Apr 222016

Jaeger LeCoultre Master Class

Try your hand at the watchmaking tradition

C A L I B R E  9 8 6

Drawing detail from Dava Sobel

Drawing detail from John Harrison in Dava Sobel’s book “Longitude.”

Hands on Appreciation

One of the fastest ways to gain an appreciation for anything is to get your hands dirty.  Learn how to hem a pair of pants, sharpen a knife, or hang a wooden door.  Many of the objects we use everyday require someone to have devoted years to their craft before we can use their products.  Similar to our health, we tend not to think about them until either something breaks or we want to learn how to do it ourselves.

When we open ourselves to learning something new, our level of appreciation shoots through the roof.  In my own experience, learning a new craft always teaches me how little I really know.  It is a humbling path.  There are so many moments in life where the contributions of thousands, if not millions of hours of skill pass under my fingers and I hardly even notice them.

As an admirer and budding collector of watches, I want to increase my appreciation of what it takes to make a watch.  The steps are countless and very few watchmakers of any generation mastered them all.  My introduction to watchmaking came from John Harrison. For those of you who are also familiar with the Longitude Problem, you know who he is.  For those of you who have never heard of Harrison, I will try to sum up a lifetime of achievements in a few sentences.

John Harrison H-1 Clock

John Harrison H-1 Clock

In the 1700′s the English Crown created an award for anyone who could solve the Longitude Problem.  The aim was to create something that kept time at sea without major deviation, so captains could accurately calculate their longitude.  Eventually Harrison, who was a woodworker by trade, made a series of clocks that won the prize.  The early solution, called the H-1, measured 3′ x 3′ x 3′.  It was small enough to take aboard a ship, but not exactly pocket size.  By the time he had arrived at his later H-3, H-4, and H-5 solutions he had created the pocket watch.  This was a monumental feat that won Harrison the backing of Sir Isaac Newton and the purse, which was equivalent to about £20,000,000.

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel

“With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth—temporal—dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.”

When I read Dava Sobel’s book “The Longitude Problem” I was hooked on watches.  And last week, I was fortunate enough to step out side of the realm of the spectator and into the world of the watchmaker.

John Harrison's H-4 Pocket Chronometer

John Harrison’s H-4 Pocket Chronometer

A number of watch brands allow clients to take apart and reassemble watch movements.  Now this is not watch making school by any means.  It is more like wading in the shallow end of the watchmaking-pool with swimmies and a private lifeguard.  But it is fascinating nonetheless.

Jaeger LeCoultre Duoface Reverso copy

Jaeger LeCoultre Duoface Reverso

Jaeger LeCoultre arranged for Laurent Camelin, one of their watchmakers, to come to New York from Switzerland. Normally he works on their Sphyrotourbillons, Gyrotourbillons, and perpetual calendars.  In laymen’s terms, these are watches that have hundreds of moving parts and retail north of $100,000, which is why it was a great honor to have someone so eminently capable holding our hands as we took apart a far simpler movement.  We were given a Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 986 Grande Reverso Duoface watch.  Originally designed for Polo players in India, the Reverso famously turns over so you can close the face of the watch for protection.  It might not be the most exotic movement in the JLC line up, but it has a great history and was plenty for a beginner like me.

Jaeger LeCoultre Master Class Adam Marelli

Jaeger LeCoultre Master Class and the calibre 986. ©  Adam Marelli

We were given a loupe (the monocle looking thing I’m wearing), tools, and a small work bench.  Watchmaker’s work benches are set very high, so they can work comfortably while sitting.  If they were bent over at a normal height desk, the watch industry would be filled with hunchbacks and no one wants that.

From there, we were introduced to the movement.  All of its parts were described by Laurent.  We went through their functions, not the geometry and gear ratios that make it work.  Remember, we were just getting started.  Step by step we powered down the main spring. This prevents the watch from literally exploding when you take off the bridge.  We removed the main spring, the drive train, and the escapement, placing them carefully on our work bench.  You have to keep them in order, otherwise putting it back together would be even harder.

The balance wheel and screws.

