Like her colleague Chabi Nouri at Piaget, Catherine Rénier took her position as CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre at the beginning of what would prove to be an extremely fraught time for the Swiss watch industry, and indeed for the world at large. Rénier, who was previously at Van Cleef & Arpels, joined JLC in 2018, and since then, of course, the modern watchmaking landscape has changed out of all recognition, and probably for good.
In a recent interview conducted over Zoom (itself a symptom of the drastic alterations in communications practices which have become par for the course in recent months), Rénier told us that, while Jaeger-LeCoultre is as deeply rooted in the history of watchmaking in Switzerland as any company you’d care to name, it recognizes that merely mining the past for inspiration isn’t enough. She cites the new Master Control Chronograph Calendar as a case in point.
“The chronocalendar,” she says, “is a first for us, in our current collection. It’s a new complication. The case has been redesigned, and there’s a new bracelet as well. It’s a full revamp. So I think it’s fully reworked from the standpoint of technology, performance, design, look and feel, and, of course, the new complication.”
Surprisingly, the case redesign first appeared in another Watches & Wonders timepiece: the new version of the Master Grand Tradition Grand Complication.
“The redesign for our cases, it’s actually the design of the [Master Grand Tradition] Grand complication. The one that you see now, the [caliber] 945, has a new case that has a design that’s very aesthetic … all the parts of the case have become a bit more complex than ever before. And on this inspiration of just starting with the Grand Complication, we decided to revamp the Master Control as well. So I think the watch [the Master Control Chronograph Calendar] gets a fresh new start, but with full respect to its historical identity. It’s [early], but we are very happy with the results – we’re very proud of this one in particular. I think it’s a beautiful face for the Master Control line.”
It’s always seemed to me that one of the biggest challenges in managing a company like Jaeger-LeCoultre is the sheer diversity of its output. The firm makes an enormous range of simple and complicated watches, has its own unique design family in the Reverso, and is also a place where all the classic horological decorative arts, like gem-setting and miniature enamel painting, are preserved and cultivated. Rénier says that one of her goals is to further cement the Reverso’s position as a icon for JLC, while at the same time continuing to evolve in its entire horological portfolio.
Asked if she feels one collection predominates, Rénier replies, “No – they live together. I think Reverso is definitely our icon for the Maison and will always remain. There’s no question on this. This is our signature piece, and it’s a fantastic symbol of the spirit of design of the Maison, together with our expertise in watchmaking. Reverso is definitely more known in some parts of the world than others. But our mission – and there is plenty of time for that – is for Reverso to be as strongly recognized as an icon everywhere in the world. It has such a strong identity that it stands on its own, it’s nothing like the rest of our collections. And then we have classic [watches] as well, with the Master Ultra Thin, Master Control, and many functional complications such as the Geographic, the calendar, and now, of course, the Master Control Chronograph Calendar.”
“And then the Polaris, which is a more sport-oriented collection … and for ladies, our round watch offer is the Rendez-vous. And then we have our signatures. Duomètre is one, all high watchmaking. There is the Hybris Mechanica, the Memovox to some extent, and Atmos – these are expressions of our technical prowess and creativity. And as such, they [also] stand by themselves.”
Though Rénier sees the Reverso, of all the watches produced by JLC, as the most symbolically important, she stresses that it exists in the larger context of diversity in watchmaking at JLC – a diversity which in its breadth of expression rivals any other watchmaking firm, and which is especially represented by the enormous number of different movements the company has made since Antoine LeCoultre established his first small workshop in 1833.
“My goal,” she says, “would be … for the Reverso to become known worldwide as a signature and the icon of Jaeger-LeCoultre. And then everything else comes … in a way, [as] a complement. The Reverso is a fantastic canvas for the Maison, from the Gyrotourbillon Four [Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon, ref. 3946420] or high complications in the Reverso case, all the way to a simple Reverso you can engrave for someone’s 18th birthday. I think this is who we are. At the same time, with over 1,200 calibers in our history, I’m not going to tell anybody that we are now going to focus on, you know, just animating one caliber in one type of case. Our watchmakers strive for expression, design, creativity. And it has made us resilient – so especially in times like this, I think it’s good that we continue to innovate. I think it’s good to continue to be creative.”
Rénier feels that along with innovation in watchmaking, innovation in communication is essential as well. While she thinks there is still a role to play for physical trade shows, she says the industry has a lot of catching up to do in terms of other communications channels.
“I think for the future, what I would tell my team is that rather than thinking, ‘we’ll do it brick and mortar first, and then we’ll roll it out digitally’ – I think we have to do everything at the same time, and I hope the Watches & Wonders platform will not be the second wheel of a brick and mortar Watches & Wonders. One should not be first, you know? I thought the Watches & Wonders platform was a fantastic tool, and for us, it’s just a beginning. We want the year to be continuously animated.”
One of the most genuinely exciting experiences any watch enthusiast can have is to actually visit the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufactory in Le Sentier. I’ve been there on several occasions – most recently with HODINKEE – and there is nothing quite like seeing the full range of JLC’s capabilities all under one roof. From hearing minute repeaters in person, to seeing miniature enamel painting being executed, to walking into the giant room where dozens of Atmos clocks oscillate silently, it’s an experience whose richness makes most factory tours feel flat as a Powerpoint presentation. Rénier says she wants to find ways to bring enthusiasts into the factory in Le Sentier online.
“Obviously, the manufacture doesn’t welcome visitors anymore. But we hope to be able to make this offer again, maybe in September – who knows? And in the meantime, we’re going to study ways to share all of this digitally – a physical tour and physical experience – with the public … now, it’s more complex to gather people into this world, so let’s find ways to continue to share our creativity with clients. If we were starting this project today, we would look right away at the digital interpretation of this experience. When you come next time to the manufacture, you can have a specific immersive tour with chiming watches, or you can spend some time with some of our highest experts to learn how everything works. And it’s not a technical class – it’s more an experiential class. And if you can’t come, I hope we can share content with you digitally.”
“That’s the world of tomorrow.”
Visit Jaeger-LeCoultre online at Jaeger-LeCoultre.com.