Catherine Rénier was named CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre in May 2018. In an interview with Rüdiger Bucher, editor-in-chief of WatchTime’s German sister magazine Chronos and International Editorial Director of Ebner Publishing, she discusses the values of the brand and what she is planning — and not planning — for the near future.
RB: Prior to your start at Jaeger-LeCoultre, you were at another Richemont company, Van Cleef & Arpels, for more than 14 years. How did you perceive Jaeger-LeCoultre from the outside?
CR: From day one of my professional career I’ve been in the luxury goods industry. And all these different maisons had something in common. Every one of them is invested in strong values, and craftsmanship plays a significant role. From a horological perspective, Jaeger-LeCoultre, with its tremendous depth and expertise in complications, is simply on a different level than what I’ve known in the past. I’ve spent a lot of time in the manufacture over the last few months, and immersed myself in the details with the watchmakers and craftsmen in our “Métiers Rares” (“fine crafts”) department. I was always intrigued by the rich history of the company. I visited the factory a few years ago without realizing that I would come to work here one day. But even then I was excited by the creativity, expertise, and spirit of innovation of the company as well as by its tradition and values. And my admiration has only grown since I’ve gotten a look from the inside. You can see all the values that Jaeger-LeCoultre conveys to the outside world are lived internally 100 percent, day in and day out. The entire company is steeped in this spirit.
RB: How would you describe these values?
CR: The first [of them] is the passion shown by every employee. You can feel the passion everywhere, an “inner fire” that all our employees share. This also comes from the desire to master horological challenges collectively. Knowledge is shared, and discussions are held to find solutions. One person alone cannot do this. And that brings us to the second important value: openness. We are the “watchmaker to watchmakers” – which means that we’ve supplied movements to the most prestigious brands, and shared best practices with our partners. You can even see it in our company name: joining two families who began a close collaboration at the beginning of the 20th century to bring together their individual talents. This openness helps us today to master horological challenges. The third value is excellence. It means perfection in every detail in order to achieve the greatest possible level of precision – both in production processes and for the finished timepiece. Our company has had precision in our genes ever since our founder Antoine LeCoultre developed the millionometer in the 1840s.
RB: What challenges do you see ahead in the near future – for Jaeger-LeCoultre as well as for the watch industry as a whole?
CR: In the luxury goods industry even the smallest bit of news can change the disposition of the customer in a positive or negative way. For me it is important not to be simply reactive, but to think long-term about strengthening and shaping the brand and its values. Jaeger-LeCoultre has a lot of assets – from the manufacture itself, to its rich history, to its expansive offering of watches — which begins with fine two-handed models and goes all the way to the complications, which we group together under the name Hybris Mechanica. We’ve built this up over a period of 185 years, and I intend to preserve and continue to develop it. The next step will play out in 2019 with our complications. Here our focus will be on precision, both in the technology as well as in the design of the watches by our Métiers Rares, the fine craftsmanship workshops.
RB: We often talk less about the design than about the movements.
CR: The background work is often hard to comprehend: you look at a beautiful dial but don’t realize that it takes 10 or even 20 hours to make. We have 118 different workshops in our manufacture; each contains so much individual expertise!
RB: You are the first woman to lead Jaeger-LeCoultre. Is there something that you will do differently than the men before you?
CR: To be honest, I don’t think about it. Certainly, here and there, there will be a different way of doing things. To be sure, I won’t neglect our collections for women, but first and foremost I recognize the good balance we already have between the men’s and ladies’ watches, and I will try to maintain this.
RB: What is the ratio of men’s to ladies’ watches?
CR: Very balanced – about 50:50. The manufacture has always addressed the needs of both. Historically, that also relates to the company’s production of movements: Even in the earliest history of the wristwatch, Jaeger-LeCoultre was developing movements for both men’s and women’s watches. We even broke records, like with the Calibre 101 – the smallest mechanical movement in the world, which weighs less than one gram. We continue to produce it today.
RB: What is your position on silicon, especially for the hairspring?
CR: I believe we always need to strive towards achieving the best possible precision. We owe it to our customers. And if we can improve performance with new materials, this is fundamentally a good thing. We don’t have a fixed pattern of thinking so we can always remain open to new ideas. At the same time we must also take our heritage into consideration. So in a manner of speaking, the topic of silicon is on the table for us.
RB: And what about smart functions? Do you at least find the partial integration of features interesting, as we know it from smartwatches?
CR: Never say never, the saying goes – but this isn’t a priority for us at the moment. Jaeger-LeCoultre is known for its traditional watchmaking. We are authentic and will continue to concentrate our efforts in this area. Smartwatches offer pragmatic solutions and in some ways they make mechanical watches even more fascinating. I see people all the time who are completely at home in the digital world but still come to visit our manufacture because of their interest in traditional watchmaking.
RB: You lived in Asia for more than 10 years. What influences did you take away from there?
CR: The sharing of experiences, tradition and know-how is important in Asian culture. It would be my dream if Asian tourists on a trip to Europe would make a stop at Jaeger-LeCoultre. My real-life experiences in Asia over the last 10 years have revealed a rapid rise in interest in the foundations of our watchmaking. And along with it, the level of knowledge has grown as well.