The balance wheel and screws of the calibre 986. © Adam Marelli

The tools we used were purpose-built and tiny.  The screws we removed were even tinier.  As a builder I could see the logic of the watch’s construction as it came apart, but I was amazed by how fragile the whole assembly really is.  One slip with the screw driver can gouge the bridge or the main plate.  Pulling too hard on the balance wheel can break the hairspring.  The overall margin for error in a movement that only measures 4mm thick is small.  Imagine building a snowball with a pair of tweezers one snowflake at a time.

After we successfully removed all the parts, Laurent warned us that if we put it back together and every part is not perfectly seated, the movement will not work.  We will have to take it all apart and start again.  This got me thinking.  What happens when Laurent assembles a Sphyrotourbillon that has 476 parts and it does not work?  I asked if they had a special sound proof room where watchmakers can go and scream?  He said, “No but it would be a good idea to install one.”

I asked if they had a special sound proof room where watch makers can go and scream?  ”He said, no but it would be a good idea to install one.”

The correctly assembled movement.

The correctly assembled 986 movement. © Adam Marelli

Then it came time for us to try and reconstruct the watch.  As you can probably imagine, taking it apart is much easier than putting it back together.  Feeling the “correct fit” is unusual.  I think just due to the size of components the positive lock of fitting a piece in place is not as firm as you might expect.  Until the bridge locks everything together pieces kind of float in place and are very easy to knock out of alignment.

An hour after we started, all the pieces were back in place.  Humpty Dumpty was whole again and with a flick on the balance wheel, the watch came back to life.  It was ticking and beating just as it should.  It was immensely gratifying.

Jaeger LeCoultre Master Class Adam Marelli-16

Trying to be serious…and not doing a great job.

Not being so serious.

Not being so serious with Watchmaker Laurent Camelin and Adam Marelli.

To commemorate our newbie status Laurent presented us with certificates.  I asked him to do his best Swiss impression aka no smile.  He was perfect.  Afterwards we cracked a smile and took a look around the boutique.  Revisiting the watches now, they took on a new life. The Reverso somehow looked more approachable.  I could flip them over and finally understand how all those little pieces work in harmony.  Each watch felt in some way more expressive.  The high complication watches went from being novelties of many moving parts to incomprehensible testaments to patience.

But how does this connect to photography?

In a single word…interest.  One of the areas where I see many new photographers struggle is in their ability to really understand what it is that captures their interest.  Photography, in and of itself, is hardly enough unless of course you want to take pictures of cameras.  But to step inside of your interests…to feel them, take them apart, and examine why you are attracted to them will lead you down a road of self discovery.  Whether you end up in a watchmaking class or flying co-pilot in a fighter jet, a hands-on experience offers many advantages that will benefit your photography.

For me, I was grateful Jaeger LeCoultre invited me to the class.  It shows their commitment to watchmaking and watch connoisseurship. Because if each subsequent generation cannot understand the value of tradition, it runs the risk of being lost over time.



  5 Responses to “Jaeger LeCoultre Master Class: Try your hand at the watchmaking tradition”

  1. Awesome article; well written.
    Thank you for the insight making this topic relevant to photography; and thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. With the explosion in brain studies, I still haven’t seen articles about what “Interest” looks like in the brain, architecturally, electro-chemically, or any other way. All kinds of studies on aspects of cognition, but interest? Nada. How does one become “interested;” how can interest be manipulated, guided, increased, diminished.

    • Hi Tom,

      That is an interesting question…I heard that Sam Harris did some studies on what “belief” looked like in the brain, but interest is another idea.

      Where would you like to take it from here?


  3. Motorhead here. (first job was as a go-fer at a marine engine repair shop where a major benefit was all the lobsters I wanted)

    Watches, and clockwork escapements in general were an interesting steppingstone in the development of transmitting power, the move from human/animal power to water/steam/internal combustion.
    If you’re interested in that area, I’d recommend Usher’s A history of Mechanical Devices.
    I’d also suggest visiting an old time grist mill. The whole system of water power to work done is right there in front of you.

    Of course, escapements were solving a slightly different problem: how to get regular motion out of changing force (springs wind down, water pressure in a reservoir changes)

    I know you’re big on the apprentice system. I very much agree. I also got a lot out of your ‘Room for Improvement” series. Thanks very much for putting those on Udemy

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