had come to rely
exclusively on LeCoultre's products, from which they would create finished
watches. LeCoultre's success was so great that between 1900 and 1919, 40,000 raw
movements were produced. Movements sold for between 100 and 400 francs each, not
an inconsiderable sum of money back then.
In 1925, the grandson of the
firm's founder, David LeCoultre, merged his company with that of Edmond Jaeger,
the exclusive supplier of watch movements to Cartier. This is when the modern
company known as Jaeger-LeCoultre first came into existence. Incredibly enough,
up to this point, Jaeger-LeCoultre had not sold any watches under its own name.
The merger, however, prompted further technical innovations, not the least of
which was a case made from stainless steel, as well as the creation of the
smallest mechanical movement in the world, which weighed less than one gram.
The year 1931 saw the introduction of the Reverso, a wristwatch that
could be turned 180 degrees within the case, thereby protecting the crystal and
dial. It was a fantastic creation and one that was enthusiastically received by
the public. Unfortunately, the worldwide economic crisis and World War II
conspired to prevent the Reverso from achieving its full potential. Changing
fashions coupled with the advent of waterproof watches might have forever doomed
the watch to obscurity, had it not been for an Italian dealer who visited the
factory in the 1960's and noticed a number of unused Reverso cases sitting in a
watchmakers' drawer. The Italian dealer bought the cases and fitted them with
movements. The finished watches were an instant sell-out and the rest is
history. Today, the Reverso is by far Jaeger-LeCoultre's most popular model.
Another interesting story concerns David LeCoultre's bid for Patek
Philippe. In 1932, Patek Philippe was in major financial straits and looking for
a white knight. LeCoultre, whose company manufactured movements for Patek,
wanted to acquire a majority interest. He came close to finalizing a deal, but
the Stern brothers, whose company supplied the dials used in Patek Philippe
watches, ultimately acquired the company. Although Patek Philippe has certainly
prospered under the Stern family's management, it is nonetheless interesting to
contemplate what effect a Patek Philippe/Jaeger-LeCoultre merger may have had on
the Swiss watch industry.
Needless to say, the company has continued to
thrive, introducing such innovations as the Memovox, Futurematic, Atmos Clock
(which in and of itself could be the subject of an article) and strikingly
original movements such as the world's thinnest automatic with a thickness of
just 2.35 mm, just to name a few. The thin automatic movement in particular was
an incredible success, as both Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet featured
it in wristwatches advertised as being the world's slimmest self-winding
timepieces. During the 1970's and early 1980's, Jaeger-LeCoultre produced a 36
jewel, self-winding calibre for Patek Philippe. Once again, both companies had
come full circle.
On a final note, it is worth noting that
Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the few companies in Switzerland that still produces
its own movements, cases, dials, hands, and bracelets. Virtually every single
component in a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch is hand-finished, produced in-house, and
this in turn results in strict quality control. As a result, Jaeger-LeCoultre
watches are recognized as being among the very finest hand-crafted watches
available and evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Jaeger-LeCoultre
regularly produces such masterpieces as the Reverso Tourbillon and Reverso
Minute Repeater. There is also the Master Control series of watches, which boast
1,000 hours of testing and assembly at the patient hands of a master watchmaker.
In any event, if you are contemplating the purchase of a
Jaeger-LeCoultre wristwatch, you've made an excellent choice. It's a highly
prestigious and respected brand with a long and wonderful history, as well as a
proven track record.