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Jaeger-LeCoultre inventions and records

Jaeger-LeCoultre - or La Grande Maison as it is often referred to - is without a doubt one of the most important manufacturers in the history of watchmaking.

It would be impossible to mention all the inventions and breakthroughs of this brand in a single article so we will just focus on a few of the most remarkable listing them in chronological order.

The son of a blacksmith, Charles Antoine LeCoultre (1803-1881) was trained at his father’s forge revealing a talent in watchmaking but also in developing new manufacturing processes.

Together with his brother François Ulysse, in 1833 he founded the LeCoultre watch company in Le Sentier, in the Vallée de Joux. The decision followed the invention of a machine to produce pinions for watches making the manufacturing process much faster while ensuring higher precision.
A breakthrough came in 1844 with the invention of the Millionometer, the most accurate measuring tool of his time. For the first time, it was possible to measure mechanical components to the thousandth of a millimeter. Such precision in the manufacturing of watch parts greatly contributed to enhance the reliability and the accuracy of the timepieces produced by the Manufacture.

The millionometer

It is interesting to mention that, although some protection for inventions existed at the time, in Switzerland there was not an extended patent system until the adoption of a federal patent law of 1888. For this reason the construction of the Millionometer remained an exclusive secret of the company for more than fifty years until it was presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900.

In 1847, LeCoultre brought a big innovation for the industry introducing a new crown winding system with a double function: winding the watch and setting the time. Thanks to a small push-piece activating a lever, it was possible to change over from one function to another. Since the invention was not patented, other watchmakers quickly implemented this system which made the traditional winding key obsolete and became a standard, still adopted today by most mechanical watches.

The winding system or "remontoir a bascule" invented by LeCoultre in 1847

Thanks to this new invention, LeCoultre won his first gold medal at the 1st World Exhibition in London in 1851 demonstrating the solution on a gold pocket chronograph.

With the contribution of Antoine’s sons, the LeCoultre Manufacture kept growing fast. In particular, Elie (1842-1917) demonstrated great talent by creating several Calibres and introducing new manufacturing processes. By 1870 LeCoultre & Cie. had 500 employees becoming known as the "Grande Maison of the Vallée de Joux".

And to have an idea of the exceptional dynamism of the brand, just consider that by 1900 more than 350 different calibres, of which 128 equipped with chronograph functions and 99 with repeater mechanisms, were invented. From the beginning of the 20th century and for a few decades, LeCoultre & Cie. also produced most of the movement blanks for Patek Philippe and Cartier, among the others.

The encounter between Jacques-David LeCoultre (1875-1948) and the Parisian watchmaker Edmond Jaeger (1858-1922), initially aimed to the creation of ultra-thin pocket watches, gave rise to numerous exceptional creations, as well as to the Jaeger-LeCoultre brand in 1937.

In 1907 the Manufacture presented the world’s thinnest pocket-watch housing the world’s thinnest movement, the LeCoultre Calibre 145, still today the thinnest in its category at just 1.38 mm high.

The case of this Lépine pocket-watch was nicknamed "knife" which certainly conveys the sense of its slimness 

LeCoultre Calibre 145

1925 was marked by the introduction of the Duoplan, a movement that, as the name suggests, was built on two levels to reduce its size while maintaining a large-size balance.

The Duoplan with its two-level structure 

The Duoplan became the ideal solution to drive small wristwatches without losing reliability. Duoplan-equipped watches featured a dust-proof crown placed underneath the case and were delivered with an insurance by "Lloyds" for a period of 2 years against loss, theft and accidents. Another innovative feature was the possibility to exchange the entire movement in minutes.

The Duoplan was also one of the first gem-set steel watches and, in 1929, its glass was replaced with sapphire crystal, a first in watchmaking.

By further developing the concept of the Duoplan, the brand produced the world’s smallest watch mechanism in 1938.

Measuring a mere 14 mm x 4.8 mm x 3.4 mm, the first version of Calibre 101 comprised 74 parts and weighed barely a gram. Queen Elizabeth II will worn one of these models at her coronation in 1953. The current version is made up of 98 pieces and maintains its record still today. Only 50 Calibre 101 movements are produced each year due to the custom parts and special skills required.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 101 in white gold with 63 baguette-cut diamonds. 

Only a few years earlier, the cooperation beetween LeCoultre & Cie. and Jaeger SA had produced one of the most iconic watch ever produced: the Reverso.

As described in our article "History of the Reverso", David LeCoultre, the grandson of the founder, had appointed the firm Jaeger S.A. for the creation of the reversible case, which in turn contracted the  French designer René-Alfred Chauvot, who officially patented the invention of a "wristwatch which can slide on its base and flip over on itself" in 1931.

An extract of the original patent for the Reverso case

The result was an elegant watch with a dial that could flip, protecting it from shocks while offering a case back with a generous surface that could be used for personalisation.

The Atmos clock was another exceptional invention that the Grande Maison brought to the market in the period between the World Wars.

After several years of research and a first patent filed in 1926, Swiss inventor Jean-Léon Reutter (1899-1971) presented the first prototypes of a clock drawing its energy from the slightest atmospheric variations in 1928.

Atmos - 1926

Thanks to his friend César de Trey (1876-1953), who also contributed to the creation of the Reverso, Jacques-David LeCoultre discovered this magic clock, so close to the dream of perpetual motion.

It was evident that, in order to work in a reliable manner, this sophisticated mechanism required perfect gearing and frictions reduced to the absolute minimum. Reutter agreed with LeCoultre that only the finest watchmakers could be able to achieve the necessary level of accuracy and precision in every manufacturing phase.

Entirely made within the Manufacture since 1936, the Atmos has become a legend, earning the status of official gift of the Swiss government.

