It starts with pencil and paper, just as it has for centuries. A talented hand sketches the lines that will one day become a living, breathing timepiece. WatchTime visited Jaeger-LeCoultre in Le Sentier to explore the creative process that culminated in the latest addition to the brand’s Hybris Mechanica collection of highly complicated timepieces. Here is the story of how a complex mechanical marvel came to life.
Our guide was JLC’s marketing and technical director, Stéphane Belmont, and our tour began in the brand’s new Maison d’Antoine, a cozy lounge where VIPs and mere journalists can explore the brand’s latest creations and the stories behind them. On the table in front of us, Belmont spread out the artistic paper trail for the watch formally known as the Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3. To save ink, we’ll call it the Gyrotourbillon 3. (We’re tempted to call it simply “G3,” but that’s a bit like calling the Queen “Liz.”) JLC launched the Gyrotourbillon 3 at SIHH 2013. It is fitted with the first flying twin-axis gyrotourbillon, and it incorporates the first spherical hairspring to be used in a wristwatch. Its monopusher chronograph has a jumping digital minutes counter. The overall aesthetic was inspired by the brand’s 19th-century pocketwatches.
The design process began with a drawing, or, more precisely, many drawings. JLC’s artistic and design director is Janek Deleskiewicz. He has been with the company for 25 years. In a book JLC has published about its Hybris Mechanica timepieces, he writes that his department often draws 50 different versions of a watch before the idea reaches maturity. About the sketches, Belmont said: “During the design process, we use drawings to feel the emotion and imagine what the watch could be.” The drawing on the table in front of us reflects the Gyrotourbillon 3 as a fully formed idea, though only in broad strokes. It does not capture dozens of details that will be decided later, and, as the saying goes, that’s where the devil dwells.
One of the biggest surprises of our visit came early on, when Belmont told us that the design of this watch began with the case diameter, which is 43.5 mm. Every design has to start somewhere, but it’s tempting to imagine that the movement was designed first, and the case made to fit. In this case, so to speak, it was the other way around. We’ll also begin with the case. It was, as you might expect, a clean-sheet-of-paper design. It’s in the Master Grande Tradition line, but the designers massaged small details to create something more refined. The bezel is concave, rather than the traditional convex, making it appear thinner when viewed from above, drawing the eye into the movement. The outer side of the case is slightly convex, which Jaeger says makes the case look smoother. The sides of the lugs are concave, to match the bezel. All of the curves make the case more difficult to manufacture, but then designers don’t care about that.
The designers wanted a large dial opening, meaning that the case wall had to be relatively thin. They also wanted the watch to be water resistant. This is an example of an instance in which a designer’s dream bumped up against an engineer’s reality. As M.C. Escher’s infinite staircase demonstrated, some things are more easily drawn than built. The problem with clean sheets of paper is that they contain no notes to guide development. For example, because the case wall is thin, the engineers had to contend with new questions, like how deep the screws holding the caseback could penetrate, and how the waterproof joints in the case could be formed. This type of planning required precise 3D drawings. The drawings were created in the company’s in-house CGI (computer generated imagery) studio. This is where engineers decide whether it will be possible to manufacture what the designers have imagined. The decisions are rendered, literally and figuratively, by a network of powerful work stations running KeyShot – software used by Hollywood animators and special effects artists. The software generates precise 3D renderings that determine what can and what can’t be manufactured.
Once the internal case diameter was finalized, the movement’s size could be determined. At that point, the movement designers knew the size of their playground: 36.8 mm. Belmont told us that there was “lots of work between designers and technicians to accommodate all requirements and position all of the functions.” In creating the dial layout, JLC’s designers worked on two axes: one running from 9 to 3 o’clock, and the other from 1 to 5 o’clock. Belmont said: “We made the second axis off center to have more space for the digital chronograph. We wanted to make the chronograph easy to read. That’s why the tourbillon is not right in the center, like it was on the first Gyrotourbillon. It is not traditional, but you have the feeling that every display is in the correct position.”
