In Conversation with Stéphane BelmontBy Tracey Llewellyn
With a renewed emphasis being placed on the Jaeger-LeCoultre museum and heritage collection, are you actively buying up vintage pieces?
Of course, in the past we have bought some watches, but this really started in earnest about 15 years ago when we appointed our first person in charge of heritage and archives. Then we started to curate what we have, and we started to buy a few pieces. At that time, we did not take too much account of the condition of the watches, so now we’re looking at what we have and in some cases, we are noticing that watches have been restored and don’t have the right hands or the right dials. We’re also still looking for some pieces that are not yet represented So, we’re trying to extend our heritage collection and source pieces which are in better condition, improving the quality of what we have rather than the quantity.
If you have a piece that’s not quite right would you restore it or keep it as it is?
Well, back in the 20th century, we would restore the piece, but today we try to find the original and this enables us to show the difference between the original and a model that has a history. It’s a question of philosophy; sometimes we rather keep the watch as we found it because you can feel that it has gone through the ages, sometimes for a reason. If we don’t have any in an as-new state, we might restore a piece to get it back to original condition. But it’s not the same for us, a restored watch will never tell the same story as an original one.
Are there any grail pieces for you?
There is a rectangular watch – although it is not a Reverso – with a perpetual calendar that dates back to when Jaeger and LeCoultre first came together. This piece is so important because it was produced in very low numbers – maybe seven or eight – so it would be very interesting to find one. We believe that one may have turned up at an auction house in Birmingham last year, but it turned out to be stolen and was removed from sale and returned to its owner. Sadly, we never got to see it but I would love to know where it is today.
In the past, many brands have ignored their past, preferring to concentrate on current collections. How important is heritage to Jaeger-LeCoultre?
Heritage is everything for a company like Jaeger-LeCoultre. Certainly, if you want to create the future, you need to know your history well. The only way to build a credible future and make watches that are true to the codes of the brand, is to know more and more about what you did in the past. Since we started to put more effort into curating our history, the success of the company has grown because we know what we have done and we can build on that.
And at what stage does a pre-owned Jaeger become a heritage piece?
For us, 20 years is the limit between contemporary and heritage. So, the original Master range from 1992 is already a heritage piece.
It is interesting that you bring up the Master range. The new pieces that we saw at SIHH in 2017 are completely different to the 1992 pieces and almost more retro than the original ones. Why is that?
The original Master took inspiration from simple aesthetics like those of the Memovox or the Geophysic of the 1950s, so in terms of style it is perceived as very classic and at that time that’s really what we wanted to highlight: a really classic watch that was also robust and reliable. Then we created interesting functionality through the Master Geographic with time zones and the Master Memovox with the alarm, providing complications in a classic watch. Reliability and practicality was the philosophy of the post-war 1950s, so that’s why we decided to go for a design inspired by that period.
Now, 25 years later, we feel that the original designs might be perceived by the new generation as a bit too classic because everyone in that quarter-of-a-century has created something that looks a bit like the Master. We wanted to make a Master Control with a bit of modernity and to enhance the user-friendliness of the watch. We decided that the traditional sunray pattern and the elegant hands did not make the dial as legible as the Reverso, for example, so we decided to improve the legibility and make it a touch more “masculine” at the same time, and that’s how we started working on the blue hands to give a bit more contrast. But we kept the 12, 3, 6 and 9, which is a Master signature, and all of a sudden it started to look like a sector dial watch. And then, we looked at a particular museum piece and that’s where we found our inspiration: from the 1930s. Interestingly for us, we thought that the 1930s’ aesthetic added a touch of modernity and looked more modern than the 1950s watch.
Looking at some of the designs from the 1920s and 1930s, it’s incredible to see how much design has looped right around; the dials could be from today.
That’s the whole philosophy behind that new Master – the design fits well with the more functional complications like the chronograph, moonphase and calendar and it was also quite interesting to give it a more specific design for functions which are less classic. You see that there’s a finish that is different in the centre and on the outer parts so that chronograph function is highlighted. Then, in the sub-dials, we have another finish that makes the watch look a bit more technical, while still remaining elegant.
Do you think you would expand the Reverso Atelier to the Master line to allow bespoke twists to the watch?
The good thing about customising a Reverso is that no matter what, we see a Reverso first and then a touch of individuality in the dial or strap – we know the design of the watch is stronger than any kind of personalisation. I’m not sure if we do the same with the Master and allow crazy dials or designs then it look like a Master Control. If you selected, for instance, different applied indexes with different shapes or different fonts, you may lose that connection to the brand and the spirit of the Master.
Does that strength of the Reverso mean that Jaeger-LeCoultre will always be known for rectangular watches?
No, because the market for round watches is much bigger than for rectangular watches. So, although the Reverso outperforms any kind of watch in its market of shaped watches, that represents maybe just 10 per cent of the total market for wristwatches. Hence, even if the Master performs less in terms of market share than the Reverso, as a whole it brings more to Jaeger-LeCoultre than the Reverso. Already it’s a great success, but a kind of hidden success because it’s promoted a lot less than the Reverso. After 25 years it has become one of the main pillars of the brand and, while in terms of design the Reverso may be more interesting, in terms of business the round watches are the big performers. To answer your question, Reverso is an important part of Jaeger-LeCoultre, but Jaeger-LeCoultre is so much more than Reverso.
Tell me about the thousand hours of testing. How does that fit in with what other brands like Omega and Rolex are doing?
We are market leaders in our in-house resting. For us, it was key in improving the reliability of the watches. We created something that was different to COSC, which is much more about testing a watch over 24 hours in one position – a kind of static test that will monitor the functioning of the watch in certain conditions. You rarely leave your watch in one position for a day, so we decided to create a test that would be more dynamic, testing the watch as if it was on the wrist.
And what does it involve?
We test in different temperatures, we look at the anti-magnetism, the water-resistance and the functioning of the watch over six weeks – and all of this is on the finished cased watch and not just the movement. I think today the closest in-house test to ours is the one Patek Philippe designed when they decided to stop Geneva Seal testing. Although COSC is still more common, we think the fact that we put so much effort into testing will be recognised by clients and the efforts will pay off.
As we gear up for SIHH 2018, can you tell me any secrets?
We have invested a lot in ladies watches in the past 10 years because we believed the market would grow quicker for women than men. We now have a good balance – in fact, we are one of the only brands to have a near 50:50 male/female split. But now we are coming back with something more masculine and technical. And that, I’m afraid, is all I can say at the moment…