Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Catherine Rénier talks with Brunswick Partner Marie Jensen about the technology, the sounds, the history and esprit de corps behind a 189-year-old luxury Swiss watch brand.
Since the start of her career, Catherine Rénier has held important positions at luxury brands, initially as Cartier’s Retail Development Director in North America. Educated in Europe and America, she worked several years out of Hong Kong as the Asia Pacific President for Van Cleef & Arpels. As CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre since May 2018, she now lives in the famous Vallée de Joux, the rustic and beautiful high-altitude capital of Swiss watchmaking. In an interview with Brunswick Partner Marie Jensen, Rénier invites the public to come to the Vallée de Joux to witness first-hand Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 189-year-old process of making a world-class timepiece.
Why is there such a high concentration of watchmaking expertise in the Vallée de Joux?
You have to go back to the 16th century, when there was conflict between Catholics and Protestants in France. Many Protestants left France, came to Switzerland, and were allowed to settle and practice their religion—but only above 1,000 meters.
The Vallée de Joux is above 1,000 meters. That was the beginning of our company, really. We can date the LeCoultre family’s move to the Vallée to the 16th century.
Most geography at this altitude is isolated, and the climate harsh, but a small crowd developed in the Vallée de Joux. The people who settled here were mostly farmers, woodsmen, caretakers of the forest and the land. But in winter they could not farm. The climate and environment was very rough, and in winter, dark. So they started to work with iron, because there was a significant supply of iron in the Vallée de Joux. They would do that within a small circle of light in their dark homes, and they developed patience, precision and hand capabilities.
The founder of Jaeger-LeCoultre was Antoine LeCoultre, and he, as well, started working iron to make objects, which were not directly related to watchmaking but more related to the precision, the measurement of very, very small dimensions, and the making of very small tools, very small objects.
That’s how watchmaking came to be—a long development of skills among a newly settled population, skills that fueled and complemented each other. Then watchmaking ended up needing a lot of competence and people who could assemble, so that population grew. The watchmaking really started in the 19th century.
People were still working from their homes. But step by step the watchmakers here found out, and Elie LeCoultre specifically, that it was more efficient to bring people together in one place. Being next to each other rather than having to walk back and forth made it more efficient to correct, to adjust, to be more precise. The manufacture of Jaeger-LeCoultre was born from this idea that you bring all the craftsmanship under one roof to be more innovative, more productive, more efficient.
That remains the foundation of our identity. The manufacture of our watches involves more than 180 skills, which we protect and cherish, and which give us a kind of laboratory vibe.