Through October 5 in New York, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s traveling exhibition “The Sound Maker” offers an extensive look into the pioneering movements of the historic watchmaker. The striking presentation explores the legacy and craftsmanship of the iconic maison, while revealing monumental documents from its 188-year history, never-before-seen pieces from its archive, and a selection of its prized chiming timepieces.
The journey begins with a unique piece, a Music Box created by the brand’s founder Antoine LeCoultre and his father, that marks Jaeger-LeCoultre’s beginnings in chiming watches. As the exhibition continues, visitors experience the evolution of technical skill and artistic expression, resulting in items like pocket and wrist watches, the Memovox, pieces from the Atelier des Métiers Rares®, and chiming watches.
On view is a specially commissioned artwork by Zimoun that was inspired by these sonic watches and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s home in the Vallée de Joux. The spinning, shimmering kinetic floor installation is made of small dc-motors, hand-bended wires, MDF panels, and nearly 2,000 thin metal discs.
To learn more about the exhibition at 70-74 Gansevoort Street in Manhattan, Whitewall spoke with Catherine Rénier, Chief Executive Officer of Jaeger-LeCoultre, about the magic of “The Sound Maker.”
WHITEWALL: “The Sound Maker” has previously been presented in China and South Korea. How does the presentation in New York compare?
CATHERINE RÉNIER: All three exhibitions appeal to a large variety of visitors, from collectors and watch enthusiasts to the general public. The feedback from China and South Korea was very positive. Similarly, for New York, the exhibition will enable visitors to discover our heritage and craftsmanship, learn in-depth about watchmaking expertise and immerse themselves in the world of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
WW: How have the sounds of the Vallée de Joux inspired, and continue to inspire, the watchmakers of Jaeger-LeCoultre?
CR: The long, harsh winters have contributed to the development of two sounds that are special signatures of the valley. Due to the cold, the spruce forests grow slowly here, producing wood with exceptional resonance qualities, which has been sought after by luthiers for centuries. The icy winters meant countless hours spent indoors, allowing the valley’s early watchmakers the time needed to develop and build complicated chiming watches.
WW: Can you tell us about some of the early chiming watches created by Jaeger-LeCoultre? How innovative were these pieces for their time?
CR: Sound-making is important know-how in our Maison from the music boxes LeCoultre created in the 19th century to the 200+ minute repeater calibers the manufacture has created. Our early innovations included cathedral gongs (1870) and a triple-hammer mechanism (1880). In 1895, our Maison invented the silent strike governor, thus eliminating the background buzz characteristic of traditional lever-type regulators. In 2005, we introduced “crystal gongs” that are soldered directly to the dial crystal of the watch, capitalizing on the superior sound transmission qualities of synthetic sapphire crystal.
The square-profile gongs introduced two years later provide a flat striking surface for the hammers, ensuring that the strikes are more consistent and more powerful. The articulated trebuchet hammers (introduced in 2009) use a similar mechanical principle to the medieval counterweight catapults to improve the speed and force of the hammer strike. In 2019, in Calibre 950, we introduced a new “duplex” gong design. Rather than lying in flat coils, the gongs make a circle before bending upwards then diverging to form two semi-circles around the top of the movement. In this way, by using the maximum space available within the case, acoustic resonance is significantly increased.
WW: Can you tell us about some of the rare or unique pieces on view? The never-previously exhibited documents and artifacts?
CR: In the mid 20th Century, as people increasingly sought watches with practical functions, our manufacture drew on its mastery of chiming mechanisms to develop alarm watches. In this form of chiming caliber, the extremely rapid strikes of the hammer create a continuous single-pitch sound, closer to a buzz than to the bell-like chime of a minute repeater. The Memovox (its name, taken from Latin, means ‘voice of the memory’) has remained the reference in alarm watches for 70 years. The Sound Maker exhibition features a variety of key Memovox pieces such as the 1958 Memovox Parking, the 1959 Memovox Deep Sea, and the 1969 Memovox Polaris.
