Up Close: Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle

Innovative gongs.

Chiming movements – as in a minute repeater or grande sonnerie – have been fairly consistent in construction, being both rare and difficult to master, let alone be improved upon.

But over the past two decades, Jaeger-LeCoultre has developed an impressive number of engineering improvements for its repeating movements, from “trebuchet” hammers that are hinged like the medieval catapult for enhanced striking power, to “crystal” gongs that are welded to the sapphire crystal to boost volume.

This year, the brand has added to its list of striking innovations with revamped, ultra-long gongs in the Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle, which was designed to raise both the quality and quantity of the chimes.

The Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle with a grained, silver dial

An elaborate case

Available with the dial in either a blue flinqué enamel or a simpler, silvered and grained finish, the Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle (MGTRMP) combines a minute repeater with one of the most user-friendly perpetual calendar mechanisms on the market, plus automatic winding. The self-winding capability is important and practical, because the movement has a short 38-hour power reserve.

The two dial variants. Image – Jaeger-LeCoultre

All of that is naturally voluminous, and packed into a large white gold case measuring 43mm wide and 13.72mm high.

Though by no means a small watch, it is surprisingly thin for such a grand complication, especially since the movement has a three-level construction, with the automatic winding mechanism sandwiched in between the calendar module and base movement.

The case is notably elaborate, comprising 80 components, including separate lugs and case band inserts, all finished by hand. It is only the second Jaeger-LeCoultre watch to boast such a case construction, after the Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpétuel (that costs almost US$900,000). The brand’s other watches, on the other hand, save for the Reverso, utilise a standard three-part construction of bezel, middle and back.

As such, the case lends itself to various contrasting finishes; it is easier to finish individual case components separately. The deeply concave bezel and top surface of the tapered lugs have a polished finish that contrasts particularly well with the grained dial. The recessed sides of the lugs are sandblasted while the case band is satin-brushed. Thus, there are plenty of lines and textures to break up the mass of the case.

The slide of the repeater alone is finished three ways for better definition: a fluted base for better grip, along with a brushed top and polished sides

But there is a downside of having a case made up of many parts – if the tolerances between each part are not minuscule, then the gaps between the parts is visible, as is the case here. The borders between the components, primarily those separating the lugs from the case middle and the inserts from the case flanks, are all obvious.

Repeating innovations

One of the most crucial aspects of a striking movement has to do with how sound is transmitted from the vibrating gongs through the rest of the watch, and then continuing on to the outside of the case.

In a conventional repeater, the gongs are attached to a metal foot attached to the movement base plate, with the two gongs each circling the movement once, but in opposite directions. One gong sounds the treble note while the other a deeper, bass note. The three time indications – hours, quarters and minutes – are in turn derived from this two-note format.

Because the gongs typically occupy the circumference of the movement at the base, sound has to travel through the movement, dial and crystal, as well as laterally through the case band, in order to reach the outside of the watch case.

To boost the volume of the chimes, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced “crystal” gongs in 2005 in the Master Minute Repeater, where the gongs were attached to a layer of metal deposited on the underside of the front crystal. This allows the sound energy from the gongs to transfer directly to the crystal unhindered, which in turn acts as a more efficient resonator to broadcast the chimes to the outside of the case.

A variant of the original Master Minute Repeater, in titanium and unveiled 2011, which had a skeleton dial revealing the striking mechanism

The crystal gongs were attached to the crystal just below the plate with the musical notes at lower right

And because the gongs are located at the top of the case, the Master Minute Repeater was the first repeater with water-resistant case – rated to 50m no less – since the case could be sealed against moisture, with sound transmitted via the crystal.

It sounds fanciful in theory, but the crystal gongs did work in practice – the Master Minute Repeater was one of the loudest repeaters on the market at launch, and its descendants today amongst the loudest striking watches today. That being said, the crystal gong was largely geared towards volume of sound – loudness – rather than refinement or melody.

With the cal. 950 in the MGTRMP, Jaeger-LeCoultre is taking things a step further, at least in theory. The cal. 950 features a revamped gong construction, featuring a pair of elongated gongs that span both the circumference and height of the movement – stretching over and around the calibre delivering stronger, more resonant chimes.