The next step toward a final design required leaving the 2D world and entering the world of three dimensions, where designers and potential customers actually live. The cases rendered with KeyShot were recreated in plastic using 3D printers (see picture next page). Clear plastic crystals covered printed representations of the dials and movement. The printed “dials” were assembled in layers to create a 3D effect, however the printed depictions of movement components, such as the gyrotourbillon, were strictly 2D. At this point, final design decisions still had not been made. Several versions of the case were printed and evaluated. Belmont explained that the plastic models “let us feel the watch, examine the proportions, see the case in 3D, and experience how it feels on the wrist.”
Once the options were narrowed, the next step was to create metal prototypes of the complete watch. Early prototypes are made from brass, plated with nickel or gold to experiment with colors. These prototypes were the designers’ first look at their creation in something resembling its final form. Comparing the amount of effort required to create plastic and metal prototypes, it’s easy to see why 3D printing and rapid prototyping have been adopted. Making a metal case requires at least eight steps. Each one is profile-turned, milled, trued, drilled, ground, lapped, and satin brushed before being finished. Plating adds more steps. Once all of the details are finalized, another set of prototypes will be made using precious metals. Of course, what’s inside the case demands the most attention. The original conception of the new movement was done by constructors who produced plans that guided caliber specialists in the production of parts. When the parts were completed, three expert watchmakers in the prototype department assembled the movements. These are among the most experienced, and most respected, watchmakers in the manufacture. They make sure the new movement works in the real world.
Their job cannot be hurried. Perfecting a new movement can take as long as four years. Typically, several versions of a movement are created, from as few as three or four to as many as a dozen. The watchmakers in the prototype department wear the watches they’re working on, subjecting them to real-world use and abuse. Belmont explained that this is necessary because even the best computer simulations can’t replicate fine details inside a movement, like the amount of force created by a spring at different states of wind, or the amount of friction between two parts in different states of lubrication. In the end, nothing beats wrist time for debugging a new movement. Wearing the prototypes presents a problem, because the watchmakers must hide them from the outside world. Watch brands are famously secretive about new products. Even within JLC, only those who “need to know” have access to complete plans for new watches. Caliber specialists making parts for prototype movements often have no idea what the complete watch will look like.
These prototypes also provided the watchmakers with their first opportunity to see the spherical hairspring in action in a complete watch. The spring, which looks a bit like the AT&T logo, was inspired by springs used in some marine chronometers. How did it end up in a wristwatch? According to Belmont, watchmakers dislike empty spaces, like the one inside the gyrotourbillon’s cage, which is roughly spherical. During our visit, we spent time with Muriel Job. She’s the only person at Jaeger-LeCoultre with the skill to shape the spherical springs, an ability she acquired through 20 years’ experience making hairsprings. Each spherical spring takes her one week. The spring’s spherical shape is created by wrapping a straight piece of alloy around a small metal sphere. The tricky part is removing the sphere without damaging the delicate spring that entwines it. Job described the process in general terms, but we did not see it, so it may involve state secrets.
Once the spring is formed, Job creates terminal curves at each end. This process we saw. She forms the curves using a loupe and tweezers. Her goal is to bend the ends of the spring until they match an ideal curve shown on a template that appears on the screen of a nearby projector. Job compares her spring with the template by placing her spring on a plate beneath the projector’s lens. Like tracing paper over a drawing, the template overlays her spring on the screen, showing where additional work is needed. It can take her as many as 30 bendings to get the shape just right, and this process is repeated twice for each spring.
The spring is not only impressive to behold, but JLC claims that it improves timekeeping performance. Having won first and second place with tourbillons in the International Chronometry Competition in Le Locle, the company is something of an authority in this area. We were told that the Gyrotourbillon 3 is capable of keeping time to within 20 seconds per year, besting the brand’s prior efforts. Jaeger also claims that the balance wheel has the same amplitude in all positions, thanks to the speed and twin axes of its tourbillon. (The outer carriage makes one rotation per minute, and the inner cage makes 2.5 rotations per minute, or one every 24 seconds.) A slower rotation would not be as effective at counteracting the many positions a wristwatch assumes when it is being worn.