The Memovox Parking was designed to help motorists avoid fines for exceeding the pre-paid time on their parking meters by buzzing when the allotted time expired. The Memovox Deep Sea, the world’s first diving watch with an alarm, was Jaeger-LeCoultre’s response to the rapid growth of leisure diving and the corresponding demand for purpose-built watches. The Memovox Polaris further enhanced the diving functionality of the alarm watch. A rotating inner bezel provided a visual indication of elapsed dive time, and a super-compressor case with a triple-layered case back amplified the alarm sound when submerged, while ensuring water resistance to 200 meters.
WW: How do the new 2020 models on view capture the watchmaker’s values of tradition and innovation?
CR: Sound maker is more than a yearly theme for Jaeger-LeCoultre. It represents the inventiveness and the creativity of our watchmakers, both in terms of complications and design. The 2020 Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication is a great example of this balance between a great caliber embarking the patent of la Grande Maison and a beautiful dial with its hand-finished dome structure. In the last two years, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced many groundbreaking chiming timepieces, such as the latest Gyrotourbillon along with a minute repeater Westminster chime (on four gongs) and a two-way perpetual calendar.
WW: Can you tell us about the Memovox alarm watch?
CR: In 2020, we introduced the Master Control Memovox Timer, a Memovox featuring a new complication offering the possibility on top of the classic alarm to set the alarm as a countdown. For the first time in the history of an automatic Memovox, the piece featured an open-case back showcasing the hammer and gong of the caliber.
While minute repeaters are significant within the maison and a high complication, their development also shapes more practical complications such as these alarms. In fact, the development of the 950 caliber in a way provided the solution for the arrangement of the gong and hammer in the new Master Control alarm models. The 950 started as a design concept, that it would be great to be able to see the gongs in the front of the watch, and the team had to figure out how to attach the gongs.
We’ve always been very inspired by [the 956] caliber and there were some new gears that needed to be developed for the Timer watch. By opening the case back, we already had to re-design the movement and rebalance the gong and hammer, and we added the countdown function because it was important for us to have a different way to set the alarm. We definitely see greater potential for innovation in this collection of calibers.
WW: Has any of the advancements made in chiming watches helped to further innovations in watchmaking for Jeager-LeCoultre, outside of the chiming category?
CR: Complications represent the core of the watchmaker’s identity. Constantly pushing the limits of the possible to mechanically reach the impossible. There is what we call the inner fire at the Manufacture that, combined with the passion people have for the Maison and the love for fine watchmaking, results in magnificent prowess. Complications for watchmaking are the Haute Couture of the fashion industry and the Formula 1 of the automotive industry: very exclusive, but inspiring all the generations and paving the way for the future.
At Jaeger-LeCoultre, we have one of the strongest R&D departments working on constant improvement, as well as complications for our future products. This department is working in close collaboration with many other departments and most of them have 10 to 30 years and experience at Jaeger-LeCoultre. This is a really important part of the Manufacture.
WW: How does Zimoun’s art installation complement and encapsulate Jaeger-LeCoultre’s sound and spirit?
CR: Like our Manufacture, Zimoun transforms raw materials with precision. His expertise and creativity with metal was a perfect fit with our artisans always looking for the perfect balance between technicity and beauty. You first get hooked by the sound, the soft, appeasing sound of the rain. As you get closer to the sculpture, the movement of the metal is mesmerizing. Each angle gives a different feeling and invites you to stop, enjoy and listen.
WW: What do you hope visitors to the exhibition will walk away with?
CR: If you make up short-term partnership stories that are not deeply rooted in who you are, it is then more challenging to explain year after year our identity, which is a Watchmaker of watchmakers, a manufacturing expertise of 180 years in know-how, and a long history of creation, signatures, and innovation. This is one whole story that has many chapters, one of them being the art of sound, which we would like to share with our clients. That chapter, is once again, not just one product but an offer of products and a full discovery for our clients who want to go further. I believe it is also an answer to what clients have been asking.
More and more the access to information is an interest to go further, to understand more, and to have more background knowledge. We like to give this perspective and possibility to our clients and we have been doing so by having opened our manufacture for visits a long time ago, in the early 1900s. It felt very natural to remain very open and to share our expertise and stories for those who are interested to discover and it is the best way for our maison to shine and to show what it has become over the 187 years of its history. Let us say that we have many stories to tell!