You Are There: Attending The Jaeger-LeCoultre Sound Maker Exhibition In New York City
Recently there have been some encouraging signs from the watch industry that the world is slowly moving toward a post-COVID “new normal.” We’re not there yet, but in-person events such as Geneva Watch Days, held August 30–September 3, suggest that we’re getting ever closer.
The Sound Maker Exhibition, hosted by Jaeger-LeCoultre in New York City from September 21 to October 5, 2021, was a similar moment for watch fans to celebrate the end of quarantine life and resume in-person horological events, which most undoubtedly prefer.
When I learned of the JLC event, I quickly decided to attend. It took me a split second longer to decide that I also wanted to pay to participate in the accompanying Atelier d’Antoine, a “1.5-hour workshop to discover why watches go ‘tick tock’ and how time can be expressed.” Sound and timekeeping are related in many ways; most prominent among these connections is the tolling of bells by clocks and clock towers.
On the wrist, the nearest analogue is the repeater complication. Ever since I became seriously interested in watchmaking, I’ve had a fascination with this feature. It was on my mind during the last exhibition I attended in New York City in the summer of 2017 when Patek Philippe shared a number of amazing timepieces during its Grand Exhibition, including two examples of worldtimers with minute repeaters specifically produced in honor of the event.
I remember standing next to the display case with the docent as she described these pieces and then asking, “Can I hear what it sounds like?” Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. But you won’t know if you don’t ask.
This may explain my enthusiasm for Jaeger-LeCoultre’s event, which I hoped would allow me to experience repeaters more directly while augmenting my understanding of this rare complication. I’m pleased to report it did.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Sound Maker Exhibition
The exhibition was held in New York City’s Meatpacking District in a new development called Gansevoort Row. The cobblestone streets in this neighborhood are becoming something like a second hub for watch retailers in Manhattan: Audemars Piguet, for example, will open an AP House in Gansevoort Row in the near future while a brand-new Rolex-Tudor boutique is just a few blocks away.
The main exhibition, which is free to the public, proceeds chronologically. The experience begins with displays containing several historically important pocket watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre’s collection, reminding visitors of the brand’s extensive experience with sound-making timepieces; its first minute repeater was introduced in 1870. Subsequently, JLC has manufactured more than 200 sound-making calibers, including alarms.
Equally impressive is that Jaeger-LeCoultre has combined the technically challenging repeating function with similarly advanced watchmaking complications, in 1880 offering a jaquemarts pocket watch featuring automata that seem to strike a bell while the watch chimes the time.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s chiming miracles
More than a century later, in 2019, Jaeger-LeCoultre presented the Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpétuel wristwatch (Reference 5253420). A white-dialed example was on display at the Sound Maker exhibition with the Gyrotourbillon hypnotically spinning and rotating along its five axes.
It isn’t every day that a watch enthusiast has the chance to see this sort of complicated wristwatch, particularly when it is featured alongside a perpetual calendar with jumping date and a chiming minute repeater that plays Big Ben’s melody (known as a Westminster chime). This timepiece at the pinnacle of high horology, retailed for €800,000 when it was introduced at SIHH in 2019 as a limited edition of 18 watches.
In close proximity to the Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpétuel was another rare opportunity: one of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watchmakers at a stylized bench with a Caliber 942. Introduced roughly six years ago, the movement is automatic with a 40-hour power reserve and minute repeater complication. Its chime is created by crystal gongs welded to the sapphire crystal.
On most designs, such as that of the Master Grande Tradition à Répétition Minutes (Reference Q5092520), the action of the hammers necessarily takes place behind a dial. During the exhibition, though, JLC brought a “display” version of the movement featuring a transparent dial.
The caliber was secured in a movement holder, and attendees held the mechanism after the watchmaker activated the repeater function. Combined with the opportunity to discuss the caliber with an experienced watchmaker, there really isn’t a more “hands-on” chance to learn about repeaters.
Adjacent to the movement and watch displays was an extremely compelling installation by Swiss artist Zimoun entitled “Sound Sculpture,” which lay on the ground in a rectangular shape evoking the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
The artwork’s base consists of MDF paneling, below which 1,944 motors rotate a piece of wire. A center of thin metallic disks from JLC’s factory is connected to the wire. They sit at an angle so that as they spin there is a sense of undulation in both light and the surface of the artwork. The edge of the disks also makes a pleasant and hushed sound akin to fabric rubbing together.
Atelier d’Antoine workshop
Adjacent to Zimoun’s installation was a room in which the Atelier d’Antoine workshop took place. Named after Jaeger-LeCoultre’s founder, Antoine LeCoultre, the workshop was conducted by JLC’s director of brand heritage Stéphane Belmont and Marcelo Buarque, the brand’s U.S. sales director, who explained that this was the first time the workshop had been offered outside of Switzerland.
A small group of six attendees – including myself – participated in a discussion of sound and timekeeping. We learned that in a Swiss lever escapement the “tick” in “tick tock” is actually three separate sounds, beginning with the impulse pin impacting the pallet fork. This, in turn, “unlocks” the escape wheel, making the second sound.
The third sound is the pallet “locking” the escape wheel and preventing it from continuing to turn. If we consider that for most watches the second hand moves eight times per second, and these three sounds occur in a fraction of a fraction of a second, it is no wonder we only hear one tick!
Workshop participants had additional opportunities to learn about sound and timekeeping with a scaled-up model of a repeater, which we were able to “tune” by lengthening or shortening a scaled-up gong. A similar model allowed us to activate a large repeater and see a more detailed view of how the hammers create the chime.
One of my favorite exercises involved placing our watches on the sensor pad of a One Of Accuracy2 device. A connected iPad allowed us to hear the amplified sound from our watches and read a display indicating the accuracy and frequency of the movement. It was fascinating and fun to hear the differences between an Omega chronometer, my off-brand diver with a Japanese movement, a vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre pocket watch, and other timepieces from attendees’ wrists.
We also learned about important JLC innovations in repeater complications such as the trebuchet hammer (which is more efficient at striking a gong than a conventional hammer), a mid-movement automatic rotor, and helical gongs, which save space while producing a high-quality timbre.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Sound Maker exhibition and Atelier d’Antoine workshop are examples of events periodically organized by watch brands to simultaneously celebrate heritage while transmitting knowledge to the wider community. There is a long tradition of such traveling “diplomacy” in the watch industry, a tradition that was significantly interrupted by the global pandemic.
Jaeger-LeCoultre deserves praise as one of the first in the industry to resume in-person outreach to collectors and the public, an outreach that works extremely well.
For more information, please visit www.jaeger-lecoultre.com/us/en/chronicles/the-sound-maker-nyc.