The cal. 950, with the blued gongs prominent around the movement

The new construction is made up of a pair of blued steel gongs welded together at their bases and then attached to the base plate with two screws. From the base, the gongs travel in the same direction, instead of opposite as with traditional gongs, and go on to circle the base of the movement.

But as they nearly complete the circumference of the movement, the gongs arch dramatically upwards towards the dial, and then diverge in opposite directions around the dial, explaining why the blued gongs are visible on both the front and back of the watch.

According to Jaeger-LeCoultre, the elongated gongs amplify the repeater chimes due to the proximity of the gongs to the surface of the case, avoiding the various cams, levers, wheels and governor that would other damper the sound. As such, the watch is rated to 50m as water-proofing the case doesn’t diminish its acoustics.

But it the revamped gongs no doubt also produce more sound because they are longer, with a larger vibrating surface area, much like how larger cymbals produce a greater crash than small ones.

Jaeger-LeCoultre also adds that the new gong construction not only enhances the volume of the chimes, but also the quality, as the unidirectional construction of the bass gong ensures that sound travels in a helical path to produce a more sonorous low note. At the same time, the treble gong switches direction as the gongs curve towards the dial, turning back on itself to produce crisp high notes.

While the gongs are a new invention, the basic architecture of the striking mechanism is identical to that found in the Master Minute Repeater of 2005. The striking module has essentially been mounted on a new base movement, and fitted with the new type of gongs.

Consequently, the repeater does include on two features found on the earlier generation of repeaters. The first is the square, rather than round, cross-section of the gongs, which increases the surface area struck by the flat head of the hammers, since there is full contact of one flat surface against another, creating a deeper and fuller sound.

A closeup of the trebuchet hammer with its integrated spring

And the second is are the patented trebuchet hammers first introduced in 2009 with the Hybris Mechanica Grande Sonnerie. Instead of the single pivot of a conventional hammer, the trebuchet hammers have two pivots, just like the medieval catapult, increasing their leverage and power.

And in turn, the trebuchet hammers allow for a smaller striking barrel – the secondary mainspring that powers the repeater – without compromising on the repeater power reserve, as each hammer incorporates a tiny spring on its second axis.

In short, the combination of the unique solutions creates fine chiming watch that is both energy-efficient and volume-maximised, as demonstrated in the clip below. As with the crystal gong-equipped watches of before, the repeater here strikes decisively and loudly, but the focus is obviously on volume rather than refinement.

While the cal. 950 combines every single Jaeger-LeCoultre chiming innovation in a single movement, the performance gain from all of that is hard to discern. Compared to earlier generations of Jaeger-LeCoultre repeaters, including the Master Minute Repeater from 15 years ago, the new grand complication does not seem to be appreciably louder, though it is no doubt a lot more complicated, which is sometimes an end in itself.

Perpetual calendar

On top of all of that, the watch also features a perpetual calendar with a pre-synchronised calendar adjusted via a single pusher embedded in the case side, as well as a distinctive, four-digit year display.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the calendar module is a simplified version of the trademark perpetual calendar mechanism of IWC, which was invented by Kurt Klaus and introduced in the Da Vinci in 1985. Despite being over 30 years old, the IWC perpetual calendar remains one of the most user-friendly on the market, surpassed only by the Ulysse Nardin Perpetual Ludwig and the minimalist H. Moser & Cie. perpetual calendar.

Everything on the IWC calendar mechanism is pre-set at the factory during production, so the wearer only needs to advance the calendar when necessary. But that convenience comes with a caveat: the calendar can only be set forwards, so if it is set past the current date, the owner needs to wait for the date to catch up. If it is set too far past the current date, a trip to the factory or service centre is needed to return it to the correct setting.

The four-digit year display that quickly identifies the IWC roots of the calendar

The hour and minute hands are dauphine shaped, with a polished finish on one half and a brushed surface on the other for better legibility. And just above the hands is a small aperture that’s a safety indicator, showing red during the calendar changeover, reminding the owner not to set the time

Despite all of the complexity of the watch, the dial is pretty fuss free, and a bit plain. All its elements are clearly laid out and in a conventional manner. The silver dial does lack contrast, however, with almost all of it being a tone of silver or white. On that count, the blue enamel dial version does better.

