Jager-LeCoultre are celebrating their 180th anniversary this year and so it’s not surprising that they are pulling out all the stops. The brand unveiled several very impressive new pieces at SIHH 2013, however for me (and for many others I’m sure) the absolute show-stealer was the breath-taking Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3 Jubilee.
Yesterday, as part of my ongoing quest to find the perfect evening watch I took a closer look at the 2013 update of Lange & Soehne’s sublimely elegant Up/Down timepiece. Today I am turning my attention to another brand in the Richemont stable, long-time favorite Jaeger-LeCoultre, and their delightfully elegant Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Duoface.
When it comes to choosing a classic dress watch Jaeger-LeCoultre is always top of my list. The brand’s reputation for quality in all aspects of watchmaking has been carefully cultivated over the last two centuries, making it arguably one of the most recognisable and therefore most desirable luxury watch brands in the world. It is for this reason, and many more, that I often suggest the brand to friends and associates when asked for recommendations. It is also for this same reason however, that they often have the perception that the brand must be simply too far out of their price range to even contemplate.
Certainly there is some truth to that perception; JLC after all can lay claim to the enviable title of being the creator of some of the more complicated pieces of Haute Horlogerie the watch world has seen, such as the Duometre à Spherotourbillon. It is this same expertise however, that also allows the brand to make other, exceptionally high-quality pieces that don’t necessarily have exceptionally high price tags attached. Today, I have chosen an enduring classic, the Master Calendar, to illustrate that point.
“Each time an old man dies, it’s a library that burns” – African proverb by Ahmadou Hampathe Ba.
George Daniels built his reputation restoring and repairing the exceptional creations of Abraham Louis Breguet and, like his predecessor had a century before him, made it his life’s work to constantly search for ways to improve watchmaking. During his legendary career spanning 42 years he created 37 different watches completely by himself, excluding prototypes, with each designed as a way to test new ideas, new processes. Whilst most manufacturers focus on registering new patents and developing new materials, Daniels was more concerned with generating new ideas and then finding ways to implement them.
His most notable invention, the now well-known co-axial escapement, was simply too ahead of its time for the watchmaking industry when he first created it back in the 1970s. It’s not common knowledge but Daniels actually struck out with Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre first before Omega agreed to buy the new technology. It’s hard not to imagine that the fate of either of those manufactures could have been changed significantly if they had given Daniel’s escapement the credit it deserved. (Editor’s Note: Although fortunately both brands are still doing exceptionally well.)
Although Daniels left this world a highly respected, watch-making legend, his beginnings were incredibly humble.
“We were really scruffy gutter kids.”
These words from Daniels are indicative of the impoverished household in which he grew up, sharing what little possessions he had with his 8 brothers and sisters as the world struggled through the Great Depression. His first experience with watches came at the tender age of six when he discovered a watch in the house. According to Daniels he didn’t know who it belonged to, but as far as he was concerned it was fair game to open it up with a bread knife and examine its contents. Although it wasn’t functioning the movement he discovered inside still had all the potential qualities of the complexity of a watch, which he found very intriguing.
As time went on and Daniels grew older, the opportunities to work increased and as a consequence so did his level of remuneration. He had his own money now, not a lot mind you but maybe just enough to buy his first few broken watches to repair, but this was 1944 and fate had other plans for Daniels. Like every other healthy young man his age at the time, he was conscripted into the British Army.
“For the first time in my life I had a bed to myself”, said Daniels.
Unperturbed by this interruption however Daniels pursued his passion for watch-making and watch repairs, using his time as an enlisted man to start honing his skills:
After finishing his service in the armed forces Daniels made his way back into mainstream society, eager to continue the development of his horological endeavors. Of course at this stage he only saw himself as a watch repairer, the idea of becoming a world famous watch-maker too outrageous to even warrant a second thought. As time went on and he honed his skills working on a variety of different timepieces it became clear that he was in possession of an extraordinary talent, one that would enable him to transcend the world of watch repair.
“Breguet, the most celebrated watchmaker…
but not the greatest“. That’s what history tends to forget explains Daniels, “Everything necessary for the creation of a precision watch had been done. I had to surpass him ».
In 1968 the quartz movement (excuse the pun) was already well under way and makers of mechanical watches the world over were holding their heads in despair. However Daniels found inspiration in this new innovation, it gave him another reason to make his own watch: “My plan was to build a watch the could outwit the quartz watch. And when I was satisfied (with the watch I made), there was always another nutcase like me waiting to buy it “.
One of these so-called ‘nutcases’ was his friend Sam Clutton. He bought the first Daniels watch for 1200 £ in 1969. In the 90’s, the last one Daniels made sold for 200’000 £.
Of course, Daniels is known above all for his ability to make a watch from scratch – literally – including the tools themselves. Perfection was the goal he constantly aspired too, and in spite of his technical brilliance he never overlooked the importance of aesthetics in watchmaking: ”The beauty of a watch is geometric and aesthetic and about timekeeping “, he said. Of course CNC had no place in his creations, as he put it he liked to use “primitive tools. There was no point in changing them. I used lathed, files, pliers, wirecutters, screwdrivers, hammers, saws. Everything by hand. AutoCAD does not understand elegance “.
“I outdid Breguet”
When Omega bought his co-axial escapement, Daniels showed the world that his invention was as simple as it was necessary: “My idea was that the co-axial had to keep better time than any other mechanical escapement or quartz watch, and it does. The co-axial utilizes the last of the remaining unused principles in the impulsion of the escapement. Watchmakers may have to work five hundred years to find a better escapement“.
There is one thing for sure, Mr Daniels: even in 500 years, we will remember your work, your passion, your devotion and your invaluable contribution to the watch world.
Thank you Sir.
Original story by Olivier Müller – Quotes from the excellent book of Michael Clerizo, “Masters of contemporary watchmaking” that you can order here.
Jaeger-LeCoultre has a history of making ultra thin calibers – including the world’s thinnest pocket watch movement in 1903, at just 1.38mm. The current incarnation, available in the Master Control line, is the Cal. 849 – somewhat fatter, but still measuring a scant 1.85mm in height. The Master Ultra Thin was recently made available in a larger sized case – 38mm, up from the incredibly petite original 34mm. (To get an idea of just how thin the 34mm version is, the buckle/ strap is the thickest part of the watch during normal wear. It disappears under shirt cuffs like a bare wrist). There’s also a larger grand 40mm automatic, and a moon phase variant for 2011, but those don’t house the same movement.
This particular example is from a limited edition of 375 pieces issued in 2008 to commemorate JLC’s 175th anniversary, hence the year on the dial. It has a dark chocolate dial and rose gold case, instead of the usual silver or black – my personal favorites are the blue and anthracite dial variants, though chocolate is definitely growing on me.