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The Life of a Collector Jaeger-LeCoultre Orbital Tourbillons: Intricate Dials and Other Worldly Technical Achievements

For eight model years, Jaeger-LeCoultre has managed to keep one of its most intriguing modern traditions hidden in plain sight. Through the company’s 180th anniversary in 2013, the 80th anniversary of the immortal Reverso in 2016, three CEOs, and most of a decade, Jaeger-LeCoultre has amassed a formidable collection of orbital flying tourbillon complications. Amid the innumerable product paeans to wrist alarms, heat-powered clocks, and rotating cases, JLC’s distinctive tourbillons have proliferated in relative anonymity.

Most luxury brands tend to promote ancient and venerated traditions to a fault. This is true in the best of times, but these are not the best of times. Nothing could be more natural than a retreat to redoubts of certainty and past success in this era of timid wallets and industry intrigue. While recent improvements in the Swiss watch market have given cause for optimism, the reality of the last two years has been sobering.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 2017 model year has been dominated by dials. The Le Sentier brand has issued acclaimed “sector dial” models in steel, blue dial variants of existing Master references, and Atelier Reverso models with dials ranging from guilloche metal to actual marble. But the most striking JLC dial debuts are the ones that move.

The Geophysic Tourbillon Universal Time and Hybris Artistica Mystérieuse won’t be seen at your local watch club meet any time soon. With 105 pieces – combined – to be offered, this pair of watches won’t drive any volume columns in a Richemont annual report. But the simple message of such a bold flight of fancy is clear; watch people still roam the halls at the Grande Maison.

Orbital Tourbillons From Jaeger-LeCoultre

Before discussing the 2017 novelties, it is critical to retrace the history of JLC’s orbital tourbillons. But it won’t be an extended slog; this is merely a flashback compared to the Homeric retrospectives of Reverso and company.

The story of Le Sentier’s quirkiest complications begins at SIHH 2010. Amid the literal din of the Memovox alarm’s 60th anniversary, a sweeter song was audible from a standout debutante; the Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication (hereafter, MGTGC). While not the most complex JLC wristwatch ever crafted – the 2009 Jaeger- LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie holds that honor – the MGTGC instantly became the most dynamic grand complication in the company catalog. An orbital tourbillon was the star of the show.

While a conventional tourbillon watch features a mobile escapement and balance that gyrate on a single axis, and a “gyro” tourbillon does the same through two or more planes, an orbital tourbillon spins while rotating around the circumference of the dial. Through the 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds of a sidereal day, the MGTGC’s spinning tourbillon wanders around the periphery of the dial while it rotates on its pivot. At any given time, the star- denoted hour of the day is indicated by the location of the tourbillon assembly around the edge of the dial. It’s Disney World’s “Mad Tea Party” for your wrist.

The hulking 44mm white gold MGTGC represented its maker’s first use of an orbital tourbillon – a flying orbital tourbillon, no less – but it didn’t stop at a single standout feature. Like every orbital complication that followed, the MGTGC packed a formidable second act; a minute repeater with high-energy “trebuchet” strikers, a zodiac calendar, a 24-hour civil time, month indications, and a star chart of the heavens as viewed from the northern hemisphere. For good measure, JLC implemented its rarely-seen synthetic escapement to improve total efficiency; only 75 fortunate owners would ever have the pleasure of testing this claim.

Additional versions of the Grande Complication’s orbital tourbillon caliber 945 followed. An eight-piece high jewelry gem-set edition was launched in 2014 at Hong Kong’s “Watches and Wonders”; a piece unique guilloché-case model was offered on the occasion of the Venice Film Festival. The same year witnessed an artistically exquisite and mechanically stripped-down 42mm Hybris Artistica Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon Celeste. All but the MGTGC’s civil time, sidereal time orbital tourbillon, star chart, and zodiac were removed.

In place of the striking complication, JLC unleashed its in-house team of designers and artists on the Celeste. A blue-lacquer-capped “flinqué” guilloche zodiac calendar shared space with an aventurine inner dial and 24-hour ring. In order to open the “heavens” within the reduced case size, the bezel was eliminated and the domed sapphire crystal sat flush with the edge of the white gold case. As with all iterations of the Jaeger-LeCoultre orbital tourbillons this one was scarce; total production numbered a barely there three pieces.

Fine tuning was the order of the day at SIHH 2015 when JLC launched a refined sequel to the original MGTGC. Still a 44mm heavyweight, the new rose gold model benefitted from a toning process that pared the visual bulk of the original by means of a concave bezel, smaller and more sculpted lugs, and a thinner case. For good measure, the rose gold version of the watch was said to offer greater volume and a more melodious tone than the original white gold model. But the wild orbital tourbillon remained the focal point, and a rock star complication required more than a remastered song; a double album was brewing.

