One of the perks of this job is that we get to see where and how watches are made. I love a good manufacture visit as it provides context for the watches, allowing a look into the places and people behind them. It also provides comparability between brands. Once you have a couple of these visits under your belt, you develop an eye for the differences between brands. Some manufactures are a step above others. This time, I got to visit one that stands out in many ways — Jaeger-LeCoultre.

In this article, I will share my impressions of the manufacture, but there is a little more. JLC took a handful of people from watch media on a tour around the Lac de Joux. As much as I like the watchmaker’s premises, the lake was equally interesting. Join me on a tour around it, ending in the watchmakers’ watchmaker’s manufacture.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture visit Lac de Joux

A watchmaking hotspot

I am sure you have heard of the Vallée de Joux. You would be forgiven, however, for not fully appreciating its significance. It is a tiny ring of little towns in the valley around the Lac de Joux, roughly 70 kilometers north of Geneva. Around 6,000 people live in the valley. It is a rural area with rolling green hills, mountains, and cows — many cows. It is extremely picturesque, as you can probably tell from some of the photos in this article.

Here’s the thing: the valley is home to Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Blancpain, parts suppliers like Kif, and independents like Philippe Dufour and David Candaux. The watch industry in the Vallée employs 8,000 people, many from across the nearby French border.

You may know that Antoine LeCoultre founded his watchmaking company in 1833. His ancestors, however, were crucial in the settlement of the region. They were French Huguenots who escaped prosecution by seeking refuge in Switzerland. Antoine’s ancestors moved north from Geneva and finally settled in the Vallée de Joux, which was hardly populated at the time. It was the LeCoultres who built the first church and accelerated the settlement of the region. You might say they have made their mark until today when the company employs around 3,000 people in a region with 6,000 inhabitants.

The typical row of windows indicative of the presence of a watchmaking atelier

The history of the Vallée de Joux watchmaking

I have to applaud the folks at Jaeger-LeCoultre for the way they set up this press trip. Usually, trips like this have a very inward focus. Instead, JLC decided to show us the region. The entire first day of this two-day event went by without mentioning the name Jaeger-LeCoultre. Instead, the team took us on a tour around the Lac de Joux. I know the history, but I had not been to the valley before. I have to say, seeing it in real life was an eye-opening experience. The area is absolutely tiny and completely isolated. I could instantly see that watches from the region are the result of the hard work of a relatively small group of people.

You have probably heard the stories before, so I will keep it brief. Clock- and watchmaking was a seasonal profession in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The farmers would work their lands during summer, but the harsh climate in winter left them without income. Many converted parts of their farm buildings into watchmaking ateliers, living as farmers during the summer and watchmakers during the winter.

You can spot such farms by the rows of windows, often in the attics. These were retrofitted to maximize the influx of daylight needed to do the precise work. There are still 26 such farms around the lake, some still inhabited. Naturally, they are protected as regional heritage. We visited independent watchmaker David Candaux, who still works in such a building. As you see in the images, the present and the past are closely intertwined there.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture visit

Trying our hand at some enlarged watchmaking in the new Atelier d’Antoine workshop

The Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture

Day two was all about Jaeger-LeCoultre. Now, this invitation fell onto fertile soil because JLC was number one on my wishlist for a manufacture visit. The maison is known to have full watchmaking capabilities under one roof. JLC does indeed procure certain parts externally as it is more efficient and leads to better quality. In theory, however, the folks working there could create their watches entirely in-house. This is rare. Even greats like Vacheron Constantin don’t make their cases. Jaeger-LeCoultre does it all.

The problem is that a tour of all 180 metiers (crafts) would involve 11 kilometers of walking. Thus, the house does thematic tours across sub-selections of departments. This time, the theme was accuracy, which was reflected by a strong focus on part-making, tool-making, and complications.

Adding perlage to a movement plate

It is fascinating to see the contrast between the noisy industrial areas where swages are produced and the quiet watchmaking sections. Those swages are put to work in massive presses, stamping out the rough shapes of movement components. It felt like we were in an old-school factory — hot, busy, and loud. Two doors down, we could see craftspeople hand-filing 45-degree angles on the parts’ edges in meditative silence. The contrast could hardly be greater.

The JLC archives and restoration department

We were also taken through the archives, filled to the brim with folders, documents, boxes, tools, and watches, neatly arranged in an ultra-clean, museum-like area. There, you can find an early Reverso, Caliber 101, and high-complication watches. Some antique workbenches are also on display, attractively showing their age and the thousands of hours they served their watchmakers.

Above the archives is the restoration department where watchmakers, other technical specialists, and craftspeople care for vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre watches. Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of those manufactures that will always service a customer’s watch regardless of its age. If the watchmakers have to make a replacement part, they can.

We were greeted by two craftsmen, each willing to demonstrate a specific restoration skill. The first showed how to heat-blue a steel hand, and the second demonstrated the black-polishing process of a screw from a movement. Seeing these guys at work truly made me want to jump in and get my hands dirty. It is beautiful, humble work with rewarding results.

Vintage JLCs receiving the required TLC from the restoration department

The impression Jaeger-LeCoultre made on me

This trip cemented the position Jaeger-LeCoultre holds in my mind and heart. In a sense, seeing the premises was unsurprising as the brand’s reputation aligns with its competence. Still, seeing the people, their working spaces, and the machines makes a big impression. Houses like JLC are extremely protective of their staff and understandably so. There are so few people with the required skills. I got the impression that the company takes good care of its people. Everyone seemed to smile. We were enthusiastically greeted by everyone we passed, and they were all eager to show and tell.

But the context provided on the first day of the tour is what will stick with me. This is the stuff I have studied and read about for years, and I suddenly found myself right at the heart of it. I had been to a few manufactures before, but the link with the region was much more apparent this time. In fine dining and wine, people speak of terroir when discussing the influence of the climate, soil, and environment on a product’s taste. I developed my sense for terroir in watchmaking here.

A taster of recent releases

I would like to thank Jaeger-LeCoultre for the invitation and hospitality. Occasions like this are what keep the fire burning to write about this beautiful horological hobby we share.