Atmos in Art Deco style - 1934

Its perpetual winding principle is based on an hermetically sealed capsule filled with a mixture of gases, which expands when the temperature rises and contracts as it falls. Interdependent with the mainspring of the clock, the capsule constantly winds the clock movement. Thanks to the fact that the Atmos movement only needs a very small amount of energy to operate, a mere one-degree temperature fluctuation is enough to provide the watch with a two-day power-reserve.

The post-war boom period was the right time for the launch of the Memovox, a watch that was designed to help businessmen remember their meetings, as a result of its chiming function. The first Memovox models introduced in 1950 were manually wound (Calibres 489 and Calibre 814 with date display) but in 1956, a Memovox featuring the 2.5 Hz (18,000 vph) Calibre 815 became the first self-winding alarm watch in history.

Memovox: the hand wound (on the left) made in 1950 and the automatic, 1956

With its double crown and a mobile disc with the desired alarm time shown by a triangular indicator, the Memovox design gave rise to several case and dial variations becoming a favourite model among watch collectors.

In the following years Jaeger-LeCoultre created innovative watches like the Futurematic (1953), the first 100% automatic watch with no winding-crown equipped with a movement constantly maintaining sufficient power-reserve to start up again even after having stopped for a long period and the Geophysic Chronometer (1958), a rugged model protected against magnetic fields, shock- and water-resistant which Jaeger-LeCoultre created for the  International Geophysical Year when several thousand researchers from 67 countries combined forces and set up more than 60 bases in the Arctic.

Futurematic advertisement from the 1950s 

The Geophysic

In 1962 Jaeger-LeCoultre, together with brands like Omega, IWC, Rolex and others, took part in a joint project for the creation of the first quartz wristwatch in watchmaking history by establishing the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchatel. The new technology based on the capacity of a quartz crystal to oscillate at a precise frequency when crossed by an electric current. In 1967, the Beta 21 quartz mechanism was ready. Seiko also presented its compact quartz movement in the same year.

While the Swiss makers had a technological lead in developing quartz watches, the drastic drop in that prices of electronic watches later caused the so-called quartz-crisis of the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, Jaeger-LeCoultre kept achieving records also with its quartz calibres: in 1981, the Calibre 606 with date display and centre seconds was the thinnest in its category. One year later, the Calibre 601 became the world's thinnest, at 1.8 mm high for a diameter of 11.7 mm, a record which was bettered by Calibre 608 with a thickness of just 1.6 mm.

Luckily, the quartz crisis was successfully managed by the Swiss watchmaking industry and a mechanical watchmaking renaissance could start in the late 1980s. Jagger-LeCoultre was particularly creative with the Reverso presenting novelties like the Duoface and its Calibre 854 indicating the time on both the two faces, as well as the Reverso 60ème limited series comprising a tourbillon, a minute repeater, a retrograde chronograph, a dual time-zone and a perpetual calendar.

A breakthrough came in 2004 with the presentation of the first production wristwatch equipped with the Gyrotourbillon, a complicated tourbillon rotating not just on a two-dimensional plane but also on a second axis.

Gyrotourbillon 1

This invention was further developed in 2008 when Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the exceptional Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2, a limited edition of 75 pieces in platinum featuring a twin-axis tourbillon fitted with a cylindrical balance spring. Although British watchmaker John Arnold had patented a cylindrical balance spring in 1782, no one had been able to miniaturize it for use in a wristwatch before Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Made of extremely lightweight aluminium and titanium, the spherical tourbillon is comprised of no less than 90 individual parts for a total weight of just 1/3 of a gram.

Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2

Launched for the 175th Birthday of Jaeger-LeCoultre, the Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 was awarded the "Complicated Watch Prize" at the 2008 Grand Prix d' Horlogerie de Genève.

Few years later, with the Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3, Jaeger-LeCoultre presented its horological feat with a flying tourbillon, a blued gold balance and a spherical-shaped balance-spring. Being supported by jut one bridge rather than two, the flying tourbillon offers the advantage of an unobstructed view of the mechanism.

The Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3: flying tourbillon and spherical balance spring combined

Jaeger-LeCoultre also created the world’s first triple-dialed wristwatch (Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque, 2006), the Grande Sonnerie watch playing the longest carillon melody (the Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie, 2009), and the first tourbillon watch adjustable to the second (Duomètre Sphérotourbillon, 2012).

From top and clockwise: Reverso Grande Complication à Triptyque, Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie, Duomètre Sphérotourbillon 

In 2021, Jaeger-LeCoultre celebrated the Reverso and its 90 years by releasing the most complicated timepiece ever presented in this collection, the Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 Quadriptyque.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 Quadriptyque

More than six years of development were required to complete this impressive project, combining the skills of the most talented watchmakers and artisans of La Grande Maison, as the brand is often referred to. The world’s first wristwatch with four functioning display faces, this creation brings together a total of 11 complications including perpetual calendar, minute repeater, indications of the synodic, draconic and anomalistic cycles. 12 patents were filed by Jaeger-LeCoultre.

With more than 1240 mechanical calibres created since 1833 and 400 patents obtained, Jaeger-LeCoultre keeps demonstrating an exceptional capability of inventing and innovating, always looking for new challenges to push the boundaries of fine watchmaking. jaeger-lecoultre.com

By Alessandro Mazzardo. 
Latest revision February 12, 2022. Originally published on November 18, 2016. 
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: Jaeger-LeCoultre inventions and records
Jaeger-LeCoultre inventions and records
History of Jaeger-LeCoultre inventions and records. Jaeger-LeCoultre - or La Grande Maison as it is often referred to - is without a doubt one of the most important manufacturer in the history of watchmaking. Its history starts in 1833.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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