The final aesthetic detail worth mentioning is a consequence of the new gong construction: because the gongs circle the dial, and also require clearance under the crystal, the dial sits relatively deep in the case. That leaves a gap between the dial and bezel, with the inside edge of the bezel sloping steeply towards the dial. The result is a slight impression of looking down a tunnel; at a glance, the dial seems further back in the case than it actually is.

Interior decor

Unusually for a grand complication like this, the MGTRMP is automatic, equipped with a cleverly hidden automatic winding. The rotor of the cal. 950 sits under the perpetual calendar module, instead of being on the back as is convention. Instead, the minute repeating module occupies the space on the back, and can be admired in its entirety.

The finishing of the movement is typical of Jaeger-LeCoultre, clean, attractive, and dressed in striking colours with blued steel screws, rhodium-plated brides and several gilded parts.

The edges of the bridges are bevelled and polished, while the top surfaces are finished with either Geneva stripes or straight graining. But perhaps the most attractive aspect of all is the elaborately decorated governor; the complex shape of the governor’s arms are finished with anglage.

Though the finishing is mostly done with machine or hand-controlled machines, rather than by hand as is the case for the top tier of haute horlogerie movements, it is appropriate given the price and positioning of Jaeger-LeCoultre, which has always prided itself on novel technical solutions and more accessible pricing in all segments.

That being said, one can’t help but feel a bit more can be done in terms of decoration, since the MGTRMP is an expensive watch by any measure, even if it is less expensive than comparable watches from brands like Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin.

Concluding thoughts

Large, multi-complication watches were all the rage a decade ago, with most of what can be done having already been done. So such watches no longer shock and awe, particularly since many of the complications within the MGTRMP build on earlier ideas, or are actually earlier ideas.

That being said, the MGTRMP is still an impressive complication, particularly in its engineering and how it amplifies the volume and clarity of the repeater. It is further enhanced by the inventive perpetual calendar, water-resistant case as well as automatic winding, which makes the watch arguably more practical than the average grand complication.

Key Facts and price

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes Perpétuelle
Ref. Q5233420 (silver grained dial)
Ref. Q52334E1 (blue flinqué enamel dial)

Diameter: 43mm
Material: White gold
Water resistance: 50m

Movement: Cal. 950
Functions: Time, perpetual calendar, and minute repeater
Winding: Automatic
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4Hz)
Power reserve: 38 hours

Limited edition: 30 pieces each
Availability: Already at boutiquesand retailers
Price: €225,000 (ref. Q5233420), and €240,000 (ref. Q52334E1), both excluding taxes

For more, visit Jaeger-lecoultre.com.

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Interview: Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith

On progressive watchmaking and marketing.

In mid 2017, Julien Tornare, became chief executive at Zenith, maker of the famed El Primero chronograph. This came after a 17-year stint at Vacheron Constantin, where his last job was running the brand’s operations in Asia, its most important market by a large margin.

At Zenith, Mr Tornare was called upon to revitalise a brand that had been drifting for some time. Zenith was clinging on too tightly to the past – namely the landmark El Primero – to the exclusion of everything else the brand had achieved.

The diversification beyond the El Primero is exemplified by the Defy, a product crucial to the brand’s resurgence. The collection swiftly became a bestseller since its debut two years ago, but also boasts a milestone for the industry at large with the radical silicon oscillator in the Defy Inventor.

The Defy Inventor

During the El Primero 50th anniversary event that took place late last year in Singapore, I sat down with Mr Tornare to discuss his vision for Zenith, and how his start-up approach to running the brand has helped propel it into the new decade.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

It has been two years since you took over at Zenith. Do you think you’re past the toughest part of the job?

The toughest was probably at the beginning; getting the team on board with my vision was the most challenging. You can only develop a brand when you have everybody with you, and when you come from an entirely different brand, that takes some time.

The first thing I did was to change their mentality. I wanted them to think creatively. For instance, I put in place a system last year where all employees, regardless of their departments, have to give me five innovative ideas if they want to get their bonuses at the end of the year. I want them to feed the company with their creativity, whether they are watchmakers, polishers, accountants, after-sales service.

