A philosophy for calculating time

“Men don’t wear any jewelry; we have no necklaces, bracelets or earrings; our only means of expressing our personality and social status is a watch. We can have a nice car, but that’s parked in the parking lot,» said Jean-Marc Keller, prestigious Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre’s international director. In town to attend the opening of the annual «Very Important Watches» exhibition last week, Keller spoke to Kathimerini English Edition. «The Greek market is not a virgin market,» said Keller. «There is a watch culture and, since the beginning of the 20th century, names such as Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin have always been present – even for a small-scale audience. Today, the market is broader, including younger consumers.» A member of the Richemont group that includes fellow luxury brands, such as Cartier, IWC, Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Beaume et Mercier, Vacheron Constantin, Panerai, Montblanc, Dunhill, Lancel and Chloe, in Greece, Jaeger-LeCoultre has come under the Richemont Hellas umbrella with 12 highly selective selling points. In an increasingly competitive sector, where established manufacturers are facing trendy players – fashion brands like Gucci, Chanel and Dior, for instance – the watchmaking industry’s divisions remain intact: traditional (mechanic or quartz); sports (waterproof pieces and chronographers); jewelry (mostly for women) and other models featuring complications (developed by those dealing solely in the high art of watchmaking). Where does Jaeger-LeCoultre stand in the scheme of watchmaking? «For starters, we are a complete manufacturer,» said Keller, adding that only very few parts are supplied from outside (leather straps, for instance). «We make the workings and the watch boxes, a guarantee of authenticity for consumers and increasingly hard to find these days. There are many assembly lines out there. You can count the real manufacturers on one hand. Doing so was not a corporate decision, but heritage from the past.» It was Antoine LeCoultre who established his watchmaking workshop in 1833, in the Swiss Jura region – access during winter was limited and consequently everything had to be made in-house, including the work benches. A pioneer, LeCoultre developed the first crown winding system without a winding key in 1847, while the firm came up with the world’s thinnest pocket watch (1.38 mm) in 1903. In 1928, Jean-Leon Reutter, an engineer, made yet another groundbreaking invention, the Atmos, a clock operating on air. The company’s trademark, however, the Reverso, was invented in 1931. The idea behind it was solving the problems faced by British officers serving in India, who were getting the glass of their watches smashed during polo matches. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watchmaking masters came up with a pivotal case, which while protecting the watch face, featured stunning art deco design elements. A protected model for another 25 years, the Reverso is a constantly developing line, with recent additions, including the Grande Reserve, the Platinum No. 2 and the Reverso Grande Date. «There have been other reversible watches, but this integral system is something quite unique,» said Keller, adding that the Reverso has been the company’s «bread and butter» since its creation. Starting at 3,000 euros, Reverso models can reach exorbitant prices in the collectors’ items department – a platinum Reverso, featuring a tourbillion (65,000 euros) was on display at the Athens show last week. Often, Reverso models are given a personal spin: Recently the company developed a limited series of the watch featuring the Greek flag – engraved in lacquered black-and-blue paint (only 46 pieces were made, representing the number of the Parthenon’s columns). Besides the Reverso series, the remaining Jaeger-LeCoultre’s line is made up by the Master collections (Last week, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve 2003 awarded the Special Jury Prize to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Antoine LeCoultre model). «The development of a new model takes between three and five years,» said Keller. «Working on a new size, for instance, might take three years in order for it to reach the proper dimensions. This could not work if we were into fashion trends.» Though the company thrives on tradition, new blood often causes a healthy stir. Magali Metrailler joined the master watchmaker as a designer in 2000, at the age of 23. Her age and sex were baffling to both her Jaeger-LeCoultre colleagues and the industry in general. The designer’s first assignment was a progressive Compressor diver’s watch – where Metrailler added her own innovative twist by creating new compression key crowns. Does a new approach attract new clients? With a production output of 40,000 watches a year, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s global clientele varies. «Every market is different,» said Keller. «In France or Italy, for instance, the Reverso is very well known, and we have an important clientele in the women’s department; in Hong Kong and Japan, on the other hand, we get people more interested in complications. In the Reverso department, clients are ‘initiated’: They usually know what they want to buy. It’s more intellectual than show-off.» Whatever the reasons behind purchasing a watch, the industry has observed annual increases in sales of up to 10 percent in the last five years – not just in new markets such as Russia, China and South American countries, but also in Germany, France and Greece. «In all countries, more and more people wish to have beautiful watches – and have a few of them too. Before, people used to wear their grandfather’s watch; today, a 25-year-old will buy a quality watch according to their budget.» Would the company consider going into other sectors in order to attract more followers? «We could diversify, but would we have credibility? There are houses out there tied to luxury and jewelry. They have gone from watchmaking to leather goods, pens and lighters – truly global brands,» said Keller. «Ours, on the other hand, is a purely watchmaking one – and I can’t see going into jewelry. It’s not our style, not our philosophy. Our philosophy is time; precision instruments for calculating time.»