When I meet with Catherine Rénier, her warmth is laced with a grimace. She’s got a leg brace on and is leaning on a crutch. Being the boss at a titan of watchmaking like Jaeger-LeCoultre, it seems, doesn’t leave one immune from the associated pains of your children. But that’s besides the point. Rénier was in town, last November, to check in on the brand’s refurbished boutique at Marina Bay Sands. It’s one of a series of newly reopened stores across the globe as the 191-year-old brand undergoes a visual refresh.
Gone are the darker days, where walking into a Jaeger store felt as hushed and mysterious as one of their Atmos clocks. In its place, a new interior concept that has the word ‘welcoming’ at its core. The colour palette is sunnier—natural beiges, light woods and black accents—reflecting not so much the private, head-bent vibe you might imagine of a watchmaking factory. Rather, the plein-air openness of the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland that is the longtime home of the brand’s manufacture.
The details of these boutiques’s new look tell a more revealing story about the direction that Rénier, who joined Jaeger-LeCoultre in 2018, is taking the brand in. Under Rénier, there’s a focus on conveying its craft of watchmaking—often dry, technical, and as opaque as a brick wall to most—in a dynamic, accessible way.
There’s something called a calibre wall, which showcases just a number of the many watch movements—over 1,300 if you’re being particular—that the brand has created in its history. There’s also an interactive digital showcase that beguilingly blends digital and analog: tap on a touchscreen to choose from a number of movements, then marvel as the interface fades away, and the screen lights up from behind to show you that very calibre—physically there, with the benefits of a digital screen to proffer information.
Head a little further in and you’ll find a watchmaking workshop room, where there is a workbench set up with lamps, and drawers stocked with loupes and tweezers. Displayed on the walls: a millionometre, an instrument designed by LeCoultre to measure to one micron to refine the creation of watch parts; archival advertisements; a sliding magnifying glass that gives you a proper sense of how tiny these springs and pins truly are; and ‘exploded’ movements suspended in clear acrylic, as though in amber, that add on to that sense a picture of how many of these tiny parts go into one watch.
It’s a lot, but it’s easy to take in. And it makes clear that at Jaeger-LeCoultre, it’s this simple and singular dedication to its craft that keeps the brand going. After strolling and walking the boutique a few rounds, I had a burning question on my mind for Rénier when we finally sat down to chat for this interview.
The technicalities of watchmaking can sometimes be very hard to approach.
How are you making this technical side—the movements, the parts, the pieces—I guess, attractive to people?
There are several levels of reading. It could be enjoying looking at a calibre, noticing the miniaturisation of the components. It could be diving into the 3D elements of the calibre—you know, all that is here in the store. If you want to go further you can take a watchmaking class. It’s like taking a wine class. You could be a wine collector, know a lot about wine, and want to speak and exchange with a specialist to continue to learn. Or you could know nothing about wine, just be curious, be welcomed, and discover for an hour or so what watchmaking is about.
Opening it up on different levels, then?
It’s important to understand that watchmaking is not a secretive collector’s world only. There is that, for sure. But it’s also a world of craftsmanship, beauty, and emotions.
This is really one of the reasons behind our collaborations with artists from many different fields. We thought, how do we convey—without being highly technical—our sense of passion and creativity? You know, if our way to convey it is only to talk about our latest patents, we may indeed lose a non-expert crowd.
You’re referring to the Made of Makers programme. How does working with artists outside of watchmaking help convey Jaeger-LeCoultre’s message?
When we work with artists from many fields, we tell them, ‘Listen, we would love to work with you. You create, in your field of expression, something about the golden ratio, something about art deco, something about sound’. Because that’s what our watches, or precision, or the nature of the valley are about. And suddenly, even if you don’t know anything about watches, when you see an interpretation of something important to Jaeger in another art form you can connect the dots. It’s two worlds meeting each other, triggered by a beautiful flower or digital art piece. We want to engage the public at large not just through our timepieces, but through the emotion that art can bring.
These collaborations have really filtered into the universe of the brand. I’ve seen Jaeger-LeCoultre talk about the art of living recently. What is that about?
It’s about taking our public into experiences that express who we are. We’ve opened some temporary ephemeral cafes, in New York or through our exhibitions, and worked with a pastry chef. She designed some of these recipes for madeleines, and pastries inspired by art deco with ingredients from the Vallée de Joux. And the cafe is a moment where, even if you don’t like watches, you’re welcome to discover what Jaeger is about. How art deco has inspired us, how the valley shapes our identity, and enjoy coffee and pastries with meaning and a special storytelling.
There was a movie theatre too, right?
It’s a water show with the movie displayed on the water about the inspiration behind art deco and Reverso. And this movie was showcased together with a philharmonic orchestra playing a special symphony created for Jaeger by one of our Made of Makers musicians, Tokio Myers. So it is in a way our world, our inspirations, where we come from, meeting artists and giving the public at large a unique experience outside the boutique.
Giving it a physical form, almost.
A physical place where you will be surprised, whether you are a watch lover or not, and given a unique moment to discover Jaeger-LeCoultre meeting other artists.
What would you say is the most underrated aspect of Jaeger-LeCoultre that you’d like more people to know about?
It’s creativity. We’re recognised for our technical expertise, and we’ve always been known in the industry for a long time as movement experts, providing movements for most of the big names. Our manufacture gives us these credentials quite naturally. Now, our expression of creativity—who else is able to do a blank page movement, just because they want it, and create a brand new movement from nothing for a timepiece? Very few maisons can do that today.
The Reverso does seem to be one of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most versatile canvases.
Reverso is a good example. Having an icon that’s a rectangular watch, when the market of traditional watchmaking is round, is daring and creative. That, I think, is maybe not what strikes the public first. So I love to convey this value by showing how we work with artists and fuel each other’s creativity.
So this creativity exists on top of, and because of, this technical expertise?
Definitely. You know, the watchmaking world is very often so competitive that everybody is looking at what the other is doing. “Oh God, you know, a blue dial works, let’s do blue dials.” It’s very important for me to look at what’s out there, but to make our own path. I’m a true believer that pure creativity will pay off in the long term.
That’s why we’re so focused on our Reverso. It’s who we are, it’s different in size, shape and complexity. I mean, we need to make all our movements rectangular. The easy way is to do a round—round bigger, round smaller. To do a chronograph in Reverso, for instance, is a statement. Because you need to adapt a round counter into a rectangular expression. We do a round chrono in the Polaris and Master [collections], but it’s absolutely not the same movement as what we put in a Reverso chrono. Brands will take a similar movement, add something on top, enlarge it slightly or make it fit. We just start from scratch.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.