You can do a lot of things, but the culture of the company is the most difficult to change, especially in Switzerland, where people are a bit conservative, or in the Swiss mountains, where people are even more conservative. I would say the whole company is more tightly knit now, and I am very happy with where we are.

The El Primero 400 movement, still in production nearly unchanged – 50 years after its introduction

You have gone into pre-owned watches at True Facet and also e-commerce, while also doing collaborations with Bamford, Phillips and so on. How are all of these working out for you?

If you want to be modern and innovative, you have to take care of all of these areas.

E-commerce is very important. We started to work with third parties like Mr Porter, JD.com and so on. And now we have also started direct e-commerce [from our own website]. E-commerce works mostly with limited editions or special watches that people cannot find anywhere else. Even though it is still small in terms of volume, you have to get started.

Selling pre-owned watches is also a trend today. We can’t say we won’t do secondhand just because we sell new watches. So we are developing a new concept to integrate into our own boutique, where we will offer secondhand watches that are authenticated, checked and maintained by the brand.

And lastly, we have customisation. Mr Biver told me to go and make up my mind if we should work with George Bamford [of watch customiser Bamford Watch Department]. So, I flew to London to meet George.

I have to be honest with you, I was more conservative then, and I thought nobody should touch our watches. Not a chance, I said. But when I met him, I realised he has such an incredible network of clients, and he knows how to customise very well – much better than us, in fact.

I realised this guy is going to do it anyway, in his little corner of the world, and for many brands. If he wants to do it, we cannot stop him. But if I make a deal with him, not only will he continue this, but I will have more control.

Today, I look at every single Zenith watch that he is customising and I give my approval. So, it is better controlled and a better experience for clients. It’s a win-win.

The El Primero A386 limited edition designed together with auctioneers Phillips. Photo – Phillips

The El Primero Revival A384 Edge of Space, a collaboration with Bamford Watch Department and Mr Porter. Photo – Zenith

Zenith has long been a niche brand for collectors and aficionados. Do you plan to scale it up, or continue to cater to a specific group of buyers?

I’ll scale it up, of course. Right now, we are growing very fast in Asia and Greater China, but historically Zenith was very strong in Japan because the Japanese are highly knowledgeable about the technical aspects of a watch. Not that Japanese don’t care about marketing, but they really want to understand the substance and content of the things they buy. With Zenith, they knew they were buying something authentic – at the right price. That is why we became very strong in Japan.

But I cannot just appeal to the watch collectors and the Japanese. I also need to sell to people who know nothing about watchmaking.

So my vision: we have a long history, which we will respect and capitalise on. And we will remain authentic because I believe the new generation is much more mindful of authenticity and substance. We will continue to make 100% of our movements. I think right now, there are only a maximum of four or five brands that can say the same.

So that is something I will uphold, but it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t express the brand in a more contemporary, 21st century way. Maybe with big events, parties, celebrities, ambassadors. I will do all of it because I need to market the brand. If I do all of these things right, then we will have a brand that is very authentic with real mechanical substance but, at the same time, modern and fun.

The recent El Primero A384 Lupin The Third Edition, a limited edition inspired by a Japanese comic and available only in Japan. Photo – Zenith

The Defy watches are sporty and presumably catered for a younger audience, but many are also highly technical and complicated, like the Inventor and double tourbillon. How do you communicate the qualities of the watch?

Our aim is to reach different segments of the market with a contemporary design. I believe that overall in the watch industry there is a trend of executing traditional complications in an ultra-contemporary way. If you look at even the most classic brands today, their more sporty, contemporary line is gaining market share while the classic lines are going slightly downhill.

Most of our technological innovations will be in the Defy collection, so there are high complications, but also there is the Defy Classic, which is mechanically simple and easier to digest, and young collectors can eventually progress through the line. But we are missing an important element – women’s watches. So, we have developments to come in terms of that.

With the Defy collection, you have managed to produce rare complications at fair prices. Can you explain how this was achieved and how the engineering was optimised?

It was accomplished in different ways. Because we develop everything in-house, we also mastered the research and development, so it allowed us to reach what we believe is the right price.