Job’s work also includes poising the balance wheel. The wheel uses six weights positioned in three pairs around the rim. The weights are made from rose, white and yellow gold, and they differ in weight by amounts measured in micrograms (millionths of a gram). Job poises the balance by adjusting the position of the weights, and by removing tiny amounts of material from the underside of the rim. The weights are round, with one flat spot. Rotating a weight shifts the position of the flat spot, changing the weight’s effect on the poise. Working with the balance wheel alone (without the spring), while it is stationary, is called static poising. After the movement is assembled and running, a watchmaker will do the dynamic balancing when the watch is timed and adjusted in positions.
Jaeger pays homage to the past by reviving a finishing technique that harks back to the pocketwatches of old. The finish is called martelé, or “hammering” in English. (Jaeger explained that this is not a perfect translation, but it is the best they can do.) The finish is created using a hand-held electric tool that works like a miniature jackhammer. Looking a bit like a Dremel, the tool consists of a plastic handle with a thin rod protruding from one end. The rod moves up and down, like a sewing machine needle, perhaps 10 times per second. Held against the plate, the rod’s action creates small indentations on the plate’s surface.
Unlike other decorations that are precisely applied, the hand-held “hammering” tool generates a random pattern of micro-divots, though when viewed from a distance, the pattern takes on a uniform appearance, like pebble grain on fine leather. Your humble reporter took a turn with the hammering tool and produced something that appeared to have been created by a drunken woodpecker. Having previously applied perlage and Geneva waves, I can report that the hammering finish is certainly more difficult to master.
Developing the hammered finish also involved some trial and error. During our discussion, Belmont explained how applying the finish can affect the shape of the plate, if only slightly, by making it less than perfectly flat. To correct this effect, Jaeger experimented with heat treatment, and with applying the finish on both sides of the plate. Regarding the latter, Belmont drew an analogy to applying enamel to metal dial blanks. The enamel is applied to both sides of the disk before heating, to cancel out the enamel’s warping effects.
As of our visit, in late March, JLC had completed two metal Gyrotourbillon 3 prototypes. The second was photographed, and photo editing software provided another opportunity to experiment with small details. The final photos were distributed at SIHH, and some of them accompany this story. The brand had not yet completed the first watch for retail delivery. That will happen later this year. JLC will provide the price on request. We asked Belmont how JLC handles the politically delicate task of deciding who receives the first piece. He demurred, saying that is the job of the sales department. He did volunteer that the first piece to be delivered will not bear serial number 1, so in that way, they can offer two “firsts.”
At this point, you may think we’ve covered every major component, but there’s one left. It isn’t often that a buckle requires significant development time, but it did here, and JLC’s efforts solve a problem that has bedeviled watch enthusiasts ever since the objects of our affection found their way onto our wrists: the ill-fitting strap. The company’s engineers have devised a buckle with a fine adjustment mechanism that guarantees a comfortable fit every time. After placing the buckle’s pin in the hole nearest the correct size and closing the buckle, the owner can turn two small wheels to lengthen or shorten the strap. It may sound simple, but the buckle has 100 parts, and the design is patented.
The Gyrotourbillon 3 is available individually or as part of the Jubilee set, which also includes (take a deep breath) the Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique à Quantième Perpétuel Jubilee and the Master Ultra Thin Jubilee. Jubilee boxed-set pieces will carry matching serial numbers, and purchasers of the set will receive priority over purchasers of individual watches. Gyrotourbillon 3 retail deliveries began in December 2013, and the company expects to deliver the entire series – there will be 75 pieces − over the next eight years. That may sound like a long time, but at the current rate, it will take Muriel Job about 1.5 years just to make the hairsprings.