One of the most interesting things about writing about watches is that as the years gradually unwind, you have an opportunity to observe to what degree various companies follow the vagaries of fashion and the demands of markets, and to what degree they stand apart from various ups and downs and stay the course in terms of remaining committed to their own identity.
At one extreme, I suppose, you have the perennial example of Rolex as a company which seems to take no more notice of world events and market fluctuations than an aircraft carrier takes of a brine shrimp. At the other extreme you see companies – often, but not always, smaller ones with a great deal at stake each year and an awful lot to lose if they do not attract clients looking for the au courant – whose identity and focus is so changeable that from one year to the next, they hardly seem to be the same company at all except for the name (and even that can change in an instant, especially if an energetic turnaround artist is hired to helm the company in the midst of a financial crisis; there have been numerous examples since the 2008-9 financial crisis and, I expect, many more to come).
Then you have companies like Jaeger-LeCoultre. One wants to say that the company occupies a sort of middle ground in all this – that its identity does indeed seem to change very much from one year to the next, with a different aspect of the firm in the foreground at every SIHH (when there was one) but all orbiting around the basic center of gravity of the Reverso and, perhaps, the Polaris watches. I think the reality is quite a bit more complicated, however.
Jaeger-LeCoultre has always struck me, of all the Richemont brands, as the one which is the most committed to diversity in its horological activities. Indeed, in terms of diversity, it hardly has a rival in the entire industry. It is a dangerous business for a brand to try to be all things to all people – a minute repeater from, say, Panerai or Baume & Mercier is apt to raise eyebrows, not because the watch may be questionable qualitatively, but simply because it seems discordant, to make a weak joke, with the perceived core identity of the firm. Jaeger, on the other hand, has diversity bred in the bone, as it were. The company has an astonishing breadth of horological inventions in its history, with a repertoire of well over a thousand different calibers to its credit – and that includes everything from the Reverso, to the Polaris and Memovox watches, to not-well-remembered but fascinating innovations like the Futurematic, to grand and high complications of every description imaginable.
There was a period in the early to, I would say, the mid-2000s when the speed of innovation in the creation of highly complicated and very unusual (and exceedingly expensive) watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre was really incredible. The entire Hybris Mechanica series is a case in point – it included a number of chiming complications, including the Duomètre à Grande Sonnerie (with full Westminster chimes) and Hybris Artistica watches (we were able to see the entire collection of the latter back in 2014). In more recent years, Jaeger-LeCoultre has not especially shone a spotlight on these watches, and innovations in complications, in general (not just at JLC), have taken a different tack. Technical inventiveness is still there, but with much ingenuity now being expended on ultra-thin watchmaking rather than the floridly complex timepieces with which, not that long ago, many of the top haute horlogerie brands sought to distinguish themselves. The era of the wristwatch super-complication now feels as if it was much longer ago than it actually was, but the achievements made, as well as the watches themselves, still have the power to fascinate.
The latest version of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication is a case in point. It is not a new watch. The first version of the MGTGC was introduced in 2010, in white gold; a second version in rose gold debuted in 2015; and this newest and latest version of the watch has a redesigned case and dial and is being offered in two versions – pink gold, and white gold with a baguette diamond-set bezel. The first two versions had relatively heavy-looking cases, which were relatively unadorned (the rationale, I suppose, being that too much detail in the case would distract from the complications) but it’s clear, looking at this year’s version, that refining the case shape and adding some additional design elements, such as the recessed case middle and lugs, results in a much more visually graceful watch. It is one in which the design overall seems much more harmonious with the complications.
And a complicated watch this is. The term “grand complication” in watchmaking traditionally is a quite specific one – it means a watch which has a chiming complication, a timing complication, and a calendrical complication. To really fit the bill, these must be a minute repeater (at least, but a grande et petite sonnerie would certainly make it past the bouncer as well), a rattrapante chronograph, and a perpetual calendar. This is something connoisseurs used to be quite doctrinaire about, and I can remember back in the late 1990s and early 2000s a fair bit of ire directed, in the nascent watch internet, at brands that used the term “grand complication” for anything that did not fit the prescribed definition. They were engaged in an imposture, went the sentiment, designed to gull those with newly thick wallets but little horological education into thinking they were getting something they weren’t. (Now, we get incensed about date windows. We progress, or maybe not). I enjoyed being prescriptively doctrinaire about the term with the best of them, but as with many things, I have become considerably less inclined to be incensed about terminology over the years (I gave up on objecting to “constant force escapement” as a term for the remontoir years ago).
The Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication is not a grand complication in the narrow sense of the term, but that hardly seems to matter when confronted with the actual watch, which is interesting and even beautiful enough in its own right. I don’t think there is anything quite like it – it is, essentially, a minute repeater combined with an orbital flying tourbillon and planispheric star chart, which rotates (anti-clockwise) once per day – or rather, once every sidereal day. The solar day is determined by the amount of time that passes between two successive transits of the Sun through its zenith, which works out on average to 24 hours. The sidereal day, on the other hand, is based on the passage of a reference point in the sky known as the First Point of Aires, which is the point at which the plane of the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator. As this point is essentially equivalent to using a fixed star as a reference point, you get, if you use it to mark a day, a slightly shorter day than 24 hours – the sidereal day is about 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.0905 seconds in length, and it is the reference time preferred by astronomers, as it directly reflects the position of the stars in the sky. The Master Grand Tradition Grand Complication also shows standard civil mean time, which at first blush might seem almost an afterthought, but after all, the watch would be useless for anything except timing astronomical transits if it didn’t. It is rather poetically satisfying: I have always thought that the tourbillon mechanically couples solar and sidereal time in the watch. Its orbit around the dial takes one sidereal day, but the oscillations of the balance in the tourbillon carriage are what determine the rate at which time passes in the civil time going train as well.
Technically, the watch incorporates some other innovations as well. These have to do with the chiming mechanism. The hammers which strike the repeater gongs are an invention of JLC’s – the so-called “trebuchet” hammers (the trebuchet is a kind of catapult, a medieval siege engine). Normally, the hammers in a repeater are a single piece of steel; JLC’s trebuchet hammers are articulated at a hinge in the hammer and the force at the articulation is controlled by a curved steel spring. These hammers were introduced some years ago now – they first appeared in 2005 in the Master Minute Repeater Antoine LeCoultre. The idea behind them is to transmit energy from the hammer to the gong more efficiently, as well as to better control the degree to which, and the speed with which, the hammer recoils from the gong after striking. This is one of the more delicate adjustments which watchmakers must make to repeater hammers – if the strike is too deep, the gong will start to vibrate against the recoiling hammerhead, producing an unpleasant chime and wasting energy; if the strike is too shallow, insufficient energy is transmitted, and you get a feeble chime. The trebuchet hammer was invented to take some of the guesswork out of this adjustment.
The second major innovation is in the attachment of the gongs to the watch case. Normally, repeater goings are screwed down onto the movement plate, which is not an especially effective resonant surface. Nothing against movement plates, but the clutter of screws, gears, and other components tends to absorb rather than amplify sound, and for this reason, the construction of the case of a minute repeater was, in the late lamented Good Old Days, a make-or-break aspect of crafting a pleasant-sounding and reasonably audible repeater. (I am always a bit tempted to paraphrase Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian when it comes to advances in technical watchmaking: “Oh, sure, they’ve given us better precision, improved reliability, greater durability, accuracy that watchmakers of previous centuries could only dream of, and an incredible range of heretofore unimaginable complications, but other than that, what have CNC machines ever done for us?”)
The gongs in the Master Grande Tradition Grande Comp are, rather unusually, square rather than round in cross-section, the idea being to provide a bit more surface area for energy transfer from the head of the hammer. They are also soldered directly to the sapphire crystal in order to more efficiently transfer sound energy to a suitable resonating surface – this is, like the trebuchet hammer, a JLC invention, which goes all the way back to the 2007 Master Minute Repeater.
One new and purely decorative feature of the 2020 Master Grande Tradition Grande Comp is a delicate filigree of metal which forms a geometric lacework around the tourbillon and star chart (and which, based on its position with respect to both, must, I think, rotate along with them). It’s a lovely and quite delicate decorative element, although it is purely decorative. Still, it gives the dial a more obviously romantic flavor than in the 2010 and 2015 versions and reminds me of the phrase “netted stars” which J. R. R. Tolkien uses to describe what are probably the Pleiades, in The Lord Of The Rings. The notion that, behind the movement of the celestial spheres, there is a hidden divine geometry which is revealed in the stately procession of the stars themselves is a very ancient one, and you get the impression, gazing at the dial of the Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, of seeing at least some of the hidden order of the classical view of the Universe revealed.
The price of these watches is a rather meaningless abstraction – JLC says €320,000 in gold and €420,000 in white gold with diamonds, and I am in the fortunate position of not having to care in the least what the price is because I couldn’t afford them at one-tenth the asking cost. These are watches which, unless you have an opportunity to see one in person – a possibility which seems vanishingly remote under The Present Circumstances – must be appreciated at a distance and rather abstractly. Then again, unless someone figures out how to violate General Relativity, the stars themselves are forever out of human reach as well, but they are, for all that, no less beautiful.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication 2020: case, white gold with baguette diamond bezel, or rose gold; water resistance 5 bar/50 meters. Dimensions, 45mm x 16.05mm, sapphire crystals front and back. Movement, Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 945, 570 components, running in 50 jewels, with 40-hour power reserve. Orbital flying tourbillon, rotating once per sidereal day; planispheric star chart for the sky above JLC’s manufacture in Le Sentier, at the 46th parallel; mean civil time. Limited edition of 8 pieces each worldwide; price, €320,000 in gold and €420,000 in white gold. See more at jaeger-lecoultre.com.