The watch industry hasn’t always been the most transparent one. Sometimes there are two watches with the same movement but priced in a very different way. I think that is not fair to the consumer.

We have a responsibility to be fair. We may make less margins, which may not make sense from a business point of view, but I think it does make sense from a long-term, brand-building point of view. Because if you build your business purely on marketing and wind, I would say, at some point, it will go down. My job is to ensure longevity.

The Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon

The Defy Inventor was developed by the LVMH research institute while CSEM produces the complex silicon parts. Is the collaboration in terms of high-tech parts going to expand into other watches?

Of course, but right now we are really focused on the Inventor because it is a major project. Basically, the oscillating part is based on a mathematical formula and then it is all about the fabrication of the oscillating part. If there’s a mere micron of a difference, it is not going to work well, so it is still very delicate to produce.

Today if I could make thousands of pieces, I would need them because I took more than 2,000 orders for the Inventor. Right now, I am only producing 300-350 a year, but we will improve the production process as we go.

The tiny silicon escape wheel with its numerous, narrow teeth of the Defy Inventor

What were the challenges that needed to be overcome to bring the Inventor to market?

The demand is so strong that the only challenge is production – how to produce more and faster. We are working with very tight tolerances, so it means that sometimes we have to reject some of the oscillating parts. And sometimes it has to be reworked manually. So, we are still learning, and we want to take the time to do it well because this is a long-term project.

But in terms of market acceptance, it has done exceptionally well. Why? Two reasons. It is a great technical innovation, which I can explain it to someone like you who likes it and understands it.

But sometimes when you talk to certain clients, they don’t really care and don’t want to understand. But they think the watch is cool because you can see the vibration [of the silicon oscillator]. So, in that regard, it is very good because it offers a strong visual impact. And I think it is something we will continue to capitalise on.

How will it evolve from here? Are you able to change its shape, make it smaller, or work with separate components to retain the feel of a mechanical watch?

Yes, we are doing so much research now. We are trying to make it smaller, and change its colour. We can even change the shape of the oscillating part while keeping the same properties. So, this is only the beginning. There will be plenty of evolutions to come.

On the subject of high-tech materials, the Defy 21 was initially equipped with carbon hairsprings, but those components have been dropped. Have you stopped using them?

Yes, we stopped it because the reliability of the [carbon nanotube hairsprings] was not up to standard. When I arrived at Zenith, development of the hairsprings was an ongoing progress and we put it through many tests. It wasn’t perfect, and I decided we didn’t need it to launch the watch now.

If it proves to be efficient one day, why not? But the hairspring is not the most important aspect of the Defy 21. And I wanted to make sure the watch was 100% reliable. [Using alloy hairsprings for the movement,] we have the lowest return rate – almost the lowest ever – with the Defy 21. And I’m very happy.

The Defy 21 with a 1/100th of a second chronograph

How do you strive to balance the historical Zenith with the high-tech Zenith?

It has to be a natural balance. If you think about the El Primero when it was made in the 1960s, it was such a big innovation. A year ago, I thought about its anniversary, and I realised that 50 years is a long time but it’s not that long.

I started to get in touch with the people who made the El Primero. I was in touch with eight people and they told me what it took to create the movement. Many people told them a high-frequency automatic chronograph would never work, but now it has become a legend. Why? Because they believed in what they were doing and they wanted to push the limits of technology, which is what we continue to do today with the Defy collection.

If we do not evolve today, we are basically disrespecting the past because these gentlemen were very innovative and that’s been the problem of the watch industry.

Looking at watches in the industry today, many of them are just repeating the past. I think it is a mistake. Of course, you can have revivals and vintage-inspired watches, but we live in the 21st century. If you want millennials to run away from mechanical watches and wear a cellphone on their wrist, then by all means repeat the past. But I still want to show them that our industry is a very dynamic one.

The El Primero is a landmark but it’s now 50 years old. What are the plans for it? Will you evolve the movement, or keep it as it is and develop a whole new caliber?

Yes, of course we will evolve it while respecting the design codes and aesthetics. We are launching an El Primero 2. It is the original El Primero but with some modifications done to the movement. The original was no doubt a great movement, but still it was made 50 years ago, so there is room for improvement.

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