The first machine is a hundred years old; the second is as modern as tomorrow. Each of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new Master Ultra Thin models features a mesmerizing dial with a guilloche pattern rendered in a deep, luminous blue. To create the dial, a guillocheur uses his or her thumb to press a small engraving machine across its surface. Three lines are required for each one-second space. One hundred and eighty in total. Each done by hand, using a machine which dates to 1920. Speed and pressure must be constant, or the resulting line will waver or vary in its depth.
The result appears perfect, as if it were applied by a robot or some other impersonal means—but it is very much the result of human hands. One set of hands in particular, actually. At the Jaeger-LeCoultre Manufacture in the Vallée de Joux, in the Rare Handcrafts Atelier, only one person can be “master of the guilloche savoir-faire” at any given time. With this work completed, the markers can be attached. This is done using laser welding, a technique that did not arrive in practice until 1992 and is far less automated than the name suggests. Jaeger-LeCoultre uses this technique to ensure that the guilloche face accepts the Grand Feu enamel evenly. It is applied in several layers, again by hand.
All of this takes considerable effort for the Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel, which features a moonphase complication with the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture 925/2 movement. It becomes noticeably more complex and time-consuming with the Master Ultra Thin Tourbillon Enamel, which uses a separate and distinct guilloche pattern for its date indicator. For the Master Ultra Thin Perpetual Enamel, each of the four subdials (for day, date, month/year, and moon phase for both Northern and Southern Hemisphere) receives its own pattern. “You can imagine the time required to finish a complete dial,” Jaeger-LeCoultre Product Design Director Lionel Farve laconically allowed—but even to imagine the time required would, itself, require quite some time.
Which perhaps explains why all three of the new Master Ultra Thin watches are strictly limited editions. One hundred each of the Moon and Perpetual models will be made, while the Tourbillon will be half as common at 50 units produced. Each is available solely in white gold with blue enamel dial and blue alligator strap. Farve notes that white gold is all but required for the dial since steel can not accept this enamel process and platinum does not produce the same visual result. The case, therefore, is also white gold, for aesthetic unity.
That same consideration guides the relatively modest dimensions of these watches. None of the three calibers involved require much space, so Jaeger-LeCoultre has chosen to keep diameters tidy, with the Moon and Perpetual at 39mm and the Tourbillon at 40mm. The latter is also the thickest, at a reasonable 12.13mm; the others are around ten millimeters. In an era where sports watches have made inroads all the way to black tie, it’s refreshing to see these subtle and frankly gorgeous timepieces in unashamedly formal dress.
Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel: Simple Style
The simplest of the Master Ultra Thin series places a fully polished white gold moon in a field of stars. The date ring surrounding the moonphase display is engraved in depth for greater readability, while a subtle “Automatique” on the subdial reminds both owner and observer of the self-winding 925/2 movement within, powered by a skeletonized rose-gold rotor via a single power barrel and 30 jewels. The hour markers are larger than in previous Master Ultra Thin models, and doubled at the cardinal points. With a case depth of 10.04mm, the emphasis is on easy wear, a cause further assisted by highly contoured lugs. Power reserve is quoted at 70 hours, which is considerable for a dress watch of this size. Retail price is $34,700, which is considerably more than that the standard Master Ultra Thin Moon and likely reflective of the painstaking work involved in the creation of the dial.
Master Ultra Thin Perpetual Enamel: Beauty Through Time
The new polished moonphase design which is the star attraction of the Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel is joined in the Ultra Thin Perpetual Enamel by three subdials for the perpetual calendar functions. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture Calibre 868A/2 unifies 332 components to vibrate 28,800 times per hour in a 46-jewel movement with a single power barrel. The bezel has a delicate curved step that makes this already reasonably sized watch look even slimmer. At any given time, about a dozen deeply-blued screws are visible through the sapphire exhibition caseback, a nice touch and in this case a pleasant match for both strap and dial.
Master Ultra Thin Tourbillon Enamel.
David Hurley, the charismatic executive VP from power retailer Watches of Switzerland, is particularly bullish on this variant: “A limited-edition of 100 pieces from a manufacture such as Jaeger-LeCoultre is very special indeed…. Adding to that, the beautiful hand-enameled guilloche dial in on-trend blue makes this watch ideal for collectors.” The Ultra Thin Perpetual Enamel retails at $53,000. Despite the considerable complication of the movement and the tidy dimensions, water resistance is quoted at 5 bar.
Eleven years ago, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new Calibre 978 won the Chronométrie 2009 International Timing Competition, the first such contest in 32 years. The Grande Maison’s team brought about the victory with a stunning average gain of 0.13 seconds per day and a maximum variability of 0.28 seconds per day. This performance was made possible largely by a tourbillon carriage rendered in titanium alloy and machined to exacting specifications. If watch movements were race cars, this one would be a Formula One champion.
This airy, almost insubstantial-looking complication is at the heart of the Master Ultra Thin Tourbillon Enamel, suspended within the Grand Feu dial and encircled by 60 engraved markers. A new and revitalized Calibre 978 focuses on improvements both mechanical and aesthetic. No surface is left unembellished front or rear; the caseback displays Geneva waves on the gold rotor and tourbillon bridge itself. A “sunray” effect on the main plate draws the eye to the center of the complication.
A date counter with a separate guilloche pattern balances out the tourbillon window; it, too, features engraved counters. The 40-millimeter case is 12 millimeters deep; among tourbillon-equipped watches, this is surely one of the easiest to wear and admire. Power reserve is a robust 48 hours, significant for a tourbillon of this size and weight. Price is an equally robust $81,000—but the edition of 50 examples will likely disappear quickly regardless.
A Rare And Unique Birthplace
All three Master Ultra Thin Enamel watches receive their finishing at the Métiers Rares® (Rare Crafts) Atelier. This workshop, inaugurated in 2016, is located on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s campus in the Vallee de Joux. Approximately 30 artisans are located here, separated by glass panels and focused on their traditional wooden workbenches. Some of their shared tools are more than a century old.
The Enamel Process Itself
At the Atelier, each Master Thin Enamel dial receives multiple coats of blue enamel. It is polished and heated to 800 degrees C each time. Six to ten layers of transparent enamel are then added to strengthen and protect the color. During the course of this process, the dial can be heated as many as 22 times, with each heating cycle risking a crack or flaw in the existing layers. The payoff is in the striking visual patterns of the guilloche dial and the interplay of light and shade within. This defiantly time-consuming, human-centric process produces a result which a quick glance sees as perfection and a long examination reveals as the result of dedicated individual effort.
A Celebration Of Uniquity
Beyond their beauty and technical accomplishments, the three watches of the Master Ultra Thin Enamel series possess a shared and special quality best described as “uniquity.” Unlike most mass-produced timepieces, and even beyond many of the finest efforts from Switzerland and elsewhere, the considerable degree of hand work put into each of these 250 examples ensures that they will all be slightly unlike each other. Each will bear the marks of their creation, the almost-but-not-quite perfect embellishments of guilloche and enamel acquired during the process. Under a microscope, they would be nearly as different as fingerprints.
It takes a unique individual, as well, to appreciate the effort involved in the creation of this series. Jaeger-LeCoultre can be confident that it has built the customer base to understand that effort. Their beauty will be obvious even to the brief observer, but it will run deeper for those who know the long hours involved in their assembly and finishing. Flawless at first glance, the uniquity of the Master Ultra Thin Enamels will be in their imperceptible variations. All those moments spent under the artisan’s lens, rendered via 180 lined degrees of perfect imperfection.
JAEGER-LE COULTRE MASTER ULTRA THIN PERPETUAL ENAMEL