2017 delivered the heavy metal. The standout Geophysic Tourbillon Universal Time was the undisputed star of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s complicated novelties. Relevant highlights are exhausting; a 43.5mm platinum case; 100 pieces; $145,000 U.S. Signature elements of 2015’s Geophysic Universal Time are coupled with the company’s orbital flying tourbillon in caliber 948.

To be sure, the Geophysic Tourbillon Universal Time is a polarizing piece. In its ambition, it feels like a throwback to the late 2000s halcyon days of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s majestically proportioned sports watches and grand complications. And the shotgun marriage of an existing tourbillon concept with an existing model might, at first glance, recall a less flattering trait of the broader watch industry during the 2000s: the tendency to add tourbillon complications without reason or rhyme. But this Geophysic, like the blue globe it emulates, only gains in grandeur and richness as the viewer draws nearer.

Mechanical refinements include the Geophysic’s unique yoke- shaped “Gyrolab” aerodynamic balance, a free-sprung index to improve shock resistance, and an old-school Breguet overcoil to promote concentric beating of the hairspring. The bridges and plates of the movement are crafted from “maillechort,” or “German silver,” a copper-nickel-zinc alloy whose golden hue evokes the pocket watches once crafted in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s native Vallée de Joux.

The basic Universal Time’s guilloche metal and blue lacquered dial becomes a glorious convex dome of the world’s inhabited landmasses; the 24-hour world time reference ring moves in lock step with the flying tourbillon around the circumference of the dial. Aesthetically, the new watch overpowers with size, richness of detail, and the sheer mass of its platinum carapace.

And yet, despite the surfeit of superlatives, the Tourbillon Universal Time is not the most striking orbital tourbillon to launch with JLC’s 2017 collection. The five-piece Hybris Artistica Mystérieuse limited series is La Grande Maison’s unsung star of 2017. It was the manufacture Jaeger- LeCoultre in microcosm: every art and trade of watchmaking joined in harmony.

“Such watches represent a dream to most, but they embody the heart and soul of their inventors.”

Each of the Mystérieuse timepieces represents the apotheosis of the Hybris Artistica concept; it gilds the Hybris Mechanica technical core with rare crafts. That core comprises an automatic caliber 941A orbital flying tourbillon – acting as the “hour hand” – with a wandering minute disc. Together, the wandering tourbillon and “floating” minute hand recapture a sense of the magic of Jaeger- LeCoultre’s Caliber 480/CW “mystery” dial watches of the 1950s.

Those historic references, which embodied one of the few collaborative development efforts between JLC and Vacheron Constantin’s watchmaking departments, represent the root inspiration for the 2017 Mystérieuse. At first glance, neither the old nor the new watch’s mode of functioning immediately betrays itself, and both era’s watches are more engrossing for this trait.

Jaeger-LeCoultre describes the skeletonized mother-of-pearl cap of the Mystérieuse dial as “arabesque,” but the live impression is more complex; it’s a mix of randomized snowflake dazzle and spider web intricacy. The prismatic effects of the nacre’s layers dance with fleeting iridescent bursts of color. Beneath this delicate crown, a sea of blue aventurine mixes the gloss of rich blue glass with the glitter of suspended metallic flakes. No extant watch face creates a more striking depth effect.

Even the 5N red gold case of the Mystérieuse becomes a gallery for the combined arts of its creators. The same fractured latticework that graces the dial frames the case flanks and the case back. Flanking aspects feature inlaid aventurine; the case-back red gold lattice caps a combination of art and science. Even the caliber 941A is made a canvas for the imagination of the manufacture; its hand-skeletonized rotor is punctuated by scattered tiles of shimmering goldstone.

Ultimately, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s modern “tradition” of orbital tourbillon watches amounts to a few dozen units spread over the better part of a decade. They are a fraction of a fraction of total production, and they are economically irrelevant in the broader scheme… and far more beautiful for their whimsical premise and the wonder they inspire.

Such watches represent a dream to most, but they embody the heart and soul of their inventors. These machines signal that a manufacture retains the vocabulary to wax lyrical when good times return, and they are a reminder to those on the outside that those on the inside still love watches. In an era when uncertainty and stunted ambitions pervade the watch scene, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s orbital flying tourbillons are torches bearing flames of passion through the dark.

About Tim Mosso
Tim Mosso is a lifelong watch enthusiast and historian. He is an active member of the online watch community and his passion for watches is second to none. As a self-proclaimed watch nut, he loves to bring his knowledge of horology across all different platforms.

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